I have not seen Mogadishu since 1987.
In fact, I have not lived in my hometown since 1978. But I visited it briefly—not more than two weeks each time—about four times between 1978 and 1987.
The Somali civil war started in January 1991 when President Siad Barre and his supporters were driven out of Mogadishu. What happened next in the capital is beyond comprehension. Thousands of people were killed by Barre’s fleeing soldiers, others because they belonged to the wrong clan, and many were caught in the cross-fire of renegade fighters. Thousands were uprooted, and the city was destroyed by marauding armed militias. Government buildings were looted and damaged. Many of the residents suffered continuous bombardment from warring factions and ended up being killed or wounded while others fled to the countryside or flocked to neighboring countries, especially Kenya. Today, at least 600,000 Somali refugees still live in Dhadab camp, on the Kenyan side of the border.
According to Richburg, sections of Mogadishu were so dangerous that a “Green Line” divided the warring factions, a term aptly borrowed from Beirut during Lebanon’s civil war. One particularly dangerous and treacherous section was called “Bosnia.” The American government’s brief humanitarian intervention in Somalia was preceded by an opinion article in the Washington Post penned by its flamboyant ambassador in Nairobi, Smith Hempstone, who warned about sending troops there. The piece was fittingly titled, “If you liked Beirut, you will love Mogadishu.” In essence, Mogadishu became a derelict and dilapidated city.
The armed militias took the entire city hostage in their bellicose pursuit of hegemony. They became unhinged in a shocking display of brutality and terror toward residents. People in the city were unable to extricate themselves from the situation. As a result, they led a regimented existence created by a culture of fear. Mogadishu residents experienced high unemployment because all the major institutions and businesses were destroyed. It was a situation just like that encountered by the late Arab-American reporter of the New York Times, Anthony Shadid. In his memoir, A House of Stone (2012), Shadid referred to his ancestral home of Lebanon during its civil war as “tribes bereft of citizenship.”
One thing that has gone viral on the internet, and even in some books, is the notion of juxtaposing old images of serene Mogadishu and the newer pictures: a contrast of growth vs. destruction, civilization vs. decay, peace vs. war, and normalcy vs. anarchy.
Mogadishu is the same city that the famous Moroccan traveler, Ibn Batuta, visited in 1331 and found to be steeped in history and tradition. Mogadishu was prosperous, diverse, and well connected to the world markets. Men, the Arab traveler said, were hefty eaters to the extent that they appeared corpulent with protruding stomachs. To the keen traveler, the city seemed prosperous and lively. In the 1990s, oddly, there were rumors in Mogadishu that incoming travelers were weighed at the old military airport in Balli Doogle for ransom purposes. Rumor had it that if you had extra pounds you were likely to pay more money to protect yourself from kidnapping. That is when appearance became deadly.
I can only speculate that my mother went through two stages after her escape from Mogadishu: stress and indifference. In the beginning, she was edgy, worried, and apprehensive about what the future held for her in America. She initially thought that the civil war back home would subside and that she would be able to return to her beloved city of Mogadishu and her villa. My mother always wanted to have her own house when my sister and I were growing up, but she couldn’t afford it. Only after the two years when my sister and I left the country − in 1977 and 1978, respectively − was my mother able to purchase a house. She was so proud of her house that she became distraught when she left Mogadishu. Her neighbors agreed to look after the villa in her absence. However, my mother never returned to Mogadishu and passed away in San Diego eighteen years after her arrival.
Although the capital has a long way to go in terms of recovering from its devastation, there are glimmers of hope that people are coming together. Some of those who fled are back−not only reclaiming their properties, but also feeling confident in their safety. People who would have been hunted two decades ago are building businesses in the city and are now an integral part of the new Somalia. These people have shattered the psychological barrier that crippled them and made them prisoners to their fear and biases. They thought they would be killed and ostracized. Instead, they have found their brethren welcoming them with open arms. Of course, there have been cases in which returnees were murdered by criminal elements. However, this does not represent the majority of Mogadishu residents who no longer believe that the capital must be devoid of its original residents.
I believe there is hope in the reconstruction of Mogadishu−not just in building houses, but also in building trust and confidence. Mogadishu residents are doing just that, even if incrementally. Rome, after all, was not built in a day, and so it is with Mogadishu. The city’s past mood of utter despondency has been replaced with feelings of hope for rejuvenation. Yes, residents were subjected to a great deal of trauma, but people had time to wallow in that trauma. Now they are war-weary and, above all, they have become, as rational choice theory proponents would say, committed to wanting more rather than settling for less than good. They want to maximize their personal advantage by doing what is healthy for the long term.
The Canadian comic Jim Carey, in Dumb and Dumber, makes an interesting revelatory statement. After chasing a beautiful married woman cross -country, he finally asks her about the chances of the two ever living together happily. “Not good,” is her stark answer. But Carey’s character is not the type who takes no for an answer. Above all, he wants a percentage estimate of their likely union and pleads with her to give him a number. “You mean not good like one out of a hundred?” he asks. The woman clarifies, “I would say more like one out of a million.” Carey is quiet for a minute and finally bursts out, “So you are telling me there is a chance!” He may be statistically challenged but he is definitely looking at the positive.
I am too old to feign naiveté and too smart to be pessimistic. The grim axiom defining Mogadishu is that a bright future is emerging. It is slowly recovering. I may be unable to erase the past, but at least I am not bitter. I am optimistic that my beloved city is not yet fully formed; it has something else to reveal.
Yes, there are still plenty of chances.
Hassan M. Abukar
*This article is excerpted from the author’s new book, Mogadishu Memoir, which will be published soon.
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