Flickers of hope
Plagued by civil war, terrorism and poverty, Somalia and its capital Mogadishu are often described as hell on earth. A handful of courageous citizens is trying to make a change
It was 2 a.m. when the black SUV of Fasul Abdullah Mohammed, al Qaida’s most important man in Africa, began to roll through the streets of Mogadishu. Mohammed was the mastermind behind the terror attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 that killed 224 people.
The terrorist cruised slowly through the city, his pockets filled with several passports and cell phones, as well as $40,000 in cash. The streets of the Somali capital were dark that night – because of the war, electricity is a fitful commodity in most parts of the city – and this allowed the SUV to advance steadily under the cover of darkness. But a wrong turn at an intersection led the car to the place it was supposed to avoid. There was a roadblock, and soldiers everywhere – the car had accidentally entered the UN-controlled part of the city. The driver brusquely accelerated, but the bullets fired were faster.
A few seconds later, the Comoros islands-born man, who had a $3.5 million U.S. bounty on his head, was slumped dead in the SUV. Somali officials had reported Mohammed’s death several times before, but this time they were right. On Saturday, three days after the shots were fired, DNA tests confirmed his identity. U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton spoke of “one more significant blow to al Qaida.”
Most of all, the death of Mohammed has shaken al Qaida’s Somali partner organization in Somalia, al-Shabab, or “youth.” Known to be its military leader, the Somali-educated strategist helped to finance the protracted Somali civil war. Hundreds of foreign fighters heard his call and followed him to the anarchic country. Lately, the attacks mounted by the terrorist outfit against soldiers of the African Union (AU) and the corrupt interim government (that barely controls a little more than half of the capital) have grown more and more sophisticated.
The jihadist violence that has plagued Somalia for so long means that the government in Mogadishu rarely gets the chance to deliver any good news to its citizens. This time, Somalia's president, Sharif Sheiq Ahmend, seized the opportunity provided by Mohammed’s death to declare: “We defeated al-Qaida and al-Shabab; they are weak and shrinking in numbers.”
It is true that al-Shabab has recently lost control of a few neighborhoods of Mogadishu, but this is largely thanks to the 9,000 AU soldiers present in the country. As for the Somali government itself, it has spent more time bickering than sorting out the troubles of its people. A victim of the recent disputes is Prime Minister Mohammed Abdullahi Mohammed, one of the few capable politicians in the country, who is about to be removed from office.
Civilians defy terrorists more than politicians
As the conflict drags on, one thing becomes more and more clear in Mogadishu: that brave civilians are sometimes willing to defy the terrorists more than politicians. An example is Ahmed Nur, who took over the office of mayor of Mogadishu nine months ago. He spent almost all of the 20-year-long Somali civil war in England, where he worked as an HR consultant for the city of London.
Now he is sitting in a conference room in front of his laptop. His office is located right next to the UN-controlled airport. His residents don’t come anywhere near the building – it would be too dangerous.
Ahmed Nur talks fast, very fast. He has no time to take in and ponder about the realities of his home country. No time to worry about the daily threatening calls from al-Shabab that wake him in the middle of the night to let him know that “tomorrow you will die.”
And so his impressions flow hurriedly into sentences: “The people have lived in a dark cage. They have agreed to live in this prison because they don’t know anything else.”
In England, Ahmen Nur learned a lot about administration. But how does one take away the fear and increase the people’s strength to resist in a place where people have to hide in their homes for days on end, while bombs fall just a few meters away? He has almost no money. Nearly the entire monthly budget of the city, or roughly 50,000 dollars, comes from the Mogadishu port (the sum versed to the mayor represents about 15% of the port’s total revenues) – which is hardly enough for a population of around 2 million people.
But the mayor has started collecting funds from the few remaining businesses in the seven districts that were freed from al-Shabab. The money thus obtained was then invested in projects that many considered useless: two public parks and a women’s basketball team that participated in a tournament in Nairobi in April.
The city has formed groups of residents that remove the piles of trash scattered around the city and keep the sewer system functional. Ahmed Nur has also built a company in which women make firewood from the fallen trees that are so abundant in the city.
In an effort to brighten the life of his citizens, the mayor has given licenses to the few electricity companies still present in Somalia and asked them to light a major street free of charge in return. The light does manage to take some of the horror of the night in Mogadishu away – even though the sound of machine guns is present every minute.
These are small but strong messages sent in the direction of those who benefit from the chaos and from the lack of perspective for young people, be they al-Shabab militias or independent warlords: We are still alive. And we want to live! The reactions show that Ahmed Nur is on the right track; his opponents are fighting back.
In early February, he organized a concert. Music was supposed to block out the sound of shooting for the first time in decades – if only for a few moments. The festival ended in a bloodbath. Five Somali soldiers trained by the UN to support the interim government opened fire, and three civilians died.
More of the diaspora returning
According to Ahmed Nur, this was the work of a warlord called Dheere. His soldiers would only listen to him, regardless of the training they were given. “The power of people like this is based on intimidation,” Nur says. Until then, Dheere had always been able to escape unpunished. This time, however, the AU forces arrested him.
While he speaks, the mayor clenches his fist, which is a common gesture for him. His wife and six children still live in London. When he left, he told them he would not be intimidated.
Dr. Ayesha is also one of the few who are determined to defy the psychological warfare. Like so many Somali refugees, she spent 20 years in the diaspora in Italy. Three months ago, she took over one of the three hospitals still open in the center of the destroyed city. Her budget is 1,700 dollars per month for 22 beds. All the medicine comes from foreign donations.
She could complain about the hopelessness of her situation, about the despair of the hundreds of thousands of people that are waiting for help (most aid organizations have left the city). Instead, she says that: “The situation is not easy. But it has improved. A few schools have reopened. And a small amount of security has returned to some parts of the city.” Five years ago, she visited Mogadishu but had to leave after only a few weeks. She could not afford the security personal that had to protect her 24/7 at the time.
At least she can now give hope to some people who have decided to simply wait for death to come. Ali Mursal is one of those people. A bullet pierced through his spine 32 years ago and landed the soldier of the former dictator Siad Barré in a wheelchair.
“Since the civil war started, I have received hardly any medical help,” the war veteran says. He had to look on helplessly as rockets fell in front of his door and neighbors died a few meters away. Tied to his wheelchair, he could not escape.
“I am happy that Dr. Ayesha is here. I would have never thought that somebody still cares.” Maybe his four children, who live in Kenya, will return one day. To a peaceful Somalia, Mursal says. It is a sentence he hadn’t even dared to think for the longest time.
Published on Worldcrunch.com, May 2011