Somalis leave the good life in Britain to rebuild Mogadishu

The Times of London
Mogadishu, Somalia

Gunfire and explosions punctuate the day in Mogadishu (Jack Hill for The Times)
Gunfire and explosions punctuate the day in Mogadishu (Jack Hill for The Times)

Next to Finsbury Park station in North London, the city where his six children grew up, is Mohamed Nur’s small internet café. His wife of 30 years lives in the family home in nearby Gospel Oak, where their seven grandchildren often visit.

All of this is a world away now for Mr Nur because he is back in his home town of Mogadishu, and mayor of the world’s most dangerous city. Like many other Somalis Mr Nur, 55, has left a comfortable life of exile in Britain for the bullet-riddled and rubble-strewn streets of the Somali capital where he hopes to play a part in rebuilding his country.

“I was born in this city in a hospital run by Italian nuns, my parents were nomads and for the first five years of my life I lived as a nomad with camels and goats,” he said.

Mr Nur went to school and university in the city but by 1990 the government of Mohamed Siad Barre, the military dictator, was on the verge of collapse so he sent his family to claim asylum in Britain.

Mr Nur followed three years later, leaving the maelstrom of destruction and war that had engulfed Somalia behind. He joined the Labour Party in 1998, was granted British citizenship in 2001, and made a failed run to be a local councillor in Fortune Green, Camden, in 2004.

Then, three months ago, he accepted an invitation to return to Somalia to become Mayor of Mogadishu.

“Are we expecting an angel to come and lift our country? That will never happen,” he said, explaining his decision to take the job. With a monthly budget of £30,000 he set about securing, cleaning and lighting the streets. “I want the streets to be free of insurgents, assassinations and landmines.

Mohamed Nur left Britain to return to be mayor of Mogadishu (Jack Hill for The Times)
Mohamed Nur left Britain to return to be mayor of Mogadishu (Jack Hill for The Times)

“I want to clean the city and remove piled garbage that has accumulated for the last 20 years — and I want to light the city, light the streets of Mogadishu, the markets of Mogadishu,” he added.

In the government-controlled district of Hamar Weyne there is some evidence of improvement. Markets are busier, drifts of rubbish have been bulldozed and sometimes the lights come on. Mr Nur has bullied, borrowed and cajoled his way to these small victories.

“Maybe in this position as mayor I can do something that can build the confidence of the people of Mogadishu, to mobilise the population of Mogadishu. If they support the Government then we can defeat easily al-Shabaab,” he said.

The battle against al-Shabaab insurgents is constant. Gunfire and explosions punctuate the nights and days, peaking in late afternoon when barely a minute passes without an exchange of fire. Officials in Mogadishu barely seem to notice. “It is just background noise,” Abdirahman Omar Osman, the Information Minister, said as another volley of machinegun fire rang out.

Mr Osman, 45, also left his family in London to join the Government. Two years ago he swapped life in Ealing with his wife and seven children for a sometimes besieged house close to Villa Somalia, which he shares with two other government officials.

“In 2008 the security was better than now; in 2001 it was much better. In 1991, when I left, it was still better. Everything has deteriorated: now is the worst,” he said.

Mohamed Omaar, 57, a Somali MP and former minister, said: “Hearing explosions all the time is very odd, there’s a sense of unreality.” Mr Omaar’syounger brother, Rageh, is the well-known television journalist and his family still live in London.

Al-Shabaab has recently stepped up its bombing campaign (Jack Hill for The Times)
Al-Shabaab has recently stepped up its bombing campaign (Jack Hill for The Times)

As he spoke, sporadic gunfire rang out from the other side of a high wall surrounding the compound. A pick-up truck with a heavy machinegun welded on the back was parked in the driveway behind a disused Land Cruiser peppered with shrapnel from a mortar explosion some months earlier.

Last month Jonathan Evans, the Director-General of MI5, warned that al-Shabaab might inspire Somalis in Britain to carry out terrorist attacks in the UK.

Recently the group has stepped up its campaign of suicide bombings and struck outside Somalia for the first time. The bombings in July killed more than 70 people in Uganda, which contributes the bulk of the African Union force, known as Amisom, which defends the Government.

Al-Shabaab’s propaganda targets Somali youngsters abroad. A video released in July, Mogadishu: The Crusaders Graveyard, showed triumphant scenes of fighters battling against Amisom and was narrated by a masked jihadist with a British accent.

