A Journalist in Mogadishu
©Copyright 1993 by Michael Maren.
This is a loose compilation of impressions and reflections on journalism gathered during in Mogadishu in 1993.
"Now we are calling this area Bosnia," Ali says as our car presses through the crowded intersection. Osman steers to the far left side of the road, squeezing between an idling bus and a tin shack in which a man sits cross legged behind stacks of banana leaves rolled like diplomas and filled with khat.
The name is new since the last time I drove through here two months ago. The change isn't official. Nothing in Mogadishu is official. There are no officials, no authority, no real police, no one to give Osman a ticket for driving on the wrong side of the road. No one to arrest the teenage gunmen who drift through the crowds. Still, this city, divided, armed and bloody, manages a consensus, a collective joke.
Ali laughs as he tells me about Bosnia, even as he tightens his grip on his SAR-80 assault rifle and checks to make sure the car doors are locked. Life in Bosnia, he's sure, is worse than in Mogadishu.
This corner has been the site of attacks, kidnappings, and hijackings. Vehicles and people are hauled off for ransom, or used for target practice. Fifty or sixty small khat stalls constrict the flow of traffic where two major roads intersect. khat buyers and loiterers stroll oblivious to the traffic. Crowds attract crowds. Donkeys and people pull wooden wagons through the confusion. All movement slows as buses and pickup trucks crammed with passengers try to avoid each other while negotiating mammoth potholes. Most of these vehicles have long since had their windshields shot out. Most are riddled with rusting bullet holes.
A dozen years ago I drove down this road every day on my way to work at the U.S. Agency for International Development. The road was unobstructed. I drove quicky in my 4-wheel drive Nissan, windows rolled down, music from the stereo filling the cab. I'd drive past the headquarters of the NSS, Siad Barre's secret police, past the offices of CARE and Save the Children. I never noticed the houses, the offices and paid little attention to the people who turned to see the passing army of young aid workers come to try their hand at the development business. The USAID offices were consisted of three ugly yellow and red buildings behind a high yellow and red wall.
I see it every day. It is gutted. Looters have removed every window, wire and pipe. Shopkeepers have set up their stalls outside its gates.
"Roll up your window," Ali says.
Osman, bright eyed, handsome and serious, about 25 years old, drives as quickly as possible through the crowd, accelerating into any opening, braking just in time to avoid hitting anything. Abdi reclines in the front passenger seat. He is a gunman. Only the fact of my paying him every day separates him from the freelance bandits who walk the streets. His employment has given him status in this society where, one way or the other, men earn their living with a gun.
Abdi is chewing khat, as he does every afternoon. He is in his mid 30s and rarely speaks. He appears unconcerned. The butt of his Chinese-made AK-47 rests against his inner thigh, the muzzle poking out the window while his hands are busily untying another bundle of twigs that he will spread on the dash board to continue his grazing.
It's possible to view Abdi's nonchalance as the epitome of Mogadishu cool. Some of the other journalists employ gunmen who relish the part: Ray-Bans, turbans, cowboy antics (jumping in and out of moving vehicles) and lots of attitude. But Abdi, I tell myself, is the Clint Eastwood of gunmen, ready to blow away the bad guys and go right on munching. Whatever doubts I have about Abdi's willingness to put his life on the line for me are irrelevant. You don't need a handbook to tell you it's not a good idea to tell a man with a gun in a country with no jobs you're not satisfied with his performance and his services are no longer required.
The four of us in our white Nissan sedan are a team, and from sun up to sundown for the next month we will explore the streets of Mogadishu. Most of my time will be spent in the vehicle. Any journey, even a hundred yards down the road, requires car, driver, and gunman. Ali, Abdi, and Osman will escort me to appointments and back to the hotel, and at the end of every day I will remove $130 in cash from my pocket and give it to Ali who will distribute shares among his partners. By nightfall, I will be in my hotel room and they will be at their homes in south Mogadishu. At dusk the call to prayer can be heard across the city. Then, the dull thumping of generators brings light to the few people who have the money or firepower to secure fuel. Later the air fills with the sound of what is called Somali music, the nightly concert of gunfire.
I arrive in town during a skirmish. Two clans are shooting it out in the area around the Sahafi Hotel and the airport. Instead of the usual crowd, only one car waits at the airport for arrivals, and the driver wants $100 for the two-mile ride. "There's too much fighting near the hotel. It's very dangerous." I offer him 30, and we settled on 50. It is either that or spend the night in the hot and dusty hangar that serves as Mogadishu's air terminal.
