Holidaying in Mogadishu

The stage in Shamo Hotel, where the December 3 suicide bombing killed more than a dozen people. The hotel’s management was prepared on this day to host an event by a charity organization. Photo/SULEIMAN ABDULLAHI 

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have now landed at Aden Abdulle International Airport, welcome to Mogadishu,” announced the pilot as the jumbo jet that ferried us from Hargeisa in Somaliland taxied to a stop. “I wish you a safe and pleasant stay,” he added.
He meant it, albeit half-heartedly.

Wait until you get off the plane and get past immigration. The airport has been transformed into your average frontline army post, gagged with generous rolls of barbed wire and labouring under the weight of tonnes of concrete barricades. War is quickly becoming a hobby in a city that has known peace merely in terms of blueprints and a chain of failed peace talks.

In its two decades of war, Mogadishu, once a pearl of the Indian Ocean, has become a shell-shocked city: traumatized, desolate and scarred. The city is now cowing in fear, caught between heavy artillery being hurled by African Union forces at the rag-tag Al-Shabaab group and the AK-47 bullets fired back by the Al-Shabaab, ricocheting off the city’s neighbourhoods.

Mogadishu is the place to be if you have a sweet tooth for anything violent. Your average dinner conversation is dominated with talk of ‘how the game went today’. Game means the daily spit of fire between the Ugandan and Burundian forces on one side and the Al-Shabaab group on the other. In fact, every dinner feels like a meeting of the war council being updated on the status of the mission so far.

The adrenaline rush here is part of everyday life; never-ending, and never-stopping. Fear is never an option, but survival is! Besides, knowledge about weapons is so profound among the city’s residents; it is like a connoisseur identifying classic books in a library.

Bats and beaches

Many of this city’s residents have adapted to what has become a daily occurrence. Amidst the rumble of the earth-shaking artillery, businesses, schools, and offices remain open, oblivious to the goings-on. To the observing eye, Mogadishu is trying to regain some of its lost glory; as a commercial hub maybe, but obviously not as a tourist destination.

Speaking of tourism, the stunning beaches around the city remain largely deserted. Beachfront properties are now occupied by bats, insects and whatever creature this battle-ridden ecosystem could sustain. Years back, children would be swimming in the waters as their affluent parents watched from the windows of the magnificent Uruba Hotel- now a parchment of burnt-out walls that form an eerie hallowed ground. It now looks like a Colosseum.

In December 2009, the world watched in horror as dead bodies were laid outside the Shamo Hotel after a suicide bomber detonated himself at a graduation ceremony. The blast killed three ministers in the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and a number of medical students who were to graduate at the event, while dozens were critically injured and maimed.

While many tried to come to terms with the blast, proprietors of the Shamo Hotel, one of Mogadishu’s finest hotels that still remain open despite everything, were never prepared for the shock. With the blood that was dusted off the walls of the theatre where the ceremony was being held and the shreds of glass that were carted away, there went the vibrancy and glory of a hotel that had in yesteryears being filled with the laughter of expats and Mogadishu’s elite.

The hotel’s reception hall portrays in images a history that has been lost forever: business cards belonging to foreign journalists, photos of cameramen and producers are plastered against a window for display; a tattered cover of Aidan Hartley’s book “The Zanzibar Chest” is glued to the wall; and pictures from Somalia’s prosperous past reveal a nation that once was.

Comfy corridors

Our visit to Mogadishu and our stay at the hotel roughly coincided with the first anniversary since Shamo Hotel’s bombing. As we entered the hotel’s gates, a lanky teenage guard gestures at the car driver to stop and we are motioned to step out to be checked. We receive what appears to be an absent-minded security check as a second guard joins to scrutinise the car. The second guard is the one who catches our attention – exactly one year after the disaster that struck this hotel, the management still sees it fit to employ an old man whose glasses are as thick as a soda bottle as the head of security detail.

The interior décor, however, tells another story altogether. It’s a story of painstaking craftsmanship and exquisite artistry. The walls carry a rich coating of beige with contrasting brown pillars. Thick carpets have been lavished on the floors, rolling metres upon metres onto staircases and floors. Beautifully-carved wooden seats with cushions last used in this fashion by the Ottoman Turks dot the hallways and lounges. Paintings portraying Chinese figures, sculptures and even treasure chests dot the lounges at the hotels comfy corridors.

For those who love the gentle breeze from the sea or the view of the sunset, or to be more realistic, a front seat to watch the violent theatrics in Mogadishu’s skyline, balconies surround the circumference of the hotel with swings in place of chairs. Whoever built this hotel must have wringed all the juice from the word comfort. If anything, the word ambience was derived from this hotel.

As night falls, the mood in the hotel completely changes. Only four people occupy the three-storey hotel. There’s an eerie silence. Dinner is silently served and the few staff slide away to watch a drama series on a television in an adjoining room. The AMISOM forces continue to heave their firepower in response to the scrawny bullets being slid across to them by the al-Shabaab. One of the missile shots cuts across the sky, its characteristic whistling noise sounding close to the hotel.

“It’s a T39,” explains one of the waiters. “The game tonight is intense,” he adds.

“Happy New Year”

In the stadium that this city has become, many of these shots aimed at the goal will miss their target and hit the spectators. If and when it does hit, a family huddled together in a room in one of Mogadishu’s neighbourhoods will be buried under a barrage of heavy lead, arsenic and fire. They will be another statistic, a number on the list of those that will be reported by the local radio station. Tomorrow is another day. Maybe when tomorrow comes, something might change. “It’s how things go in Mogadishu,” residents here say.

On New Year’s Eve, we decided to hang out in our rooms trying to relax after a long day’s work. We decided to tune to the Arabic TV station, MBC Max, a free-to-air movie channel that broadcasts non-stop Hollywood films.

Ironically, “That Old Feeling,” a romantic comedy movie by Bette Midler and Dennis Farina was just starting. A few minutes into the movie, and we receive a phone call from a colleague telling us that there is a possibility of a face-off tonight in the city’s streets. “Buckle up, we are in for a very heavy one tonight,” he says.

As Farina confessed his renewed love to Bette, and as the clock chimed 12am, the first bullet had gone off. “Happy New Year,” Suleiman said. The bombardment was on again.

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