In the name of the warlord – Writings from Somalia

M.J. Akbar – The Asian Age

(These dispatches are from the fantastic Indian journalist, M.J. Akbar and are highly recommended.)
In the name of the warlord
M.J. Akbar
Mogadishu (Somalia), Jan. 10: On December 2, 2005, His Excellency Eng.
Hussein Mohammad Farah Aideed, deputy prime minister (politics and
security), minister of interior, Transitional Federal Government of the
Somali Republic, called, by appointment, on Indias high commissioner in
Nairobi, Mr Surendra Kumar. He was dressed in a dark blue suit, tie and
leather-strap sandals. The Eng. before his name was similar to Dr:
Engineers now like to be known that they are thus qualified. In Somalia the
preferred title of Hussein Aideed is General, a claim by hereditary right.
His father, General Mohammad Farah Aideed, became the worlds most famous
warlord, immortal in local lore and deified by Hollywood, when, in 1993, he
broke American will by downing two Black Hawk helicopters and killing 18
American Marines whose bodies were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu,
capital of Somalia. A reward of a million dollars was placed on his head,
and he was nicknamed, for some obscure reason, Yogi the Bear. The father did
not die in an American prison, but in his own city. His son was living in
America, and had trained to become a reserve Marine. When his father died,
he returned to Somalia to inherit the title and the loyalty of his fathers
militia, though not the respect that his father commanded. Neither father
nor son believed that the term “warlord” was appropriate. Aideed means “one
who rejects insults”.
He seemed sincere, said Mr Kumar. Hussein Aideed promised peace would
finally come to Somalia in about six months, thanks to the latest deal
brokered by mostly well-meaning (or simply fed-up) neighbours. He asked for
Indian assistance in demining southern Somalia, building roads, assisting in
healthcare and training the police.
Uniforms and guns for the police would not be unwelcome. Since there is
nothing called a police force in Somalia at the moment, perhaps Hussein
Aideed wanted arms and training for his own force. Mr Kumar was diplomatic
in his response; the visitors charm was not sufficient to reduce the hosts
scepticism. The news is that India is not in any hurry to arm and train
anyone, or rebuild roads, which are controlled by AK-47-wielding bands who
laugh as they collect their tax on any vehicle brave enough, or desperate
enough, to travel. The government of Hussein Aideed used to be based in
Nairobi until the Kenyans exhausted their patience and told them to go.
Somalia is not a country in search of a government. It is a government in
search of a country.
From the air, Mogadishu is entrancing, lean and stretched out against the
Indian Ocean, a city of two million in a country of seven. It begins in the
greenery of banana trees in the south, curves along the pristine beaches
untouched by the large waves that break much before the shore. The city ends
where the sand rises to cliff height in the north before spreading into the
arid and endless desert.
We flew into an airport in the north on Saturday in a Red Cross plane. The
Red Cross is now the only international organisation with a national
presence in Somalia, working to bring a touch of contemporary concern to a
land that has been driven back into a pre-industrial past by criminal greed
and mindless violence.
Drop The breeze cools the midday sunshine and throws sand into our eyes as
step off. The airport was built by Osman Hassan Ali Atto, warlord and
politician, to ferry khat, a local nerve-soother. When the international
airport closed down, its fortunes boomed. Wisely, Mr Atto decided to share
such fortunes with a fellow warlord. The commerce is limited but it is a
commercial hub of sorts.
In 1998, two Red Cross officials disembarked at this airport from a similar
plane and wandered off to answer a call of nature behind a nearby sand dune,
a reasonable need after a two-and-a-half hour flight. They were lucky. The
rest of the group was kidnapped by gunmen who appeared over a small hill,
and held hostage for 10 days. Somalia is now one of two regions where the
Red Cross uses armed guards, rather than the humanitarian credibility that
keeps it safe elsewhere. The only other place is Chechnya.
There are three structures at this airstrip, nearly indistinguishable from
the colour of the surrounding desert. The first, about 10 feet wide with a
sloping tin roof, is both the cafeteria and the bank: you can get a soft
drink while you change foreign exchange for Somali shillings. There was a
time when a dollar fetched 30,000 shillings, but the rate has stabilised at
Warlords print the Somali currency. There is an advertisement of a cellphone
company on the second hut, which is possibly an office. The third structure
on an airstrip devoid of any human habitation for miles is a mosque, an
Ottoman crescent atop its minaret.
