A pair of young, battle-hardened men from each side of the no-man’s-land in devastated downtown Mogadishu were discussing what must be one of Africa’s most surreal monuments. It was a combat tank, sitting upright in shallow water off the disused old port of Mogadishu, its cannon pointing toward the city.
“We stole this tank from you and drove it into the water,” one of the men said with a laugh.
The other contradicted him humorously but with a trace of bite in his voice. “No, we drove it in ourselves. It was an evasive action.”
It was an unusual morning in central Mogadishu, a port-side neighborhood battered almost roofless by two years of civil war. Early last week, U.S. Marines began intensively patrolling its ruined streets and alleyways, giving courage to residents of the historic district to return, inspect old homes and shops and, like the two men at the pier, exchange gibes instead of bullets.
Central Mogadishu is at the base of the Green Line, a name given to urban no-man’s-lands worldwide. The Green Line of Beirut, for instance, was a strip where shelling, sniping and car bombings throughout the long civil war left the city’s most charming and bustling quarters in ruins. The damage along Mogadishu’s downtown Green Line is comparable.
There were few impressive buildings in the heart of Mogadishu to start with, but what was there has been scarred by gun and artillery fire, looted and sometimes burned.
“Oh, it’s unbelievable,” said Mohamed Hussein, whose family owns two downtown buildings. “You can say that there were few beautiful places in Mogadishu, but surely this was one of them. Then it became the most dangerous place. Something snapped.”
What snapped was the hold of government in Somalia and the unbridled campaigns among warring, clan-based militias to gain power. The war led to famine; the Marines were sent primarily to safeguard the delivery of food to the hungry. But U.S. forces have taken up another task: to restore a semblance of normal life to Somali towns and create an atmosphere conducive to long-term political solutions.
The expanded role is dangerous and its success uncertain. A Marine has been shot to death and a Navy medic wounded while they patrolled in an effort to suppress the looters and gunmen. Mogadishu is an especially volatile place. Its warren of alleys and its broken urban landscape are fertile ground for snipers.
The rival clans warring for power consider the capital the platform for national control, and the fighting was heavy in central Mogadishu for the past two years; the presidential palace was left shattered and ransacked.
Mogadishu used to be described in journalistic shorthand as a pleasant seaside city. The city was founded in the 10th Century as a Muslim port, a rendezvous point for Arab, Persian, Indian and Portuguese traders, Somali merchants and vendors from the red earth interior and, eventually, Italian colonists. For centuries the city was known as Hamar, and people who live today in central Mogadishu are known as Hamaris, no matter what their ethnic or clan identity. Before the civil war, Hamar was considered the most appealing neighborhood in the city. Now it is a wreck.
What is left of the city suggests a Mediterranean port. The buildings are covered with faded whitewash, the tops of some walls adorned with crenulations shaped like the ace of spades. A few Islamic relics remain: a mosque said to date from the 1300s, watchtowers along the coast and a palace museum, now looted.
Last week, as if to take advantage of every possible moment of peace, inhabitants of Hamar returned on the heels of the Marines and searched gingerly through rubble for valuables. Old friends greeted each other with a characteristic Somali flick of the eyebrows and with a mix of tongues that make up their hybrid language: " Ciao " from the Italian, " Salaam aleikum " from Arabic and " Maxahanit " (thank you) from the local dialect.
Sharif Omar Ahmed, an Arab who used to sell jewelry, surveyed the damage to his home. It had been emptied by looters, its roof blown in, but the walls were intact. “Look,” he said after he and a visitor shook eyebrows. “Here is a faucet. How did it get down here? The bathroom was upstairs.”
Ahmed’s store was in the old jewelry bazaar, now an empty hive of arches. Much of Hamar’s Arab community was in the gold trade, and because the Arabs were unprotected by any network of Somali clan relations, they were easily driven out. Ahmed took refuge with a Somali friend who lived in the southern part of the city. Asked if he might be able to start up his business again, he remarked optimistically: “Well, I can see it. Mogadishu has survived a lot in its history.”
The old Mogadishu waterfront has a flavor more of North Africa than of the Equatorial Africa to which it belongs, and this reflects the influence of imperial Italy. The Italians began to colonize the Horn of Africa in the late 19th Century during the scramble among European powers for colonies on the vast continent. Late-arriving Italy was left with the Horn. Except for a period during and after World War II, the Italians ruled Somalia until 1960, the last 10 years under a U.N. mandate.
Some Italianate landmarks seem wildly out of place: a triumphal arch built in honor of a visiting Savoy prince in 1928; a cathedral consecrated during his tour, and streets with names familiar to anyone who has visited Italy--the Corso Somalia, Via Repubblica and, of course, a seaside drive called the Lido.
