What’s it like to fly in one of the most dangerous cities in the world? In the case of Mogadishu, the experience is extraordinarily beautiful.
The commercial Turkish Airlines flight I was on, which had taken just under seven hours from Istanbul, looped above the speckled clear blue and turquoise sea before heading back towards the coast. I spotted fishing boats below and the white crest of the waves as they hit Somalia’s long coastline.
We landed on the runway at Aden Adde International Airport. Outside, peacekeepers and local security forces manned checkpoints. The streets were relatively clear, as the airport was in a closed military base.
Outside my nearby hotel were guard towers and sandbag walls, patrolled by Ugandans and Kenyans employed by a private security company. Inside was a bunker, where residents could go in case of an attack. Some rooms looked like shipping containers, but security was priced at $150 (€140) a night. Leaving the base would cost a lot more: $1,500 for the necessary security detail, a Somali businessman told me.
I already knew there were two Mogadishus: or rather, the real Mogadishu and the Halane Base Camp, which stretches for miles, housing diplomats, foreign aid workers and other non-Somalis. It is heavily fortified and Somalis who work there during the day say they can spend an hour or more going through security checks to get in. Some on the outside even condemn the camp as an occupation.
In a short film titled The Wall, filmmaker Roopa Gogineni captured interdependent but separated communities: wealthy foreigners who are protected but estranged; while, on the other side of the fences, millions of Somalis live under the daily threat of violence. Halane is so guarded that Somali fishermen are prevented from fishing off the coast – one told Gogineni he was ‘terrorized’, his boat ‘split in two’ as he was being chased by peacekeepers.
Elsewhere, in Mogadishu, his film shows Professor Mohamed Doob giving a lecture on the civil war that broke out more than three decades ago. Then came the international intervention in which, says Doob, “unfortunately, no one tried to find out what the Somalis wanted”.
“In my opinion”, replies one of her students, “these people from Halane are afraid of us and we too are afraid of them. It’s because they can’t interact with the community and we don’t know anything about them.
On my first day in Halane, the sound of gunfire echoed steadily in the distance. “These are just drills,” said a security guard.
There were also active threats. On March 23, two security agents based in Halane were killed, along with two assailants, according to a security source. (That same day, nearly 50 people were killed in the town of Beledweyne, 340 km away, including Amina Mohamed Abdi, a prominent opposition politician. More than 100 were injured.)
The week I visited parliamentarians were to be sworn in inside Halane, so it was locked up for six days.
Traders were prevented from working and additional checkpoints swung into action, with the newly renamed peacekeeping mission – now the African Union Transitional Mission in Somalia – saying it [a] security exercise. A hotel owner apologized for rooms not being ready; none of his collaborators had gone to work.
Interesting people passed by: a smiling Kenyan woman with a Kalashnikov slung over her shoulder; international airline pilots; local logistics managers; a Somali millionaire who bragged about his lucrative deals with the US government
Other Somalis employed at Halane decided to sleep there, knowing that if they left the security procedures, they would not be able to return. Some have told me they face potential retaliation from the Islamic militant group Al Shabaab, so even outside they choose homes in ‘safe’ locations. But they still wanted me to understand that Somalia is not all negativity.
At the same time, a dispute between the Somali prime minister and the president raged over whether Francisco Madeira, the African Union chairman’s special representative for Somalia, should be declared persona non grata. One of the consequences was that the UN terminal at the airport was closed and my flight to South West Somalia was unable to take off.
The result was an extra day working on a laptop in Mogadishu and an evening sitting by a pool, where some interesting people passed by: a smiling Kenyan woman with a Kalashnikov slung over her shoulder; international airline pilots; local logistics managers; a Somali millionaire who boasted about his lucrative deals with the US government.
The passage through Halane on leaving Somalia was accompanied by similar problems. On the morning of my flight back from the countryside, several mortar shells were fired towards the Kenyan Embassy (no one was injured). Gunshots were reported near the airport runway. We land without further incident.