A small craft of Aviation Sans Frontiers is waiting to take off when we
land: the two NGO planes constitute the business of the day. A man near the
tarmac with a cap, a piece of cloth wrapped around both ears, a
football-referee whistle in one hand and a tasbeeh (prayer beads) in the
other is the air traffic clearance authority. Each item has a function.
The cap is for the sun. The cloth is for the sand. He keeps in touch with
the pilot with the whistle. He keeps in touch with God with the prayer
Our plane is refuelled while we wait. Three skinny, industrious men, two of
them in the trademark lungi, kick-roll dented drums from a Dyna 350 semi
towards the plane. A wheelbarrow, carrying a hose and a small engine,
accompanies them. The drums contain the fuel. Each is opened, with some
effort, by a metal strip that fits into a groove in the cap and twists the
cap around. On end of the hose goes into the drum, the other into the plane.
The engine is pulled into a gurgle. Oil begins to flow up.
They travel about a hundred metres or more ahead, obscured by a windscreen
of powdery desert dust: nine men on the back of a powerful Toyota, their
legs dangling over the side, each with an AK-47 of varying power, and enough
ammunition to start a small war. In the centre is a mounted heavy
machine-gun, manned by a burly brother in a bandana, with dont-fool-with-me
in his eyes and a pistol in his belt. In local parlance, they constitute a
“technical”. No self-respecting warlord travels with less than four
“technicals”. Since this one has been hired to protect us, I suppose this
“technical” is on the side of the angels, but loyalties are variable in a
cash-and-carry business.
We drive over sand and rock towards the worlds largest, or perhaps only,
ghost city. An occasional man sleeps under a desert shrub. Lonely men squat
on the edge of the track, waiting for nothing, their faces drained of all
expectation. Women, in rare ones or twos, are defined by the bright colours
of their dress, principally a dramatic red interspersed by a soothing
yellow. The rest is silence in a vast emptiness, broken only by the periodic
and minimal radio exchanges between our SUV and our “technical”.
Drop Suddenly, to our left, appears a huge scrapyard, a crazy museum of
twisted, shattered metal, carcasses of cars, machines, yesterdays homes,
anything that could be pillaged. It is owned by Bashir Raghe, a warlord. A
minute later we see a large ship sitting impassively offshore. This is the
scrap metal trade, a lucrative byproduct of a destruction-economy, and yet
another fortune for warlords to kill over. “Do you know where the scrap is
headed?” asks a friend whom I shall leave unnamed. I dont. To India.
To the right, in another minute, is what seems to be a mirage: a pink villa
from an Italian seashore. Who lives there? A businessman. What is his
business? He owns a bone factory.
A destruction-economy has more than one byproduct.
So far, I note, I have seen seven beneficiaries of this economy: the
warlords; Japanese vehicle manufacturers (all registrations in Dubai or
Sharjah); the Russian armaments industry; Belgian pistol-makers;
telecommunications equipment makers; shipowners and Indian scrap merchants.
Add an eighth, I am told. Coca-Cola. There is a flourishing Coca-Cola
factory in the south of the city. Life goes better with Coca-Cola,
particularly amidst death.
The first sight of Mogadishu is unreal. It is like seeing ruins from the
wrong end of time.
The jagged edges of Romes or Ammans amphitheatre symbolise the
achievements of 2,000 years ago. In Mogadishu, you see the ruins of a
flourishing 20th century city in an environment that has regressed 2,000
years. Only a few of the shell-shocked homes seem inhabited; strangely there
is utter silence even among the sparse patches of life.
I am given a guided tour of devastation: here what was once an enclave of
diplomatic homes or an embassy row during the era of the Soviet-supported
President Siad Barre, there nothing where once the Indian embassy existed.
Every hundred paces is dull repetition of what used to be. The true sadness
of Mogadishu is not what it has become, but what it once was, and what it
could have been.
The radio crackles. We cannot go to the Italian cathedral built when they
colonised this part of Somalia. The “technical” has reported that a
gunbattle is going on in front of the cathedral. And so, without any fuss,
we turn left a little before the gunbattle and drive into what was once the
pride of the city: the main street, full of banks, businesses, government
offices, cars, pedestrians, restaurants, bars and hotels. The street ends at
the embankment. A majestic hotel sweeps in a classic Italian curve to our
left, architecture that once hummed to the music of hundreds of rooms. It
has now been blasted apart, shattered by tank battles that destroyed this
street and city.
