Somalia starts to pick up the pieces
After decades of war, piracy and famine, and despite continuing attacks by al-Shabaab militants, the east African nation is cautiously optimistic about the future
Life in Mogadishu: children play on an abandoned truck in front of the destroyed former parliament building. Photograph: Feisal Omar/Reuters
Life in Mogadishu: Lido beach, where couples now stroll hand in hand. Photograph: Omar Faruk/Reuters
Life in Mogadishu: the aftermath of a car bomb in September. Photograph: Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty
Life in Mogadishu: girls read during a Koranic studies lesson. Photograph: Feisal Omar/Reuters
Life in Mogadishu: President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. Photograph: Tobin Jones/AFP/Getty
‘Welcome to Somalia” reads the sign, in Somali and English, greeting travellers as they walk out of Mogadishu’s ramshackle airport. On a wall nearby is an artist’s impression of what the airport will look like when a Turkish reconstruction project is completed. The planned gleaming glass and steel structure seems ambitious in a city that still experiences attacks by the al-Shabaab militants that once controlled it and much of Somalia, but it chimes with the mood of cautious optimism that has taken hold over the past year.
One of the world’s most dangerous countries, Somalia became synonymous with war, piracy and famine in the chaotic decades that followed the collapse of its government in 1991. Now Somalis are daring to imagine a very different future for their homeland.
“For the first time in a very long time, people here have hope,” says Liban Mahdi, one of scores of diaspora Somalis who have returned to Mogadishu since al-Shabaab were routed from the city by African Union and Somali forces in August 2011. Parts of the battle-scarred capital are experiencing a construction boom, with hospitals, homes, schools, shops and hotels rising from once rubbled neighbourhoods. Streets hum with cars and hawkers. “We have traffic jams in Mogadishu now,” says Ismail, who works in construction. “I never imagined I would see that here.”
At Lido beach, where women were banned from swimming under al-Shabaab, couples stroll hand in hand as the Indian Ocean laps the shore. Street lamps now illuminate some of Mogadishu’s war-pocked roads, allowing residents to venture out at night to sample the restaurants and cafes that have opened in recent months.
One of those is the Mug Coffee Lounge, a Kenyan franchise that Mahdi opened on the ground floor of the downtown Hotel Makkah, which he and his family have renovated. It offers $2 cappuccinos and refrigerated cakes to those who can afford it – mostly returned diaspora Somalis like its owner. “Our cafe is now the place to be seen in Mogadishu,” Mahdi says proudly, noting that the striking decor was designed by a female Somali architect who trained in Canada. “People are getting accustomed to the relative calm of the city compared to the open warfare they knew in the past. With stability comes business and investment.”
Reminders of how fragile that peace is are ever present, however. Al-Shabaab, which evolved from an Islamist movement that ruled Somalia in 2006, may have been largely driven from Mogadishu, but it continues to make its presence felt through an asymmetric war that includes targeted assassinations and attacks on venues that have included a courthouse and a popular cafeteria.
Somalia’s elegant National Theatre, which had been shuttered for more than 20 years because of the war, briefly reopened in March last year only to close again a month later after it was targeted by a suicide bomber. In June, 22 people were killed when al-Shabaab fighters overran a UN base in the city.