Mogadishu, Somalia — Abdullahi Othman stoops, covered in dust and plaster, beads of sweat gathering on his forehead as he uses a shovel to mix concrete. The building above him, a towering Italian-era hotel, stands in ruin, with bullet holes running up its walls.
Two years ago, the hotel was occupied by al-Shabaab, a hard-line armed group, which positioned snipers on the rooftop and sent mortars flying into the slither of territory controlled by Somalia’s weak transitional government. Now labourers – not fighters – run up the Oriental Hotel’s crumbling stairwells, lugging window frames and doors, concrete and steel.
“There is a lot of work to do,” says Othman. “My life is good.”
Here in Mogadishu, Somalia’s shattered capital, a sustained period of relative calm holds, allowing the city’s buildings to come back to life, thanks to a massive reconstruction effort. Labourers gather at dawn, hauling pails of stone and work tools, leaving only when the sun sets.
Scaffolding surrounds battle-scarred and derelict buildings. A local women’s group has plans to lay flower beds next to pot-holed roads. Beachside cafes have opened, serving lobster and watermelon juice. And the sounds of hammers pumping nails into wood and the scrape of paint brushes against walls now can be heard.
Mogadishu was once known as the Pearl of the Indian Ocean. Its palm tree-lined streets wind through a maze of buildings shaded in Arabic, Italian and Portuguese architectural features – evidence of its cosmopolitan past.
In the early 1990s, as then-President Siad Barre’s regime crumbled, internecine clan warfare set in. Rival warlord oligopolies carved fiefs from a dying land, and slugged it out in endless turf wars, hammering countless bullets into Mogadishu’s buildings.
Decades of civil strife, including a major humanitarian crisis, has left this city a shell of its former self.
Yet under the scars and ruin it retains elegance, sat beside turquoise waters. Bakara Market – the city’s commercial hub – buzzes with vendors’ cries during the day, while people pack the nearby beaches.
“I have enough money to live each day,” says Othman, as labourers nearby erect support columns for an outdoor café at the hotel. “It’s not a lot, but it is enough to survive.”
Somalia’s building expansion is providing thousands of people with work, with this one hotel employing 30 labourers.
“Because of this hotel, we are providing more than 100 people – the workers’ families – with money. This is very important,” says 43-year-old Abdulle Hussein, who has returned from Italy after 23 years to oversee the reconstruction of the hotel, which his family owns. “If we can maintain this peace, then we can invest and develop our country – this is Somalia’s chance to move past war, we cannot miss this opportunity.”
But the relative peace in the city is tempered by fears that the country could once again spiral into all-out chaos. The government was appointed by 135 clan elders last year in a process marred by political interference and intimidation, and tensions between it and some of the country’s regions – such as Jubaland, where a federalist movement is seeking recognition – persist.
And while these tensions threaten to escalate, legitimacy is being sapped from a central government seen by some analysts as one of the world’s most corrupt administrations. In 2011, a whistle-blower told theAssociated Press news agency that $300m had been siphoned off by officials, while, according to a 2012 World Bank report, $130m had vanished between 2009 and 2010.
These allegations, if true, are a severe condemnation of the government’s actions as the country was gripped by a massive humanitarian crisis.
In 2011, a prolonged drought caused crops to fail and animals to die, with thousands streaming into Mogadishu in the search for food and shelter after a country-wide famine struck. Tens of thousands of children died, often victims of complications arising from acute malnutrition.
The displaced still linger in tent cities – built from scavenged scrap and sticks.
Mohammed, living in one of the capital’s IDP camps, says his family left their home nearly two years ago, as the famine reached its apex.
“Where can we go? Our animals are dead, our homes are gone,” Mohammed says.
Al-Shabaab is also not entirely defeated. Still controlling large swathes of the countryside, the armed group is capable of attacking territory under government control. In mid-April, nine armed members of al-Shabaab wearing suicide vests attacked the Supreme Court building in Mogadishu, taking a number of hostages and battling security forces in the streets. At least 35 people died in the prolonged firefight.
Events in the key town of Xuudur also highlight the fatigue of foreign troops fighting al-Shabaab – and illustrate the fear civilians have of retribution: after Ethiopian forces unexpectedly withdrew from the town, al-Shabaab swept through it, hacking off the head of a local sheikh after accusing him of supporting the foreign soldiers.
“The withdrawal [from Xuudur] had an immediate effect on the populations who faced retribution from al-Shabaab,” said Cedric Barnes, Horn of Africa project director at the International Crisis Group. “If the Ethiopians do go, it is likely AMISOM (The African Union Mission in Somalia) will hold main towns, but under increased pressure, with al-Shabaab having free movement in rural areas.”
What’s more, many analysts suspect al-Shabaab has heavily infiltrated the government and security apparatus.
William Reno, an expert in African militia and a professor at Northwestern University, highlights the alliances between the Islamic Courts Union – a group of courts that controlled most of Somalia in 2006, and from which al-Shabaab was formed – and the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which gave rise to the current federal government of Somalia in 2012.
“When the Islamic Courts Union joined the TFG [following negotiations in Djibouti in 2009], they took the power positions in security and intelligence, bringing in their rank and file,” says Reno.
“These alliances provided groups that would keep fighting against the transitional government, or at least parts of it, with entry points through which they could infiltrate double agents to provide intelligence and facilitate operations.”
For Reno, this blurring between government and rebel factions makes it difficult to establish a “government that is committed to real and sustained reform in areas under its control”.
The cross-over seems to be confirmed by the events of March 18, when a suicide bomber from al-Shabaab detonated beside the Somali intelligence chief’s convoy on the busy Maka al-Mukaram road. Ten people were killed in the attack.
“How can we trust the government?” says Sheikh Mohammed Abdulghadr, spokesman for the government-allied Sufi group, Ahlu Sunna Waljama’a. “We received information that there would be an attack [the bombing on Maka al-Mukaram] and passed this on to the government. Nothing was done.”
Still, a cautious optimism holds in the city, and there is a feeling that peace – this time – may hold. And with every lick of fresh paint or plastering of bullet-riddled walls, that optimism grows.
Othman carries a bucket of fresh concrete mix, the sun scorching above, and his orange sandals scraping against the ground.
“This is the worst part, carrying it to the top,” he says. “But at least I have work.”