We get off at the embankment, which is broken at one place leaving a large
gap. One tank, unable to brake, crashed through at this point. The tank lies
on the rocks of the ocean shore, rusted, its turret tilted up, still
searching for an enemy of the same colour and blood. It is as distressing a
memory as the Fascist pillar nearby that has survived on the promenade from
the time of Mussolini.
We are at the Hammaruin. We change guard. Literally. Our gunmen are all
smiles as they wave goodbye; their replacements smile more broadly as they
welcome us. But they dont smile at one another.
This is the dividing line between the north and south of Mogadishu. Militia
from the north cannot enter the south, and naturally vice versa. In the
ocean, a handful of children chatter and skip over the rocks, the shallow
water being their only entertainment. On the street, from a comer, young men
with nothing to do but clutch triggers at their nerve-ends watch as we
switch vehicles and guards. A gun is part of the normal dress code of normal
young men.
Engineer Hussein Aideed, leader of the United Somali Congress/Somali
National Alliance, is yet to reach middle age. His mother, Asli Dhubat, his
fathers first wife, took him to the United States as a teenager. He joined
the US Marine Corps Reserves in 1987, became a corporal and told the
Associated Press in Somalia: “Once a Marine, always a Marine”. He has, he
believes, a wonderful idea for Somalias future.
There are no passports in Somalia; even Kenya does not recognise a warlord
passport any more. Hussein Aideed told ambassador Surendra Kumar that he was
negotiating with an Indian IT company to create e-passports. The cost was
estimated at $25 million. He had worked it out. An account would be opened
in a prestigious international bank; 80 per cent of the passport fee
deposited in this account would go to pay for the initial cost and 20 per
cent would be sent on to Somalia. This would eventually pay the $25 million.
It seems a great idea for California.
Battle Wounds
By M.J. Akbar reports from Somalia
Mogadishu (Somalia), Jan. 11: Where do you find war? In a graveyard or a
hospital. There are no stories in a graveyard. A hospital, on the other
hand, has too many.
The director of Medina Hospital was in Mecca. It seemed the appropriate
place for Sheikh Don to be. He had left for Dubai en route to Haj by the
south city airport on a Russian Antonov: an extremely enterprising private
airline now ferries those who can afford the minimum fare of $250. There is
even an occasional flight to Paris. Where there is a will there is a way.
The south city airport, unlike its poor cousin in the north, is protected by
anti-aircraft guns.
Medina Hospital was built by the Germans for the local police and has proper
buildings, lovely trees in the spacious compounds, a high water reservoir
and space for 500 beds. About 65 always add a few for battle casualties
function now.
Our guide is Dr Ali the White, a jovial Somali who refuses to get depressed
by his difficulties. Instead, he breaks into song when he learns that I am
an Indian. Thankfully, it is not Mera joota hai Japani… but the rather
surprising Meri muhabbat jawan rahegi, sada rahi hai sada rahegi. May I add
that he got the tune right.
I am not brave enough to face anothers pain and the visit to the wards was
acutely discomforting. The relatives around each bed looked stoic as they
fanned their loved child, or simply waited. There are few old men or women
in hospital. That is the meaning of war.
The most important doctor is the chief surgeon, which tells the story. Dr
Hassan Osman is legitimately proud that one of the techniques he has devised
for immediate operations is now quoted in medical journals. The wounded come
from as far away at Diinsoor, which is 500 km away. That is reputation in a
war zone.
The police disappeared from Medina in 1991, when the remnants of government
crumbled. It was partially reopened in 1992 with the help of Medicins Sans
Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders). Patients were treated under trees.
There was no water or power. A hospital is perhaps the only thing that
brings clans together in wartime. The elders got together and contacted the
Red Cross in 1999, which stepped into desolation. In 2000 a generator
arrived, which purrs quietly in a large shed and turns Medina into an island
unrecognisable from its environs: a full drug store, surgical equipment,
doctors who are taken to one annual conference, nurses and, perhaps most
important, community involvement. It was the community that paid for the new
tiles in one ward and painted the buildings.
If Medina is a marvel then Keysaney is a miracle. This hospital in the north
was a prison outside the city, on the shore, making it, as someone wryly
observed, the “most secure hospital in the world”. When the Siad Barre
regime collapsed the prison emptied.
