Inside Somalia: Africa’s ancient ‘land of plenty’ reduced to a modern-day land of chaos
Hugging the coastline all the way round the Horn of Africa sits a nation that is relentlessly sun-seared. But the climate here in Somalia is the least of your worries. As a failed state with only a tentative government in place, and one in which the Islamic Al-Shabaab jihadist movement call home, there is plenty more than simply the heat to keep your mind occupied whilst you’re here.
Getting into Somalia is hard. And not exactly a desirable thing to be doing, either. My entry is via a United Nations humanitarian flight bringing in World Food Program supplies on a DASH-7 propeller plane, the type of which I’ve flown several times before, albeit this time with a larger hold configuration for the essential cargo. The greater Mogadishu International Airport (MIA) area was built by the Turkish and is fortified and protected by the UN and by African Union (AU) soldiers who come from five other East African countries on peacekeeping missions. There are HESCO fortifications and armed guards everywhere. But it’s also the safest place in Mogadishu, with people able to access the compounds or walk along the coast in relative safety and in the knowledge the guard force is active and present. Near the eastern side of the airport is the gateway into Mogadishu City from MIA – optimistically welcoming, given the masses of security beside it. It is quite the sight.
Historically, Somalia wasn’t always as it appears now: lean, chaotic, and violent. It is the most likely location for the fabled “Ancient Land of Punt,” a wealthy nation once renowned for its quality of life and strong trade links with Ancient Egypt. Punt was known for exporting gold, ivory, and wild animals such as baboons, giraffes, and hippopotami and coaxed the otherwise non-seafaring Ancient Egyptians into perilous sea voyages to trade for such valued commodities. Although the exact location of the land of Punt has never been confirmed beyond doubt, the autonomous region of Puntland in north east Somalia is named in its honour.
Originally a collection of city states through the Middle Ages, and afterwards a series of powerful medieval trading empires (or ‘Sultanates’), Somalia then very briefly became a British colony before being ruled by Italy as a colony from 1889 to 1960. Whilst the medieval trading era meant Somalia flourished alongside Arabian and Roman civilisations, only after European colonial rule did the real scramble for Somalia begin. Despite the romantic stories of lands-of-plenty from times gone by, Somalia has been afflicted by some sort of trouble ever since.
European colonial interests in Africa, coupled with Christian Ethiopians, triggered fighting with the Muslim Somalis in the late 1800s. Similarly, the fascist Italian government of the mid-20th Century fought and took, and lost again, parts of Ethiopia (back then, Abyssinia) and Brit-controlled areas of the North such as Berbera. Independence in 1960 did not bring stability – British and Italian interests in the region meant the territory remained fractured. After a military coup d’etat in 1969, there was relative stability in Somalia through the 1970s and 80s. Only after successive governments became more authoritarian and civil war broke out in 1991 did Somalia degrade into the condition we see today. With a federal government now established, Islamic fundamentalism being fought effectively, and piracy rates dropping, Somalia is currently considered the world’s second lowest fragile state, the top spot taken by South Sudan. Despite some urban renewal, the war does continue and Mogadishu, once termed ‘the White Pearl of the Indian Ocean,’ remains a dangerous and lawless place.
The streets of Mogadishu are strewn with litter, have little or no solid foundations, and crumbling kerbs. Stalls and small businesses line the streets and busy markets draw your eye. Modern buildings are interspersed with colonial Italian relics and occasionally, an older more Arabian or African-looking building is visible. This contrast in architecture is not something I was expecting and is a pleasant twist. The Italian influence does really linger – even the empty tin cans amongst the litter once contained macaroni or spaghetti, and coffee shops are popular. Innumerable side streets lead to nowhere, a maze of sandy and decrepit alleyways which only lead to more rubble and waste. Taxis take the form of three-wheeled rickshaw type vehicles and are in abundance, and many are painted in vivid colours – the yellow reminiscent of a New York cab.
I gain access to the busy and confusing Mogadishu street life via a couple of patrols made by the Burundian army and an Italian peacekeeping force. I visit several compounds within the city, in places where the AU maintain control or train and mentor the Somali National Army. It is a unique insight into the daily grind of a city most people can only imagine, a city who’s very name is synonymous with disorder at its most potent. But among the poverty-stricken and dusty, desperate eyes that stare back at me, there is hope. People see my camera and are happy to be photographed. They smile and cheer, and seem content the military presence is here. Some chat in English and even some women remove their veil to have a chat and a laugh. The common humanity is plain to see.
