Monday, February 27, 2012

Mogadishu: A First Impression

Lido Beach, Mogadishu

Although I had spent three months in northern Somalia researching my book, I arrived back from my first trip to "the Mog" two weeks ago, a five day trip with my assistant editor Venetia. Mogadishu was a strange experience. Unlike the other parts of Somalia that I had visited, Mogadishu had been a city, not a desert expanse that looks much the same now as it did two decades ago.

For the former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, the city of Mogadishu was both his greatest achievement and a symbol of that which led to Somalia's ruin. He transformed Mogadishu into one of the jewels of Africa, a cosmopolitan tourist destination in a country that by all rights should have been one of the continent's success stories. But in doing so, he neglected the rest of the country, plowing all of Somalia's limited national income into the capital city, which contained the only universities, hospitals, and real job opportunities. Somalia's diverse clans descended on Mogadishu from all corners of the country, creating an ethnic hotbed that would eventually boil over into the pogroms, ethnic cleansing, and civil war of the early 1990s.

I've often said that there should be a word in the English language for that sense of melancholic nostalgia one sometimes feels for a place or time one has never personally experienced. It's an emotion captured perfectly in Shelly's famous poem, which describes coming across an ancient statue of a long dead king, half buried in the desert sands:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

That's how I feel about Mogadishu; it's a similar sense of lugubrious loss, of tragically vacated potential, that I experience when gazing on the ruins of ancient Rome. The people are living in a modern ruin, every crumbling and bullet-ridden structure a reminder of past... well, not glory, but certainly beauty.

"Everything is 'former' in Mogadishu," a Ugandan soldier commented to me as we passed the derelict national stadium, until recently used as an al-Shabaab training base. All "former"... the former National Theatre, the former Defence Ministry, the former cathedral--a bombed out structure that looks like something out of the French landscape circa 1945. The inhabitants of Mogadishu are living in a corpse of a metropolis, and the people themselves, uneducated and violent, match the deterioration of their surroundings.

Even though Mogadishu has been relatively peaceful since al-Shabaab pulled out of the city last August, our days and nights were punctuated with the occasional sound of mortars, land mind detonations, and gun shots. "Mogadishu music," the locals call it; some Mogadishans, I've heard, can't sleep when out of the country for the lack of it.

The trip went well, though I found staying at the Peace Hotel, one of Mogadishu's few options for foreigners, too expensive and highly constrictive. Highlights included hanging out with a handful of Somalia Report's brave and dedicated Mogadishu reporters, a stroll along the immaculate Lido beach, and a tour with African peacekeepers to the front lines.

One afternoon, we heard what sounded like a loud mortar go off fairly close by, and thought nothing more of it until one of our stringers, who had just been visiting with us, called me to say that he was at the site of a car bombing at the KM4 junction, three kilometres away, dodging bullets from the guns of crazed and panicking government soldiers. 15 people had been killed.

Stay tuned for an upcoming piece I'll be penning for Somalia Report about my AMISOM tour, hopefully within the next week or so. 

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