Two months earlier, when I last visited Somalia, the fighting wouldn't have lasted. U.S. helicopters acting in the name of the UN would have swept down and scattered the gunmen. Pakistani, Nigerian, or Italian troops would have fought on the ground. That was why the peacemakers were there. But now, two weeks after 18 American soldiers died in a battle with Mohammed Farah Aidid's militia, everything has changed. The Americans backed down, and the other troops followed. Now the Americans stay high above, safely watching while the clans fire upon each other below.
We drive around the fighting, along dirt roads in a section of Mogadishu known as the Medina. The car stops at every intersection and we listen for gunfire. The gunman jumps out at some corners to scout ahead, to talk to people. We stop in front of walled compounds, Mogadishu mansions. The gunman pounds on the gate and someone answers, usually a young fighter from the bush, one of the occupiers of south Mogadishu. Consultations are held, routes around the fighting discussed.
We snake along the edge of the Medina then crossed into Bosnia on Afgoi road. There is no one on the street. After about 45 minutes we reach the Sahafi.
The Sahafi --the word means 'journalist' in Somali -- is the brainchild of Mogadishu businessman Mohammed Jirdeh Hussein. With the center of the city reduced to rubble during the 1991 civil war, and with most normal business on hold, Mohammed opened a hotel, a dormitory really, catering to journalists, the only people with money who need a place to sleep in the middle of a war zone. For $85 a night, cash, guests get a bed, three meals, and a rooftop from which to view a large stretch of south Mogadishu.
When the hotel gates are finally closed behind us, I find most of my colleagues sitting in the hallways of the hotel wearing flak jackets and helmets. Whatever other security the place provides, protection from bullets is part of it. Rounds from AK-47s and M-16s pop through walls that seem to be made of sand. They probably are. Somali contractors, in order to save money, went heavy on the sand when mixing their concrete. Bullets pass through two and three thick layers of cement and exit the other side.
Several of the television reporters have spent the last few days on the front lines, capturing the shooting from ground level. The deaths of 18 American soldiers still hangs in the air, and the world's interest in Somalia is high. The footage beamed out by satellite is getting play in the U.S. and Europe. It comes back to us over CNN almost immediately after it has been shot.
About 20 journalists are laughing and drinking duty-free beer and puzzling out exactly what is going on out there, the meaning of what they've captured on tape. Drivers and translators come in and out of the hotel contributing bits of information. A consensus forms that the Hawaadle clan, which occupies some of the area to the southeast of the hotel, is battling with the Habir Gedir clan, Aidid's people, who are positioned north and east of the hotel. They're fighting either because some Hawaadle have stolen a car belonging to some Habir Gedir, because someone has been shot at a well; or it may have something to do with a gas station. Figuring out who is shooting at whom turns into a giant game of Clue: A Hawaadle, with an M-16, at the well.
Several of the TV reporters, trying to shoot the action from the roof, have been fired on by the gunmen. Someone raises the possibility that the other clans in Mogadishu, the ones opposed to Aidid, now blame the journalists for the Americans' impending withdrawal. Maybe that's why they're shooting at us. But in the end nobody really knows. There is a very strong feeling, though, that this is the beginning of a new round of the Somali civil war.
Now that it is clear the peacekeepers aren't going to keep the peace, the logic goes, nothing can stop Aidid and his rival Ali Mahdi Mohammed from picking up where they left off and destroying what is left of Mogadishu. The speculation is spiced with equal parts excitement and fear. A renewed civil war will keep Somalia on the front pages. It will also endanger the lives of everyone in the hotel.
"When the Americans finally pull out, it's going to be like Saigon," someone says.
"Is there a space for a helicopter to land on the roof of this hotel?"
"Could the roof support the weight of a helicopter?"
"Would anyone even send a helicopter?"
One of the reporters mentions he's been making friends with the Bangladeshi garrison stationed about 200 yards away on the other side of the traffic circle. Just in case. An English TV cameraman tells us somberly he's made inquiries about getting some stun grenades and CS gas canisters. "I've got a source in the military who says he'll be able to supply them," he says. "When the bastards bust through the gates we'll be able to hold them off for a little while until someone can send help."
Of course, none of use has actually used a stun grenade before or has any idea how to handle tear gas. But nobody raises these issues. To do so would shatter the conceit the press has built for itself, a comforting fantasy that we know what's going on. Journalists poke pens through the bullet holes in the walls and say with authority who shot what from where. Drinking beer on the roof at night, we label each gun burst: "outgoing from the SNA [Aidid's organization]", "Return fire from the Bangladeshis at the soap factory" , "RPG fired at the airport."
I recall one morning last August when a drunk CNN correspondent delivered three kicks to the door of a passed-out AP photographer. The percussion was interpreted by several of the journalists as RPG fire, and they ran to the roof to get the story. Among them was a producer from CNN who grabbed a camera and was joined by her drunk correspondent, who was oblivious to the uproar he had caused.
