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As Somalia's War Ebbs, Mogadishu Dares To Rebuild

Oct 24, 2012
Originally published on October 24, 2012 7:37 pm

There is a remarkable change going on in Mogadishu, Somalia — often dubbed the world's most dangerous city. For starters, it may not deserve that title anymore.

Last year, African Union forces drove the Islamist militant group al-Shabab out of Mogadishu. Now, Somalia has a new president and prime minister who have replaced the corrupt and unpopular transitional government.

Hope is edging aside despair, and Mogadishu is coming back to life.

It's hard to believe, but people are talking about "the Mogadishu boom." With more and more displaced Somalis moving back to the city every day, now there are traffic jams.

Enrollment at the Hamar Jajab Primary School has doubled since the last academic year. The city's first gas stations and a supermarket are under construction. Scaffolding is up and buildings are getting new coats of paint. There are 15 new radio stations, and with no regulation of anything in Somalia, the FM dial is a free-for-all.

A Complete Overhaul Needed

Can Mogadishu accommodate everyone who wants to come home?

Two decades of civil war destroyed or heavily damaged 80 percent of the city's structures. Now, housing is scarce and rents have gone crazy.

Abdi Rahman, a foreman for a large East African construction company, sits in the foyer of a just finished villa soon to be occupied by a Danish refugee agency.

A year ago, Rahman says, the house would have rented for $1,000 per month. Today, his company would ask $8,000 for it.

Mogadishu presents unique challenges for builders. When it came time to pour the slab on the seventh floor of a building they were working on, Rahman says there were no construction cranes in the city.

So he hired 200 men to form a bucket brigade and pass 3 tons of concrete — bucket by bucket — from the ground floor to the seventh floor. Labor is cheap and plentiful, he says, but unskilled.

Workers shovel sand into blast barriers that surround the new villa. When an American journalist with a microphone shows up, they break into a spontaneous work song, which roughly translates: "Somalis have camels, we are very proud of our camels, people in the West do not have camels."

The crew just found an artillery shell inside the sand.

"It's very common, very common," Rahman says. "Sometimes we find them unexploded."

The Militia Problem

This empty villa had been filled with internally displaced persons. There are more than 250,000 of them living in ragged tents throughout Mogadishu. They moved to the city to flee violence and famine, but were summarily evicted to make room for paying tenants, which is happening more and more.

That's just one of the problems on the desk of Mogadishu's mayor, Mohamud Ahmed Nur. He's chief executive of a city of 2.5 million people that lacks clean water, paved roads, streetlights, fire protection — and the list goes on.

"Mogadishu used to be one of the most beautiful cities in Africa, and still we can make it like that," Nur says.

Somalia's new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, has said security is his first, second and third priority. The mayor concurs. On a recent morning, he was reviewing his daily security briefing from the police.

"Near Benadir hospital, freelance militias — they shoot each other, they open fire. A hand grenade has been thrown," he says.

The mayor says that while the warlords have stopped fighting for control of the city, militias still roam the streets, heavily armed and looking for trouble.

"So my problem in the city right now, it's not al-Shabab. My problem is freelance militias," Nur says.

Al-Shabab is, in fact, very much still a problem in many parts of Somalia. Since they were routed from Mogadishu 14 months ago, and more recently from the southern city of Kismayo, the militants have settled into a bloody campaign of targeted attacks.

Last month, al-Shabab suicide bombers blew themselves up outside the hotel where the president was giving his first press conference. The next week, there was a suicide attack on a popular restaurant, killing 15 patrons.

Beginning To Hope

A group of Somali returnees sits around a table after lunch, puffing on a water pipe. Deeq Mohammad Afrika is a 27-year-old business consultant who moved back to the city from Amsterdam, and is urging his friends to do the same. But everyone has to know his own comfort zone.

"We're all scared, you know? There's a huge fear here. Everyone's scared of the terrorism attacks and all that stuff. But in Mogadishu there's a thin line between hope and fear. The hope is greater," Afrika says.

A symbol of that hope is the government's formation of its new tourism department.

Farah Salad Dharar is a congenial, smooth-faced man who was appointed assistant director of tourism of Somalia six months ago. He and the director recently attended a conference on East African tourism, if not to promote Somali tourism — which doesn't exist yet — then at least to introduce the concept.

"Somalia has a lot of attractions, a lot of tourism attractions. But I think we have to do a lot of things to attract the tourists," Dharar says.

Mogadishu was once a gem of the Swahili coast, with its poetic Italianate and arabesque architecture, ancient mosques and comely beachfront. Today it is all a ruin. But for the first time in a long while, Somalis are daring to talk about the rebirth of their wounded city.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From the violent cauldron of Syria now to Mogadishu, Somalia, once dubbed the world's most dangerous city. Emphasis though on once. Last year, African Union forces drove the Islamist militant group, al-Shabab, out of town. What's more, a new president and prime minister have replaced Somalia's corrupt and unpopular transitional government.

