November 2018: Mogadishu, capitol of Somalia is one of those places synonymous with war. It also brings to mind images of terrorism, the movie, Black Hawk Down, kidnappings, and piracy. This is not a list of solid reasons to want to visit a place but for me the element of danger piqued my curiosity, and I was curious to observe how the average every day person lives in this environment facing these challenges. With certain protocols and security measures in place, I was confident I could visit Mogadishu under an acceptable degree of safety, so I arranged for a 3-day trip along with my friend, Ruchard. 

 

 

About Mogadishu

Map of Mogadishu

Somalia was once part of an Islamic Sultanate but has always been undeveloped with a large population of nomadic peoples living in a semi-arid desert. Later it was colonized by the Italians and Somaliland to the north by the British. Somalia fell under the control of a ruthless dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre with a backing from the Soviet Union from 1969-1991. His harsh rule led to a civil war in Somalia that would eventually see Somaliland breakaway and claim its independence from Somalia. After Barre’s government collapsed, Somalia descended into anarchy, famine ensued, a large power vacuum developed, and warlords rushed in to take advantage. Then in 1993 in order to bring an end to the disruption of humanitarian aid being disrupted by the warlords, USA President Clinton sent in US Special Forces to capture some of the warlords. The operation devolved into chaos, Blackhawk helicopters were shot downs, US soldiers under siege, and rampant gun fights broke out in the middle of Mogadishu as attempts were made to rescue the US soldiers. The mission was a failure that cost many lives on both sides. Eventually stability in the country came during the arrival of the terrorist group, Al Shabbaab. The group relentlessly cracked down on warlords, smuggling and all things anti-Islamic but it also enforced extreme and radical forms of Sharia law. Because Al Shabbaab aligned with Al Qaeda and turned its sights to fighting other governments in surrounding countries, the African Union and US military eventually toppled it as a governing authority in Somalia and it went into hiding as gorilla insurgents, where it has remained for over a decade terrorizing the country, launching suicide bomb attacks, kidnapping and doing everything possible to undermine the government. Outside of Mogadishu, Al Shabbaab has the majority of control and there are no safe and reliable roads into the country to Mogadishu. Somalia is essentially a failed state that is ruled by chaos, and this has also led to it becoming one of the piracy leaders of the world.

 

How to get to Mogadishu

There are flights from Kenya and Istanbul to Mogadishu. Anyone can purchase a flight and fly to Mogadishu, but airport authorities will not let you enter unless you have a local sponsor who is responsible for you during your stay. I obtained a visa on arrival authority letter from a local company that I received through a British adventure company. The price of the trip is steep and is usually only 3 days/2nights long and only consists of Mogadishu, the most secure place in Somalia, and Mogadishu is far from being secure.

My friend Richard and I flew in via Turkish Airlines from Istanbul. It was a huge Boeing 777 plane that stopped in Djibouti enroute to Mogadishu. The flight was an overnight flight and when we boarded on my way to my economy seat in back, I stopped in First class for a moment to discuss something with Richard by his seat. I noticed First Class was empty, so I just stayed there and fell asleep. 7 hours later I was still there, and the flight crew never bothered to say anything. They served me as any other passenger in First Class. Maybe it was because they were too preoccupied with the risk of flying into Mogadishu too care or they just decided to be nice and let me stay up there. Either way, it was a nice free upgrade.

Flying over Somalia, I glanced down at the desert below us and there was no development, no cities, just a few random villages of rudimentary looking huts. To land in Mogadishu, we had to fly out over the ocean and make our approach over the water to the airport. Every part of the approach is by design for security. The whole region around the airport is a high security zone called the Green Zone, with fortified walls, security checkpoints, and access only given to those with approval. The approach is done over the ocean because boats are restricted by military patrols and helicopters to keep Al Shabbaab from firing RPGs at any low flying landing planes when they are most vulnerable to an attack. Departing planes also take off over the ocean. Any planes arriving over land into Mogadishu would most likely be attacked by an RPG.