Now on my first night back in Mogadishu a serious mood settles over the press corps. There is a feeling something big is in the air, the city is teetering on the brink of war and important stories are going to be reported. There are some 40 reporters in Mogadishu at this time, down from the 2,500 who were here when the Marines landed in December '92, but up from the nine of us who spent last August in Mog.
"We're here for the duration," the English TV cameraman says. The dozen or so other members of the press nod in assent. Beer cans are raised to the future, to courage and endurance, to total commitment to the story.
Each morning at about 8:45 the press convoy leaves the Sahafi for the UN compound. Each journalist has a car and a crew. CNN has seven land cruisers. Guns checked at the hotel gate are distributed back to the gunmen. The steamy morning air brightens with sound: engines revving, the efficient snap of magazines as they are locked onto rifles, the smooth one-two metallic beat of bolts drawn back and snapped forward as one hundred rounds of ammunition slide into one hundred chambers.
"We are ready to go," Ali says the moment I step out into the choking heat. Ali is in his late 20s, about 5' 9" and skinny with a wiry scraggly beard pulled to a point beneath his round face. Always chipper, always ready to go, Ali has established himself as my partner in this venture. When I tell Abdi and Osman I want to leave at seven in the morning, he tells them we're leaving at half past six, explaining to me they'll show up late otherwise.
Ali is from the Isaaq clan based in northern Somalia. As neutrals in the Mogadishu clan wars, the Issaqs can move freely. Osman and Abdi are Habir Gedir. Both came into Mogadishu from central Somalia on the heels of Aidid's invasion, which drove out the former dictator, Siad Barre.
Aidid's militiamen, many of them unpaid for years, were rewarded with everything they could confiscate when they captured the city -- homes, cars, women. The Habir Gedir, generally considered country bumpkins by other clans, are now in charge of most of south Mogadishu. They're driving around in nice cars, looted or abandoned, and living in big houses, many taken from members of Siad Barre's Darod clan. Any foreigner who lives and works in south Mogadishu -- journalists, aid workers, UN officials -- probably employs Habir Gedir gunmen and drivers and guards, in effect paying the salaries of Aidid's militia, supplying the spoils of war.
The ride from the Sahafi to the UN compound is only four kilometers down the Afgoi road through Bosnia and usually takes less then ten minutes. The hotel is located at a traffic circle called kilometer 4 or K4, four kilometers from city center. At around K5 we find ourselves in Bosnia; the former USAID building is at K6; by K7 we're at the former American embassy residential compound, now a Pakistani-manned checkpoint. Every day the same Pakistani solders check our UN-issued gun permits, comparing the serial numbers on the cards to the ones on the guns. Every day the numbers match. There are tens of thousands of other Somalis running around with weapons, but they'll never be stopped at the Pakistani check-point. The Pakistanis only stop us because they already know the guns are registered with the UN and we're not going to shoot them.
Just after the UN checkpoint we reach the UN compound, headquarters of UNOSOM II, the inelegant acronym that encompasses the entire range of humanitarian, political, and military activities sponsored by the UN in Somalia. The fortified compound covers the former U.S. embassy grounds, the University of Mogadishu, and the former Mogadishu Golf and Tennis Club. The nine-hole sand golf course was once one of Mogadishu's most popular attractions. Now that it's covered with tents, barbed wire, and land mines there is a certain cachet in being able to say you've played the course, stood in the Mogadishu sun with a five iron trying to move a black golf ball along one huge sand trap to "greens" made by oiling down the sand.
Outside the UN compound some 400 Somalis are milling around. Most are looking for work. Some are just attracted to crowds and the possibilities they offer for stealing. The UN is the biggest employer in town and, therefore controls a large part of the country's economy. Every two weeks, when it meets its payroll, the UN buys up, with dollars, nearly 20 percent of all the Somali currency in existence. In an attempt to let Somalis know how important the UN is to the economy, the UN's daily newspaper, Maanta ('today' in Somali) ran an article boasting of the jobs created. The largely unemployed population of Mogadishu read the article to mean jobs were available.
Now the Turkish soldiers who guard the entrances to the compound use tanks and fire warning shots to keep the crowds back. Through this throng journalists must walk twice every morning.
Press briefings are divided into three parts: The humanitarian briefing is about food and medicine and all the progress the UN is making restoring civilian government in every place but Mogadishu. Then the UN military briefers speak about people getting shot and things getting blown up by UN troops and Somali militias and/or bandits. The third element was added after the U.S. send its Joint Task Force on October 18, the joint information bureau, or JIB.