Dust gets ingrained in everything, from your clothes and your hair, to your equipment. There are also lots of strays – dogs and cats – and we’re in a country which still has rabies so I am careful when they approach me. But, some dogs are just too cute not to get a belly rub, regardless of where you are in the world.
Somalia also has the most dramatic coastline – the longest in Africa – and breathtaking beaches. As I look south, the vivid Indian Ocean to my left, full of sharp rocks, jelly fish, and sharks; and the desert and slums to my right, harbouring snakes and black widow spiders (not to mention the human threat) I am cognisant that everything here is either dead or dying. And that includes the people, as there is no viable health care system here either. It means the value of life itself is low, which is a contributor to the troubles in turn.
Poverty is apparent far and wide, and with various factions and Sharia law in force in some areas of the county, Mogadishu is just about the only place where any semblance of a viable economy is to be seen. Islam is dominant too; streets teeming with Islamic culture, mosques on the horizon and full length burkhas everywhere. Mogadishu has the relics of an Italian-built cathedral now burned out from bombing, but when I visit Baidoa, a town up country to the North, nearer Ethiopia, I’m led to believe that a once-Christian cathedral from the Italian days is now reborn as a mosque.
Baidoa is an altogether quieter and calmer place than Mogadishu, although Somalia’s capital is definitely an odd benchmark to measure ‘calm’ by. But we are altogether closer to Al-Shabaab elements in society who have been driven from all the districts of Mogadishu. I’m based in the city’s airfield, also billed as an international airport – as I’m guessing there are flights to Djibouti and Ethiopia too – which is semi protected by built up mud defences and stretches of HESCO bastion with an occasional guard tower. Looking out from one of these towers at the shanty town, it appears similar to Mogadishu in that corrugated tin and small compounds abound, dashed with colour and traffic and dust. Rural Somalia is as different to the capital as you may expect; goats and cows and strays everywhere, village life sleepy and slow: but the same paradox of a hopeful yet endlessly forlorn place stares straight back at you everywhere you look.
Exploring Baidoa a little more, I come across an abandoned US Special Forces compound on the airfield. Still technically owned by America, but fallen into disrepair since they vacated the airfield some time ago, the money surrounding US deployments is still apparent. A full size cargo lorry remains where it was last parked. Accommodation, offices, and even a medical centre have been left, and although long since ransacked, bottles, chairs, and laptops are strewn amongst the buildings and tents. Weeds have grown and intertwined through benches, up doorways, and items such as chairs and ladders lay on the floor where they were discarded. It’s a fitting metaphor for the current state of Somalia. Cash injections, foreign aid, solid buildings: all of it left to rot where it stands when the interests fade.
Back in Mogadishu after another prop-plane flight out of Baidoa, I visit a derelict mechanic’s yard on a patrol where the African forces are desperately trying to get their vehicles back on the road. Four rusting and neglected armoured troop carriers, stood stark against a backdrop of an accommodation block left in ruins and which has been a target of rocket attacks, shows how far the country still has to go. Derelict buildings and urban rubble are almost disregarded as simply part of the furniture. In a country forsaken so, there is nothing left to do but urban exploration. Stairwells full of rubble lead to rooftops with commanding views of the shanties that extend to the horizon. Goats and other livestock graze where they can, in amongst bricks, litter, and dust.
As my trip to Somalia draws to a close, what I’ll remember from my time in this remarkable country is the overwhelming sense of hope where, by rights, there should be none. Evidence of hope comes from all the returned smiles from people who have absolutely no reason to be smiling, perfect examples of humanity against the odds.
Somalia’s future remains an open door, but its chequered past still haunts the exit. There are groups here who would seek to slam that door shut, but there are also those unafraid to head into the unknown corridor in search of something better. Support for this vision comes in a variety of guises, but only time will tell who will prevail.
I travelled into Somalia on a United Nations-facilitated flight from Kenya and was armed (and had armed guards) at all times. Do NOT attempt to enter Somalia without some sort of support from an international body.
The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against all travel to Somalia, INCLUDING essential travel, at all times. Kidnappings and indiscriminate bomb attacks are frequent and westerners are a particular target.
Three or four photos appear courtesy of the very talented Ben Maher – thanks Ben! Follow him on Instagram: @ben_maher86