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Facing Mogadishu

Portraits of Life in the Capital of Violence


ISSUE:  Winter 2012

Hussein Moalim Mahdi, 50 — I’m a porter at a maize mill with a wife and six children. I can’t afford to send them to school on my salary, and unfortunately I can’t talk long because I only get paid for each bag I carry— ten cents per bag.

From a few thousand feet above the Indian Ocean, where I sat with my face pressed against a Perspex window, Mogadishu was resplendent. You couldn’t see the holes from that height, the gaping craters that had collected limbs like rainwater. You couldn’t see the rows of pre-dug graves patiently awaiting the bodies that would fill them, or the children who had been kidnapped and forced to fight by al Shabaab. There was a good chance it would be their frail adolescent frames that would wind up in those graves, but those graves would also be filled by shopkeepers, mothers, and elderly people. The crossfire didn’t discriminate, and neither did the suicide bombers.

It was September 2011, and al Shabaab’s grip on Mogadishu had finally begun to recede. The militant Islamic group had withdrawn to the city limits, giving up trench warfare, they said, in order to concentrate on terror attacks. The fractured African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Transitional Federal Government (TFG) forces were trying to fill the vacuum left by al Shabaab in Mogadishu’s utterly destroyed neighborhoods. Peering anxiously from their tank hatches, the Ugandan and Burundian soldiers didn’t inspire confidence. But they weren’t shooting, and that was something.

Six months before, in May, I’d spent forty-eight hours holed up in a South African-run clinic three hundred meters from what was then the front line. My bedroom’s tin roof would have made a better a sieve than a barrier to the spring rains. All day and night, I listened to outgoing and incoming fire. Al Shabaab was firing small arms and mortars at the presidential compound a few hundred meters away from the clinic and at the Villa Somalia—a semi-derelict structure that housed TFG officials, a few AMISOM tanks, a small tea shop, and a prison. The TFG controlled only a few square blocks of the capital, which they administered from the besieged Villa Somalia. Tiny though it was, the little world inside the Villa Somalia’s razor-wired perimeter revealed a fascinating cross-section of Somali society and a glimpse of what life was like on the streets beyond the battered walls.

One morning, stretcher-bearers brought a TFG soldier into the clinic, shot through the heart by an al Shabaab sniper. A few hours later, a mother carried her a ten-year-old daughter to the gate, no trace of emotion on her face. The woman must have known her daughter was already dead. The TFG soldier and the girl were both killed by what the Somalis call “whifters”: bullets that have individual Somali fates stamped on them in the Chinese factories where they’re made. The pre-dug graves behind my bedroom had not been carved in vain.

In May, it would have been lethally reckless to move around outside of the compound. Back then, we’d made the ten-kilometer journey from the airstrip to the Villa Somalia like maniac rally racers, swerving around slow vehicles, rushing head-on at oncoming traffic, driving on the wrong side of the road. A South African medic who came to pick me up commented on points of interest. “Down that street,” he said, “that’s where the Black Hawk went down.” I spent two whirlwind days inside the clinic compound in a futile attempt to photograph life in the capital from a glassless third-story window without getting shot by an al Shabaab sniper. No sooner had I arrived, it seemed, than I was once again wedged between two TFG soldiers with Kalashnikovs, hurtling toward the airstrip, with scenes of Somali life whipping past the filthy windows.

When al Shabaab announced in August that they would make a strategic retreat from the center of Mogadishu, I seized the chance to go back and get beyond the walls of the Villa Somalia. I brought my semi-translucent background, hoping to isolate portrait subjects while simultaneously allowing hazy glimpses of their surroundings through the fabric. Along with their answers to simple biographical questions, the screen, I hoped, would help emphasize each person’s individuality.

I found on my return trip that al Shabaab, indeed, had pulled back, but the kidnapping threat remained high, so I still had to travel everywhere in an unimpressive Subaru Outback accompanied by two armed guards. Even so, Mogadishu was more open to me than ever before, and I hoped to photograph as much of the city as possible under the constraints of time and security. There was still no chance of walking around; the portraits had to be made in walled compounds, out of view of the throngs on the streets, hidden from inquisitive and potentially nefarious eyes. Many al Shabaab fighters had simply hidden their weapons and melted into the population, and because the battle lines were no longer clearly drawn in Mogadishu’s streets and alleys, my guides told me that the people were even more nervous than usual. As the city’s more than a million residents went about their daily business of collecting food distributions, going to school, seeking treatment at NGO clinics, they were bracing for the wave of suicide bombings that al Shabaab had promised.

Posing for portraits was no small act of graciousness on the part of these violence-plagued Somalis. Their weary faces, their thin smiles, the way they squared their shoulders proudly as their eyes bore down on the camera—these were the counterpoints to the sterility of statistics, which is what the Somalis had become to the world.

One day, I visited a maize mill and made some portraits of a few of the workers. The women were shy, but Fatima Mohamud Mohammad, a mother of nine, came forward with her husking basket. It was hard to guess her age before I asked, but as I knew from experience that I could expect to be surprised. She turned out to be forty—a full decade younger than I had presumed. Fatima was nervous, but happy for the attention, and I was grateful for the opportunity to offer a moment of relief from the choking dust of the husking room. Fatima’s pose was resolute and strong; like the other Somalis whose portraits I made on that trip, her presence testified to both the arduousness of her daily struggle and her will to survive it.

