Five years ago, stood in the concrete shell of a building in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, I made a deal. When the war ended, once it was safe for people – both Somalis and foreigners – to walk around Mogadishu without the need for armed guards, when what was once Africa’s most beautiful city was ready to return to its former glory, I would come back and open a seafood restaurant.
I had known the man I shook hands with, Farah, for just a few days, but we had become firm friends. He had been my guide, my fixer, my conscience, leading me around his war-torn city meeting warlords and Islamists, sugar importers and hospital directors, school children and imams.
Ethiopian troops had just swept into the city, driving out a loose coalition of Islamic clerics that had run Mogadishu for the previous six months. The country had been destroyed by a series of overlapping civil wars, invasions and conflicts for two decades – a pattern that continues to this day.
Working as a foreign journalist in Mogadishu was dangerous. Four young men armed with AK-47s travelled with us on every journey. When we thought it was safe enough to get of the car they would fan out across the street, guns cocked, safety catches off. One morning, Farah swiftly ended a meeting with a leading cleric when the latter’s armed guards got into an argument with mine – on another occasion we were forced to race back to the relative safety of our hotel when a group of Ethiopian troops took offence at our presence at a hospital.
On my final day in Mogadishu we drove down deserted streets, past the stunning Art Deco ruins destroyed by 20 years of gunfire. “I want to show you something,” Farah said. We reached the seafront and got out of the car. For the first time all week the only noises were natural. Farah bounded up the steps of a building overlooking the beach. There were no windows, the walls were pocked with bullet holes. The view was stunning – deep blue ocean, orange shoreline. “This,” said Farah, “will be my restaurant. Let’s open it together.”
For Farah, a seafood restaurant – and Mogadishu has some of the world’s best crabs, lobsters and crayfish – would be the perfect symbol that his city was once more safe enough for its residents. Five years on, the restaurant that Farah and I agreed to open remains nothing more than a fantasy.
Somalia’s wars have never stopped. Rays of light are all but impossible to find. Straws are grasped at on a depressingly regular basis. This week the UN opened an office in Mogadishu for the first time in 17 years – its top officials and a skeleton team will be based in the city rather than in the rather more sedate surroundings of Nairobi. The UN claims it’s a new dawn – most Somalis, millions of whom rely on food aid, many of whom have been forced to flee their homes, would disagree.
Somalia is not a country without hope the entrepreneurial spirit and drive of people like Farah has ensured that it hasn’t entirely crumbled into anarchy.
For one Somali though – and one Brit – Somalia will not have returned to normality until the doors of Mogadishu’s finest seafood restaurant are opened.