Approach into Mogadishu

Safety Precautions

There is no question about it, Mogadishu is one of the most dangerous cities in the world and unlike Afghanistan where I look more like the locals and can dress like them to better fit in, there is no doing so in Mogadishu where the locals are far darker than I am. When I asked a few Somalians if I would be safe walking around the city on my own, they all replied no, you would be guaranteed to be kidnapped within 24 hours or maybe even in less time and in broad daylight. This is not an experience I would want to risk and besides you are not allowed to visit Mogadishu independently anyways and the companies that do sponsor tourists do so only under heavy security guidelines. You must stay in a highly secure hotel, have a military escort and approved itinerary, and usually a vehicle with bullet resistant windows. You are also allowed to only stay within the country for just a few days.

Just exiting the airport is a huge hassle and involves passing multiple checkpoints before you are outside of the airport security zone. It took us hours before we were finally able to find our guide because he was forced to wait outside of the airport with our vehicle and driver. Our vehicle was a 4WD Landcruiser with tinted windows and thick bullet resistant windows. The windows were tinted to outsiders couldn’t see Richard and I in the back seat. The downside of this was we couldn’t see outside the car very easily too.  A jeep with 4-6 Somalian paid soldiers drove in front of us at all times and whenever we stopped at approved locations that had been vetted by a private security company hired by our host to ensure our safety, the soldiers would fan out and form a perimeter around us with guns at their side at all times.

To enter our hotel, we had to pass through multiple security checkpoints, walls made of blast bags, barbed wire fence 20 feet high and full body pat downs and body scanners. Security in Mogadishu was no joke, and we were still inside the green Zone and not in the main part of the city where most of the risk lay. All of the security was for good reason too. The Green Zone is constantly under attack by Al Shabbaab since this is where government officials, military and foreigners live and stay. Every hotel in Mogadishu has come under attack by Al Shabbaab. The manager of our hotel, a Kenyan man explained to me with a smile that he had survived two attacks. One led by a suicide bomber who tuned out to be one of the workers in the hotel who helped the gunmen get in and dozens were killed. The manager and others hid inside a secret room that was protected from bullets and bombs until the attackers were killed by the military. Suicide bombings, kidnappings and RPG attacks are normal in this part of the world.

Why would I want to vacation here then? Someday I might be able to answer this but the thrill-seeking part of me enjoys these experiences and I wanted to see Mogadishu with my own eyes and meet the Somalian people that I often meet in my home state of Minnesota, where there are so many refuges. I strive to know as many places on Earth as I can in this short life to have a better understanding of them and the people that come from there so I can better relate to them and have a better understanding of them. This is the main reason why I want to travel to these types of places.

View from hotel balcony of security walls, airport in distance and the ocean

Our military escort truck with armed soldiers sitting on the back 

Our military escort truck with armed soldiers sitting on the back 

Armed vehcile convoy passing through city streets

We ate most of our meals in our hotel in a banquet room full of sorted African dignitaries and security personnel. I smuggled some rum into the country from the plane with my luggage and Richard and I had some shots to take the edge off after dinner. We planned our escape from the hotel in the event that the hotel was attacked. In these types of places, it is always good to have a plan and be ready if the unthinkable does become a reality. This could be the difference between life and death. I went to bed that night listening to the call to prayer being loudly played from mosque speakers across the city and the occasional sound of a gun shot in the distance. 

