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Mogadishu – First Impressions

One step out of the plane and you’re blasted by hot air and blinded by a fulgor of sunlight. You lose your bearings completely. Then, after a moment or two, your body and eyes begin to adjust. The hairdryer furnace softens to a seductive breeze. The dazzling clatter of white light settles into a cloud-free canopy of brilliant blue. A few metres from the runway the Indian Ocean sparkles and beckons outrageously beyond the millions of acres of white sand that stretch into the longest coastline in Africa.

The airport terminal buzzes with a friendly confusion over visas, paperwork and luggage. Women float by in multi-coloured splendour. Laughter amid the streaming heat is everywhere. The atmosphere intoxicates. Ah, Mogadishu! It’s good to be back after a few days away. There’s no place like it.

So different from the first time. Three years ago, I was moderately alarmed on arrival. Make that frightened. Ok, if you insist, terrified. As the plane from Nairobi made its final swoop down the wild coastline and dropped its nose towards the airport, I feared the worst. The Al Qaeda-allied insurgents of Al Shebab were running amok across the city. Bombs, mortars, suicide attacks, IEDs, the usual medley of twenty-first century warzone attractions, were the order of the day. As I stepped out gingerly onto the tarmac, I half expected to be taken out by a sniper for reasons which are about to be explained. Instead, the heartiest of welcomes from Somali and Ugandan colleagues and that blissful weather that greets all travellers.

Looking back on that initial fright, I blame the overexcited security officer who had briefed me back in Nairobi. Every Somali I met in Mogadishu would be downright hostile, he told me, not without a certain satisfaction, the seaport would be raining rocket-propelled grenades and mortars and if I ever fancied a trip to the presidential compound of Villa Somalia – slow shake of the head – God help me. Snipers would pick me off if a mortar didn’t get me first. My enthusiasm for Mog – the inevitable nickname – was fading by the second and I hadn’t even visited the place yet (was it too late, on the eve of departure, to change my mind?) but he wasn’t finished.

The weather was excruciating, he continued, the malarial mosquitoes a hideous and insuperable health risk, and the healthcare facilities so bad they would kill you. As for the flight I was going in on – exaggerated intake of breath – it was relatively safe only because Al Shebab terrorists commuted in and out on this airline so might not blow it up for the time being.

Something deep within me rebelled against this relentless armchair doom-meister. “I’ve heard the swimming’s fantastic,” I said with as much defiance as I could muster. “Good luck,” he snorted. “If Al Shebab don’t get you, the sharks will.” Mogadishu, in other words, was Armageddon on steroids.

And yet it wasn’t, of course. It was nothing like it. These sorts of places are never as apocalyptic as experts from afar tend to tell us. Certainly not for most foreign visitors, at least. For ordinary Somalis in 2010, the city was undoubtedly an inferno of random killing and grotesque violence. For the brave African Union soldiers of Uganda and Burundi, it was an especially deadly place. Beyond the airport perimeter fighting raged all around us that summer and the steady rise in casualties on both sides was unremitting.

Sometimes the ground beneath my sand-filled tent shook as artillery fire rumbled through the night. The odd mortar came over the wire to keep us on our toes. And the occasional bullet, nicknamed “Yusuffffff!” for the fizzing noise it made, did indeed whizz past when I travelled across town to spend a night or two in Villa Somalia (Somalis do a good line in black humour. They have had plenty of reason to hone this talent over the years).

Yet as one of the many unsoldierly expatriates holed up in Mogadishu International Airport behind Hesco barriers and barbed wire, you were more likely to be upset by slow internet than a suicide bomber. Drama was when the cookhouse had run out of bacon. No baked beans for breakfast was a crisis. In other words, the stark warnings bore little or no relation to the western expatriate’s daily life, which itself was completely divorced from everyday Somali life.

How is it that initial perceptions – and fears – so rarely accord with reality for the traveller? Mogadishu immediately revealed itself as shockingly, vibrantly green, not the sun-cracked dustbowl I had been expecting. Stretches of it, however run-down or destroyed, are surprisingly beautiful. Reality in turn became an exercise in unreality, a walk-on part in a satirical novel populated by self-detonating maniacs, self-important hacks, self-aggrandising politicians, the occasional rebranded mercenary and a splendid Ugandan major who used to entertain friends in a shambolic tent laughingly known as the Spokesman’s Palace. It was only when you visited the African Union hospital, full of wounded soldiers and civilians, that you saw the stomach-blanking horrors of war.

Three years on, that war is over in Mogadishu. After more than two decades tearing each other apart, Somalis have by and large stopped fighting in the capital. An occasional bomb or suicide attack is the exception now, not the norm. Peace, to a great extent, prevails.

Every day I meet Somalis who have come home from the diaspora, previously scattered around the world from Manchester to Minnesota, Stockholm to Sydney. They are opening new hotels, restaurants, cafés and any other businesses that spring to mind in a city that until a few weeks ago didn’t even have a single petrol station. Others are looking for work. Some have thrown in their lot with the government, many of them working as unpaid volunteers to help rebuild the country.

“I don’t really care what I’ll do,” a new friend said the other day. “The point is, after all the years living away, I’m finally home. I’m free. That’s all that matters for now.”