Somalia — 20 years on the brink of chaos

The story of Somalia’s troubles can be read in the decay of its capital, Mogadishu. As the country i

The story of Somalia’s troubles can be read in the decay of its capital, Mogadishu. As the country is once more gripped by drought, Xan Rice charts its downfall.

I was new to Somalia and Mohamed Abbi, a tombstone-toothed, guitar-plucking security guard, was telling me some important truths.

The first was that if he crossed the invisible line that divided Galkayo, the scruffy town that I was visiting, he would be killed.

This was nothing personal, Abbi explained. Most of the town's residents were either Darod or Hawiye, two of Somalia's main clans. The people looked the same, spoke the same language, and were all Muslims. Yet the Darods, including Abbi, were confined to north Galkayo, the Hawiyes to the south.

“If I had to go to the south now, surely I would be shot," he said earnestly. "A southerner coming here to the north, he would be shot, too."

Abbi was not exaggerating. So entrenched was the clan divide that the international ­medical charity that was hosting me in 2005 operated separate hospitals on either side of town. Even a dying man could not cross the "Green Line". And in Galkayo the frequent clashes between the rival clans meant there were plenty of ­dying men. Which led Abbi to reveal his second truth: that virtually every man had a gun, from the teenagers who rode around town on the back of pick-up trucks mounted with machine-guns to the middle-aged shopkeepers selling tea and cigarettes. (Ab­bi's weapon of choice, like most men's, was an AK-47, which he wore slung over his shoulder so its barrel pointed past his green fedora.)

As we sat outside the aid agency's fortified compound in the early evening, he moved on to lamenting the ineffectiveness of the current government. It was the 14th attempt at instal­ling a national authority in 14 years and, in its desperation to find a solution to Somalia's ills, the international community had endorsed a warlord as president, the 70-year-old former colonel Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed. But Yusuf, like most of his government, preferred to live in the comparative comfort of Nairobi, Kenya, rather than the Somali capital, Mogadishu, where other warlords held sway. Anarchy might have been too strong a word for the situation there, and indeed across much of the country, for the bullet did ensure a certain type of order - but it was not too far off.

“If we don't get a national government, it will always be like this," was Abbi's final truth. Having grown up in Mogadishu in the 1950s, he was old enough to remember a different time, long before the mention of Somalia immediately brought to mind the words "failed state". Those were the peaceful, dying days of the "Italian empire" that had been established in the Horn of Africa by Mussolini.

Back then, the Somali capital was a handsome, orderly city, beautifully appointed on the shores of the Indian Ocean, Abbi told me. Independence followed in 1960, but the promising start did not last long. Clan loyalties were already threatening the stability of the government by the time Mohamed Siad Barre seized power in a bloodless coup in 1969, promptly suspending the constitution and banning political parties.

Barre viewed "clanism" as a deadly disease, but his efforts to create a national identity that trumped it failed, not least because he soon turned into a dictator. He was overthrown in January 1991 by the warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid and his clan militia. Abbi, who was working as a policeman by then, fled the capital for Galkayo. The age of chaos had set in.

Fifteen years on, people were still fleeing the city, as I found a few months later when I visited Bosaso, a sweltering, somewhat seedy town on the northern coast of Somalia that faces on to the Gulf of Aden. So dire were the prospects at home that thousands of young ­Somalis from Mogadishu - as well as some Ethiopians and Eritreans - were willing to risk their lives to cross the sea in overcrowded smugglers' fishing boats in order to reach Yemen. The risks were huge. Of the 20,000 people who had made the crossing in the previous six or so months, nearly a thousand were believed to have died. Yet the young men whom I spoke to as they sat watching the turquoise sea from the hills near Bosaso were happy leaving it to fate. Better to die trying to escape at sea than die sitting at home, they reasoned.

I was beginning to wonder if I would ever get to see Mogadishu, which was still considered too dangerous for outsiders. Then somethingextraordinary happened: the warlords were defeated. It was June 2006.

“Liberation"

The victor was the Union of Islamic Courts, a coalition of sharia courts that had slowly begun to bring to order to pockets of the city in the preceding years, gaining tremendous goodwill from the population. I flew in on a commercial flight a few weeks after the city's "liberation" and was met at the airport by my fixer and my security detail - a pick-up full of men with AK-47s. As we drove around Mogadishu, I was astonished at the level of destruction.

“Battle-scarred" was the description I had always read, but it did not seem to do this justice. Building after building bore the acne of bul­lets or heavier weapons. Along the seafront, once-beautiful houses, offices, ministry build­ings and embassies lay in ruins. Years of rubbish had accumulated alongside the rutted streets. The city was utterly destroyed.

But its people were not. For the first time since the early 1990s, residents could move freely in their own city because the warlord checkpoints were gone. Men and women actually dared to walk around at night, or share a dinner with friends. The nightly soundtrack of gunfire had disappeared, as had the fear of kidnapping, robbery and extortion. The head of a local radio station told me that what had happened was a "miracle".

The euphoria all around gave me a false sense of security, and I thought it would be safe enough for a foreigner to cover a political rally in support of the Islamic Courts. One of the two other foreign journalists who made the same calculation was Martin Adler, a brilliant freelance televisionjournalist with a wife and two young daughters at home in Sweden. As he filmed the crowd, he was shot dead at close range. I flew back home the next day in the plane that carried his body. Nobody claimed ­responsibility for the killing.

The Islamic Courts leadership included a few radicals with alleged links to al-Qaeda, but numerous moderates, too. Indeed, many people in Mogadishu believed that the Islamist authority was the best hope in years for the country to move forward. But neighbouring Ethiopia and the United States viewed the courts as a terror threat that needed to be eliminated. Ethiopian troops swept into Mogadishu six months later.

Within weeks an insurgency had begun. Out of the spiderholes into which the courts had disappeared crawled the al-Shabaab rebels, a radical militant group with very real links to al-Qaeda and a seemingly limitless capacity for brutality. As I covered Somalia from the safety of Kenya over the next few years, the insurgents' catalogue of cruelty thickened: from suicide bombs at home and in Uganda, to the public stoning of a teenage girl accused of ­adultery. Last year, one of my Somali friends introduced me to a 17-year-old boy whom he had helped escape from Mogadishu. Accused by al-Shabaab of theft, the boy had his right hand and left foot sawn off in front of a large crowd that included his mother.

I've still not been back to Mogadishu, which remains only partly controlled by the government. Yet, despite the dangers in the city, people are now arriving in the thousands from the al-Shabaab-controlled countryside where famine has been declared. Others are heading to Galkayo. The town remains split in two.

Xan Rice is a contributing writer for the New Statesman

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the far right

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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

***

The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

***

The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

***

Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

***

Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

***

Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.

This article first appeared in the 01 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the far right