Fish Market

Out itinerary was subject to change based on security updates, and intelligence received. There were no guaranteed stops and despite me asking to visit different places not usually on the itinerary, these stops were not permitted. Th most popular stop of every Mogadishu itinerary however is the fish market.  This involves an early morning visit when the fisherman are offloading their catch.  In my travels I have been to many fish markets bt nothing could prepare me for how mind blowing this market was. It is not that it is huge. What really surprised me was how large the fish are and how endangered they are. I saw so many enormous sharks, marling, sail fish, hammerheads, manta rays and even dolphins being hauled into the market on the shoulders of porters or via wheelbarrow. The porters are all very opposed to having their photos taken and I figure that unless that some kind of payment system is adopted that includes them for tourist photo tips, one day a tourist will be attacked. All fish are hauled into the market where they are gruesomely cut up on the floor in a pool of rotten, congealed blood that is pooled all over the floor where people walk and stand.  Again, in the market, most people are very confrontational the moment you present a photo, so it is a very delicate process to take any photos.

Fisherman drying fish and fins outside

Huge fish being hauled in 

Huge fish being hauled in 

Huge fish being hauled in 

Dolphins being hauled in 

Dolphins being hauled in 

Fishmarket

Fishmarket

Fishmarket

Fishmarket

One of the only people in the fish market who was willing to pose for my camera

Old Italian Harbor

The 2nd most interest place in Mogadishu is the old city and old Italian lighthouse which is about 100 years old. The area is beautiful, but garbage is sadly everywhere. It is interesting to walk up and down the beach and observe the children swimming in the ocean and the people going about their lives living in the delipidated old Italian buildings that appear abandoned but aren’t. There are people even living in the Italian lighthouse.

Old Italian Lighthouse

 

Italian Lighthouse and Locals Swimming

Old Italian era buildings

Somali Kid

Richard contemplating the MOG

Kids playing

Smiling Kid

Independance Monument

We visited the Independance monument and tomb of unknown soldier. The soldier escorts kept a close watch on us. Just across the street was a blown-up building from an Al Sahabaab attack that didn’t happen too long ago.

One of our soldier escorts at the independance monument

Lido Beach

The prettiest beach in town is Lido beach. We went to a cage overlooking the beach and ordered lunch and some of the best fruit smoothies I have ever had. For a little while in the cafe, I felt like I was in a normal and safe African city. I did find out that the cafe was attacked once by Al Shabab and likely will be attacked again. Couples played in the ocean together, women adorned with full body abayas and all swimmers wearing life jackets even if only in the shallowest parts of the beach.  A Somalian woman in an abaya overheard me talking and came to speak to me. She spoke with an American accent and said she lives in Minnesota and recognized my accent. She was very surprised that I was visiting Somalia.

Lido Beach

Lido Beach

Lido Beach

Homemade lifejacket

Exploring the City

The plan was to drive through the city, see the largest market where Black Hawk Dawn occurred in Bakaaraha Market, the largest market in the city. Sadly, it was too dangerous for us to stop anywhere so this tour would only be via our vehicle. The remains of one of the Black Hawks is still located in the market but we were unable to visit it because it is too close to a military checkpoint and the military do not allow visitors to it anymore. We passed traffic choked streets that were quite worrisome since many of these locations have been attacked by suicide bombers before killing scores of people.

Much of my focus in this write up has been on violence and ugliness but it is important to note how kind and friendly most people were to us too. Everywhere we went people, especially young people would come up to us very inquisitively and ask us about our country, our names and jobs. This was especially the case when we visited the Peace Park, where lots of young people were relaxing having sodas. It was great to see this part of Mogadishu, a part that didn’t fit into the frame of terrorism and violence that is so often perceived when the name Mogadishu is mentioned.

Local shops

Local shops

Local man

Marketplace

Market

Market

Blown up buildings

Leaving Mogadishu

On our last day, departing the airport was one of the most laborious security procedures I have ever endured. There were multiple checkpoints before even getting into the airport. One involved handing over all of our bags, which were taken away from us and into a room where dogs sniffed them, and they were scanned for explosives. Once in the airport, we were harassed by porters for tips who were relentless and then we had to pass multiple additional security checks. Then once at the gate, all of our bags were again separated and sniffed by the dogs and everyone including any airport staff were patted down before entering the plane. It was a great relief when our plane departed and reached cruising elevation.

8 + 15 =

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