It’s one year since the worst terrorist attack in the region devastated Somalia’s capital Mogadishu leaving at least 500 people dead and many others with debilitating injuries or still missing —but hope for a better future is still burning strong.
While the country has seen its fair share of catastrophic militant attacks in its recent history, last year’s October 14 truck bombs at the busy Zoobe junction —since renamed October 14 in memory of the victims— were the bloodiest.
But for immediate former Mayor of Mogadishu and Governor of Benadir Region Thabit Abdi Mohamed, who led the massive mobilization efforts in response to the disaster, the city has emerged much stronger against the perpetrators of the heinous attack.
“One year down the line, I feel we have come out stronger. For the first time, we realized that when we come together great things happen. The attack united the people like never before and through that unity, we faced the disaster together and came through,” recalls Thabit, who still wears his signature red armband that he began donning last year after the attack to remember the victims.
“It’s true that many families are still experiencing the trauma and pain of losing their loved ones or caring for the injured but hope for better times ahead is still stronger than ever.”
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The former Mayor, who was relieved of his duties 3 months after the attack over political differences with the President, had passed the scene of the blast only 10 minutes before the attack, as he headed to his office just a few kilometers away. He was about to settle down to work when he was jolted by the powerful blasts.
“I immediately went to the scene. I have never seen such a horror in my life. Burnt bodies and cars all over the place. Destroyed buildings. I felt helpless. I realized that this was a disaster we could not handle alone, given how weak and sometimes even non-existent our emergency services were at the time,” he says.
His repeated and impassioned appeals for help on mass and social media brought out large numbers of people to lend a hand to the disaster response, working day and night to retrieve victims from the rubble, and to clear the debris blocking rescue operation in the key intersection.
The city’s main hospitals were overwhelmed by the number of people who came to donate blood and had to turn away many people due to limited blood storage capacity.
Meanwhile Somali nationals living within and outside the country responded quickly to appeals for donations to help the victims of the attack under the ‘Gurmad Qaran’ or ‘Save the Nation’ initiative, raising at millions of dollars. Neigbouring countries and the international community also rushed in with help including airlifting injured for specialized medical care.
“I can’t forget the story of a six-year-old pupil in Garowe in Somalia’s Puntland region who donated a biscuit she was taking to school to the disaster response team. This shows our determination as people and collective responsibility,” recalls Thabit.
A few days after the attack, city residents, mostly the youth, staged one of the largest street marches in Mogadishu, condemning Al Shabaab for the heinous crimes.
“The attack was a turning point against the militant group. It robbed them of the remaining little support they may have had within tiny pockets of the population. I believe we can defeat the enemy if we sincerely say No in one voice,”he says.
Despite his strong hope for the country’s future in the face of terrorism, Thabit expresses concerns that fundamental reforms to the security sector are yet to be done to help prevent similar incidents in future.
During his 7 months in office, he lobbied for the decentralization of security of Mogadishu from the Federal government to the city’s administration. But this suggestion faced resistance from federal officials.
“The Mayor of Mogadishu and his team should be allowed more say in the security matters and should be held accountable for it, since they are the ones on the ground. This will help in creating ownership and accountability for security,” he suggests.
“If this security function is devolved, what will happen will be the creation of smaller units including the creation of community policing. This will lead to ownership in the security sector. Other parts of Somalia that have implemented this model have succeeded in improving security- We need to have real accountability when it comes to security failures.”
The former Mayor says the security apparatus should also strategize on how best to win confidence of the people and to establish a good working relationship if they are to win the war against terrorism.
“This war cannot be won by guns alone but strong information sharing from the people on the ground so that the bad guys can be nabbed before they cause havoc. This cannot be done if the people don’t trust our security forces,” he says.
Thabit has also called for more investments into the country’s disaster response capability to better handle future incidents, including a national blood bank and fully-equipped disaster response centers in all districts especially in Mogadishu.
“During my time, I was in the process of creating 4 disaster response centers in different parts of Mogadishu with support from the European Union, but unfortunately, I left office before I could implement it. I had also begun engaging key public hospitals to expand their blood banks to respond better to disasters,” he says.
The former Mayor has also appealed for a proper memorial symbol to be erected at the site of the October 14th attack in honor of the victims of the blast and to serve as a lesson for future generations.
“We cannot afford to downplay this incident since much blood was lost and unimaginable pain was felt by many of our people. Many families are still traumatized by the deaths, injuries and missing loved ones. This is a moment of our history that we cannot afford to forget,” he says.