Compared to Medina, the facilities are rudimentary, the facilities minimal.
The strength of Dr Ahmed Muhammad Ahmed, a devout young man who prays five
times a day, and his colleagues is inspiring. This is the only hospital for
he north, and has treated more than 55,000 patients in over a decade. Add
more than 100,000 outpatients. That is the meaning of war. The Red Cross
turned this prison into a hospital in November 1991. There are four wards,
including one for VIPs, which means it has curtains. Dr Ahmed showed me with
shy pride the apparatus he had set up to recycle a bullet victims blood
back into the patient.
The one thing you cant get in a bloodstained country is blood.
The main hall at Keysaney doubles up as an English classroom for the staff
in the evenings, thanks to Dr Ahmed. The sentences chalked on the blackboard
are instructive in more ways than one. A: Do you think you can get me to
Victoria by half-past? B: We should be OK if the lights are with us. A:
Youve still got five minutes to spare. A: Pounds 6.40 please. The last
sentence was: I go to a private institute which is called Oxford.
You find both war and aspiration in Dr Ahmeds fly-blown hospital.
The unsentimental fortitude of doctors is remarkable. Dr Ahmed takes nothing
for granted, and everything in his stride. Dr C. Oscar Avogadri has just
joined the Red Cross team for Somalia. He is an Italian who spent some time
in Nepal but, much to his relief, did not understand cricket otherwise he
might have spent eight hours on a weekend watching the game instead of doing
something better. Pascal Hundt, head of the Somalia division, is Swiss,
imperturbable, practical and measures a day by how much he has got done,
whether stocking medical supplies or injecting capital into the rural
economy by financing 5,000 goats, or telling impoverished representatives of
a betrayed people that he cannot change the rules. He is already planning
for a famine that looms ahead.
The price of war is poverty. Somalis do not have the individual or
collective resources to fight a famine. The destitution is utter. Clothes
are old, slippers tattered, food basic. There are no shops, apart from the
occasional medical (what else?) store, or a utility outlet. There is no
state, and therefore no state service. Water and electricity must be
purchased from entrepreneurs; travel rights from the gun-toting militias.
The thin elite owns generators. For visitors with foreign exchange and a
hotel room there is excellent fruit juice and lobster from the Indian Ocean.
For the nomad, or the citizen, life hovers at subsistence level. Measure
incomes on a simple scale. The best paid are top-of-the-line gunmen, who get
a hundred dollars a month. Fifty dollars will fetch you a bullet-sprayer (a
bullet costs 30 cents). Most of the gunmen dont have shoes either.
There may be no money for food, but there is always enough money for war.
My friend remembers this fact with a hint of awe: the only time the price of
food collapsed was in 1991, when the Americans came, leading an
international effort to fight famine and starvation, restore governance and
leave behind a semblance of civil society. A 50-kg bag of rice that cost
$450 during famine was available for nine dollars. (The current price is
So what was the mistake that the worlds most powerful country made in the
worlds weakest country?
Cultural insensitivity is too boring an accusation. A diplomat who was in
and out of Somalia at that time, and lives in Nairobi, has more relevant
analysis. The Americans were not interested in peacekeeping; they wanted
something that they called peace-building. They wanted an architecture that
would stabilise the country around a democratic polity. It was another
honourable intent, that came unglued when it hit warlords. Every warlord was
convinced that only he could become President of the Somali Republic. In a
bid to challenge the lords, American soldiers raided the home of the most
powerful, Aideed. That was the end of both peacekeeping and peace-building.
The American position on the country is: Somalia missed the bus a decade
ago; it will not be given another chance.
There are others ready to take a chance, or provide one. The last spot on
our tour of Medina Hospital was the newly-painted canteen for families of
patients, another stray sign of normalcy in an abnormal world. The doctors
left me alone: clearly no one senior ever ventured into a public canteen. If
they wanted coffee outside office they sat on benches in the shade of trees.
Even Dr Ali the White left me. I wandered in. The painting was fresh; the
walls sparkled with schoolchild paintings of the usual variety, animals,
scenery et al. To my right, in a panel, were two highrise buildings. On top
of one was a legend: New York. A similar masthead on the other was filled
with black. Two airplanes were exploding against the upper stories of both
buildings. In the space between the towers, in small lettering, was a
phrase. Since I can read Arabic, I knew what it said. Al Qaeda.
