Posted on27 October 2011.
After three years of drought thousands of colourful tents made with sticks and branches wrapped in plastic sheets and bits of cloth have sprung up among Mogadishu’s destroyed buildings. Over the summer and early autumn tens of thousands of starving Somalis entered the city. Now the refugees fill the shells of long-defunct ministries, gather in the shade of the roofless cathedral and stand under the parliament building like worshippers seeking a miracle. They appear in the streets in tattered clothing, holding bundles on their oversized heads, carrying yellow jerrycans and babies on their backs.
Inside the Ministry of Health, Fatima was building her tent, tying sticks together with strips of fabric, then wrapping larger pieces of cloth around them: a torn sarong, a plastic sheet, a fragment from an orange headscarf. Her infant son sat inside the tent with the rest of her possessions: a kettle and a blackened pot filled with half-cooked maize porridge that she got from a charity kitchen. She and her two sons would feed on that porridge for the next 24 hours, until she was given more. Around her many other tents filled the roofless room. Fatima’s tent stood against a shattered wall, its windows blown in by a tank shell some time in the last decade.
Fatima left her village in the south of Somalia, near Kismayo, when the rains failed for the third time. She walked to the nearest road, where she waited for a passing truck and begged a place for herself and her children. They travelled for three days in the back of the truck, surviving on the maize loaves she had with her and some water she begged for along the way. When they reached Afgoy on the outskirts of Mogadishu they were stopped by al-Shabaab militia, who told her to go back home. ‘They told us it was better to wait for God’s mercy and the rain than beg for food from the unbelievers.’ Twice she tried to cross into government-held territory, where aid was distributed, and twice they stopped her. She waited, but God’s mercy never came. A few days later she tried again, this time at night, and crossed the front line into the city.
Her older son was holding the sticks of the tent while she tied the knots around them and chattered away. ‘We left the sick and the old behind in the village. Only the strongest make it to Mogadishu: we were five when we left, now we are three.’ Where did the other two go? ‘I lost two sons,’ she said, and went on tying knots.
Three decades ago, Mohamed Siad Barre, commander of the Supreme Revolutionary Council, head of the politburo of the Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party and the last ruler of a functional Somali state, built vast concrete buildings all over Mogadishu. The beautiful city on the coast of the Indian Ocean, with its Arabic and Indian architecture, winding alleyways and Italian colonial-era villas, was dominated by these monuments. They were Third World incarnations of Soviet architecture, exuding power, stability and strength. The buildings – like the literacy campaigns, massive public works programmes and a long war against neighbouring Ethiopia in the late 1970s and early 1980s – were supposed to reflect the wisdom and authority of the dictator.
Sycophants and poets sang Siad Barre’s praises in these buildings, and schoolchildren waved ribbons and flew flags in their courtyards to celebrate his birthday. But in the deserts beyond the city walls nomadic tribes were agitating for war. When the Soviet Union fell and the unpredictable dictator could no longer play his hand in the Cold War game of African dictatorships, he was toppled. His clan was defeated by the clans he had marginalised.
Tribesmen poured into the city and Siad Barre’s state collapsed. The fighters ransacked Mogadishu’s Arab and European quarters and stripped its cinemas and ministries bare, shelled its old stone houses and hammered bullets into the walls and columns of its bars and cafés. Tribal commanders installed themselves as kings of crumbling neighbourhoods. Clan wars fragmented into sub-clan wars and then into sub-sub-clan wars. Tribesmen fought and killed other tribesmen and then turned against men of their own tribe and killed them. The fighters replaced their camels with Japanese pick-up trucks and fitted them with guns, turning them into war wagons. Everyone had been fighting for so long they forgot why they had started fighting in the first place and a miserable lethargy settled in. Generations of young men were born into the war, boys whose real mother was a Kalashnikov and whose only knowledge lay in the killing of other boys.