Photograph: Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP


Last December a bomb exploded in Mogadishu.  Actually, it was the 4th of December. I didn’t remember the date until I looked it up just now.  Pictures like the one at the left pretty much fit most people’s world view of Somalia.  Yet, I live here and I have a completely different view of the situation. 

I left my house on the day in question about about 2 or so in the afternoon.   I walked out of the gigantic green gate which is the entrance to our compound via the embedded regular sized door and stopped for a few moments to chat with my body guards who would be walking with me the 200 m or so to my friend’s house. 

As one left to go grab a jacket and something to drink, another of them and I were chatting in Somalglish.  He told me that there had been a bomb that day in Mogadishu.  I didn’t think that much about it as bombs are always going off in Mogadishu.  I replied, “OK.”  If I got too worked up every time I heard that someone had died violently, or that a militia was now mobilizing, or that this area or that area was on the verge of complete and utter dissolution then I would have gone insane long ago. 

Moments after the guard who would be accompanying me returned and we headed off to my friends.  I have no idea what I may have been pondering during the time, but it surely was brilliant and had nothing to do with the bomb. 

When I arrived at my friend’s house everyone was particularly chatty that day.  I took my assigned seat in the circle which all eight or so of us occupy with regularity.  We sit on the floor due to a legend that if you chew qat while sitting on cushions you’ll get indigestion.  No one was that worked up, but the radio had not yet come on and the power in my friend’s house doesn’t turn on until 4 pm or so. 

I think that it was about 3 when VOA Somali is aired.  My friend Maal loves his little radio and he loves the VOA – which has only been operating for the past six months or so.  Prior to that everyone received their news via BBC Somali’s radio service.  When VOA came in, for whatever reason, they tromped BBC – which swelled my national pride at the expense of my wife’s. 

Anyway, VOA came on and everyone listened with horror to the headline.  There had been a suicide bomb at a medical school graduation in Mogadishu that day.  Slowly the information came out.  And then the power came on and we instantly turned on al Jazeera.  The pictures were horrible.  As the afternoon wore on I grew angrier and angrier by the moment. 

On the one had there was the human tragedy part of the story.  The kids that were graduating had known war their *entire *lives.  Most likely they had heard gun shots almost everyday that they’ve been born.  They had likely been subjected to the sounds of mortars at least once a month going into the depths of their memories. 

They had been subjected to social pressures unimaginable to me. Sure, we all have to deal with peer pressure, but many of the peers of these kids were beyond violent gangsters long, long ago.  They had rejected the pressure to take up a gun – and they had found a way to stay in school.  Likely they did not always finish their homework as when it got dark, it got *dark.  *They probably did not have working generators for significant portions of their childhoods – making studying after sunset next to impossible unless you can catch some cars driving by (but this is Mogadishu and there aren’t that many of them).  The list goes on and on, and kids all over Africa have gone through these horrors which make our childhood complaints so minuscule.  

And yet, these kids had rejected the easy route that so many of those their age had taken on.  Indeed, they had not only rejected the route of violence, they had taken a decided opposite route.  I make this joke about how after graduating undergraduate with an engineering degree I decided to become a Marine and blow things up instead of building them.  These kids made the correct choice, which is the opposite of mine.  They decided to put *people *back together instead of blowing people up.  

Let us not look at this with rose colored glasses and think that, well, they had made a financial decision.  Doctors in south-central Somalia are like teachers in the US, well-respected but under-compensated. 

But this day, this day was a chance to celebrate.  A chance to turn their finely tuned sense of danger off.  A chance to relax their tension for a small time.  A chance for their parents who equally sacrificed throughout to engage in the age old parental paradigm: to be proud of their offspring.  A chance for redemption, that they had beaten all the forces which have colluded against their academic success. 

And then…. B    O    O     M.

I have no way to imagine.  Now, almost two months after the event my heart still breaks when I try to imagine the scene. 

That day, here with my friends, almost all eight of us were brought to tears.  The rest of them are all older Somali men.  And not prone to over-sensitivity. 

I oscillated.  My emotions swung from extreme horror and sadness about the actual explosion to anger because of what had cause the explosion.  Back and forth through the afternoon.  Back and forth as the information came out.  Back and forth as the videos were shown on al Jazeera.  Back and forth.

The anger stemmed from the realization that this is a new phenomenon in Somalia.  See, Mogadishu has been an utter mess for well over twenty years.  However, it has been a mess that has been (by all Somali accounts) largely navigable.  Things were oddly predictable if you understood the situation well.  The Somali conflict has been (prior to the most recent couple of years) largely distinct from other African conflicts.  Civilian casualties have been quite low.  Rape, mass slaughter, amputations, rampant drug use, cannibalism, all of the horror that sells newspapers and funds NGOs has largely been absent from the Somali conflict.  I do not try to minimize the trials of those in Mogadishu, I’m simply saying that vis a vis Sierra Leone for instance things are very different.

Those that have lived in Mogadishu have been able to more or less live, despite the limitations. 

But, things have been changing rapidly in south-central Somalia.  The “invasion” by the Ethiopians did not spawn it.  In fact, that was quite conventional warfare mixed with a conventional insurgency.  It was after the Ethiopians withdrew when Mogadishu experienced its first suicide bomb.  If I remember correctly it was a vehicle-borne IED detonated in front of an AMISOM compound – no one was hurt. 

A few months later, in October 2008 three coordinated suicide bombs went off here in the capital of the north.  It was a dark day, and a pivotal day.  In more ways than the devastation, it was Somalia’s 9/11.  By that I mean it was a watershed event and marks a disjunctive point in time where everything before and everything after must be interpreted in very different ways. 

Admittedly the frequency of suicide attacks and other advanced insurgent tactics based upon the violence against civilians is much lower in Mogadishu than in Afghanistan or Iraq.  And, yet, the frequency is steadily increasing.  Here in the north, in the town that marks the boundary between the north-eastern and northern sections of what the world knows as Somalia has been a mess for the past few weeks. 

A suicide bomber strapped himself up, and gave his friend the remote detonator.  He intended to walk into the hotel where some Ministers and other officials were staying and have his friend detonate him.  This tactic was largely developed by the Palestinians to ensure that the human delivering the explosive did not get cold feet about the situation.  However, and for whatever reason, the friend pushed the remote detonator when the strapped friend was 200 m or so from the hotel.  No one was hurt, except for the strapped friend.  The legs of that man are intact, but the rest was decimated. 

This all represents the genesis of my anger on that day last December.  For years and years, Somali society like the kids who stayed in school, have resisted the more awful aspects of war.  Yes all war is terrible, but in my mind there are degrees.  And suicide bombings is about the lowest one can get tactically.  For whatever reason, Somali society has not been able to hold back the tendency to engage in these tactics.  Maybe it is foreign fighters coming in.  Maybe AQ is there in the south and training fighters.  Maybe it is copycat-ism. 

I have no idea, but it makes me angry.  Because the only result of this situation is that more people.  Real people.  People that do not deserve to die.  Will die. 

No many people who grew up on my circumstances of life – middle-class in the developed world – understand what it feels like to have a country you love invaded.  But there, on that floor, on that day I began to understand what the Iraqis may have felt when a friend of mine hoisted an American flag over Saddam’s face. 

What struck me the most, besides the anger and the sadness, was the utter feeling of hopelessness.  Long ago I put down a gun and picked up books.  I decided that my brain and my words were the weapons that I personally wielded the best.  Part of me, on that particular day, regretted that decision.  Because I just wanted to do something.  And yet, what can words or logic or reason achieve?  That is the question.  

All I do know is that I have to continue to hope and to try.

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