In January 2006, Sean Rorison travelled to Mogadishu, the war-torn, hellhole capital of Somalia, to see how the region is faring and what the future holds in store.
I first traveled to Mogadishu, Somalia, in 2002. Back then it was all quite a new experience to me â€“ having ten armed guards surrounding you at any given time outside of your hotel compound, garish amounts of weaponry on every street corner, a blazing sun and countless bombed-out buildings. It was a realm of active conflict the like of which I had never seen before and have not seen since. Nothing on this planet comes close to Mogadishu â€“ in terms of volatility, level of civilian firepower, and total lack of resolution. Southern Somalia still ranks at the very top – beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, beyond Chechnya. Pity, then, that weâ€™ve all forgotten about it.
Three and a half years later I returned and learned more about the town. The shock of seeing how the city worked had worn off, my eyes had adjusted so to speak, and I could focus my attention more on the details of how life goes onâ€¦ And it does: The city is divided into numerous areas controlled by warlords, and those warlords in turn protect their own populace and even seek to mitigate crime and chaos in their own little areas. Private ownership of weapons is high, but no higher than any other city where guns are legal. Militias roam the streets, and just like any other place that experiences gang warfare, people should expect to be hunted down if they start stirring things up.
Whilst other parts of Somalia have begun to sort themselves out – Somaliland in the north, and Puntland in the northeast, both sport their own democratically elected governments â€“ southern Somalia still rules strictly by clan and guns, and the larger of either that you have behind you, the better off youâ€™ll be. Across the arid shrublands of the south the entire region is divided amongst Somali clans, and then divided further between local leaders. Each leader needs their own protection to maintain influence over their respective territories. Mad Max indeed, but these people are far less unreasonable than one may think â€“ they are interested in maintaining business ties and improving the lives of their own people as much as any other community leader. Indeed, no one inside their area of protection would call them a â€œwarlordâ€ per se, but instead would refer to them as the â€œLocal Businessmanâ€ or â€œCommunity Representativeâ€ â€“ a leader of sorts, no doubt leading by force of arms, but rarely if ever seen as something to be feared by the normal person. Unfortunately, no foreigner can be seen as â€˜normalâ€™ inside Mogadishu.
White people, or anyone not Somali for that matter, are exceedingly rare inside the city. Only one other fellow who departed with us on the flight to Mogadishu from Nairobi even stopped there â€“ the others, four aid workers, continued north to the safer environs of Hargeisa, in Somaliland. The guy that disembarked at Mogadishu only appeared inside the city briefly to interview a parliamentarian at the same hotel I was staying at. The cost of arriving, and doing business, in the city, is astronomical: Ten men with machine guns guard you at every moment once you are outside of your compound, tailing your truck while your guide and driver navigate Mogadishuâ€™s various routes to and from the hotel. Always changing routes, talking on mobile phones to confirm if one route is open or closed, or if daily fighting has shifted territories, once again necessitating a diversion to avoid checkpoints.
Conversely, going from one warlordâ€™s territory to another requires phoning ahead with them so their militiamen can accompany your vehicles through their territory (requiring a fee of course), then doing the same thing again once you move into another territory. Handed off time after time between militias; paying each one as you go; observing tell-tale lines of debris on shattered roads as indications of where one territory ends and another begins; all of this is daily life in Mogadishu, and it is expensive, extortionate even, which may give an insight into why so few people even bother reporting on the Somali situation at all.
…And also why so few aid groups, charity organizations, and even the UN prefer to establish their missions in Somalia to somewhere else â€“ mainly Nairobi. Out in the Gigiri district of Nairobiâ€™s suburbs with the towering building that is the new American Embassy, past the lavish mansion with heated pool that is the Canadian Embassy, is a small town unto itself called UNOSOM (UN Operations Somalia). Over a dozen various agencies have taken over the shady terraces and walled mansions of this upscale neighbourhood; hung their signs out front, and continually wax poetic of how things ebb and flow in the Somali region. Random field reports arrive from the outer limits of Somali territory, or from Jowhar, the new capital of Somaliaâ€™s parliament that refuses to enter Mogadishu – because they believe it is too dangerous.
Too dangerous for some, but not for all. A rift in the recently appointed parliament meant that half of them were staying at our same hotel, several dozen of them, debating on where to move next – or what to do at all. Their philosophy was that if this newly arranged government did not establish itself in Mogadishu, then it was another hopeless cause already. Being in the capital would be critical to proving that they could exert control over the wider southern region and should be seen as its most important first mission. About two weeks following our departure, we heard theyâ€™d left for the countryside â€“ to Baidoa, not Jowhar. So now this new government has split into two and has no presence whatsoever in the capital city.
This is a step backward from September of 2002, when a small government had at least established control of central Mogadishu. The TNG as it was called, Transitional National Government, was assembling various innocuous infrastructural changes such as license plates, traffic police, and had begun to draw up forms for various civilian institutions such as police stations. But once the TNG dissolved this went with it, and Mogadishu slipped back into its familiar anarchy. The new government was supposed to come in and fill this vacuum with a stronger parliamentary system, but that didnâ€™t happen and, instead, the warlords quickly moved in and divided up the empty territory between themselves and shut the new government out entirely.
Which is not to say the warlords do not believe that a government should come into Mogadishu and establish control. One that we spoke to was even a minister in the new government, called the TFG – Transitional Federal Government. However, there is continuous disagreement on the makeup of the parliament and even after things have been decided, it only takes a few minor squabbles to bring the house of cards down again. For all the talk we heard of Somalis tiring from a lack of government and willingness to allow the new parliament to come in, their actions speak otherwise.
Islamic Courts, one of the largest institutions relied upon by people for some establishment of order, have been receiving funding from outside sources and have also been fighting with other warlords as of late. To those uninitiated in the world of Somali affairs this might look like the road to something akin to the Taliban in southern Somalia, but I wouldnâ€™t count on it â€“ Somaliaâ€™s problems stem from their fervent individualism and devotion to clan above all. And conversely, it is these things that ensure the conflict has not deteriorated even further down the spiral into absolute disarray. For all that doesnâ€™t work in Mogadishu, there are vast ad-hoc networks that regulate business, crime, shipping, and even traffic. The more time you spend in the city, the deeper the whole mess gets â€“ but the more order you see amid the chaos.
-Sean Rorison, April 2006