Not even Shabaab threat will dampen Mogadishu spirit

The departure tree at the Dhobley Airport in Somalia where guests have to wait for their flights amid fears of surprise attacks. [Amos Kareithi, Standard]
The misty, salty air create an aura of expectation. How the body yearns for a dip, to soak up the humid heat. Socks in closed shoes feel ridiculous against the backdrop of the howling winds and the violent lapping as the waters viciously slap the beach.

The temptation to slip off the shirt and dash to the bewitching blue waters is overwhelming.

But a military voice breaks through the afternoon fantasy with a chilling warning, “The beach is like heaven. You cannot swim there unless you want to go to heaven and swim with the fishes.”

“If the terrorists don’t get you, the sharks will. It will be a messy affair,” the soldier warns.

This message delivered to all visitors in this troubled coastal resort is perhaps to blame for the deserted beaches whose waters appear irresistible. When the message is delivered to a group of fun loving journalists, any desire to venture out is effectively neutered.

Welcome to Mogadishu, the city that derives its name from Persia. It was founded in the 10th century and was regarded as Maq’ad-i-Shah, which means “the seat of the Shah”, reached its peak in 13th century and has through ages defied various occupational forces and dynasties.

The tapestry of the city’s lingering history is contradicted by the state of the international arrivals desk at Aden Adde International Airport. Two boys in their teens lounge around the airport and peer curiously at the visitors noisily marching past them via the electronically controlled gate to the reception.

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Here, two police officers are manning the area where non-residents are supposed to manually fill a yellow entry declaration card issued by the immigration and the naturalisation directorate where they are supposed to indicate the duration of stay, country of origin and mode of transport.

As they pass, a female attendant points a blue gadget that looks like a toy pistol on the foreheads of the guests. She directs them to two desks where miniature cameras take blurred coloured images of each face, which is then affixed to the passport. This, it turns out, is the visa which is given upon payment of $60 (Sh6,000).

The arrival board shows that before the Kenya Airways flight’s touchdown, there had been two more from Djibouti and Ethiopia. There is a relaxed atmosphere at the arrivals’ desk where visitors are even sitting on the stationary conveyor belt, which ordinarily would be moving around laden with bags and baggage.

Payment in dollars

When the baggage is finally sorted and delivered, a tripod has been forgotten in Nairobi by Kenya Airways attendants. Another bag’s wheels are missing but this is nothing compared to the shock a self appointed porter is about to unleash.

The young man, who refers to anybody as a brother, grabs a bag and hoists it on his shoulders as he trots after the guests to a courtesy bus. He hands over the bag and starts demanding payment. The owner has no dollars and fishes out a Sh50 note (new generation) and hands it over to his porter.

The porter waves the offering away, insisting that his payment must be in dollars or a more respectable denomination. The standoff ends when the harassed journalist hands over a Sh200 note, which is scrutinised by the youngster who finally trots away happily. The unwilling giver grumbles that he “has never paid such a huge fare” for such a short distance.

He and his colleagues are shocked to learn that they should not take unnecessary photographs and are advised that it would be better to seek clearance before pointing their cameras or mobile phones at any direction, object or person.

“Mogadishu is very safe right now but things can change very quickly. On Monday there was a blast in Kilometre 4 that killed 17 people. On Wednesday a security meeting in the mayor’s parlour turned bloody after a suicide bomber blew herself up,” says Steve Candia, a journalist.

And then Candia delivers the sucker punch, “You should not post selfies on your social media platforms. This can jeorpadise the mission. You can even end up in the hands of Al Shabaab.”

There is still more bad news for those who love the tipple. A drinking spree can end up in tragedy. Such escapades are frowned upon by locals who consider them as haram.

Then the rider: There are unseen eyes in the most unlikely places in a city where information, even whispered or posted, travels rapidly and can precipitate a terror attack.

The journey from the airport to the designated hotel, which is heavily protected although uneventful, is quite revealing.

The road is like a tunnel, with each side of the highway lined with embankments of green bags filled with soil almost 10 feet high. This is only broken in areas where empty shipping containers are lined up on either side of the route. This is to deny any sniper a clear shot of the moving vehicles.

Bunker

The most popular mode of transport for the United Nations and African Mission in Somalia (Amisom) staff in and around Mogadishu is armoured cars and tanks for the troops.

“The green zone is the safest in Somalia. It is free of terrorists. However, every hotel has a bunker where you should rush to in the event of a shooting,” says Col Charles Imbiakha.

But even as the Amisom spokesperson gives his running commentary, a white bombed out mansion, with its windows missing, stands out. Just at the entrance of the building, a group of bare-chested Burundian soldiers are taking a haircut from a barber.

Below them three women with flowing robes and nondescript veils are drawing water.

The flat roof of the building is like a watch tower for some sentries who are scouting the Mogadishu skyline, looking for trouble.

At the Amisom headquarters, three brown, well fed mongrels roam around, contently wagging their tails as if they own the world. “We call them Amison dogs,” a soldier explains.

In the Amisom compound, the flags on the two flagpoles are flying at half mast. A Burundian soldier, we are told, was killed a few days earlier by an improvised explosive devise.

And the Amisom deputy force commander, Maj Gen Nakibus Lakara, says, “We came here as a war force because there was no peace to keep. Somalia was in the hands of Al Shabaab. Twelve years later, we have a semblance of calm in cities we control.”

The security situation in Mogadishu is still fluid, for the enemy has devised new methods of tormenting the people. Instead of mounting conventional warfare going for legitimate targets, the insurgents have resorted to planned assassination of leaders using suicide bombers.

And to counter this, the fledgling state is relying on 253 IED experts in the police force and five police units made up of 150 officers each from six African countries. There are more than 22,000 soldiers and police from six African countries securing Mogadishu and other parts of Somalia.

The world dreams of a day when the shoreline from Mogadishu to Kismayu is dotted with tourist resorts where local children relax as their parents plot for the future, unafraid. When that day comes the vultures will fly away from the killing fields and the machine guns and bombs will forever be silenced.

And Africa’s heart aches for peace in the desolate, angelic heaven whose residents’ lives have been long unending nightmares since 1990. The question is, will 2021 when Amison forces pull out of Somalia be the year of final deliverance?

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MogadishuAl ShabaabSomalia