It was no surprise, really. I ended up travelling to Mogadishu for the weekend alone. Despite having inviting pretty much everyone I knew to come along. Would you have joined?
Well, you’ll get along pretty well with most of my friends then. But what is the fear all about? Let’s start with various degrees of civil war since 1991 which in turn have put large parts of Mogadishu in ruins. Paved roads are a rarity and 4WD vehicles are preferred or even needed on many of the roads. Add radical groups, notably al-Shabaab, which destabilized the city for years. There was no functioning government for years, only peacekeeping troops from the UN and the African Union kept some form for semi-stability in parts of the city. But al-Shabaab was kicked out in 2011, and there has been varying degrees of optimism ever since. Mogadishu is now one of the cities in the world with the most ongoing construction work. Then again, there are close to 3 million people here, to rebuild it all will still take years and years. Also add the odd terror bomb that causes fear and halts reconstruction.
I visited Mogadishu in August, 2017. There was a lot of smiles and laughter to be seen and heard. The numerous building projects around town seem to create a sense of optimism. So does the new government which was formed in early 2017. Hassan Ali Khayre, the prime minister, has coincidentally lived in Norway – my country. He holds a dual Norwegian-Somalian citizenship and has previously worked as an aid worker and oil executive. People were optimistic about the government and its chances of success.
“This government is the strongest we’ve had in decades,” I was told. That doesn’t necessarily say much, but the optimism itself counts for something.
To travel around Mogadishu, the capital, was in more ways than one a rather schizofrenic experience. There are a lot of residential houses and commercial buildings damages by ammunition of very different caliber and very varying degrees of power. That makes for a rather surreal backdrop for kids playing games or kicking footballs in the streets. Mogadishu is a coastal city with a big port, impressive beaches and rugged cliffs which the waves keep battering. Ruins of banks, restaurants, apartments and hotels are lining many streets, whereas new buildings are popping up in seemingly random places. Turkey is investing quite a bit of money here, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the increasingly authorian Turkish president is taking the credit for it by naming schools and other projects his country is financing partly or fully. Turkish Airlines is also the biggest airline with regular flights to Mogadishu. In fact, it is probably the only one you have even heard about. Or does Daallo Airways or Jubba Airways ring a bell?
I didn’t think so.
To travel to Mogadishu as a tourist takes a bit of preparation, as you will not be allowed to leave the airport unless you have adequate protection. As in hired guns. Four companies organize trips for tourists and will sort you out with all logistics, included the needed protection. I went for one of the local ones, Visit Mogadishu. And I did not regret my choice. It is a local company, which helps the local economy, instead of a foreign one. And their local presence ensures that they know everybody, something that opened quite a few doors I would otherwise not have seen the other side of. I did, of course, see the usual highlights such as the beach, the lighthouse, the fishmarket and remains from the Black Hawk Down incident. But I was also taken to streets with no names and to an IDP (internally displaced persons) camp, and was introduced to influential business people and several ex-ministers.
You will be picked up from the airport and taken around in a pickup truck with one or two guides and a driver. In the back you’ll have 2-4 armed guards. Then again, you can have more hired guns in a second or even a third pickup if you pay extra. Although you already draw more than enough attention with four gun-toting guys in the back. But it can of course be quite an ego booster to have 8 or 12 guards instead of 2, 3 or 4. To be entirely safe, you should probably get 255 guards. After all, John Rambo killed 254 guys in Rambo IV. And to be fair, being driven around Mogadishu feels a little bit like a violent action flick. With ruins everywhere, you may easily start imagining where a possible ambush could take place. Behind that shed, around the next corner or from within that green shabby garage.
On a serious note, Mogadishu is now considered rather safe, and I doubt that the armed guards in the back made much of a difference, except to my wallet. They do not come cheap, expect to pay 5-600USD per day, depending on the number of bullet carriers. Do note that the figure includes airport pickup, transport with driver, a guide, accommodation and all meals. And there are no souvenir shops and no functioning postal service, so there isn’t much else to spend money on.
After lunch, I heard some sort of a loud bang or explosion.
“Is that an terrorist attack?” I asked. Slighly uneasy.
“Nah, that was just a kill,” one of the guides answered, and shrugged.”Assasinations are commonplace around here. But they aren’t after you, not to worry.”
