A City in Healing After Two Decades of War

by Mitchell Sutika Sipus

Ruins of the former Somali parliament building in Mogadishu.

The mayor of Mogadishu, Mohammed Nor, known as Tarzan for the way he used to flee the police as a street orphan, likes to use the phrase "resurrecting a city from the ashes." As an advisor to the mayor on post-conflict reconstruction and urban planning, my work veers outside the usual concerns of land use and city management. After 21 years of war, there is a pressing need for psychological healing in addition to rebuilding physical infrastructure.

When the government of Somalia collapsed in 1991, it was difficult for the people of Mogadishu to comprehend what was happening around them. They were not used to so much violence or random acts of terrorism. Under President Said Barre, Somalia was a relatively stable, industrializing nation. Barre was adept at playing the cold war to his advantage, and while many fled the country in fear of abuses by the police and national intelligence agencies, markets were stable and crime was low. Chaos broke out when the Soviet Union collapsed and Barre's manipulation of tribal tensions to consolidate power became untenable. But the international community rallied and the citizens of Mogadishu believed that life would soon return to normal. Then international forces and aid agencies retreated just as quickly as they had arrived.

With the government in disarray, local warlords battled for territory. Municipal services ceased, products disappeared from market shelves, and necessities such as clean water and electricity became scarce luxuries. With no power in the city, everyone had to leave work in time to be home by sundown. At night the residents of Mogadishu huddled with their families in darkness, listening to the unknown terrors of the night.

Residential street in Mogadishu.

Over time the sight of heavily armed children became normal. Destruction from massive explosions and the sound of gunshots became the tenor of daily life. The risks of living in a war zone are less about becoming a target than they are about simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and for the residents of Mogadishu no place was safe. Every person in the city was directly affected. Everyone who survived those years lost someone close to them; some lost their entire families. Many were able to flee across the border to Kenya, where they found relative safety in refugee camps. Others made it to Europe or America. Many remained in Mogadishu to contend with the harsh realities of civil war.

When the Union of Islamic Courts emerged in 2006, people were relieved by the presence of law and order. But this relief was short-lived, as the courts collapsed and the militant group al-Shabaab rose to power, bringing a degree of stability through brutal authoritarian rule. It was not difficult for Shabaab to enlist thousands of desperate young boys whose entire lives had been consumed by violence.

A young man inspects his weapon.

The simple joys of life — from listening to music to swimming in the ocean and playing football with friends — were outlawed. Judgements were swift and severe, with public execution a common punishment. Attempts to intervene by the UN-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) were undermined by suicide bombings and other terrorist acts. While Shabaab's rule lasted for years and expanded rapidly through southern Somalia, it was difficult for them to control the entire country.

Despite some development in telecommunications, Somalia's economy faltered as viable exports declined. Shabaab taxed citizens heavily and dominated essential transit and shipping corridors. Drought, famine and emigration left few resources for Shabaab to collect. This predicament — combined with pressure from African Union forces, the Kenyan military and U.S. drone attacks on key leaders — eventually brought the Shabaab regime to an end.

On August 6, 2011, the streets of Mogadishu were eerily quiet. There were no gunshots or explosions. Al-Shabaab had abandoned the city. No one really knew how it happened, but for the first time in decades the streets were no longer battlegrounds. There was much hesitation and suspicion, but with each passing hour it became clear that Mogadishu was a different city.

Volunteers rebuild the city.

The mayor quickly seized the opportunity. His foremost concern was security, followed by supplying electricity and cleaning up the city. Soldiers from the African Union and the TFG worked with local police to secure Mogadishu's 16 districts. Concurrently, the mayor approached the private power companies that catered to government institutions and a few wealthy citizens, demanding that they supply power to the entire city. When the companies balked, he threatened to import massive generators and compete to supply power at cost. The companies acquiesced. For the first time in 20 years, the lights came on in Mogadishu.

New solar street lights in Mogadishu's center.

Great strides have been made over the past year. With help from the Turkish government, USAID and the European Union, Mogadishu has cleaned up many streets and other public areas. After 21 years without garbage collection, mountains of trash remain common, but they are slowing disappearing. Thanks to the work of the Norwegian Refugee Council, solar fitted street lights were installed in the city center with great success. Food for work programs and volunteer corps are repairing monuments, cleaning streets and clearing destroyed buildings. This will take time, as there are many, many destroyed buildings.

Rebuilding the physical landscape is only part of the struggle. How can the city heal psychologically? Mogadishu's deputy mayor, Iman Icar, believes that to transform the city it is essential to transform the minds of residents. He explains, "I realized one day how we could not do our jobs because we were all traumatized. People would just fight and hurt and undermine one another. We asked USAID to help us with this and they sent us people to do a workshop. It was very powerful. I remember people were crying, saying they find themselves doing things they do not understand. A woman said she discovers herself beating her children for no reason. And after we did this workshop the difference was immediate. Suddenly we could communicate. We could work together."

A trauma workshop for members of the city government is a good start, but to provide similar services for an entire city is daunting. The mayor recently set up a new initiative to provide training in trauma healing and reconciliation for 50 people in each district. On July 19, 2012, the program concluded with a grand ceremony attended by President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. The first 800 graduates will train another group of 800. In a city of three million, 1600 people may not be much, but it is a ripple in the pond that, with continued effort and support, will grow ever wider.

Mitchell Sutika Sipus is an urban planning advisor to the Mayor of Mogadishu. He also lives and works in Kabul, Afghanistan. You can learn more about his work at thehumanitarianspace.com.

Credits: Photos by Mitchell Sutika Sipus.

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  1. fascinating article. your description of the end of conflict is completely unforgettable. i never stopped to think about the effects of this war on mogadishu. no electricity, no trash collection, children with weapons, violence with no end in sight, people living just to avoid being in the wrong place at the wrong time. a nightmare. thank you for telling this story and best wishes to you and everyone working toward recovery.

  2. I greatly enjoyed your article. It's wonderful to get (positive) insights into the state of African cities since they are so rarely the focus of urban analyses. I thought your piece resonates deeply with Karen Till's work on what she calls "wounded cities." You can check out her work here: http://www.crassh.cam.ac.uk/events/1883/

  3. I like it .. thanks