Perhaps someone reading this will get into a pother, and that painting, done
by someone doing community service for the hospital in a canteen the senior
staff did not enter, will be erased. That is not the point. The point is
what is happening to the community in Mogadishu, living on the deserted,
rubble-strewn streets around Medina.
I could not resist the question as I said goodbye to Dr Ali the White.
Surely that could not be his real name. No. His name was Dr Ali Muallim.
Then…? “Oh,” he said with a big grin, “white because I am so black. Just
reverse!” Just reverse. It seems a good metaphor for Mogadishu.
Faith fills vacuum in land of clans
By M.J. Akbar reports from Somalia
Mogadishu, Jan. 13: Fear is rational. As long as one is anonymous death can
only be an accident. It is superfluous to fear an accident in a minefield:
the mine has nothing personal against you. It became different when my
friend said, while we were dining on the terrace of the Shamo Hotel and
Residence Plaza, a heavenly breeze blowing from the Indian Ocean, the stars
of the southern hemisphere dominated by Mars to my left and the Orion belt
to the right of my occasional gaze: “This is an oral society.”
We were at the hotel where a few months ago Kate Peyton of the BBC had been
shot dead.
So far, I felt far more protected by anonymity than the “technicals”. The
Red Cross does not advertise its travel plans. Unlike the United Nations
(when it is around, and it disappeared from Somalia in March 1995), which
believes in the power of the press release, the Red Cross appreciates the
virtues of silence. But by now word would have spread that a journalist was
in tow: this is an oral society. A big boy might want to know why he had not
been lined up for an interview. Press coverage is good for the self-esteem
of a warlord trying very hard to look like a peacelord.
Kate Peyton made a number of mistakes. The crucial one was that she walked
out of the single entrance-exit, across the compound and out of the gate to
get into a car that was meant to take her to the Sahafi Hotel (Journalists
Hotel, so named in honour of the media flock that constituted its last crowd
during the battles of 1993). Unlucky. A single shot, which is rarely fatal,
got her. She was rushed to Medina Hospital, but her moment had come.
Our technicals, as well as our Land Cruiser, is inside the compound.
Everyone sleeps behind walls. Zakaria, the young waiter, speaks excellent
English. The only other guest is a Chinese resident who is often on his
cellphone: mobile phones are the most successful business in Somalia and any
international call costs only 30 cents since there are no licence fees and
very little advertising. A young and fair Arab is with him, perhaps his
partner. In an adjoining room a radio sparkles to life, and a tall waiter
begins to dance with abandon, his tray twirling on his fingertips. From the
roof, Mogadishu is peaceful, quiet and patchily lit. There are no
mosquitoes. The ocean breeze has driven them away. The moon is seven nights
old, and stars unaffected by the gauze of industrial pollution. I switch on
television in my room after dinner, and am pleasantly surprised by B4Music.
And so to bed listening to Rabbi in Mogadishu, and up with Dev Anand and
Hare Rama Hare Krishna and Ishq tera garam masala. Dawn always, and
illogically, seems so much safer than night.
Ten warlords are the principal arbiters of Mogadishu, but they do not
control the only guns on the street. The nippiest guns now belong to the
Sharia courts, possibly because they are the youngest, perhaps because they
are motivated by more than money.
The south of the city has twice the life of the north, which means what it
means. The old fish market is still dead. The office buildings are still
stark, wounded and empty. A donkey cart stands at the entrance of a lane,
selling water. A battered Fiat, looking as old as Mussolini, chugs by: it is
the first personal civilian vehicle I see and has no number plates. A
choking and lonely jeep is sign of some public transport. Then appears the
first traffic jam: a truck and two donkey carts struggling to negotiate the
rubble in front of a vegetable market just after the mosque.
There is a loudspeaker on the minaret of the Shaikh al-Sufi mosque. As the
name suggests, Islam was spread by Sufi mendicants and dervishes in Somalia.
There is no hard line on Somali sand. Women, their heads covered in bright
cloth, are a normal part of public life, and show as little hesitation as
men when they spread a cardboard sheet or cloth and offer namaz at the call
of the muezzin. A sign outside the mosque shows the way to a madrasa, the
largest in the city. A little later we are overtaken by a Toyota with three
young men at the back. They race ahead, oblivious of the rubble or carts or
even a technical like ours. “Sharia police,” explains my friend.