I was later informed that he had been wrong. Someones gun had been fired, but no one was hurt, let alone killed. There are still real incidents, and there are areas in town where you will not be allowed to leave the car. Keep in mind that such neighbourhoods unfortunately also exist in Detroit, Johannesburg and Sao Paulo, just use common sense. Many streets are quite lively and people, donkeys and dogs fight over space on either side of traffic while shopping, chatting, chewing khat or ordering food or drinks from street vendors. Drinks as in non-alcoholic ones, that is. Somalia is as dry as Donald Trump’s sense of humour.
There are over a million of internally displaced persons in Somalia, and I visited a Kuwait funded IDP camp on the outskirts of Mogadishu. People have escaped their homes because of famine, draught, Al-Shabaab or a combination of the above. Each family has a tent of 4-5 square meters, just try fit two adults and 8 kids into one of those. IDPs I spoke to were still grateful for being offered an alternative to “absolute hell”. I came just before lunch, and over a hundred people were queueing to get their strictly measured lunch, a mix of rice and beans. The meals were distributed from two giant aluminium pans in some sort of a makeshift shed. And people were patiently waiting in line, to get their share. Men were, with a couple of exceptions, notably missing from the queue. Getting food is clearly a job for women and kids, even in such camps.
Everything is lacking in Somalia, and the internally displaced people are in dire need of new lives. Kids are given some sort of schooling, which is essential to help them learn a skill that can help them provide for their families in the future. Unless the lack of food makes sure that there won’t be one. Without skills they will have to resort to begging or crime, given that they ever get old enough to engage in either.
As a tourist in Mogadishu, you will not be allowed to walk outside your hotel after dark. It is is a good thing then that the hotels that welcome international guests have good kitchens. Not that I had much of an appetite after visiting the camp. You are also well protected, there were three roadblocks between the main road and the hotel entrance gate, itself made by metal and protected by armed guards. There were additional men with guns in the stairways of the hotel and marksmen on its roof.
“So, this is a very safe hotel,” I asked.
“Of course,” Mohammed said. The lovely local teacher lived next door and had joined me in the courtyard to hear about Norway and to exchange stories.
“Then again, an American journalist was killed just outside it in 2008. Not to forget the two French gentlemen that were kidnapped from inside the hotel in 2011. And the former owner of it was shot and killed in 2015. But now, it’s very safe.”
I was not entirely convinced.
“And please do not let anyone into your room, even if they knock on your door. The room is your safe zone,” I was told before heading for a nights sleep. Knowing that there was a window above my door. Whoever really wanted to enter wouldn’t have too much of a problem doing so.
Mogadishu is becoming nicer and safer every year, and it is certainly a dream destination for the adventurous traveller. And bucketlist material, for sure. Who do you know that has visited the city lately? Just expect to be called a maniac, an idiot, a crazy person or something of similar nature. Given that you are among the few that actually consider visiting Mogadishu, you are anyhow likely to find such name calling flattering. I sure do. It beats being called normal by miles. I would, regardless of your bad arse reputation, still suggest that you travel to a few other places first. You might experience a light culture shock if your travel resume is limited to Paris, a few Caribbean islands and Machu Picchu.
Not even being around all the guns in the Mid West will prepare you much. The only gun-free zone in Mogadishu is the Peace Garden. Which ironically is being protected by armed guards. It’s a green oasis with well-trimmed lawns with benches surrounded by lush trees not far from the beach. Playgrounds, coffee shops and restaurants add to the tranquility of the fenced park. Entrance fee is 1USD, which ensures that only the well-heeled can afford to come here.
“Those without a dollar to spare go to the beach instead,” I was told.
Just be aware that you as a foreigner are stepping into an ambush zone. I was virtually the white guy in town, for sure in Peace Garden. And those who can afford to enter can also afford smartphones with cameras. I was asked to be in 30-40 selfies with locals who cracked up by the sight of a sole blonde guy. My face even ended up in a photo together with an entire football team. Smiles were all around, and I loved the friendly and welcoming atmosphere. Unfortunately I had to decline taking part in photos in the end. It was not far from getting dark, and the armed guards were getting nervous. They would only get paid if I got back to the hotel alive. Darkness is a good cover for snipers.
Very few people visit Mogadishu, although the number is on the rise. For inspiration and a general impression of what it is like, please find a few photos from my trip below. Or visit Mogadishu yourself.
Consider that a challenge, if you so wish.