With each report coming out of Mogadishu, optimists and pessimists prop up their narrative.
Mogadishu is heaven. Mogadishu is hell.
Descriptions in the media are full of quizzical paradoxes. In a recent piece entitled, “Flying into hostile territory: Somalia experiences boom in air travel,” the reader is left to reconcile how a city still experiencing consistent violence can be witnessing an unprecedented volume of air traffic.
Each positive development in Mogadishu is somehow met by a corresponding setback, which makes it difficult to assess progress or regress in concrete terms.
For example, youth in Mogadishu are experiencing many benefits since al-Shabaab was forced out of the capital. Sports leagues and training are picking up and facilities are being improved with the help of international partners.
At the same time, youth are often the target of mass arrests in anti-al-Shabaab operations in which hundreds are arrested and often forced to pay bribes to be released.
In another example, Lido Beach is one of the most photographed destinations in Mogadishu and is one of the most often cited symbols of the capital’s recovery — one that al-Shabaab has tried to destroy.
However, more recent images of a young girl carrying a machete to guard herself against overly aggressive young men slightly dent the beach’s idyllic image. So goes the yin and yang of Mogadishu.
Mogadishu at Night
In early August, high-level Somali government officials and their bodyguards toured areas of Mogadishu at night — generally considered a gutsy endeavor — to discuss how to improve security with groups of residents who now feel more comfortable enjoying the nightlife.
Former president Sheikh Sharif Ahmed took is own share of late night strolls, and Somali officials to continue to show confidence in security gains and highlight efforts to further improve it.
Since its ouster from the capital, al-Shabaab has focused on carrying out targeted assassinations on government officials and security forces, and it’s larger scale attacks continue to result in many civilian casualties. Aside from al-Shabaab — infighting, illegal checkpoints, and the phenomenon of the “unknown armed gunmen” are some among many non-Shabaab related security factors.
But, as the saying goes, “Mogadishu is not Somalia,” and looking at the capital as a sign of the country’s progress is only one of many ways to measure the direction of the country.
At the same time, Mogadishu resembles other cities in that relative gains in security and the opportunity to organize legitimate and credible local political administrations have put these places at a crossroads.
Journalist Armin Rosen, who recently traveled to Mogadishu and Hargeisa, helpfully described the war-and-peace contrasts in the capital.
In a Loopcast interview, he stated, “With a place like Mogadishu, there’s really no way to kind of understand exactly what it’s like unless you’ve spent some time there and actually seen what life is like on the ground level. It was sort of better and worse than what I expected…You can go to Mogadishu and see whatever you want to see…In the government quarter — the most destroyed part of the city — there are brand new sidewalks along streets where there aren’t a single inhabitable building, and I think that’s kind of a lasting visual metaphor for me.”
Depending on one’s status in Mogadishu as an IDP, a returning Diaspora member, one trying to reclaim stolen land, a journalist, or otherwise, Mogadishu can be many things all at once, and this shouldn’t be lost as characterizations of the capital shift with each successive story.