The purpose of the JIB was to assault the public perception that U.S. soldiers were under UN command. The image back home, the one that really got people worked up, was that of American soldiers ordered to their deaths by Pakistani or Egyptian officers. In reality, of course, they never were. The myth of UN control was the result of an earlier, more successful, public relations effort. When the bulk of the U.S. force went home last May, the Pentagon wanted it to appear the U.S. was not really involved any more. When U.S. Army Major David Stockwell became the chief military spokesman he dutifully donned a blue UN beret and sewed a UN patch on his U.S. army uniform. His press briefings always emphasized the multilateral nature of military activities in Mogadishu, even when they were carried out by U.S. troops under U.S. command. Then, because of concerns that Stockwell's increasingly common appearances on television made the whole thing look too American, he was replaced at the podium by a New Zealander, Captain Tim McDavitt. Stockwell, however, remained in charge, until the JIB showed up.
The new PR effort got off to an awkward start. Head spokesman Col. Steven Rausch first refused to speak from the behind the usual UN lectern in front of the backdrop of a UN flag. He stood instead off to the side behind a separate lectern, wrapped in green camouflage netting with a photocopied map of Africa pinned on the front. The message was: U.S. troops are now firmly under U.S. command.
When there were no television cameras in the room, heads easily turned to Rausch when he addressed the press from his own lectern. When TV arrived, it became more complicated. Cameras and microphones had to be moved. Sound technicians rushed to the front of the room as Rausch began to speak. Chairs were kicked aside by cameramen looking for a better position. During one of these exercises, CNN let the cameras roll and aired the commotion. The U.S. lectern was immediately stashed in the JIB office.
Today the UN military spokesman reports the shooting of a UN contractor on the Afgoi road. Tyson Morris, a New Zealander and son of the owner of Morris catering, was shot by two Somalis who blocked the road and then fired through the windshield. It was an execution. Morris was killed because he had fired a group of Somali employees.
The execution once again reminded me of the real nature of this fight in Somalia. It is a fight over loot. Americans first heard about the violence in Somalia when relief agencies reported food being stolen. In reality, food had been stolen, for over a decade. More than anything else, Somalia's clans operate like Mafia families, each taking care of its own, providing jobs, a share of the pie. Though the expatriate aid workers saw themselves as helping the people of Somalia, their real role had always been to deliver the pie for the bosses to carve up. Now the journalists, too, are here, providing more loot.
The violence has subsided. The journalists who were talking about getting stun grenades and tear gas are now bored. The TV guys shoot their video, but the home offices in London don't want to pay the thousands of dollars it takes to send pictures by satellite. Most of the "news" is staged. The American task force's joint information bureau takes reporters on tours of aircraft carriers to film planes taking off. Or they go to the beach and watch the Abrams M1-A1 tanks blowing holes in used shipping containers. The military announces it has found a cache of rocket engines from the old regime and announces the time they will be blown up and where to go to get the best shots. The TV guys get great pictures of a huge mushroom cloud over Mogadishu, but the execs in London don't want to pay the freight.
Then a group of elders from the Hawiye clan, claiming the journalists are partial to Aidid, arrive at the hotel to hold a press conference. (Aidid and Ali Mahdi are both Hawiye, but from different subclans.) Beneath the shade of a satellite dish on the hotel roof they state their case. They're particularly distressed that the BBC has allowed representatives of Aidid's faction to go live on the air. As the elders leave the hotel they're assaulted by young Aidid supporters -- our drivers, translators, and gunmen. It takes a series of blasts from a belt-fed machine gun to clear the road long enough for them to escape.
A week after I arrive in Mog the American TV networks leave. There are only about 20 journalists left.
The peace offers an opportunity to start moving again through the city. The fighting in Somalia is, and always has been over scarce resources. Nomadic herders of camels, Somalis have always challenged each other over water and pasture land. Somalia's now infamous clans served as the vehicles through which individual nomads marshaled their strength to capture and hold these essentials of life. When Somalia became independent in 1960, the state itself became a contested resource in that it was the key to all the others. In time the state also provided a whole new class of riches in the form of the cash available in the national treasury -- from foreign aid, the leasing of oil and fishing rights, and the sale of stolen relief food. Like the cattle in the bush, government officials grazed through the fields of money, stuffing themselves with riches. The cold war competition between the Soviets and the West meant aid would keep pouring into the treasury as quickly as Siad Barre and his friends could cart it away. A succession of refugee crises and food shortages meant free food and humanitarian relief kept arriving at the docks and disappearing into the pockets of the cash-hungry bureaucrats.
Yusuf Omar Al-Azari knows about food stealing. He served Siad Barre in a dozen posts and did eight years in one of Barre's prisons. He now lives in Ethiopia but is in Mogadishu seeing friends and checking on some of his business interests.
