After more than 20 years of anarchy and destruction, there is hope in Mogadishu. Thousands of Somali expatriates are coming home from Britain, the US and elsewhere to rebuild the country and stake their lives on the future; there are others who never left and believe their faith will now be rewarded.
Mohamed Abdulkadir Ahmed, urban planner
Rebuilding the waste land of Mogadishu is, to put it mildly, “a daunting and challenging task”, according to Mohamed Abdulkadir Ahmed. His mission is to set up Somalia’s first ever department of urban planning.
Ahmed studied architecture in Florence, worked for the UN in Lebanon and Switzerland, and returned to Somalia last year. He is determined to preserve and restore buildings including those from the Italian colonial era. “Conservation and heritage is a major priority,” he insists. “There are many damaged or destroyed buildings and we need to rebuild them as they were before. It’s part of our cultural heritage.”
Somalia’s former parliament is now a ruin, smashed beyond recognition. But Ahmed says: “It’s a symbol of independence and democracy in 1960. It could be restored as it was before as a memorial.”
Conservation has never been a priority here, he says, and records have been looted or destroyed. “The tangible heritage of the country was neglected in times of peace and war. We are trying to work on conservation and save what we can.”
Ahmed complains that Somalia is still ignored by Unesco but is pleased that Britain’s Department for International Development is funding his urban planning department.
“Mogadishu has never had one, even during the time of the Italians and independence. We want to start from scratch.”
He adds: “Mogadishu has the potential to be a great city. In terms of resources, space and history, it’s more important than any other east African coastal city. If you go to Kenya or Mozambique, the history is the same but Mogadishu is more than 1,000 years old.”
Liban Egal, 43, banker
Liban Egal used to make a living from a chicken outlet and money savings shops on Reisterstown Road and other rough parts of Baltimore. It was, he reflects, a “ghetto” familiar to fans of the TV drama The Wire.
Leaving behind his ex-wife and three children, he returned to Mogadishu a year ago and set up the country’s first private bank, along with an internet service provider â€“ now the biggest in Mogadishu, he says â€“ a software company and data collection firm.
“I left before the civil war, when the city was beautiful,” he explains. “I loved it and always wanted to come back. The question was always when. I’m a risk taker: I’ve always had a level of tolerance about risk taking.
“People thought I was crazy but I could see the tide was turning against al-Shabaab. Every month it was getting better. Now it is amazing to see how popular the city is. A lot of people are coming back from the diaspora in Europe and Kenya. They are trying to see what businesses they can do and are trying to rebuild their fathers’ houses where they grew up. They want to come early enough to take advantage of the process.”
First Somali Bank currently has 211 account holders and hosted the first TEDx Mogadishu gathering earlier this year. But Somalia is not an easy place to do business. Egal’s electricity bill last month was ,200 and the bank is losing about ,000 a month. US banks will not deal with Somalia because of concerns over Islamist terrorism and piracy.
As he speaks gunfire can be heard outside, but Egal does not miss a beat. “I always knew this is a long-term project. In this country there are no contract laws or regulatory frameworks for banks.
“We can’t make loans. We are waiting for the 20 August transition so at least we can deal with international organisations.”
Ahmed Jama Mohamed, 46, hotel and restaurant owner at Holiday in Mogadishu
Ahmed Jama Mohamed has spent 0,000 and employed 15 staff to open the Village Hotel on the beautiful white sands of Jazeera beach. The no-frills establishment has 10 rooms, costing for a single or 0 for a couple. His first guests arrived in June and he has hosted around 50 so far. He also runs the Village restaurant in Mogadishu where menus are printed on Britain’s Union flag.
Jama, who studied catering in Solihull near Birmingham, also owns a Somali restaurant called the Village in Hammersmith, west London. Friends tried to discourage him from returning to Somalia and predicted he would only last a couple of days. But he has persevered. “I was looking to show the world, and Somalis wherever they are, that if I can do it, so can they,” he says, lapsing into a London accent. “Somalia, we can change in a good way.”
His guests include members of the diaspora in the US, Britain and Canada returning to set up businesses. His wife, Amina, is less enthusiastic, however. “She has been here only three days. She likes what I’ve done but it’s not the right time for her. She’s still worried about security. She wants somewhere she can drive a nice car.
“I asked my 11-year-old son if he wanted to stay with me here; he said, ‘No, I want to go home.'”
One day, he hopes the hotel will turn a profit. “It will make money at the right time. It’s coming, it’s on the way. Somalia will change: we need contributions from politicians and businessmen. It’s a beautiful country but we need to change.”
Asked why all his properties are called the Village, Jama replies: “I like the name because Somalia has been divided as a nation but the village is where they all come from. It’s a welcome for everyone.”
Mohamed Ahmed Nur, 57, mayor of Mogadishu
Two men sit outside the office of the mayor of Mogadishu. One is a security guard with rifle and almost endless magazines of bullets coiling around his shoulder and neck. The other sits rolling prayer beads between his fingers.
