Sitting on the plane, I hear the captain say, “cabin crew, prepare for landing.” I was excited; this was my first time in Somalia. I looked out of my window to see miles of white sand fringing the sea, a mix of bright blue and green from the air. This place looked beautiful. As we followed the coast, I could see the capital, Mogadishu, for the first time. Miles of white buildings stretched into the distance.
The plane banked right, then left, as we made our approach to the airport. Below, rows upon rows of compounds and HESCO bastions littered the green zone. As we touched down on the runway, to my left there was a UN camp with planes and helicopters parked on the tarmac and UN vehicles buzzing around. Getting off the plane, I was greeted by the African heat, and rushed into the airport. My contact was waiting for me to help get me through immigration. In order to enter Somalia, you must have a security company with you and a secure place to stay. The terminal was buzzing with local people wanting to help carry our bags.
My contact told me this was normal, and that we should use one of them. We then proceeded to leave the airport. I will mention at this point that I had not seen a white face since we landed. As we got outside and made our way to the car, I noticed soldiers wearing different uniforms walking around with AKs strapped to them. Some were Somalia police, some Somalia Army African Union troops, and some were local security guys. Looking around, it became obvious that years of fighting had put the green zone’s inhabitants on edge. The roads leading to and from the green zone? Well, there was not much left of them.
My contact drove me around the green zone and showed me all the different camps, each with HESCO bastions and guards standing by. There was work going on in the background—a lot of construction projects in process. This city needs it. Over 20 groups are in conflict in the region, and at this time they are facing an insurgency from the terror group Al-Shabaab.
AMISON is based in the green zone, and visitors can regularly see troops walking down the road along with armored vehicles. As we made our way out of the green zone, we passed contractor’s row—a road where private security companies maintain their compounds. I noticed that these were all local security companies; I didn’t see one Western company. In and around the green zone, there are a number of checkpoints you have to pass through. Upon reaching our last checkpoint, my contact looked at me and said, “You will see something really fucked up on your right.” In a few moments, as promised, we passed an area used to conduct public executions. We kept driving and soon passed a compound used by the CIA-backed Alpha Group. My contact informed me that there was also a CIA compound just behind it.
As we drove into the city, we encountered more checkpoints, with kids running around all over the place. The roads and buildings were almost all scarred by years of conflict. We rolled up on one of the most bombed-out parts of the city, a crossroad junction near villa Somali. This is the area where all the ministers are located. We kept driving and headed toward villa Somalia. There, we came across a checkpoint made up of just three guys sitting with AKs on the right-hand side of the road.
We headed past villa Somalia, into an area in the city my contact told me “is one of the most secure parts of the city. A lot of police and soldiers live here.” Arriving at my compound, I saw a tall wall encompassing the facility and a large steel gate locked from the inside. We tugged on the horn a few times before the gate opened and we were greeted by armed guards. Inside the compound was a mix of buildings: one for the security staff, the main building where I would be staying, and one more building where the house staff lived. The main building was three stories high and gave a great view of the city from the top floor.
Looking down into the city, I could see armed Somalis in pickup trucks, driving around. From the compound, I could see the Port of Mogadishu across the city. Throughout the day, I could hear the sounds of construction going on all around the city. Sirens went off periodically. Kids shouted and played, running around. The place reminded me of Iraq in a way; they share a lot of the same culture. In the morning, I would hear the local mosques sounding the call to prayer. This runs throughout the city every morning and night, which reminded me of Erbil. Somalia is an Islamic country and has been since the beginning. It’s a nation comprised of clans, and this is where some of Somalia biggest problems lie.
There is not enough work in Mogadishu, so poverty is high. It’s quite normal for people to ask for money from you on the street. In and around the city, people beg or offer to help with your bags, just for a few dollars. Five dollars is a lot money to these people. This lack of jobs and large unemployment rate makes it easy for Al-Shabaab to use money in exchange for information on Westerners.
You can tell that there is an omnipresent fear gripping the city, primarily due to the presence of Al-Shabaab. This becomes more noticeable at night; security companies lock down their compounds and won’t move until morning. There’s a good reason for this: In the past, there have been shootouts at checkpoints between security companies and police. My contact told me that police were on edge at night, and often confuse security details with Al-Shabaab militants.
You only have to look at the local news to see that Al-Shabaab is still very active in Mogadishu, and have pulled off some high-profile kidnappings of late, including that of the president’s son and a high-ranking officer in the Somali military. I think it will be a long time before Mogadishu is a safe place again.
Something needs to change with how authorities conduct their anti-terrorism efforts. They need to push hard on the remaining Al-Shabaab cells left in Mogadishu. But beyond the scope of terrorism, there needs to be more investment in the country’s infrastructure and focus on getting the locals working again. I believe people here don’t want to help Al-Shabaab, but they are compelled to by necessity; the militants hold the money, and here, it’s about survival.