"The stealing was very systematic," he says. "Lets just take the example of Mogadishu. The city was divided into 14 orientation centers, sort of districts, and each was headed by a person close to Siad Barre. They were the pillars of the revolution. The government handed the food to the heads of these centers. The head takes half of it for himself, and the other half was divided into three parts. One -third was given free to the commercial people in the district, powerful businessmen whose support was crucial to the government. One third went to the security services, such as the NSS and the Hangash. Barre was always coming up with new security agencies and putting one of them over the other in order to protect himself. And then one third went to the Red Berets, the presidential security details in the districts. Maybe one thousandth of the food went to refugees, and that went to the elderly ladies who clapped the loudest when the name of Siad Barre was mentioned. I'm not kidding. It went to those who clapped the loudest. Literally. People became millionaires from this food, many of them relatives of Siad Barre."
I've been sending Ali every day with notes requesting an appointment with Somalia's former minister of finance, Mohammed Sheikh Osman. Osman started out as a policeman in Mogadishu and ended up with the minister's portfolio and real estate holdings ioncluding more than 100 buildings in Mogadishu. Those buildings include numerous homes and offices rented by UNOSOM and NGOs, from which the total rent is said to exceed $500,000 a month.
There is something boldly poetic about the way Osman and others stole from the UN and NGOs, used the money to build houses, and then rented those same houses back to the UN and NGOs.
Osman's own home is a virtual fortress. We're frisked by his young guards at the gate. When Ali and I enter, there are another half dozen armed men in his front yard. Flowers bloom everywhere. The garden is delicately manicured. Ten people are sitting on his front porch, apparently waiting for an audience.
A young man leads Ali and me to a large, plush velvet couch in a spacious living room, and as soon as we sit, Osman enters the room. An energetic man in his 60s, he is wearing one of those tropical leisure suits in a style popular among members of the former government.
Sensing he might be pressed for time, I get right to the point. I want to know how much aid was stolen over the years and exactly how the thievery took place.
Osman seems surprised. Then he yells for a servant to bring some grapefruit juice. He tells me blankly there was no corruption he knew about in the Siad Barre government.
I change the subject. He declines to drink any of the juice. We talk about American politics.
As our conversation winds down toward silence, Osman sits upright and looks at me. "It is delicate," he says softly, thoughtfully. "Some of these people are alive and active in Somali politics, and sometimes it is not easy to tell the truth. You become a target. You may be killed." His eyes soften and he makes himself comfortable in his chair again. "I was thinking of writing a book about my 20 years in government. But what I know I cannot say. This looting today, a few lorries and the relief food is nothing compared to what happened here before. This is not looting. I know about looting.
"Myself, I've been in politics 30 years. I can't say why certain things happen. No one can teach these things. I stay here because I was born in Mogadishu. I'm 60 years old and surrounded by family and the people I love. They are here. And I fear. Three or four guys can come and they can kill you. I have an office in Dubai but most of the time I'm here. I lost a son in the war. He was a doctor, an M.D, shot in Afgoi while he was saving a life. My first son. So this is the situation in Somalia. The country is destroyed morally, economically, and physically. There are half a million to a million Somalis living outside. When they come back there will be another civil war. If the Americans go there will be another civil war.
"Come back here another time."
After lunch at the hotel, some combination of meat and pasta served family style in the cavernous dining hall, we're ready for the afternoon. Two o'clock. Ali is waiting. Osman snaps to attention. But Abdi is missing. Ali gets the guns, and hands me the AK--47. I've got the motion down now, setting the magazine, yanking back and releasing the bolt.
"You be gunman today," Ali says. The spare gun is really for Osman to use when we get out of the car. Ali's never fired a shot in his life. I at least took rifelry at YMCA camp. I get in the front passenger seat, the gunman's seat.
They laugh. We've done this before, telling Abdi he can go home and chew for the rest of the afternoon. It's a big joke. The guards open the gates and we move out into the afternoon. There's an old man who stands outside everyday selling Maria Theresa dollars -- "Forty dollar. Good price." -- while holding out one of the relics of empire. And then as we're about to turn off toward the K4 traffic circle Abdi comes running, his fist full of khat.
Abdi climbs into the back seat and passes me the mardouf of khat. I remove some twigs and start to work chewing. The leaves are tossed out the window, the buds and ends of the sticks are chewed, and as I work my way down the stem, to where it begins to get woody, the bark is peeled off . The remains of a khat chewing session are piles of little green leaves and skinny white splinters.