The imperial arch is riddled with bullet holes, and eagles on the Savoy crests have lost their heads. The cathedral was set afire in January, 1991, at the beginning of the civil war. Its roof collapsed. Looters stripped the altar and dug up the grave of a long-dead bishop. An inaugural inscription outside the church offers a poignant reminder of the impermanence of empire. The church, the inscription boasts, “affirms, in the land of Somalia, the power of the Catholic faith and the strength of Italy overseas.”
“I remember seeing the flames,” recalled Ali Mohammed, caretaker of the landmark Croce del Sud Hotel located across from the empty hulk of the cathedral. “People were trying to put them out, but it was impossible. I warned our guests, who left the next day.”
The Croce del Sud was owned by Italians who fled. It is largely looted too, although some bedroom furniture remains in the lobby and garden, along with the switchboard, an antique door from Zanzibar and signs advertising Cinzano and Martini vermouths.
Ali Mohammed returned to the hotel in expectation that peace will be permanent. “I worked here 14 years and have tried to look after the place. That’s what the boss would want,” he said as he opened the bullet-pocked metal front doors. “I think the owners will come back and I will have a job. We will not have any guests other than these cats, but I will wait.”
One of the relics left in the hotel was a blank check from the ransacked Central Bank of Somalia. The bank, it is said, was looted by a son-in-law of Mohamed Siad Barre, the country’s deposed strongman who fled the capital two years ago while fighting a losing battle against a host of rebels. No single rebel group, however, is strong enough to claim power.
Siad Barre, who took over in a 1969 coup, put a kind of modern stamp on Mogadishu. Some of it was pure self-aggrandizement. An obelisk in a park near the well-picked-over presidential palace, for instance. A reviewing stand for parades in which participants hailed him as “Father.” “Mother,” Siad Barre was fond of saying, was his “glorious revolution.”
He learned this style of self-adulation from Maoist China, which for a while supported him with economic and military aid in an effort to counter the Soviet Union. The Soviets, higher bidders, received the strategic port of Berbera in return for their help.
Siad Barre switched Cold War sides when the Soviets began to support Ethiopia in its long-running territorial and ethnic war with Somalia. Suddenly, signs denouncing Uncle Sam disappeared from Mogadishu. Siad Barre dropped “scientific socialism” and began to court the West. The United States, worried about the Soviet penetration in Afghanistan and developing a strategy of rapid response for the Persian Gulf, supplied him with mostly economic aid in 1980. By 1987, the package included military help. In return, the old Soviet base passed to U.S. control.
The main monument to Washington’s interest is the sprawling embassy compound that serves as headquarters for the joint task force of international armies now occupying parts of Somalia. In 1988, Siad Barre, dissatisfied with U.S. assistance, renewed his friendship with the Soviet Union, but neither he nor the Soviets held together long enough for the alliance to matter.
During his reign, Siad Barre expanded the airport (the new terminal is incomplete and now houses U.S. Marines) and extended the city south along the dunes, where he built a complex of villas, and west toward an industrial park. He dedicated yet another triumphal arch.
Much of the evidence of Siad Barre’s era of modernization has been looted for scrap. Electrical cables have been torn down and shipped elsewhere in Africa for sale. Sewerage pipes have been dug up and exported. Even now, water pumps installed by relief organizations at refugee camps are stolen with alarming speed.
To survive in Mogadishu, one needs the protection of a militia or gang. Even visiting reporters must hire a “staff” of gunmen to protect them during their rounds. Often the staff, belonging to one clan, cannot cross the Green Line into rival territory, and transport must be arranged by a neutral party like the Red Cross.
There are empty, sinister spaces where no one lives and populated places so lawless as to be legendary. One that abuts the city’s modern port is called the Bermuda Triangle. “Once you go in, you can never get out,” said Mohamed Hussein, who himself is from the north of Somalia and has hired a large “staff” to protect his buildings in Mogadishu.
It is this patchwork of violence with which the Marines, and eventually a follow-up force of U.N. troops, must deal. The main forces in the city belong to a pair of branches of a rival clan called the Hawiye that fought to oust Siad Barre from power. One faction, led by Mohammed Farah Aidid, a former army general, controls the southern part of the city. The other, led by Ali Mahdi Mohamed, owner of a seaside hotel, controls the north. These and numerous other factions, along with scores of free-lance groups, have ripped the city with gunfire almost nonstop since 1991.
Preliminary peace talks among Somali factions ended last week in Ethiopia with a cease-fire agreement and a prospective March 15 national reconciliation conference--if the feuding factions can agree on who should attend.
Somalis and foreign observers in the city fear that without a sound political accord, the civil war may resume, reversing the gains made by U.S. and international troops in beating back the country’s famine and, incidentally, blurring the Green Line in old Mogadishu.