It has been hard to have much fun in Mogadishu for quite some time.
The gunfire and explosions, obviously, have made for less than a peaceful night’s sleep but this Blog is not looking at the consistent violence of the “Failed State of Somalia”.
We are are looking at recreation. And its decline.
The Islamic group Hezb al-Islam has just banned video games. They’ll still train you in the fine arts of discharging an RPG into a girls school and blowing yourself up in public places thereby earning yourself 70 virgins when you subsequently hit Paradise.
Shooting computer Aliens and battling dragons in cyber cafes however “destroys our social traditions and for that reason, anybody found ignoring this order will be punished and equipment will be confiscated” according to Sheik Mohamad Omar, head of propaganda for Hezb al-Islam. The insurgent group is linked to our favourite group of really bad pilots.
This Tradition thing has me confused.
The same group of ’70 virgin’ applicants has flogged people found guilty of dancing to traditional songs.
Men caught trimming their beards (a Somali tradition) have been flogged.
Young people playing football have been severely reprimanded for wearing shorts. Playing football and wearing shorts isn’t a Somali tradition. But it’s recreational and the kids enjoy it.
No doubt they will soon have their footballs confiscated.
Then they’ll be flogged.
MY MOGADISHU DIARY
My first visit to Mogadishu (and my last) was during Operation Restore Hope. My reckless but idealistic wife had read an interview in the Japan Times. The interviewee was a UN high-up and she was lamenting the fact that while Japan was showering the UN with cash, it wasn’t coming forward with volunteer personnel.
My wife immediately phoned Geneva and volunteered to help out in Sarajevo.
Several months passed before she was finally informed that the UN would like her in Liberia.
Another war torn hell hole. But hey! She was up for it. Several more months passed. Nothing heard from the UN.
Then her presence was suddenly required in Sierra Leone. Same deal – another war torn hell hole (for details check my novel Homunculus). And then nothing more heard from the UN.
Finally it was Somalia’s turn. And this time Geneva actually meant it and she shipped out for Mogadishu, or ‘The Mog’ as the US Marines called it.
I hitched a lift on a Hercules leaving Nairobi and swung by to see what she was up to, and to check out the nightlife, catch a few rays on the beach, sample the local cuisine – the usual tourist stuff.
Somali men, when they are not shooting each other, like holding each others’ hands.
The guy who met me at the airstrip immediately took my hand, wouldn’t let go and together we walked half a kilometer watched by several thousand American soldiers who clearly thought I was gay, and past tanks, a vast pile of wrecked jet fighters (former President Said Barre’s air force) and then it was into an armoured vehicle and time to see the sights.
These were, of course, frightful. Before the war(s) Mogadishu must have been rather beautiful. Lots of whitewashed buildings, courtly villas, gardens, mosques, markets, gentile hotels overlooking the Indian Ocean… But the feuding clans (this isn’t a tribal thing, it’s a clan thing; Somalis believe they are all descended from the same family) had trashed the place.
The buildings that hadn’t been blown up were pockmarked with bullet scars. And the only hotel still functioning was filled with despondent war correspondents smelling of Bourbon, taps that didn’t work, stacks of of of inedible field rations purloined from the Restore Hopers and really large cockroaches whose air cover was supplied by mosquitoes. The manager had the audacity to try to charge me $US 200 a night for a room that definitely had a view. But with all the roof top snipers busily engaged in looking for white men to shoot I decided that that the last thing I needed was a view.
WHAT MY WIFE WAS DOING
She was organising UN press statements of the “ten bodies were retrieved from the harbour exhibiting evidence of shark damage” sort. These weren’t approved. What the UN wanted was a mixture of good news (to encourage donations) and bad news (to encourage more donations). She, like other UN volunteers, was housed in a UN-organised compound eating three course meals prepared by a local chef who had been coached by an extremely gifted Italian chef. I’d assumed she’d be living in a tent, surrounded by skeletal children and whimpering refugees with vulture bites.
Au contraire. This was luxury! I decided to become a resident.
“WHAT’S IT LIKE OUT THERE?”
I thought I’d misheard the question when the French volunteer asked me as we twizzled pasta on our forks and sipped red wine.
“Out where?” I asked. “Nairobi?”
“The city. What is happening?”
“I’ve just arrived. I was hoping you’d tell me.”
“I don’t know. I have not seen it.”
TO BE CONTINUED.