Somalis Embrace Hope and Reconstruction in Mogadishu
MOGADISHU, Somalia — Up until a few weeks ago, all visitors who landed at Aden Abdulle International Airport in Mogadishu were handed a poorly copied, barely readable sheet that asked for name, address — and caliber of weapon.
No more. Now visitors get a bright yellow welcome card that has no mention of guns and several choices for reason of visit, including a new category: holiday.
Outside, on Mogadishu’s streets, the thwat-thwat-thwat hammering sound that rings out in the mornings is not the clatter of machine guns but the sound of actual hammers.
Construction is going on everywhere — new hospitals, new homes, new shops, a six-story hotel and even sports bars (albeit serving cappuccino and fruit juice instead of beer). Painters are painting again, and Somali singers just held their first concert in more than two decades at the National Theater, which used to be a weapons depot and then a national toilet. Up next: a televised, countrywide talent show, essentially “Somali Idol.”
Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, which had been reduced to rubble during 21 years of civil war, becoming a byword for anarchy, is making a remarkable comeback. The Shabab, the fearsome insurgents who once controlled much of the country, withdrew from the city in August and have been besieged on multiple sides by troops from the African Union, Kenya, Ethiopia and an array of local militias.
Now, one superpower is left in the capital — the African Union, with 10,000 troops (soon to be 17,000), tanks, artillery and armored personnel carriers that constantly chug up and down the street — and the city is enjoying its longest epoch of relative peace since 1991: eight months and counting.
“It’s a rebirth,” grinned Omar Osman, a Somali-American software engineer who worked for Delta Air Lines in Atlanta and just moved back here. “Call it Somalia 2.0.”
Clearly, this city and the rest of Somalia still have a long way to go. A suicide bomber recently struck at the gates of the presidential palace, and a stray mortar shell crashed into a refugee camp, killing six. A few warlords are still lurking around and clan-based militias have reared their heads in some neighborhoods, a potent reminder of the clan-driven chaos that dominated Mogadishu for so long.
But people here are sensing the moment and seizing it. More than 300,000 residents have come back to the city in the past six months, local aid groups say, and many are cheerfully carting away chunks of rubble and resurrecting their bullet-riddled homes. The economic boom, fueled by an infusion of tens of millions of dollars, much of it from Somalis flocking home from overseas, is spawning thousands of jobs that are beginning to absorb young militiamen eager to get out of the killing business.
Given Mogadishu’s importance to the country, it all adds up to a huge opportunity. And though Somalia has self-destructed numerous times before, Augustine Mahiga, the head of the United Nations political office for Somalia, along with so many others here, insisted that this time really is different. Somalia, they contend, is finally turning around.
“For the first time since 1991, Mogadishu is under one authority,” Mr. Mahiga said from a new office that exuded the whiff of fresh paint. “It’s unprecedented.”
All across town, people who have no connection to each other and who come from very different walks of life describe the same new, strange feeling: hope.
The room is packed, the flies are swarming, and the floor is sticky with thick, black blood.
“Four million!” shouts Mohammed Sheik Nur Taatey, emphatically waving four stubby fingers. “Give me four million. I won’t take a shilling less.”
This is economics at its most elemental — supply and demand, seller and buyer, Mr. Taatey and the brawny, sweaty, pushy crowd. The arena: Mogadishu’s fish market, a long, skinny, seaside building where many thousands of dollars’ worth of fish are sold every day.
Mr. Taatey, 38, is a fishmonger, presiding over the day’s catch and auctioning it off to wholesale buyers. His personal finances have soared in the past several months, an apt example, especially in this case, that a rising tide lifts all boats.
The surge of people returning to Mogadishu and the opening of new restaurants and hotels have steadily driven up the price of fish, from about 50 cents a pound a few years ago, when Mogadishu was a shellshocked ghost town, to $2 today.
And the catch is quite good, an upbeat sign for Somalia’s reviving seafood industry, which has recently caught the eye of Asian investors. Just the other day, porter after porter stumbled through the fish market’s doorway quivering under the weight of 150-pound blue marlins slung across their shoulders.
“Oh, look, shark-fish!” Mr. Taatey shouted out in exuberant, broken English as a team of fishermen dragged in a 400-pound shark. Mr. Taatey promptly sold it for $600.
A few minutes later, with bricks of Somali shillings in his arms and sweat trickling down his temples, he said, “These are the best times of my life.” That day he made $27.
Born in the old part of town, where the coral block houses lean drunkenly toward the sea, Mr. Taatey had watched in despair as rival militias from clans much bigger than his own leveled Mogadishu after the government collapsed in 1991. Sometimes it was so dangerous to step outside that Mr. Taatey could not sell fish, leaving his family to a single meal a day — a bowl of gruel.