My life in Mogadishu: the view from inside the Villa Somalia
When I heard about the terrorist attack in Kenya on June 17, I felt sick. Gunmen from Al Shabab, Somalia’s Al Qaeda franchise, had shot up a crowd of football fans watching the World Cup in the coastal town of Mpeketoni before attacking a bank, hotels and the local police station. The death toll was at least 60.
When you live in one of the world’s most dangerous places like Mogadishu, as I did from January last year, you get used to terrorist attacks. The sudden explosion which sends a shock wave across the city and makes you flinch involuntarily. The almost instant burst of machine-gun fire that follows the blast and rattles away for minutes. The wailing sirens of the emergency services. Then come the phone calls you must make to check friends and colleagues are all right, emails to colleagues and family letting them know you are unscathed. Perhaps a prayer for the dead and, simmering in the background, unspoken relief that it wasn’t you.
The Kenya attack jolted me back to February 21, when I was at home in the UK, on leave from my job in Mogadishu as communications adviser to the president of Somalia. I was nearing the end of a 14-month posting on a project sponsored by the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office, to assist the Somali government to set up a functioning press office to deal with the insatiable demands of the modern media. That morning I saw something from a colleague flash up on Facebook: “My prayers go out to the family, colleagues and relatives of Mohamud Indhacase; our beloved permanent secretary of the office of the prime minister and all the victims of today’s unfortunate killing and attack.”
I could feel my heart pumping. Mohamud was my closest friend there, a Somali-Canadian teacher and social worker. In 2012 he gave up his job in Ottawa and said goodbye to his wife and children to take up an unpaid role as the prime minister’s chief of staff in Villa Somalia, the government compound where we lived and worked together. He wanted to help Somalia pick itself up from the ashes of conflict, the world’s longest-running civil war that ended in 2012.
Instead, if these initial reports were correct – and I clung to hopes they weren’t, knowing that accurate reporting falls by the wayside immediately after an attack – he had become the latest victim of a vicious jihadist insurgency fought by uneducated and unemployed young men.
A round of calls, emails and social media confirmed the tragic news. Mohamud had been killed after seven Al Shabab attackers had stormed Villa Somalia in an audacious mission to kill or capture the president during Friday prayers. The fact that they had failed almost didn’t matter. They had launched an attack on the equivalent of the White House and had made headlines all over the world. And Mohamud was gone. It was, by a mile, the low point of an extraordinary year.
It had all begun amid an epidemic of optimism. Last January there was a growing view among Horn of Africa watchers that Somalia was back. The civil war was over, Al Shabab had been driven out of Mogadishu by the combined forces of Somalia and the African Union and for the first time in 23 years there was an internationally recognised government. Somalis, inveterate travellers, were returning from the diaspora to rebuild their homes and lives in the war-shattered capital.
Whichever way you looked, there were inspiring stories, such as the entrepreneur setting up the city’s first dry-cleaning business, restaurants and hotels opening almost daily, rock concerts and poetry festivals. Then there was the Somali women’s basketball team, back on court after being banned on pain of death by the Islamists and rightly described by a commentator as “one of the biggest inspirations to women, education, and humanity I’ve ever seen”.
That May, the British prime minister David Cameron hosted a large international conference on Somalia. Further such gatherings followed in Belgium and Japan. There was talk of economic recovery, investment, aid and development, re-establishing long-neglected diplomatic relations, national reconciliation, a new constitution, elections.
Three months earlier, I’d had no hesitation signing up for a year in Mogadishu, White Pearl of the Indian Ocean. Unlike other members of the international community, who “engage” with Somalia either from the restaurant-rich comfort of Nairobi or the open-air prison that is the international airport, I would be one of only two foreigners living and working inside Villa Somalia, the inner sanctum of the new government. As a communications adviser to the prime minister, later the president, I would be working at the very heart of the new Somali government alongside passionate Somalis – like Mohamud – who wanted to rebuild their country.
It seemed like a unique, ringside seat as Somalia made history for all the right reasons. For a historian and journalist, it was unmissable. I had spent much of the past decade living and working in places like Iraq (researching a history of Baghdad and establishing the Aegis Foundation to fund small humanitarian projects), the war-torn Sudanese region of Darfur (advising the UN and African Union peacekeeping mission) and Libya (advising Nato, assisting the rebels and reporting from the front line during the 2011 revolution).
So much for the big picture, not to mention the job specification. It was surely only predictable that the daily reality struggled to match the soaring heights of optimism that coloured them. A country doesn’t recover overnight from two decades of fighting. Though I was supposed to be assisting a government, it took little time to realise there was barely a government there to assist.
