Driving through Mogadishu
By David Cairns
Africa is the centre of world attention, as Tony Blair, Bob Geldof and others ask how the developed world can help. BBC Tees's David Cairns visited Somalia.
The picturesque Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan claims to have the world’s only capital city without a traffic light. They’ve overlooked Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia.
There is a difference though: Bhutan has never had traffic lights; Mogadishu’s have all been destroyed.
It was driving through Mogadishu with the BBC’s Yusuf Hassan that helped me begin to understand Somalia.
Yusuf was born and brought up in the urbane, modern Mogadishu of the 60s and 70s, leaving as a young man. He is now a Canadian citizen, returning occasionally on assignment to a city he struggles to recognise.
Yusuf with some of his security team
We drove through the city together in a large, air-conditioned 4x4 with tinted windows. Behind us, in the car’s open-topped pick-up section were the security team Yusuf had hired from a local warlord: six ragged men with guns.
Three of them carried heavy machine guns they could only fire lying prone, three carried assault rifles - standard for a security team in Mogadishu.
Occasionally we would pass another pick-up with another six gunmen dangling their legs over the sides of the vehicle, weapons bristling. The tinted windows concealed the warlord inside.
The roads we drove were covered in sand, blown from Mogadishu’s beautiful crescent beaches, and left on the streets because there is no civic authority to remove it.
The cars and minibuses we overtook had been in service for 15 or 20 years, and while their engines had been kept in shape, there was no money to repair their bodywork, which corrodes quickly in the sea-salt air.
We passed vehicles with no doors, with no bonnets, with no windscreens – even a lorry with no cab, just an engine and chair on an exposed platform. All of them were overburdened with passengers – full inside and with 10 or 12 sitting on the roof.
Mogadishu's transport problems
Our driver seemed to drive on the left or right according to whim. Yusuf explained to me that Mogadishu is the most free country in the world: an anarchy where people have the freedom to drive on either side of the road without an MOT certificate.
Most of all they have the freedom to murder and be murdered.
Yusuf smilingly pointed out an old man by the side of the road: his primary school teacher. It was startling to remember that Yusuf had done something as normal - and now unthinkable – as attending a state school in Mogadishu.
We passed the building, its walls cracked and pock-marked by bullets and shells. Goats ate sparse weeds outside, while the school itself was occupied by families – refugees from the countryside squatting in classrooms.
Others had pitched dome-shaped tents made from fantastic patchworks of plastic and cloth in the playground. They sat hunkered round charcoal cooking fires.
The jewel of East Africa
Yusuf told me how beautiful his city had been, and his sadness made it real to me.
In the 1970s, and early 80s, Mogadishu was the jewel of East Africa, a prosperous, cosmopolitan, secular, relaxed capital.
Water carriers in Mogadishu
It was filled with clean white Arabic and Italian Colonial buildings. You can still buy postcards of the National Theatre, the Bank of Somalia, the International Hotel.
By 1993 when the UN pulled out its troops in desperation, Mogadishu had become a piece of hell on earth. Civil war started in the late 1980s, and still goes on today as inter-clan fighting.
In two decades a generation has grown up who take murder and a lack of human rights for granted, a generation with an average life-expectancy of 48, of whom 60% live on less than $1 a day and less than 14% received any schooling.
The fabric of the city is transformed. Hospitals and university buildings have disappeared, cemeteries have been obliterated. The huge Italian cathedral is a ruin.
For a Briton, the sight of a ruined cathedral is a familiar one; it’s with a jolt you realise this one was destroyed 15 years ago, not 500.
The vast influx of countryside refugees has robbed the city of its urbanity – goats, tents, open fires and donkeys are everywhere. There is no longer any mains water, mains electricity or sewerage system.
Mogadishu - the Arch of the People
The People's Triumph
We stopped by a 1970s relic of the dictator Siiad Barre: an ugly, bullet-marked concrete arch spanning a wide street, inscribed with “Arco Di Trionfo Popolare,” the Arch of the People’s Triumph.
Later, looking at the photo I took, I realised that this is the other way of looking at Mogadishu: as a triumph of humanity in the face of inhumanity.
In my photo, under the arch there is a taxi van in motion, with five men sitting on the roof, and four clinging to the back. Crossing the street is a young woman with her son or small brother.
In Mogadishu, one of the worst places on earth, daily life still goes on. People still have jobs, responsibilities and families. They pray, laugh and love each other.
Young girls in Mogadishu
Africa is a poor continent; Somalia is one of its poorest countries. The West donates $130m of aid each year, much of which is misappropriated, while expatriate Somalis send home $1bn a year to their relatives and friends.
Somalia is also one of the most lawless of Africa’s many troubled states: some Somalis would like an international peace-keeping force to return, but many are adamant that would not help.
It is hard to see any easy answers to Somalia’s problems. In the 12 weeks I spent there I learnt how completely institutions and social structures are swept away by war, and yet how astonishingly resilient people can be.
last updated: 02/07/07
Have Your Say
What does Somalia need? How can the international community best help it recover?