Memories of Mogadishu the lost paradise


Originally Published: December 20, 2008

It was a place of paved highways and smooth roads. Palm trees dotted the landscape, providing shade for those who ventured into the city for business or pleasure. Residents say that it had one of the best-trained police forces in the world — disciplined and respectful of residents.

Boasting the second longest coastline in Africa, people would sit on the beaches in groups to watch the sun disappear over the landscape, casting long shadows on the rising tide of the Indian Ocean behind them. This was Mogadishu then.

“It was a place of beauty,” said Mohamed Ibrahim, an exiled Somali journalist living in Kenya.

“The ruler (Siad Barre) was strict but at least back then we had roads. We had shops. We had hospitals. Life was much better than it is now,” he says.

“It was a city of poets and composers. Odes inspired by the beauty of the city were sung in honour of Mogadishu. People would get onto their roof tops, stay up late at night looking at the stars. Now the stars are still visible but you do not need a roof top view any more. You can see them from the holes left behind by missiles,” said Mr Ibrahim.

But the clear skies and the clean air are no more.

Enemies of the state

Mr Ibrahim fled the country when journalists became enemies of the failed state and were targeted by both the Transitional Government Forces and militiamen under the instruction of warlords.

One afternoon in 2006, Nasra Muhamud was in a radio station studio in Mogadishu just about to read the midday news bulletin.

“I was preparing a script for the news when I heard a commotion outside. Naturally I moved towards the window to see what was going on but before I got there, there was a loud bang,” she says.

“Everything was covered in dust. I looked at the chair on which I was seated and passed out,” said Ms Muhamud.

She lay motionless, and for a while her colleagues thought she had died from the impact.

Woken up by persistent gunfire, she was shocked at the damage she saw at the place she had occupied seconds earlier; a mangled chair, and a broken desk. Through a hole in the wall, she saw a missile shell on the other side.

Thinking that the city had become too dangerous on that day she decided to head home. But death still stalked her. The minibus she boarded for the short journey home was hit by another missile and overturned.

“The driver’s head was decapitated. Two other passengers died. I got off through a broken window and walked home,” she said.

On March 9 2007, Hassan Sade left the newsroom of Horn Afrik station for a routine assignment to cover a mine clearance operation in a Mogadishu neighbourhood when government forces confronted him.

“All they did was ask for my identification papers. I gave them my media ID. This was enough justification for an arrest,” said Mr Sade.

The troops took him to an abandoned room at Mogadishu Airport where he said he was tortured for allegedly working against the state. He was held for seven days in isolation; his only company a mad man who was later killed before his eyes.

After weeks of detention, he was released a broken man. Once outside he learnt that his father had been murdered for enquiring about his whereabouts. On being released, he took a short break from the profession to “mentally recover.”

“I couldn’t keep off for long. Three months later I was back hunting for stories but the constant threats from both government and warlords forced me to seek refuge in Kenya,” he says.

Two years ago Khadra Aidid ran a news website from Mogadishu until she and her aunt became a target for harassment and brutal attacks.

“It was common for militia men to loot from our house. At times they would take everything, including the iron sheet roofs. We were used to this,” she says.

But one day, the looters changed tack and did much more damage.

“One afternoon they came to the house and were in no hurry to leave even after taking everything that seemed valuable to them. They began taunting us, then my aunt told them to get out of the house,” Ms Aidid recalls.

That was the last thing Ms Aidid’s aunt said. She (the aunt) was shot along with her three-month-old baby she cuddled, suckling.

They died on the spot. The bodies were taken out to the streets. During the days that followed, the militiamen refused to let Ms Aidid and the other family members bury their loved ones until they (the militiamen) moved to another area.

As a journalist covering Mr Ali Gedi, the then Prime Minister, Bile Gurhan was never far from danger.

“Death no longer shocked us. Explosions went off without much attention and became part of the day,” says Mr Gurhan.

Missiles landed

He says one day while Mr Gedi was checking into a hotel to receive guests, missiles landed nearby but no one seemed to mind.

“The PM checked into the hotel, proceeded to his room, put some music on and entertained guests. All the while, the conversations went on over the sound of gunfire,” he said.

Having worked in a war-ravaged country, the journalists have some advice for Kenyans in regard to the post-election violence the country experienced at the turn of the year.

Meeting under the auspices of the Somali Coalition for Freedom of Expression, they said the media should play a major role in promoting peace within Kenya. Why?

“Because war is a one-way street that only leads to one destination, death and destruction,” said Mrs Mariam Awreye, the director of Dr Ismail Jimale Human Rights Group in Somalia.

And do they think peace will return to their motherland?

“We are hopeful despite the fact that the warlords who caused chaos in the 1990s now represent us in government. Maybe when they leave, we will get the peace we deserve,” said Mr Ibrahim.

“In this lifetime, I hope to once again see a Mogadishu as beautiful and as peaceful as the one I grew up in.”

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