Much Somali territory has been taken back from the insurgents, but much still remains in the jihadists’ hands. Though they share one language and one religion and are one people, Somalis are surely one of the most fractious communities on Earth. National unity tends to be elusive in a country in which the inherently divisive clan system is so deeply rooted. Rebuilding a federal state with a yet-to-be-determined number of regions, each with their own administrations, when every other politician appeared ready to declare himself president of a new state, frequently felt a thankless task. “One step forward, seven back,” joked a Somali colleague.
The professional challenges came thick and fast. What are you supposed to do when an alleged victim of rape gives an interview to a television reporter and the police arrest both the woman and the journalist for defaming state institutions? How to stay positive when they are then sentenced to six months in prison and the world’s media asks what on Earth just happened? From time to time, reporters were also murdered by unknown killers, triggering more attacks in the media and by NGOs. Proclaiming total commitment to press freedom and the security of journalists is fine, but failing to bring the killers of journalists to justice after numerous assassinations sends its own message. Somalia is often called the worst place in the world to be a journalist. And a woman.
Then there was the barrage of NGO reports training their relentless fire on Somalia: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the UN monitoring report, all detailing numerous and often sensationalised instances of human rights abuses and alleged corruption. I remember one Human Rights Watch report earlier this year called “Here, Rape Is Normal” which seemed a headline too far. From time to time came the “spectacular” terrorist attacks, such as the storming in spring last year of the Mogadishu courthouse, a terrifying four-hour ordeal that left 29 dead. Visiting the complex with the prime minister the following morning was unsettling, stepping over a suicide bomber’s head to gain entrance to the building. Blood and body parts smeared all over the place. The smell was overwhelming.
I became a one-man media-monitoring machine and found my Tweetdeck columns filled with depressingly relevant search terms: “FGM”, “Somalia rape”, “Somalia corruption”, “Somalia piracy”, “Mogadishu explosion” … Most of my Somali colleagues in the press office were unpaid, which did little for team motivation. You cannot expect people to put in long days in the office if they are unable to feed their families (and it’s worth noting here that Somali families are big: the average woman has eight children).
For all its many promises of financial support to Somalia, delivered in front of television cameras in conference halls in London, Brussels, Yokohama, New York and Nairobi, the international community consistently fails to deliver on its commitments. All too often as an adviser, I found myself caught between international officials tied up in knots within their own Kafkaesque bureaucracy, complaining about corruption and unable to spend their budgets, and an increasingly sceptical government, racked by allegations of corruption, losing faith in the platitudes of “Somali-owned” processes and “capacity-building”.
While professional challenges abounded, daily life in Mogadishu was also a test of character. The obvious advantage of living and working in Villa Somalia was that we were surrounded by Somalis. As Gerald Hanley, an Irishman who served with the British army in Somalia in the 1940s, wrote: “Of all the races of Africa there cannot be one better to live among than the most difficult, the proudest, the bravest, the vainest, the most merciless, the friendliest: the Somalis.”
Somalis are tough, brave, resilient, intellectually agile, generous-hearted, hospitable and hilariously funny. They are also fiercely proud, stubborn, chauvinistic and frequently xenophobic. I remember speaking to an academic about the Somali views of foreigners. “For us, all the other Africans are slaves,” he said nonchalantly. “Islam gives us this pride, this supremacy thing. We think we’re better than everyone. The Quran says all these kufar [infidels] are nothing.” As a Somali ambassador in Europe once said to me: “Somalis are the most unrealistic people on earth.” Colleagues routinely called me gaal, or infidel. One used to call me jokingly his “white nigger” in front of senior officials and ministers. There were times when ruefully I recalled Hanley’s comment: “They are a race to be admired, if hard to love.”
Over time, food became an obsession. Day after day, the sight of yet another plastic container containing another gristly knuckle of goat perched on a mound of sweaty rice dampened morale. Government rations included little fruit or vegetables. I used to call it the Mogadishu Weight Loss Programme and, returning from leave, would fill my suitcase with microwave porridge, muesli, Kenyan coffee, tea, peanut butter, chilli sauce, mayonnaise, pickle and as much chocolate as I could squeeze in. Fried fish and camel were always treats. In the unlikely event of constipation, nothing beat the ferocious laxative of camel’s milk.
It’s difficult to complain about food in a country in which hunger and poverty combine to carry off untold numbers of children. In May, the UN warned that up to 200,000 children could die of severe malnutrition before the end of 2014. Unicef reports there are already 50,000 Somali children under 5 suffering from acute malnutrition. These sorts of statistics put the pampered foreign consultant’s whingeing to shame. Others also make grim reading, whether it is average life expectancy (54.7 years), primary school attendance (17 per cent), child labour (49 per cent) or the prevalence of female genital mutilation (98 per cent).