Two weeks after I left Mogadishu, a suicide bomber detonated himself a few short blocks away from the same maize mill where I met Fatima. He killed seventy people, including a mill worker who was walking home when the bomber pulled his cord.

For the people in these portraits, life goes on with little hope of an end to the violence. Still, life goes on.


Special thanks to Ellen Hunter Mai and Robert Young Pelton of Somalia Report. 

 atima Mohamud Mohammad, 40 — I work as a maize husker in a milling factory. I make $80 a month, and since my husband is unemployed I have to support my nine children on my salary alone. My dream right now is simply to hold onto my job, even though the dust causes me allergy problems.

Beatrice Nasanday, Lance Corporal in the Ugandan People’s Defense Force — I am based at Mogadishu football stadium, which we took one month ago from al Shabaab. I became a soldier so that I could afford to educate my three children. My sister looks after them while I am here in Somalia.

Janelle Ali Warsame, 55 — People call me “Mama,” because I have eight children. I survive by working as a cook for local workers, and I get paid  per day for each person I cook for, which is nor- mally ten people. I don’t have long to talk as it’s payday today and I need to get back to my family.

Fatima Abukara Abdi, 12 — I live at the K7 IDP camp. We came from Lower Shabelle because of the drought and problems with al Shabaab. I can’t remember how long I’ve been here. At eleven a.m., I get in line for food, but sometimes when I get to the front there’s nothing left. After the food line, I spend the rest of the day looking after my younger brothers and sisters. I’m in the middle of eight kids. I just started Koranic school ten days ago at the camp. I want to be a mother when I grow up.

Medina Ali Tohow, 42, Aid worker — I used to own a hotel called the Jamhuriye, but al Shabaab looted and destroyed the place. They stole everything. Now I run the K7 IDP camp for drought victims and families who have been forced to flee al Shabaab-controlled areas.

Dr. Collins from Kenya, Medical Director for the Villa Somalia Clinic — I’ve worked in a number of war zones, including the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, where I was kidnapped. It’s worth it because I know I’m helping people in very difficult environments, but it’s taking a toll on me. As the only doctor in this clinic, I face enormous challenges. Recently, I treated twenty-six gunshot victims in one day alone.

Fatima Hassan Nor Gaale, TFG soldier — I did my military training in Uganda, where I also trained as a translator. Now I work as a translator for AMISOM. I started training as a nurse, but because of the fighting I missed too many classes and couldn’t finish the course. Three years ago, al Shabaab killed my husband. I was pregnant at the time and my grief caused me to miscarry.

Major Abdi Abduallhi, 62 — I have had three wives and have had twenty-eight kids. I’m a retired major in the TFG, and now I am security officer. I was shot by an al Shabaab sniper in the Villa Somalia compound in February 2011. The bullet is still in my neck, and it’s hard for me to breathe when I lie down. The surgeon said I would lose my voice if he tried to remove the bullet.

Abdul Mohammad — Let’s say I am in my late forties. I left Mogadishu in 1980 and now live in Atlanta, Georgia. I earned an MBA in the United States and knew I had to return with my skills to help rebuild my country. But it’s very difficult. Security is a huge problem, and I miss my family and my freedom. I miss ATMs, drive-thrus, and Starbucks. I miss Chick-Fil-A most of all.

Hussein Jiinow Afrah, 28 — Six years ago, I became a policeman, and in that time I have been hit by three improvised explosive devices. The shrapnel still lodged in my shoulder, testicle, and arm causes me no end of problems. But I feel lucky—many of my friends are dead. Al Shabaab calls me from time to time to try to intimidate me and tell me to quit the force. I think they got my number from my relatives.

Ayan Muhyadin, 19, Nurse — I was born in war, I work in war, and I live in war. At the clinic I mainly treat gunshot wounds and urinary tract infections. When I leave the clinic, I cover myself up, leav- ing only my eyes visible. I don’t want al Shabaab to target me because I work for the government. In my free time I like to get on Facebook, read Tom and Jerry comics, and watch TV. “Prison Break” is my favorite show.

Moalin Adualle Ali, 66 — I’ve been the Chairman of Dharkeynley District since 1991. I believe about ninety percent of Mogadishu is safe now from al Shabaab. The biggest security problem today is banditry by rogue elements in the TFG and local militias. My main responsibility currently is overseeing the K7 IDP camp in my district, where we have about 30,000 people now who have come from areas many hundreds of kilometers away to escape the famine and fighting.

Mohammad Mohmud Ali, 22, TFG soldier — I am in the security detail of the Chairman of Dharkeynley District. The TFG pays me 00 a month. For twenty years, I’ve grown up with war, but I only realized that our country was at war when I was twelve. I have been in many battles. The worst moment was when al Shabaab threw a grenade at me and killed many of my friends. I work as a soldier because I want to know peace.

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