Their sense of power is evident in their speed, and the slight adolescent
jeer in their eyes. They are too young to care. Older gunmen in technicals,
with bullet belts slung across the shoulder coursing down expanding bellies,
take care to travel in large bands. They have something to care about: their
salaried lives. Fifty dollars a month gets you a technical or a fake
passport, probably Ugandan.
Col. Abdullahi Yusuf, president of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG)
since October 14, 2004, has often said that he is going to destroy “Islamic
terrorists” in Somalia. Col. Yusuf was part of the problem for so long that
he has, by the consensus of neighbours and grudging acceptance of nominated
members of Parliament, been made part of the solution in the hope that there
will be one. But it took him five months to enter Somalia after he became
President, and then relocate the capital to Jowhar. His Prime Minister, Ali
Muhammad Gedi, was greeted with bomb blasts that almost killed him when he
tried to address a public rally in Mogadishu last May. He returned to
Nairobi a trifle hastily.
Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys henna-streaked beard is familiar to anyone in
Mogadishu, as are his calm, softly-delivered sermons. He lives near his
mosque and was the most prominent leader of the Ittehad Islamiya. Ever since
Washington put this organisation on its terror list after 9/11, everyone
prefers to be known as a former leader. His security includes a truck with
an anti-aircraft gun but I doubt if that would be sufficient protection if
the CIA decided to pick him up. America has no official presence in Somalia,
but an anti-terrorist task force of 2,000 is based in Djibouti, a Somali
region in the north that was given separate independence because it was
under French rule. (A parallel event in India would have made Pondicherry a
separate nation.) Sheikh Aweys makes no effort to hide his conviction that
Somalia can only be saved by a conversion into an Islamic state, that
America has launched a war against Muslims all over the world, and that the
CIA has Somali warlords on its payroll who pass on information as well
kidnap any suspect on Americas wanted list. It is popular belief that CIA
agents regularly visit their employees in Mogadishu, arriving by secret
aircraft. Sheikh Aweys believes that Colonel Yusuf makes the noises he does
in order to get Western support for his notional government.
The Islamic movement in Somalia predates the current troubles, said Dr Ahmed
Mohammad Hassan, president of the Somali Red Crescent Society and old enough
to have seen it all. We met in Nairobi, where he lives. The clergy was the
first, he pointed out, to protest against the “scientific socialism” of the
pro-Soviet Siad Barre, in January 1975. Barre publicly executed 11 respected
clerics in revenge.
The clans, principally an alliance between Ali Mahdi and Mohammad Aideed
(who, incidentally, served as ambassador to New Delhi for five years), drove
out Barre in January 1991 and then spent the next year killing each other in
thousands in the battle of succession. That was when famine devastated
hundreds of thousands of Somalis who wanted a government rather than a civil
Who fills the gaps left by a withered state?
The Muslim Brotherhood came to a famished people in 1991 through effective
relief work across the length of a long country in places like Merca,
Kismayo, Dobley, Lugh, Berbera and of course Mogadishu. In June 1992 they,
along with Ittehad Islamiya, instigated an insurgency in Puntland,
eventually defeated by the Yusuf clan. In mid-1994, a council for the
implementation of Sharia law was created with Sheikh Sharif Muhidin as its
chairman, in Mogadishu North. It was the first experience of law in a
country that had become lawless and helpless, and established a positive
image of the clergy.
A clans power over people emerges from its role as a provider of essential
necessities of life: security (in times of crisis, even food security),
kinship, justice, and an economic net without too many holes. What happens
when the credibility of such a powerful, traditional institution is savaged?
Over the last fifteen years, this essential fact of Somali society has
indulged in spectacular self-destruction. The mosque is perhaps the only
institution that provides a community net, education, justice that is
implemented and a growing revenue system that can create a safety net. The
mosque was always the sole source of salvation in the afterlife for a deeply
religious people. It has now become the predominant source of salvation in
this life as well.
The future of both the clans and the mosque began when Siad Barre fled in
January 1991. Only one of the two will find the horizon.