In the fiercest months of April, May and June, the heat gets to you. It comes on in layers, bludgeoning the life out of the sky, dazing you with white light. Then there are the evenings, frequently balmy to the point of blissful. While friends at home moaned of wind, rain and cold, I opened my front door onto the lush green enclave of the presidential gardens. Jasmine, flame-red, orange and pink bougainvillaea, neem trees, palms and banana trees. What better way to exercise than a 20-minute evening run around the compound among swooping kites and scavenging crowds of ibis, greeting cheery Ugandan soldiers camped within Villa Somalia? In the gloaming, bats flitted through the shadows like discarded commas. Mosques and slender minarets glowed and glimmered like beacons. Dusk brought serenity.
“Nobody could keep sane in that arid world,” Hanley wrote of his time in Somalia. An official report found that every one of his fellow officers in the Somali interior was “slightly to violently unbalanced”. Shattered by solitude, burnt up by the desert heat, surrounded by murderous tribes with age-old blood feuds, a number of them eventually raised a pistol to their temple and blew their brains out. The cultural dislocation, prolonged isolation and sun-fired wilderness were too much to endure.
Reading was one way to keep sane in the furnace of Mogadishu. In the first few weeks I shut myself in my bedroom during empty evenings and raced through the great Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, perhaps in denial that I was living in the Horn of Africa, gripped by the genteel worlds of Plantagenet Palliser and the bucolic calm of Barchester. Outside came the regular bang of on-edge soldiers firing warning shots at checkpoints, the rat-tat-tat-tat of machine-gun fire either distant or close. Sometimes, left alone in the stifling, single-storey villa we called the Pink House while my housemates were on leave, I locked the door and sat in an empty meeting room listening to Purcell’s plangent song O Solitude again and again.
You learn, because you have to, to take pleasure from the simple things, such as the blazing view over Mogadishu from our hilltop compound. Every day the Indian Ocean offered a new perspective behind a city that with swathes of destroyed buildings resembled a tropical Dresden. Sometimes the sea resembled a sleeping ballast, a dead weight to pull down the clouded canopy of the sky. Then it was a vast, grey-blue wall looming above the beach – coloured oil tankers pinned against it like butterflies. It changed height at will, playing with perspective, sometimes towering over the skyline, then barely crowning the minarets and hollowed-out, honeycombed ruins. Its colours shifted, too. White-frocked. Sun-dazed marble. Blandly blue. Shocking, tourist-brochure aquamarine. When rain thrashed down from a grey silk sky it dimmed and disappeared altogether, shrinking into the horizon, taking refuge from this vertical attack.
Memory is a funny thing. You don’t remember the long hours and days of waiting to see the prime minister or president, the sweat-filled inertia of life inside Villa Somalia. The mind fastens instead on the brightest, most colourful events: taking the president to kick off a football match in Mogadishu in front of a rapturous crowd; joining a Valentine’s Day feminist flash-mob in a global demonstration against rape and sexual violence; a rooftop lobster dinner with the pirate kingpin Afweyne (literally Big Mouth), the recent victim of an inspired police sting and now behind bars in Belgium; a night on the white-sand beach of Al Jazira sitting around a bonfire, sparks barrelling into the night on the streaming wind; swimming with friends desperate to escape Villa Somalia for a weekend; long conversations with my old friend Sheikh Ahmed Mursal Adam, the presidential gardener since the 1950s and surely one of the most vigorous Somali men of recent years (he can count 257 children and grandchildren; spare a thought for his 41, mostly discarded, wives); returning from leave to find my room shot up by Al Shabab, bullet holes in the walls, curtains, windows – even, most unforgivably of all, in my goose-down mattress topper; being nicknamed Timo Cadde or White Hair, a sign of acceptance; finally, perhaps, the incredible international reaction to an article about the Somali love of rude nicknames, from Chipped Tooth and Limpy to Big Bottom and Scarface, which trended on the BBC website for two days.
It’s too early to miss Mogadishu but I hope to return one day, as Hanley did years later, and see whether all that early optimism was justified. Too many Somalis, including brave, public-spirited people like Mohamud, have already lost their lives.
Success, if it is to come, will mean that the insurgents are long gone, Somalis have at last put the conflict behind them and learnt to live with each other in greater harmony again.
Justin Marozzi worked with Albany Associates as a communications adviser to the president and prime minister of Somalia from 2013-14. His latest book is Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood. Follow him @justinmarozzi.
Updated: July 3, 2014 04:00 AM