“Shabaab uses those voices and personalities to capture the attention of young Muslims around the world,” Mr Osman said. “We are here to defend against al-Shabaab, to stop it reaching beyond Somalia.”

Back in Mogadishu, the returning exiles are shocked at the destruction

The streets of the Somali capital are bullet-riddled (Jack Hill for The Times)
The streets of the Somali capital are bullet-riddled (Jack Hill for The Times)

“The morning I arrived back in Mogadishu I was speechless at the level of destruction that I saw,” said Mohamed Omaar, a Somali MP and former minister who returned from London early last year.

The road Mr Omaar drove on is only a few miles long, running from the airport to Villa Somalia, a hilltop quarter that houses government officials and departments. “I still had the old picture of that street in my mind from when I lived here. That street is at the heart of the city and it used to be so crowded that I would avoid it.”

That was back in Mogadishu’s heyday before 1990, since when the city has been riven by 20 years of fighting. Now the road is avoided for fear of bombs, suicide attacks or bullets. A Toyota pick-up truck mounted with a heavy machinegun, known here as a technical, races ahead throwing up clouds of sand and dust. Behind the 4×4 another pick-up full of militia men clutching AK47s, belt-fed machineguns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers follows, their bodies bouncing up and down with each rut and pothole.

It takes a little over five minutes to make the journey from the safety of the airport to the safety of Villa Somalia, but that safety is relative. Last month suicide bombers blew themselves up at the entrance to the airport and the gates to Villa Somalia.

The broken road passes African Union soldiers deployed to defend the government against Islamists. No building is untouched by civil war. Every afternoon the air is torn by bullets. Remarkably, about 1.5 million inhabitants still survive here.

“Some of the buildings only have the outer walls standing, but one was a theatre, one was a cinema, another was an Italian hotel dating back to the 1930s where lobster and crab were daily fare at a restaurant set in an Arabian courtyard,” Mr Omaar recalled sadly.

“You need to see the old pictures of the city to get a sense of how it was then.” Abdirahman Omar Osman, another minister who returned from London last year, said: “We are here to bring Mogadishu back.”

From Southall to suicide attacks: the fightback

General Ahmed Jumale(Jack Hill for The Times)
General Ahmed Jumale
(Jack Hill for The Times)

When Ahmed Jumale retired from the Somali Army and moved to Southall in West London in the early 1990s he was ranked colonel.

This month the soft-spoken 65-year-old came out of retirement to command the Somali armed forces in their daily battle against al-Shabaab, an Islamist extremist group that has declared its allegiance to al-Qaeda.

“I accepted the job because the problem is no longer between Somalis but between al-Qaeda and the Somali people,” Brigadier-General Jumale said.

Al-Shabaab has been on the offensive since May last year, extending its Taleban-style rule across much of the country. Intelligence sources believe that foreign fighters have helped to mastermind its military advances. During Ramadan it launched a series of assaults and suicide attacks but failed to dislodge the Government.

Ranged against al-Shabaab are Somalia’s armed forces, a divided and disorganised force backed by 7,000 African Union soldiers.

Speaking to The Times the day after his appointment last week the Prime Minister, Mohamed Abdillahi Mohamed, admitted that he did not know how many troops were at his disposal. General Jumale said that he commanded up to 9,000 troops but another official said there were far fewer when it came time to fight. In any case “command” is a loose term because many of the troops fighting al-Shabaab pay their first allegiance to — and take orders from — clan warlords, not the Government.

Discipline is also woefully lacking. Soldiers manning checkpoints loll about in flip-flops or abandon their uniforms in favour of more comfortable sarongs. Taking exception to the presence of journalists from The Times, a soldier waved his gun aggressively, ignoring orders from his officers to stand down. “That is how trouble starts,” said Abdirahman Omar Osman, a minister who observed the incident. “There is no discipline, no order. Can you imagine this happening in your country?”

Morale is also at a low ebb. Monthly salaries of $100 (£63) are rarely paid and the wounded receive little care or compensation. Political infighting leaves the soldiers disillusioned. Al-Shabaab is said to pay on time — and there is little doubting the commitment of its leaders.

View PDF here: Times-Life of comfort left behind as exiles try to rebuild city