Beaches or bombings? Writing the ‘real’ Mogadishu
Mogadishu, capital city of Somalia, is a complex place. For many on the outside the very name continues to evoke images of endemic conflict: from downed US helicopters and street battles between warlords, to suicide bombings and targeted assassinations. It’s remarkable that for so many people who have no connection to the place, the film Blackhawk Down (filmed in Morocco) remains a primary visual reference point for the city – its destruction, ruins and populace. Over the last few years I have had the privilege to work in Mogadishu, commuting, as it were, back and forth between Nairobi and Somalia’s capital, seeing the changes and continuities on the ground: both development and destruction, both a‘rebirth’ of the city, and the often apparent cheapness of human life. This is an environment in which I am now conducting my doctoral research (on media and political discourses of nationalism), one which I am attempting to understand and portray through accurate description and analysis.
Since the installation and recognition of the Somali Federal Government in 2012, media focused on the region has been awash with competing narratives of the ‘reality’ of the city: from ideas (and the ubiquitous hashtags) of Somalia or Mogadishu ‘rising’, to the persistence of violence and political stagnation. I’ve noticed that this battle for the ‘real’ or ‘new’ Somalia has intensified in the last couple of weeks, with multiple voices clamouring to show the city or country for what it really ‘is’ and dispel misconceptions and prejudices. Given that the first question people ask me when I tell them that I work or do research in Mogadishu is ‘is it safe?’, it seems appropriate to comment here on a messy and complicated reality in which there is truth in many disparate narratives, and on the problems inherent in trying to distil all this through the detached space of electronic media into a coherent picture of what the world looks like in Mogadishu.
This AFP journalistic account of British diplomacy conducted in what is an airport ‘green-zone’ (with forays into the mean streets in armoured vehicles) shocked me, in that I recognized the general accuracy of the images reported but they jarred with my usual emotional reaction to them. I recognized the descriptions of the execution sites, the militarisation of the airport zone and the accounts of violence in the city, and yet it amazed me the extent to which it is possible to normalise these things as parts of a wider reality which is more diverse, dynamic and often much less grim.
On this note you may have heard in the last few weeks of the ‘global stardom’ of Ugaaso Abukar Boocow, the young Somali woman who instagrams pictures of daily life in Mogadishu, such as her breakfasts by the beach, in an attempt to dispel stereotypes of the city and show a different side to Somalia. In a similar vein, I’ve also been watching recently several documentaries produced by Integration TV (‘the first English TV network for Somalis globally’) which portray for a diaspora audience a Mogadishu which is developing economically and gaining greater security, and serves as a call for Somalis to ‘return’ to the city with their families to live and do business.
Once again these portrayals of Mogadishu contain important elements of truth about the place: business is booming in certain sectors, urban regeneration is moving forward in some districts (though scars of conflict are still very much present), and Lido beach is, well, really nice. But at the same time these portrayals are no more a ‘reality’ of Mogadishu for most residents than the images of endemic violence and extreme militarisation implied in the AFP piece on diplomacy. Most Mogadishu residents do not have breakfast by the beach and do not send their children to the type of well-equipped and international schools of the Integration TV show. Diaspora influence in Mogadishu is in itself very interesting in that it plays a hugely important role in economic development and politics in the city (often due to external capital and the technical skills which state reconstruction in Somalia undeniably needs) but such influence is not accepted entirely without critique by Mogadishu residents who remained in the city through the most difficult periods of conflict since 1991. Questions of returnee’s overrepresentation in politics, their domination of real estate or business opportunities and differing cultural standards of public morality are all raised in the public spheres of Somali media.
Also highlighted by the Integration TV piece is the important role of Turkey in delivering aid to Somalia and changing perceptions or paradigms of humanitarian action in the country. Over the last few years Turkey has made Somalia a foreign policy priority and has undertaken a high profile (and very visible) humanitarian approach in Somalia and in Mogadishu in particular. Turkish engineers are visible on the streets and have been responsible for road paving and numerous other well-branded initiatives designed to differentiate Turkey from other – mostly ‘western’ – humanitarian actors, who are perceived as inefficient and distanced from the Somali reality in their Nairobi headquarters’. The tagline in the Integration TV video that Turkey is ‘redefining’ aid illustrates how much the humanitarian sector has become a battlefield for competing international influences in Somalia. This is, in turn, connected to competing visions and perspectives of the type of state and social reconstruction that will take place in Somalia, and the identities of those who will lead it.
A shake-up of traditional paradigms of aid in Somalia may well be a healthy thing, but many Somalis remember that aid is rarely one-dimensional and a critical appraisal of all external influences is important in the ‘rebuilding’ of Somalia. Such debates are already playing out in the Somali public sphere, for example regarding the role of Turkish companies managing key infrastructure such as the air and sea port, and these discussion are not just going on amongst those, like Harakat al Shabaab al Mujahideen, who see any support for the Somali Federal Government as tantamount to apostasy and use violent means against it (as attacks against both the United Nations and Turkish efforts indicate).
The point here is that state reconstruction in Mogadishu and Somalia in general is an ongoing and dynamic process characterised by concrete developments, setbacks and the roles of various interested external actors. As for any city, boiling down snapshots of a complicated context to present a new ‘reality’ is merely an abstraction of a complex whole, and however much I sympathise with the intention of counter-narratives to tired and stereotyped media portrayals of endemic conflict in Somalia, it is abundantly clear that political violence continues both in Mogadishu (Lido beach can be instagrammed whilst 25 die in a bombing at the Central Hotel) and in wider South Central Somalia where the SFG and African Union military campaign has currently lost momentum and Al Shabaab remains undefeated. I do not to pretend to offer here a comprehensive picture of a ‘real’ Somalia – I’m afforded glimpses of the context in the same way that most external observers are – I simply point out that in this grey-zone of political reconfiguration and concurrent military/securitisation struggle most people exist, survive or even prosper in environments characterised both by sporadic violence and development , and I’m lucky to have the contacts and means to escape the green-zone, even in a restricted capacity, to witness this and write about it.
NB: Most of these pictures are from 2012/2013. Urban regeneration does continue but conflict damage and IDP camps remain visible in many parts of Mogadishu, including downtown areas. I wish I was able to wander around and capture some of the developments in places like Makka Al Mukarama Road but I’m not, and this in itself says something about the security situation.