In beard and dark shirt, Mohamed Ahmed Nur â€“ described more than once as mayor of the world’s most dangerous city â€“ sits at a desk full of flags, mementos and trophies. Behind him is a blue curtain designed like the national flag with a white star and the words: “I love Somalia.”
Nur lived in London for two decades, running community organisations for Somali expats, money exchanges, an internet cafe and an unsuccessful campaign to become a Labour councillor in Camden. His blueprint for Mogadishu is the regeneration of King’s Cross.
“What I learned from London is that wherever there’s no public services, criminality will increase,” he says. “Where there’s no lights, people will move out and the area will be taken over by criminals and prostitutes. A good example is King’s Cross in the 1990s. There were prostitutes, needle exchanges, ruined buildings, filth, dirt. It was a dead city at that time.
“Then there was a European site regeneration budget and King’s Cross got moving. Camden and Islington decided how to spend this money and the face of King’s Cross has been changed completely. This was the picture in my mind when making my priorities here. Light will reduce fear. Clear rubbish and people will open businesses.”
Nur, a grandfather who has survived “many” assassination attempts, believes Mogadishu is ready to make that leap. “If we enjoy this stability for another year or two, I think you will see a great change in Mogadishu. You cannot count the number of diaspora coming to the country. All the airlines are full until September. A lot of people are opening businesses. They are coming to reclaim their homes and we will help them. There will be great change in a very short time if stability holds.
“This is the beginning of the end of al-Shabaab and its ideology.
Al-Shabaab’s ideology is dead. We will open a grave for them and bury them. No Somali will accept conflict now. It’s like the end of the second world war when Europe decided no more war.”
Safia Yassin Farah, 34, activist
Earlier this month Safia Yassin Farah made her first pilgrimage to the graveyard where her father is buried. “Wow, I did not expect this,” she said, her head swathed in an elegant pink hijab as she walked in the Sheikh Suufi cemetery. “It’s beautiful. Usually you don’t see cemeteries taken care of like that. It’s important my father is in there. You can’t imagine how much it means to me.”
Yassin still keeps a picture of her father, a theology professor who died from liver disease in 1979. “I remember him even though I was only two,” she says. “I was the only girl in the family so there was a special attachment.”
She emigrated to the US in 1991, joining the sizeable Somali community in Minnesota. “I left here before the civil war and I remember how women used to dress. It’s a shock now. I watched TV in Minnesota and said: ‘I don’t know if that’s my country any more. I don’t recognise it.'”
Her four brothers, also in the US, thought Yassin was “crazy” to quit her job as a healthcare manager and move back to Somalia a month ago.
“Mogadishu is better now,” she insists. “Women are still in shock from those groups capturing the city and changing the way they live. They will need healing for the trauma. But I know some women are very resilient. They went through a lot over the past 20 years. They adapted. Now women are organising and rebelling. We need more to come back from the diaspora.”
Yassin is now administering grants for youth groups from the Centre for Research and Development. There are applications to fund an orphange, open a furniture store and establish a place for physical exercise.
She is glad to be home. “I lived in the US for 20 years but there was a gap in my life. It was incomplete. This is where I was born and where I want to be. I want to be part of the change. It’s amazing to be here: all my life, all my history. These crumbling buildings: this is us.”
Abdirizak Yusuf Ahmed, 27, health ministry official
Dr Abdirizak Yusuf Ahmed holds precious photographs from the Benadir University graduation ceremony of 2009. He recalls: “My friend said, ‘Can you take a picture of me with the professor?’ I did that and went back to my seat. When I sat down, there was an explosion. My friend died in that explosion. That picture is with me right now. It was taken two or three minutes before he died. The last picture.”
Twenty-one students, mostly medical, were killed in the suicide bombing that day, along with four government ministers, three journalists, two parents, two professors and one worker. While people sitting in front of, beside and behind Yusuf were killed, he somehow escaped with shrapnel wounds.
“Everything became smoke and I was not hearing well,” he says. “I don’t know how I survived. My chair broke totally and I was lying down. I thought I was dead. I remember asking, ‘if a person is dead, can they still hear, because I hear crying?’ I checked my pulse to find out if I’m still alive. I wasn’t sure if I’m still alive. I was bleeding.”
It was this bombing, he believes, that turned the Mogadishu population against the Islamist militant group. “It cost al-Shabaab their credibility. People felt very bad: it’s not helping us. Somebody who does that only wants to kill intellectuals, nothing else. People realised the target is not only those working for the government and against al-Shabaab, but all people pursuing another life.”
There is still a long way to go, however. “The transition on 20 August creates hope for people, but still it’s hope under fear. If the transition doesn’t succeed, we will go back to civil war.”
Yusuf, who is divorced, earns 0 a month to work for the government’s health ministry, which has only 200 doctors for a population of 6.7 million in the south-central region. He adds: “I could move abroad but I believe this is my country. No matter what happens, no matter how bad the situation, this is my country.”
â€¢ The headline of this article was corrected on 20 August 2012. The original referred to Somalians
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