Aug 28, 2012

Mogadishu chronicles

My longing to see the city I was born in which I harboured for many years, finally came into realisation on the 20th of July 2012. I went for an assignment to moderate the Somali draft constitution conference. Prior to this trip, last time I was in Mogadishu was in 1989 as a 6 year old. As my flight lowered on to the ground ready to land, I noticed the beautiful blue ocean, its waves flowing serenely onto the crisp white beaches. Right next to it, there is a sea of makeshift tents scattered across the city, filled with displaced people. I was about to come face to face with my birth city, a city torn forlornly by war.

I made my way into the airport and had to queue in the 'foreigners' line for immigration. I was a foreigner in my native soil. I had to buy a visa to enter my homeland. It was a bitter pill to swallow. On my way to the hotel, bullet holes and destroyed buildings decorated the streets. People built makeshift tents in the old government ministries which were now destroyed beyond recognition. Every moment or so fresh gunshots would sound in the faint distant. My city was a city of conflict.

The first few days at work were haphazard and chaotic. The conference was being held at the former police academy and countless security checkpoints were put in place. More than 800 people from across Somalia were assembled to approve the draft constitution and hundreds of staff were hired to facilitate the conference during the 9 days it would last.But given the lack of coordination between those working there, minute tasks became impossible to accomplish. Security personnel weren't adequately trained so they would search people in the most inappropriate ways. Additionally, senior dignitaries and government officials were present most days which made circumstances extremely volatile. Whilst there, a mortar attack aimed at where people go through security and two suicide bombings were carried out. The suicide bombings were particularly frightening as they occurred just outside of the building where the conference was being held. The explosion shook the entire building and part of the ceiling came off. A security guard got injured and another one died. We all hurriedly ran towards the door and as I walked outside, I saw bits and pieces of the limbs and other body parts of the suicide bombers, dispersed across the ground.

Back at the hotel, most evenings would be filled with similar anxiety. Mogadishu keeps you on your toes. Every night, I would hear a varying number of casualties that had been killed either by roadside bombs or targeted assassination. Leaving the hotel was unimaginable.The sound of gunshots in the night were so regular that eventually it became the background music of my city. Strangely, I got used to hearing them after some days but would still have the occasional flinch.

When the work was done, I had a few moments to drive through the city. I was lucky enough to see the ward of the hospital where I was born, Medina hospital. I also went to the beach and played with its sand, a rare moment of tranquility amid chaotic circumstances. The city was beloved to me, it still is but its heart had been pierced and shredded and it pained me. I felt like I was driving through a ghost city. Very few buildings were in tact and the people looked like they had been to hell and back.

I took a moment to mingle with the people and noticed despite living in a city ravaged by war and having lived through it, they were remarkably hopeful and ambitious. I met several youngsters who were eager to educate themselves doing degrees and diplomas consecutively whilst having a part time job. The local business people were full of creative ideas. The entrepreneurial spirit of the people was alive and thriving. It was then that it dawned on me that the people of Mogadishu had moved beyond fighting with one another. There was no sign of clan animosity. They were ready for peace and stability but their leaders weren't moving in the same speed...

The city gave me a good sent off on the day I was flying out. The guards at the security checkpoint at the entrance of the airport struggled to get people to form a line. Instead of telling them to queue up, they fired gunshots in the air whilst standing right next to us. This was clearly the main form of communication but I remain optimistic and hope the next time I am there, the language of humanity would be there to greet me.

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