Mogadishu risks losing 'Most
In this photo taken Friday, June 8, 2012, Abdikhafar Abubakar prepares to board a plane back to Minneapolis after returning to Mogadishu to visit his mother for the first time in decades, at the airport in Mogadishu, Somalia. The seaside Somali capital is enjoying a peace that, except for the infrequent attack, has lasted the better part of a year and Somalis who fled decades of war are coming back, as are U.N. workers who long operated out of Nairobi, the capital of neighboring Kenya. Jason Straziuso — AP Photo
By JASON STRAZIUSO
The Associated Press
June 13, 2012
MOGADISU, Somalia — Mogadishu is at risk of losing a title it probably never wanted in the first place: The World's Most Dangerous City.
A prolonged peace in Somalia's seaside capital is luring back Somalis who fled decades of war. U.N. workers who have long operated out of Kenya's neighboring capital are returning. A U.S. assistant secretary of state even visited on Sunday, the highest-ranking U.S. visit to Mogadishu since the time of the military debacle known as Black Hawk Down.
Minnesota resident Abdikhafar Abubakar fled Somalia in 1992, leaving behind his family. He tried to visit his mother twice in previous years, but each time she said he could not come - it was too dangerous.
Last week he finally returned to Mogadishu, where he saw his mother for the first time in two decades. For this trip he had his mother's blessing, and she welcomed him home with tears. He later walked the streets with his brother.
"One thing I could say about Mogadishu as the most dangerous city in the world, I've been here one week and I never felt any danger. When I was out walking around I wasn't scared. There was nothing to be scared of," Abubakar said.
Mogadishu's title as the World's Most Dangerous City was unofficial, of course. But al-Qaida-linked militants held sway over much of the city from 2007 to 2011, when full-fledged war raged with African Union troops. The U.N. and embassies pulled out in the 1990s, following the collapse of the last fully functioning government in 1991.
The city is still full of dangers. Abubakar's visit was not a tourist's dream: "I didn't see anything but I could hear some gunshots," he said.
African Union troops pushed out al-Shabab last Aug. 6, ending the daily grind of war. In the months after, al-Shabab has continued to unleash roadside bombs and suicide attacks. But in another sign of progress, African Union troops last month took control of Afmadow, an al-Shabab stronghold on Mogadishu's outskirts from where insurgents staged attacks.
One major hurdle to overcome still is the profesionalization of Somali troops taking over security. An Associated Press journalist last week witnessed a Somali soldier at a security checkpoint shoot a woman twice in the leg with little provocation.
Armored personnel carriers driven by Ugandan and Burundian troops still rumble through the city. But with the lack of combat, the military convoys feel more like heavy security than war-fighting troops.
And headline grabbing titles aside, it's clear that Mogadishu is no longer the most dangerous city in Somalia. That title belongs to al-Shabab-held cities in places like Merca or Kismayo, where some of the foreign fighters associated with al-Qaida have fled, said Robert Young Pelton, the author of the World's Most Dangerous Places.
"This is the longest period of sustained peace Mogadishu has seen in 20 years," said Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda, the spokesman for the African Union force known as AMISOM.
The best news for Mogadishu's future might lie in the port, where deputy port commander Ahmed Abdi Karie is overseeing the importation of massive amounts of construction materials. Land in Mogadishu that a year ago sold for $20,000 now sells for $100,000, Karie said.
"I keep saying Mogadishu is open for business. Reconstruction is at an incredible level," said Killian Kleinschmidt, the U.N.'s deputy humanitarian coordinator for Mogadishu, who relocated to the Somali capital earlier this year.
Sports teams and a nascent arts scene have returned. Beach-side restaurants serving lobster have opened. Many of Mogadishu's buildings still look like Swiss cheese from years of warfare, but the Somali government spokesman, Abdirahman Omar Osman, argues that Mogadishu is now safer than Baghdad and Kabul.
"Mogadishu is no longer the world's most dangerous city. It's on the peace path now," he said. "We are working on making it safe for foreigners to work here as well. The government is working on appointing the tourism minister to restore the city's tourism prospects."
Somalia's defense minister, Hussein Arab Isse, returned to Mogadishu last year after 30 years of living in the Oakland area of California. He believes that Somalia's leaders - the men who have bickered and fought for 20 years - know that they must work in peace to elect a new parliament, president and prime minister before Aug. 20, when the government's U.N. mandate expires. The returning diaspora, he said, is proof that Somalis believe in a brighter future.
"They're all returning because people, they want to come back and they've had enough of living abroad and they're investing their money. And that gives you confidence," he said. "A year ago no one was talking about investing their hard-earned money in Somalia. Property is skyrocketing in value, and that's good."
The patients who line up outside AMISOM's outpatient medical clinic used to come with gunshot wounds and bomb blast injuries. Today they come with infections and traffic accident injuries, said Dr. Leonard Ddungu of the Ugandan military. Malnutrition rates are down from last year, when much of Somalia suffered from famine.
"Patients are happier now. They are not the dying patients we used to get," Ddungu said.
Justin Brady, the head of Somalia unit of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, is the first head of office of any U.N. agency to be based in Mogadishu since international staff left in 1995. Last week he visited a sprawling refugee camp where more than 100,000 Somalis live in simple cloth tents. One refugee told Brady: "You come here to do nothing."
"If you fly back to Nairobi it's easy to forget about that. It's much more in your face here that we have to get something done," Brady said, adding later: "There's a demand from Somalis to be here."
More U.N. staff will arrive in coming weeks. The challenges of carrying out their work remain huge. No area of the city is rated lower than "high risk" by the U.N., so U.N. staff have to travel in military convoys.
Pelton, who also runs the Somalia news website Somaliareport.com, said he believes Mogadishu is safe enough for white Americans and Europeans to walk around.
"It's a very peaceful city. People aren't trying to kill you," he said. "It had a singular institution causing the violence and conflict." And that institution - al-Shabab - has now been removed, he said.
Abubakar, the Minneapolis resident, was surprised to find running water and 24-hour electricity at his mother's house. The 45-year-old father of eight is considering moving his family to Mogadishu, though he acknowledged that living in Mogadishu would be safer for him - a U.S. citizen but a Somalia native - than most Americans and Europeans.
"I know it's not safe for a white person to walk around on foot," he said. "Even if you don't become a target everyone will be looking and saying, 'Oh, what is this guy doing here?'"