As NPR's John Burnett reports, hope is edging aside despair and Mogadishu is coming back to life.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: It's hard to believe but people are talking about the Mogadishu boom. With more and more displaced Somalis moving back to the city every day, now there are traffic jams.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

BURNETT: Enrollment at the Hamar Jajab Primary School has doubled since the last academic year. The city's first gas stations and a supermarket are under construction. Scaffolding is up and buildings are getting new coats of paint. There are 15 new radio stations and with no federal regulation of anything in Somalia, the FM dial is a free-for-all.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOWS)

BURNETT: Can Mogadishu accommodate everyone who wants to come home? Two decades of civil war destroyed or heavily damaged 80 percent of the city's structures. Now, housing is scarce and rents have gone crazy. Abdi Rahman is a foreman for a large East African construction company. He sits in the foyer of a just-finished villa soon to be occupied by a Danish refugee agency.

ABDI RAHMAN: People would have come to live here about $1,000, now it is $8,000 for this house.

BURNETT: So this house would have rented for $1,000 a month a year ago. And today, your company would ask $8,000 a month for it?

RAHMAN: Yes.

BURNETT: Mogadishu presents unique challenges for constructors. When it came time to pour the slab on the seventh floor of a building they were working on, Rahman says there were no construction cranes in the city. So he hired 200 men to form a bucket brigade and pass three tons of concrete from the ground floor to the seventh floor. Labor is cheap and plentiful, he says, but unskilled.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

BURNETT: Workers shovel sand into blast barriers that surround the new villa. When an American journalist with a microphone shows up, they break into a spontaneous work song, which roughly translates: Somalis have camels, we are very proud of our camels, people in the West do not have camels.

You just found an artillery shell inside the sand.

RAHMAN: It's very common, very common. We find sometimes unexploded.

BURNETT: Sometimes you find unexploded ordnance in the sand?

RAHMAN: Yeah. Yeah.

BURNETT: The construction sand?

RAHMAN: Yeah, we do.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

BURNETT: This empty villa had been filled with internally displaced persons. There are more than a quarter million of them living in ragged tents throughout Mogadishu. They moved to the city to flee violence and famine, but they were summarily evicted from here to make room for paying tenants, which is happening more and more.

That's just one of the problems on the desk of Mogadishu's Mayor Mohamud Ahmed Nur. He's chief executive of a city of two and a half million people that lacks clean water, paved roads, streetlights, fire protection - and the list goes on.

MAYOR MOHAMUD AHMED NUR: Mogadishu used to be one of the most beautiful cities in Africa. And still we can make it like that.

BURNETT: Somalia's new president has said that security is his first, second, and third priority. The mayor concurs. On a recent morning, he was reviewing his daily security briefing from the police.

NUR: Near Benadir Hospital, freelance militias they shoot each other, they fire. They open fire. A hand grenade has been thrown...

BURNETT: The mayor says while the warlords has stopped fighting for control of the city, militias still roam the streets, heavily armed and looking for trouble.

NUR: So my problem in the city right now, it's not Shabab. My problem is freelance militias.

BURNETT: Shabab is, in fact, very much still a problem. Since they were routed from Mogadishu 14 months ago, and more recently from the southern city of Kismayo, the militants have settled into a bloody campaign of targeted attacks. Last month, Shabab suicide bombers blew themselves up outside the hotel where the new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, was giving his first press conference. The next week, more terrorists carried out a suicide attack on a popular restaurant, killing 15 patrons.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

BURNETT: A group of Somali returnees sits around a table after lunch, puffing on a water pipe. Deeq Mohammad Afrika is a 27-year-old business consultant who moved back to the city from Amsterdam, and he's urging his friends to do the same. But everyone has to know his own comfort zone.

DEEQ MOHAMMAD AFRIKA: We're all scared, you know? There's a huge fear here. You know, everybody is scared of the terrorism attacks and all that stuff. But in Mogadishu, there's a thin line between hope and fear. The hope is greater.

BURNETT: A fitting symbol of the cautious hope that Mogadishu is on the threshold of a new era is the government's formation of its new tourism department.

FARAH SALAD DHARAR: My name is Farah Salad Dharar, I am assistant director of tourism of Somalia.

BURNETT: Dharar is a congenial, smooth-faced man with decaying teeth, who was appointed six months ago. He and the director recently attended a conference on East African tourism, if not to promote Somali tourism - which doesn't exist yet - at least to introduce the concept.

As the assistant director of tourism for the country of Somalia, what do you have to do?

(LAUGHTER)

DHARAR: Somalia, it has a lot of attractions, a lot of tourism attractions. But I think we have to do a lot of things, you know, to attract the tourists.

BURNETT: You do have to do a lot of things to attract the tourists.

DHARAR: Yes, yes, yes.

BURNETT: Mogadishu was once a gem of the Swahili Coast with its poetic Italianate and arabesque architecture, its ancient mosques and comely beachfront. Today it is all a ruin. But for the first time in a long while, Somalis are daring to talk about the rebirth of their wounded city.

John Burnett, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.