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 The militant Islamic group had withdrawn to the city limits, giving up trench warfare, they said, in order to concentrate on terror attacks.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.