This year, I celebrated New Year’s Eve in Mogadishu with a feast of fresh lobster under the stars. The night air was warm and the music sweet as we welcomed in 2014.
New Year’s Day ended differently. I was sitting with friends, when suddenly we heard a loud boom. This was not the usual “Mogadishu music,” a phrase locals use to describe the Somali capital’s background noise of gunfire and grenade explosions.
Everybody looked scared and immediately checked their mobile phones to find out what had happened and whether their friends and family were safe. News travels at lightning speed in Mogadishu; it has to, as information can be a matter of life or death.
It was a suicide car bomb at the Jazeera Palace Hotel, just down the road from where we were. Volleys of gunfire rang out, as ambulances sped past, sirens blaring. Then there was another boom, just like the first one.
This is the Islamist group Al Shabab’s new tactic. It stages an attack, waits until people rush in to help or to look, then blows them up with a second suicide bomb.
The contrast between the lobster feast and the double suicide bombing was typical of my experiences in Mogadishu. I spent a morning in a mental hospital, patients traumatised by the twenty-three years of violence staring at me with drugged-up dead eyes. My next stop was a florist, the only one in town, where the owner, Mohamed Mohamoud Sheikh, grows tulips and lilies.
I walked on a dream-like deserted beach, with soft white sand and warm blue sea. Minutes later, I was in the bomb-scarred Jazeera Palace Hotel, where friends described their terrifying ordeals of crouching behind the receptionist’s desk as Al Shabab fighters tried to storm the building.
For a journalist like myself, there are horror stories and hopeful stories at every step. The media have long been criticised for painting too negative a picture of Somalia, confining coverage to famine, war, and terror. But now the media have swung the other way, concentrating on stories of people going to the beach in Mogadishu for the first time in years, members of the Somali diaspora flooding back to open restaurants, and a new, responsible “Somali-owned” government offering hope to the people.
This “positive” spin appears just as unbalanced as the previously unending stream of “negative” reporting.
It is not only the media that are choosing to put this gloss onto Somalia. Foreign leaders have rushed to have their photos taken with the new Somali president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, as if he is some kind of trophy that belongs to them—and in a way, he does. The Somali government is dependent on foreign forces for security. Foreign “advisers” lurk in the shadows of Somali politicians. Foreign powers have invested so much time, money, and resources in the new administration that they cannot afford to see it fail.
I visited the home of government, Villa Somalia, in Mogadishu. It is a somewhat unreal bubble, guarded by soldiers from Uganda. People inside were busy obsessing about who the new prime minister would pick for his cabinet—the old prime minister was sacked after a year in office, repeating the continual pattern of frequent and unsettling change at the top of Somali politics.
I couldn’t help wondering why those in power were not spending more time focusing on urgent matters like the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people living in desperate conditions, or the fact that Al Shabab still controls vast areas of the country and carries out regular acts of terror in the capital.
One image keeps coming back to me from my time in Mogadishu. Less than twenty-four hours after the suicide bombing of the Jazeera Palace, I saw a man threading wires back onto an electricity pylon that had been damaged in the blast. Others replaced windows that had been smashed. They made sure the hotel was up and running. They were not giving up, and they were not giving in.