A Moving Tribute to Africa’s Most Wounded City

Ancient towns like Mogadishu, Timbuktu and Aleppo were thriving towns on important trade routes for centuries, and all of them have borne the devastating impact of modern day warfare in recent years. The capital of Somalia, Mogadishu lies on the eastern African coast; its strategic location made it a sea hub for trade across the Indian Ocean that attracted travelers and explorers like Ibn Batuta and Vasco da Gama. At one time, it was considered one of the most beautiful and cosmopolitan cities in Africa. But its present day image has become linked with violence and a lawless state without a functioning government, as depicted in the Hollywood film, Knight Hawk Down.
The film showed the gory incident when two American Black Hawk helicopters were shot down by rocket propelled grenades fired by one of the Somali militias and the violent battle that took place in the city streets to rescue American soldiers.
The abiding image in American minds is of the armed militia dragging the bodies of American soldiers through a Mogadishu street amidst a jeering crowd. When Somalia became a failed state, it was labeled a terrorist haven and forgotten by the world till pirates operating off the Somali coast began disrupting merchant ships in the Indian Ocean. The need to contain piracy and protect the busy shipping routes brought back international attention to Somalia.
Mogadishu Then and Now – A Pictorial Tribute to Africa’s Most Wounded City is an eloquent portrayal of the once famed African port city and its present tragic situation. The book is based on a photo exhibition held in June 2012, which was curated by Mohamud Dirios and Ismail Osman. The text is by Rasna Warah, who describes Mogadishu, its past and present-day condition, and seeks to restore the narrative of the ancient city. Till the civil war began in the 1990s, Mogadishu was known for its cosmopolitan culture; traces of past grandeur still exist in the shattered remains of its historic cathedrals and mosques.
The early photographs of colonial and pre-civil war Mogadishu present a charming, multi-cultural city with Islamic, Christian and Italian colonial influence. Present day pictures show the same scenes devastated by civil war. Warah’s text gives a lucid account of Mogadishu history and the violence that engulfed Mogadishu during the civil war as the warring militias fought for control of the city.
Mogadishu came out of its cycle of violence and destruction after a new transitional government was elected in Somalia in November 2010, the first proper government in the country since the military dictator, Siad Barre, was overthrown in 1991. Somali pirates who had roamed the large stretches of the Indian Ocean have had their safe havens curtailed and the incidents of piracy have reduced with more sustained international patrolling of the high seas. Warah writes of the glimmer of hope that is emerging in Mogadishu, though she adds that the city’s peace is still fragile.
The resilience of the people of Mogadishu is leading a sense of revival in the city. Remittances from the large Somali diaspora had provided a life-line to relatives back in Somalia during the difficult days. Now, many Somalis living abroad are returning home, encouraged by the relative peace and stability. According to one estimate, more than 300,000 former residents have returned to Mogadishu. Somali entrepreneurial spirit has created an economy that runs without state support – mobile phone companies do a thriving business to the tune of an estimated $540 million. The end of violence has meant that the urban renewal of the port city could be initiated. Assistance from foreign governments, especially Turkey which has opened its embassy in Mogadishu, is helping to begin the process of reconstructing schools and hospitals and rebuilding infrastructure. The book tells the evocative and tragic story of Mogadishu, the wounded city, and looks at the incipient efforts to revive it.