“We can’t let you leave.”
The African Union soldiers with whom we’d thrown in our lot a few hours earlier were shocked to learn we actually planned to head back into the city of Mogadishu, abandoning the relative safety of their base on the outskirts of the Somali capital.
Their commander was adamant we not be allowed to go. Finally, after much protestation from our side, the soldiers came up with a compromise. We were told to write a letter saying that if we left the base and were killed in Mogadishu, it would be entirely our own responsibility. “You will be dead,” the African Union mission spokesman told us when we finally left. “You will die today.”
Mogadishu, as we quickly learned, is not an easy place to visit.
We had arrived there on our way back to Kandahar, another war-torn city unwelcoming to outsiders, where kidnappings, disappearances, and gunfire have sadly become regular features of life. But Mogadishu feels different. As we’ve seen while living for the last two years in the stronghold of Afghanistan’s Taliban revival, Kandahar at war is still a functioning city, with traffic, construction noise, and large markets. Mogadishu is an empty moonscape of anarchy and destruction. There are precious few remnants of everyday life.
“Anything can happen,” Nuruddin, our driver, host, and security advisor, warned us as we headed from the African Union base to the ironically named Peace Hotel. We would be the hotel’s only two guests. Nuruddin gave us a short lecture when we arrived; several other foreigners had been killed or kidnapped before our visit. “There are weird people around. They would sell you — you are a lot of money for them.”
Mostly, we were struck by the empty menace of the place. No one stays on the street after 3 p.m. Hundreds of thousands have abandoned Mogadishu altogether for camps outside the city. “I don’t think there can be anybody left in the city anymore,” is how the besieged administrator of one camp put it when we spoke.
The only crowded place in Mogadishu is the main hospital. In the first 10 minutes of our visit, three patients were brought into the emergency room, each with bullet or shrapnel wounds. In the intensive care ward, beds are filled with the war-wounded — and these are only the ones whose injuries are so severe that sending them home would result in certain death; the rest are discharged due to overcrowding.
Abdul Aziz, 4, suffered a severe skull injury when the area of northern Mogadishu where his family lives was shelled. The hospital did not have the necessary expertise to repair his skull. So instead of surgery, Abdul’s father was given an official-looking letter. It read: “This injury needs the attention of a neurosurgeon not available at this time in Mogadishu.” He had been waiting 28 days for outside help to arrive. It hadn’t.
When we asked to visit the front lines, Somalia’s state defense minister was skeptical: “Did you bring enough men for that?” He agreed to accompany us, though, and we traveled in two jeeps, the second car packed with a half-dozen guards.
The front was marked by a row of green sandbags. The ground was covered with empty shell and AK-47 casings. On the other side, not visible but clearly not far away either, were fighters of the insurgent group al-Shabab. Somali insurgents are cloaked in as much mystique as the Taliban are in Afghanistan. Both groups fight with guerrilla-style tactics: raids on government areas and checkpoints, targeted operations involving small numbers of fighters, and suicide bombings. We saw much evidence of this — and little presence of Somalia’s nominal government, the country’s 14th since 1991.
Officially, the fighting in Somalia is about Islam and ideology, but in reality it is also about money and power — and in this way at least it reminded us of Afghanistan. Back at the Peace Hotel, a Somali friend visited us for dinner. Our conversation turned toward U.S. intervention and what the arrival of American troops in Somalia could mean. “Of course they should come,” he told us. “We need the money. We need the contracts.”
The wars being fought in Somalia and Afghanistan are both difficult and tragic. Mogadishu is a stark reminder of how much worse the situation in Kandahar could get. Indeed, the paranoia that has settled into Kandahar these days feels uncomfortably similar to what we felt during the few days we spent wrapped up in flak jackets in Somalia’s capital.
Of course, few people have been to both cities to study the comparison. One night we invited a new friend in Mogadishu to visit us in Kandahar. His response: “Visit you in Afghanistan? You’re crazy! It’s too dangerous.”