There is a reason why Al Jazeera English chose Mogadishu as one of the cities from which to launch its new channel. The conflict in Somalia is one of the longest running in Africa, and one of the most under reported. The Somali people have lived without a central government for 20 years. War and famine have claimed perhaps a million lives.
When my colleague Mohammed Adow reported from the streets of Mogadishu on November 15, 2006, the Islamic Courts Union was in control of the city and much of Southern Somalia.
At the time, Adow painted this picture in his report:
“Before the Islamic Courts took control of Mogadishu, it would be too dangerous to venture out. The chaotic streets were ruled by dangerous militia men. Today one of the world’s most dangerous cities has been tamed.”
Having spoken to vendors in Mogadishu’s Bakara market on November 15, 2011, they agreed.
Yes, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) implemented strict Sharia law. It was against dancing, television and music. That would have scared most moderate Muslims, but Somalis were willing to put up with it because the ICU ended the rule of Somalia’s dreaded warlords, who would kill, torture and rape.
As long as people were not being killed and they had the opportunity to go about their businesses peacefully, most were ready to comply.
Tony Burns, the operations director for SAACID, Somalia’s oldest NGO, reflects: “Under the Islamic Courts Union, Mogadishu was peaceful and secure. There was a sense of law and order. For the first time in decades the diaspora was returning to Mogadishu.”
Just a few months later, Ethiopia – backed by Washington – invaded. There was concern that Somalia would become a hotbed for extremists around the world.
It was a self-fulfilling prophesy. The ICU was replaced by al-Shabab, which has become a far greater threat. Its fighters are loyal to al-Qaeda and their battle for control of Somalia has raged on for the last five years, killing tens of thousands of people.
Al-Shabab, once seen as a defender of Somalia against Ethiopian aggression, has lost much of its popularity because of its reluctance to allow aid to reach the victims of the country’s famine. In August, it decided to withdraw from Mogadishu, which meant losing its economic and strategic strongholds, like Bakara market and Mogadishu’s stadium.
Al-Shabab is much weaker now, but the atmosphere on the streets of Mogadishu is still one of apprehension.
In Bakara market, no one dared talk to us on camera. One trader selling shoes told me that if he is seen speaking to a foreigner journalist in the morning, by the afternoon al-Shabab would send someone to pick him up and he would be executed.
As a foreign journalist in Mogadishu, you either travel in an African Union armored personnel carrier or with private security – that means on average 10 to 15 armed guys.
The Somali people don’t have that luxury. Every day they face the threat of suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices (IED), grenade attacks and shootings.
Everyone you speak to in Mogadishu will tell you that peace and security are what they want. Only then can they begin to rebuild what was once one of the most beautiful cities in the world.