Byline for January 15, 2006
A Somalia Notebook
M.J. Akbar
How many guns make a warlord? 25 technicals, so about 250 armed men with
Russian AK-47s and Belgian pistols make you a lord, and you can go up the
hierarchy to viscount or marquis or earl or proper baron if you include a
couple of anti-aircraft guns and artillery pieces. But there are no kings in
Somalia. A top of the line AK-47 costs between 400 and 500 dollars; many of
the weapons are below the line. I picked up one, while we were lunching off
chunks of dry roast camel in a dhaba, lent to me by a young man in a shy
smile and a lungi. It was heavy, a little less than ten kilograms. I gave it
back after making appropriate noises, carefully avoiding even passing
contact with the trigger. At a rough glance, my benefactor had about a
million and a half Somali shillings worth of ammunition in his belts: a
dollar fetches three bullets.
Three great symbols of modern civilisation are available in Somalia: the
AK-47, Coca Cola and the mobile phone. Three mobile phone companies,
Nationlink, TelecomSomalia and Hormut, ensure proper competition. An
international call costs only 30 American cents. They also double up as
money-transfer operations and one of them (defunct after landing up in the
suspect category) sent Washington into paroxysms after 9/11 with a word that
previously did not exist in a western dictionary but was perfectly
understood in much of Asia, hawala. Americans were in Somalia a decade
before 9/11 but never picked up this word. Maybe that is why they never
stayed. You have to understand Somalia to stay in Somalia.
War is a great boon to technology. A cruise liner defended itself against
heavily armed Somali pirate boats last year with the LRAD, Long Range
Acoustic Device. It emits a sound from a long range that the human ear
cannot tolerate and has proved a brilliant answer to pirate guns. So as long
as pirates are human they can be driven. I am told that the device is being
used in Iraq to disperse unwanted crowds. For more details on LRAD check
Google. The Almighty, Omnipotent Google knows all.
Their present having been stolen, Somalis take comfort in the past. Ancient
Egyptians imported cinnamon, frankincense, tortoise shells and “slaves of a
superior sort” from Somalia and conceded that Somali civilisation matched
their own. If the Magi were kings from Africa, then it is at least plausible
that the one carrying frankincense for the infant Jesus came from Somalia.
Ibn Batuta, the 13th century Tunisian traveller who did not waste time on
inconsequential places, found Maqdashaw a “town of enormous size” where “a
single person ? eats as much as the whole company of us would eat ? and they
are corpulent in the extreme”. The only parallel I can think of is a
Kashmiri enjoying his wazwan in front of us mere mortals, but of course the
Kashmiri is not corpulent. The waters of Chashm e Shahi keep him slim.
How many clans make a nation? The Arabs found 39 when Mogadishu became one
of their principal trading colonies in the tenth century. This was the
breakdown: Mukri (12), Djidati (12), Akati (6), Ismaili (6) and Afifi (3).
The Mukri, who also had a dynastic ulema, were in the ascendant when Ibn
Batuta visited the port. The nation state is a recent idea. Nomadic Somalis
lived across a far wider region than their present borders, including
Ethiopia and Kenya. European colonisation came only towards the end of the
19th century. The British came to the north because, as they put it, they
wanted guaranteed meat supplies for their garrison in Aden. The Italians
wanted the fruit groves of the south. The French were tempted, typically, by
temptation and occupied Djibouti. The clans did not wait to be conquered.
They took the easy way out and sold their rights, most often for less than a
hundred dollars. The treaties were remarkable for their three-point
simplicity. Point 1: All rights are yours. Point 2: I get 70 or 100 dollars.
Point 3: You have the last word in all disputes. Neighbours could hardly
resist exploiting such weakness. In 1891 Emperor Menelik II, founder of
modern Ethiopia, wrote to European powers: “Ethiopia has been for 14
centuries a Christian island in a sea of pagans. If Powers at a distance
come forward to partition Africa between them, I do not intend to remain an
indifferent spectator.” He did not. He sent word to Amir Abdullahi, ruler of
the historic city of Harar and pivotal to Muslim east Africa, to accept his
suzerainty. The Amir, heir to a dynasty of 72 generations, sent presents and
a helpful suggestion, that Menelik should accept Islam. Menelik promised to
conquer Harar and turn the principal mosque into a church. The Medihane Alam
Church, in front of the Galma Amir Abdullahi, or the old palace, is evidence
that Menelik kept his word.