I tuck the green wad into my cheek where it combines with saliva and starts a steady drip of narcotic. I started chewing khat when I lived in Kenya in the mid 70s. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Meru district, where much of the drug is grown. When I moved to Somalia in 1981, I used it to stay awake on long drives. Chewed in moderation, khat can keep you alert for days, like caffeine without the jittery side effects. Chewed to excess it makes people nervous.
khat is big business, for growers in the Kenyan and Ethiopian highlands, for the transporters who drive and fly it over the borders. Every day from Nairobi's Wilson Airport over-weight planes struggle into the air and fly the stuff to small airfields around Mogadishu. Both Aidid and Ali Mahdi finance themselves by controlling a share of the trade.
In 1983, Siad Barre banned the sale of khat calling it "the mother of all evils" and preaching the drug was having a destructive effect on family life. Te ban allowed him to control the trade himself and to levy huge fines on merchants who were caught importing it. khat never disappeared from Mogadishu, and when Barre's government fell, control of the trade was taken over by the clan leaders. In order to prevent Aidid from profiting from the khat business, the UN last August closed the K50 airport south of Mogadishu. It had no effect. khat is everywhere, proving if there is a profit to be made, Somali merchants will find a way to sell anything.
We're heading to the Green Line, the demarcation between north and south Mogadishu, between Aidid's forces and Ali Mahdi's. I'm going to talk to a young Aidid militiaman whom I've been interviewing every couple of days. We drive north along Afgoi road, through the K4 traffic circle. The airport and the coast are on the right. To the left is an area the Habir Gedir refer to as the Bermuda triangle, or just 'Bermooda.' It is about half a square mile, inhabited by Aidid's Abgaal rivals, in the middle of south Mogadishu. It is, as its name suggests, triangular, and as in the legend attached to its namesake, Habir Gedir vehicles that enter often don't come out.
Every day I notice more and more guns on the street, more vehicles filled with heavily armed men.
We skirt the edge of Bermuda, passing the airport gate and the checkpoint manned by soldiers from the United Arab Emirates. Saudi and UAE soldiers use American equipment and American-made uniforms, and from a distance look like Americans. Up close, however, they are clearly not the American buzz-cut, beefy soldiers who are still respected and feared by most Somalis. Instead one is usually confronted with small, nervous, bearded men. The Somalis call them "American girls."
The Green Line slices through the center of Mogadishu. Bombed out shells of buildings now sit where there were once tree-lined streets with crowded tea shops. The Aruba Hotel with its seaside disco is not just a hollow shell, the blue ocean visible through its gaping portals. Sandbags and barbed wire now protect Pakistani troops who have been assigned to man the checkpoints. Somalis pass back and forth, but they are being watched on both sides by the rival militias.
I met Abdiwele a few days after the fighting when he was guarding Aidid's side of the line with seven or eight young militiamen. He told me he was a Habir Gedir from Dusa Mareb, a town in central Somalia in the heart of Habir Gedir territory. Twenty-two years old, about six feet tall, very black in complexion with deep, piercing eyes, Abdiwele seemed to have a story. While his colleagues joked with each other and postured for me and for the photographer who was with me, he remained detached, disturbed and alone.
As I asked him a few questions about himself he gazed into the distance. He answered slowly or not at all. There were long silences. I looked around at the deserted streets. After a while I recognized where we were. There was a gas station where I used to purchase fuel and fight off the street kids who tried to breathe the fumes from my tank. The wrecked building in front of me used to be the Shabele Hotel A Somali woman I knew ran a travel agency located on its bombed out ground floor.
And then Abdiwele was gone.
One of the kids led me to his home, a short walk through deserted streets. Unlike many of the gunmen who lived in stolen homes, this one belonged to Abdiwele's family. Slowly the story started to emerge.
Now I'm going back, bringing khat to chew, preparing to spend some time. We arrive and find Abdiwele, waking from his afternoon nap. He's happy to have the khat, and for the first time starts telling me his story.
Abdiwele grew up in Mogadishu. His parents had sent him from Dusa Mareb to live with an aunt in the capital. His aunt was married to an Italian teacher, and thus had the means to provide Abdiwele with education and opportunity. He stayed in the capital until he completed his secondary schooling in 1989 at the age of 17 and returned to visit his family in Dusa Mareb. At this time the revolt against Siad Barre was heating up and government troops were terrorizing the Habir Gedir populations around his home. The rebel militia, known as the United Somali Congress, or USC, struck at a nearby army base, and the army marched into Dusa Mareb:
"I hid in my home when I heard the shooting. Later I went to the market and saw dead bodies and blood everywhere. I saw my two uncles. They were only ten meters apart. My father's brother Abdullahi was facing the sky with ten bullet holes in his chest. Hassan, another brother to my father, lay with his face on the ground and a hole in his head. My uncles were very kind, and we had all lived together on the family land. I had seen them alive at the tea shop one hour earlier. It was only the tenth day after I returned home.
