It was a fairly typical day in Mogadishu: from first light automatic rifle fire could be heard and it was soon joined by heavier machine guns and then mortars and artillery. By late afternoon there was a cacophony of booms, bangs and explosions yet my host insisted this was “a quiet day”. It’s been like this for the best part of 20 years, civil war rendering Mogadishu a monument to humanity’s determined capacity for destruction.
There was no Dresden or Hiroshima moment here, no single cataclysm that turned the city to ruins. It has taken years of constant battle to demolish walls and fill those that remain with bullet holes, to collapse roofs and tear down buildings, to allow immense drifts of rubbish to gather and cactus, thorn trees and bougainvillea to colonise the once-urban space.
A fortified hilltop quarter known as Villa Somalia is the seat of government and both a ruin and a target for mortar fire. Parliament is a bombed-out shell so lawmakers meet, debate and vote in a basement bunker guarded by soldiers.
Those leaders have had plenty of problems to focus on in recent years: an Islamist insurgency which controls much of the south of the country, piracy off its coast, and now a food crisis that has morphed into the first famine in Africa for almost two decades. Instead though, Somalia’s politicians have been focused on something far more important: making sure the EU, US and UN continue paying their wages and putting off elections (again) until next year.
The Machiavellian power-play at Villa Somalia, at a time when their people were starving, only serves to underline the complex nature of Somalia’s crisis – even the western-backed government that’s fighting a Taliban-style Islamist group is hard to characterise as the “good guys”.
The famine, which began in areas controlled by the Islamist group al-Shabaab, has spread to the capital and the makeshift camps for displaced people that are erupting like sores all over this war-scarred city. Across the rest of the Horn of Africa there is drought and hunger but Somalia is the only country in the region with the crucial ingredient to turn drought into famine: conflict.
Somalia’s last government – a military dictatorship – was overthrown in 1991. Since then there have been 14 separate attempts to set up a stable administration and end civil war but all have failed. Since 2009 the battle has been between Shabaab and President Sheikh Sharif’s Transitional Federal Government which is backed by a 9,000-strong African Union (AU) force.
In recent weeks the battle has entered a new phase. Shabaab has withdrawn from Mogadishu, and is instead returning to its insurgent roots, threatening to unleash suicide attackers and roadside bombs.
The capital really does seem quieter than in recent years. The horror of war has, for now, been replaced by the horror of famine. At Banadir Hospital the medical staff are overwhelmed by the daily intake. The wards are full, so new arrivals lie on tables, benches and floors. A few die each day, almost all children.
Somalia has seen famine before. In 1992 war and drought triggered a famine that killed perhaps 300,000 people. A huge international relief effort was launched but was hijacked by clan militias. US troops were sent to protect the food deliveries but their mission turned into a disaster, ending in the deaths of 18 US soldiers and around 1,000 Somalis.
Aid agencies are again stepping up their support but it is being poured into a vacuum that neither the government nor the AU can fill. The fear is that the warlords will re-emerge and Somalia’s political failure and chaos will, once again, trump the best efforts of humanitarians.
“There are echoes of 1992,” a UN official who has worked in both crises tells me. So is it better now? “Not better, different.”
- 7.5 million population
- 3.7 million people in need of food aid
- 1.46 million displaced inside the country
- 400,000 in refugee camps in neighbouring Kenya
- 20 years since the last functioning central government fell
- 14 international-led peace processes
- 9,000 African Union troops in Mogadishu
- $576.4m has been donated to the relief operation – 47 per cent of the total needed