The mosque was converted but not the people. While Ethiopia proudly and
correctly claimed to have become Christian at the time of Constantinople,
lands like Kenya changed only during the wave of missionary activity that
accompanies colonisation in the 19th century. As Jomo Kenyatta, first
President of independent Kenya, famously said, “When the missionaries came
to Africa, they had the Bible in their hands and we had the lands? We closed
our eyes to pray and when we opened them, we had the Bible in our hands and
they had the lands?”
Harar has the feel of a city that has travelled a long way through history
but now has nowhere left to go.
UNESCO has recognised Harar, about 450 kilometres east of Addis Ababa
through land rich in the local addiction, chat (or khat), a mildly
intoxicating but stimulating leaf that is chewed slowly, as a heritage city.
There is some excitement among the educated elite that UNESCO may do more
for Harar than all the rulers since the defeat of Amir Abdullahi at the
battle of Chelenko in 1887. There is hope but not too much trust. As a
sociologist who did his post-graduate studies at the Tata Institute of
Social Sciences in Mumbai some twenty years ago, told me over mercato in the
lovely cafÈ in the courtyard of the city, “We have been living too long on a
diet of pledges.”
Little was done for the people, who are of Somali origin, but bitter wars
were fought over them. In the Seventies, Siad Barre of Somalia invaded
Ethiopia to take back the Ogaden region, where Harar is. Talk that Ogaden
possessed huge reserves of oil and gas might have encouraged the invasion.
Siad Barre’s tanks penetrated deep into the desert before they were defeated
by Cuban soldiers who acted as mercenaries of the Soviet Union (Ethiopia had
a Marxist-Leninist regime then, a fact that merely Socialist Siad Barre
forgot). Hararis remember the Cubans as a wild lot, shooting donkeys
playfully even after being told how valuable these pack animals were. A few
Cuban faces in a traditional and conservative society are more evidence that
“liberators” make their own rules.
The elders, gradually losing their eminence as a new anger slowly seeps
through the young, are resigned to stagnation, and the eyes flicker with old
zeal only when they dream that Menelik’s church will once again become a
mosque in their lifetime. The people, as elsewhere in Ethiopia, can be
strikingly good-looking. The girls wear embroidered head scarves or, rarely,
the hijab with jeans. The boys are in the ubiquitous football T-shirt. One
bearded young man had EBAMA, San Jose, California, Badr 2004 written on his
T-shirt. It stood for Ethiopian Bay Area Muslim Association. Had he lived in
America, I asked. No, he said. Few leave Harar. Those who go send T-shirts
along with cheques, but do not return.
The mansion in which the Lion of Judah, Haile Selassie, was born is in the
old city, called Jubal, and was built by an Indian. You walk down a narrow
stone alley full of shops and tailors with Singer sewing machines. Indians,
particularly Bohras from Mumbai, dominated commerce during Muslim rule in
Harar. Haile Selassie was born here because his father, Menelik’s brother,
was made governor after the defeat of Amir Abdullahi. UNESCO has allocated
funds for the restoration of the mansion, but ten families have made it
their home and will not move. The most interesting occupant is a healer.
He sits, erect, on a mattress at the centre of one end of a spacious drawing
room on the ground floor. His fame is recorded for posterity in a notebook
where his literate patients describe their miraculous recovery, and attach
passport-size photographs to add a face to their identity. He is 52 and
learnt his skills from his father, whose picture is framed on the high wall
behind him, above a carpet with a drawing of the holy mosque at Kaaba, and a
much-extended string of prayer beads which he uses for dhikr, a Sufi form of
devotion, at night. A woman enters, kisses his extended hand twice while he
continues talking to us, and joins another with a child in a corner. There
is a telephone on a table, and two small tape-players, one broken. The
telephone rings once during our visit, and is picked by an aide lounging on
the side who, we realise later, also speaks English. A notice board
indicates that the healer cures all the tough diseases, including
gynaecological problems, but, alas, back pain is not on the list. He assures
me that he can repair nerves that wrack your back as well, and there has
been a cancer patient or two who has gone home happy. He explains that he
uses herbs and plants, and not shaman-style magic. Perhaps he tells
villagers, who crowd around him in the mornings since they have to return by
nightfall, something different; perhaps he is equally candid with them. He
asks about herbal medicines in India and I include Tibet’s fame in my
The notice outside affirms that the healer does not accept fees, but
donations for the cause are not unwelcome. I do not use his expertise, but
my donation is not unwelcome either.

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