"Eighty people were killed in our village on the day the army came. I was angry for that and for my uncles, so I went to join the USC. They had an office under a tree, and the leader was a man who had defected from Siad Barre's army. His name was Colonel Mohamoud Hashi Shabel. His name meant 'the leopard' and he was the most feared man in the country. I was shaking when I presented myself to him. He said to me, "You are just a boy from the city. Why do you to come here to join the USC?" I told them about my uncles, and I told them I would fight. He knew my uncles and my father, so they accepted me."
For a year, Abdiwele fought his way toward Mogadishu, battling government troops all along the way, watching many of his friends die beside him. Finally they reached Mogadishu.
"After 23 days of fighting in Mogadishu we reached Villa Somalia [the presidential palace]. The president had fled and we celebrated, shooting our guns in the air. There was no electricity and we entered the palace with flashlights. We saw many of Siad Barre's soldiers wounded. He had left them behind and they were struggling to get out of their uniforms. We killed them.
"It was so beautiful inside. In Siad Barre's bedroom there was a large round bed with flowing sheets the color of gold and a great golden arch above. Beside the bed was a family picture album, and photographs of his children and grandchildren were all around. Some of our fighters began hopping on his bed. Some began fighting with each other over the photographs to show to our people at home.
"I was happy but I could not celebrate. The house of my aunt was very near Villa Somalia and they were the only Hawiye people in the area. I knew the Darod people were killing many Hawiye in the city. I took some of my close relatives who were fighting with me and we ran to the house. We surrounded the house and from outside the gate we heard children crying and many people rushing about. I knocked on the gate and heard the voice of the brother of my mother. "Uncle, it is me," I said. When they saw us they began dancing and ululating.
"They told us when the fighting started at Villa Somalia, people from the president's clan came to the house to kill them, but others from the president's clan, their neighbors, stood at the gates and protected them, saying these are good people; you will have to kill us first. Today Hawiye are controlling the city but my family protects these Darod people from those in our clan who would kill them. There are six Darod families who have no property and are living with us.
"We won on October 3. We won. We lost 18 guys, but we captured 25 of their top people and killed hundreds. Aidid was defeated. If we'd been allowed to go back there the next day, we could have mopped the whole thing up. But the politicians called us back. Now they've sent tons of hardware and told us we can't use it. We ran away and now we've got enough hardware here to crush the whole fucking continent.
"Don't use my name. You can attribute this to a U.S. or a UN official."
"High-ranking U.S. official?"
On October 3, the American soldiers launched an attack on Aidid's militia as some of his top aides were meeting in a building across from Mogadishu's Olympic hotel. The Olympic is located in a densely populated section of south Mogadishu that is the heart of Aidid's territory. UN troops have avoided the area. Other foreigners travel there at their peril. The Americans came down from the sky, and almost got away with it. Their casualties occurred as they were pulling out. A Somali cameraman who was working for Reuters got some footage of one of the 18 dead Americans being dragged through the street. It was on the air before the Pentagon could even figure out what happened.
Then there was the picture of the captured helicopter pilot, Michael Durant.
The Clinton administration and its opponents in Congress reacted as if something had changed in Mogadishu. This change required a new policy and within days Clinton announced the March 31 pullout date.
Nothing had really changed. This wasn't so different from the slaughter of 25 Pakistani soldiers on June 5, or the ambush of nine Nigerians on September [TK]. One of the Nigerians was dragged dead through the street, his body pummeled and spat upon by the joyous throng. That was on TV, too, for a day.
And then there was September 25.
On September 25, when American Black Hawk helicopter was shot down in Mogadishu military spokesmen called it a "lucky shot." The helicopter was flying low and an SNA gunner was able to shoot an RPG through the open door. Three crewmen were killed, and the pilot escaped. That was in the papers.
Abdiwele was there, one of the horde of Aidid loyalists shooting at the Americans who came to take the bodies away and clean up the wreckage. The Americans never did get the bodies. Abdiwele told me how men and women and children rushed to the smoldering wreckage of the helicopter and started tearing at the bodies, grabbing chunks of flesh and ripping bones from corpses, fighting amongst themselves for the bigger bones, which made more impressive trophies.
I ran his story by the high-ranking U.S. official.
"There wasn't much left. We only recovered one identifiable part of one soldier. We also know there was cannibalism. The bastards ate some of the flesh. Then the head of one of the soldiers was on display in Bukhara market. They were charging admission and people were paying to see it."
But there were no pictures, and no change of American policy.
