Turning The Lights Back On In Mogadishu, Somalia

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Somali: Turning The Lights Back On In Mogadishu, Somalia. 

The mayor of Mogadishu insists that the gunfire and mortar explosions of his legendarily dangerous city are greatly exaggerated.

Mogadishu Mayor Mr. Abdirazak Mohamed Nur

Mogadishu Mayor Mr. Abdirazak Mohamed Nur

“It’s much safer than Baghdad,” he says brightly.

After 20 years of devastating war, the people of Mogadishu have few dreams beyond their daily survival. A level of violence marginally lower than Baghdad might be all they dare hope for.

But the mayor, Mohamed Nur, has big ambitions for the war-torn capital of Somalia. Operating on a tiny budget, he and his employees are cleaning up the garbage and providing electricity for streetlights in the darkened streets. They are chopping down the thorn bushes, opening new markets and setting up basketball and volleyball courts.

They are even planting flowers and trees in a few places – although they are often stolen at night.

“The flowers and gardens are psychological,” he says. “It’s symbolic. We want to show that we can come back and live normally.”

Yet it will take more than flowers to restore peace in Mogadishu, where the government is besieged by a militant Islamic guerrilla army known as al-Shabab. The mayor admits his city faces horrific problems of corruption, violence, homelessness and unemployment.

Mr. Nur, who fled Mogadishu in 1993, spent most of the past 18 years in Britain. He ran a small Internet café in London, joined the Labour Party, ran for city council, and idolized London’s former socialist mayor Ken Livingstone.

Last year, Somali President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed asked him to return to the country of his birth and become mayor of its biggest city. With some qualms, he accepted. He told his family that one day they might hear of his assassination or his death in an explosion.

He only wanted to bring a ray of hope to the city. “The population of Mogadishu was in a dark cage, with no light, no windows, and only a horrible noise that the people could not see,” he said. “They accepted the fear and darkness and it became normal because they know nothing else. But now we are trying to break open a window in their cage.”

It has not been easy. Anger and frustration cloud his face as he remembers a cultural festival he organized this year – the first in Mogadishu in the past 20 years. Singers and dancers were arranged, and thousands of people gathered in the streets. And then a gang of gunmen pulled up in a pick-up truck and opened fire on the crowd. Four civilians were killed and 16 were injured.

Even worse, he says, the gunmen were government soldiers, and their alleged ringleader was his predecessor, former mayor Mohamed Dhere, who remains a powerful force in the city. A few weeks later, Mr. Dhere was released from jail, infuriating the new mayor.

Mr. Nur claims that Somali court officials accepted bribes to release Mr. Dhere. “It’s a disaster,” he fumes. “From top to bottom, the courts are corrupt. Without a judicial system, this country cannot function.”

Corruption and violence seem almost unstoppable here. Even in the city government, bribery is expected, Mr. Nur says. Some of his own department heads are stealing money and embezzling public property, he says, yet he cannot get rid of them.

And then there are the government soldiers. “Some of them are only trained to kill, and they’re roaming around the markets with guns full of bullets,” Mr. Nur said. “They are threatening innocent civilians and even killing them. They can rob or kill for food. The insecurity in Mogadishu is caused by those soldiers.”

The social problems are equally massive. After decades of war, about half of the city’s three million people have fled. Of those who remain, hundreds of thousands are living in squalid refugee camps, vulnerable to disease, without hope of jobs or education. The unemployment rate among young people is 90 to 95 per cent, he says.

Torn down Mogadishu slowly coming back to life

Torn down Mogadishu slowly coming back to life

“The camps could be a breeding ground for Shabab. A lot of people are born in camps and grow up in camps. They have no chance at jobs. Shabab is attractive to young people who have nothing to do.”

The despair is symbolized by the vast forest of thorn bushes that has blanketed the city in the past 20 years. “They conquer every space in Mogadishu,” the mayor says. “They even block the roads and fill the houses.”

To provide some hope for the unemployed youth, Mr. Nur is trying to organize sports activities. But the city’s two soccer stadiums are both under the control of the Islamic militants, who believe that sports are evil. Even in government-controlled areas, female athletes must cover their legs in baggy track suits because of Islamic dress codes. “The women who play basketball in this environment are very courageous and committed,” he says.

Because of the shortage of sports facilities, some women tried to play basketball on a military field near the presidential palace. But a government soldier ordered them to stop. He, too, told them it was evil to play sports.

“It was a crime,” Mr. Nur said. “He should be in prison.”

Globe and Mail