We head to the Olympic Hotel area, by the charred, hollow corpses of armored personnel carriers that were sent on a failed mission to rescue the Americans. Children climb on the remains of two American helicopters . As we pass deeper into this area of central south Mogadishu, near Bukhara market, I wonder if I'm getting bolder or the situation is getting calmer or if I'm losing my sense of self-preservation. Abdi is
Now we're walking the streets around the area of the hotel. I implore Abdi to stay close, watch my back, or even to look interested. People stare. Many are armed. A man greets us and says his name is Artan, a teacher. Artan is tiny about 5' 4" with a beard and probably in his early 40s. He and Ali are talking while I examine bullet riddled walls.
As I walk through the rubble a kid follows me His name is Liban. He tells me he's 16. When I express some skepticism he admits to being 15. When I stop to rest he squats comfortably back on his heels, his feet pressed flat against the ground. He's a tiny target. He raises the AK-47 to his shoulder and lines his eyes up to the sight. His actions are rehearsed and comfortable. The long barrel of the rifle extends far beyond his tiny compacted body. He yanks back the bolt on his AK-47, loads a round into the chamber. Then he snaps off the safety and starts imitating the sound of gunfire. American, American, American, he barks out, one for each shot. I used to play this game as a child, killing imaginary Germans. For a moment, almost, he looks like a child, but the gun is loaded. He's only playing. But he's not. The adults in the compound hardly notice him.
He asks me for khat. He asks me for cigarettes. He asks me for money. No, no, no. I answer firmly. I don't know whether to treat him like a child or not.
Ali and Artan approach me.
"This is his sister's house," Ali informs me.
"Was anybody killed here?"
"Yes: His mother and one sister and two of his sister's children."
"Can I talk to his sister."
Artan Speaks to Ali. Ali Translates. "He says he likes the German people very much."
"That's nice, Ali."
"He says the German people are the friends of the Somalis."
"Where is this going Ali?"
"I have told him you are German. It's best not to say you are an American here."
"Thank you, Ali. I'm glad you told me that."
Artan's sister Haredo tells me a story and Ali translates: When the fighting started on the street she brought the children into the house. She was just beginning her afternoon prayer when the American bullets poured through the roof, turning the little house black with dust. Then as the cloud settled she found her two sons, mother, and sister cut to pieces on the floor. Haredo maintains a glassy stare. She's still in obvious shock. Her telling of the story is slow and dutiful. She doesn't want to talk but her brother has told her she must. She doesn't want to talk because she is filled with guilt. "We told the children they would be safe," she repeats.
She also keeps asks: "Where is our happiness now? Our happiness has changed to fear."
Artan takes us across the street to where they have buried the dead. There are graves, hundreds of graves. Some are mounds of dirt marked with rocks and branches. Some people with more money were able to buy a little cement and have built concrete cradles around their dead. Most are fresh.
"We call that area the American monument," Artan tells me.
A donkey cart passed through the devastation with "Donated by the People of the United States of America" food bags on it. A crowd starts to gather around us, and even Abdi is showing concern.
"I think we should go now," Ali says.
Another press briefing and another announcement: Kai Lincoln, a 22-year-old American UN employee has been shot to death. He was driving to work when the attack came. His gunman fled. Kai resisted and they killed him and took the Land Cruiser. A UN spokesman speculates the killers are freelancing Aidid militiamen.
I start to feel Somalia will kill anyone who stays too long. Somalia is getting too dangerous. Too much murder. Too many foreigners driving about in nice vehicles . Too much money flashing around. Too little else. We don't have to be here.
I think about how comfortable I've gotten moving through the streets of Mogadishu trying to find reasons and logic where neither exists. There are no promises kept here. There is nothing beyond the loot. Abdi, his mouth full of khat, has no reason to save my life except that he won't get paid for a few days if I'm dead. I'm just a renewable resource. When four journalists were lynched last summer, four more were eventually sent in to replace them.
One UN worker, a friend of Kai's, expresses his fears to me. We're talking in his house, off the main UN compound behind walls surrounded by overpaid Somali gunmen. Unlike Kai, who was fresh from college, this guy has years of experience in Somalia. He did his Ph.D. research here.
As the military winds down, he is beginning to fear for his life. "When the Americans leave, this whole operation is in trouble. We'll all probably have to pull out soon after that, if not before. At some point these guards and workers are going to realize the money is running out. They'll figure out they have more to gain by killing us and taking our computers and cars and radios than they do by accepting a few more weeks salary and seeing us off at the airport. Then what? I don't want to be here when that happens."
Outside, Abdi is chewing khat with some of the gunmen who are protecting the house. Ali is dozing in the front seat of the car. Osman is sitting under a tree writing something on a small sheet of paper.
"For you," he tells me. It's a list of the killings and battles that have taken place on Sundays over the last two years.
Ali hears us and hops out of the car. "OK, where are we going now? "
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