I’ll admit it, I was scared to visit Somalia properly, and even back in 2010 during my South Africa to Syria by public transport stint, when I had the chance to ‘fake’ visit Somalia I was still terrified. After a few too many beers in neighbouring Ethiopia with one of my closest friends, a little male posturing, and before we knew it we had our Somaliland visas in hand and we headed to northern Somalia, which for all intents and purposes is an independent nation called Somaliland.
SOMALILAND, CHEATING MYSELF
Somaliland is separated from Somalia proper in that it has its own Government, its own flag, its own currency, even its own passport. It is a self-declared republic and is 1000x safer than Somalia to the south. Due to political pressures from the UN and various western superpowers, Somaliland is only recognised by 8 nations (Belgium being one of them), so technically it could be argued that it IS Somalia, but in reality, it really, really isn’t, and I knew it.
Still, it was nervewracking to enter Somaliland, and I ended up having a ridiculous adventure there with a Saudi property tycoon, some illegal alcohol, a convicted terrorist and some dubious ladies of the night in full burkas. You can check out that story here. But all’s well that ends well and I moved on to Sudan, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, a hell of a trip that was.
As I approached country 187 of 197, just 10 countries to go, the shadow of my visit to Somaliland was hanging over me. I had spent 10 years REALLY traveling the world, none of this border jumping, flying into airports and out again, transits and 1 day per country stuff that that vast, vast majority of people who have visited every country in the world have done, and I knew I was cheating myself with Somalia, had I truly visited Somalia? Not really and it was keeping me awake at night. I had to be true to myself, so I set out to put it straight.
I was going to go to Mogadishu, perhaps the most dangerous city in the world, home to the ‘Black Hawk Down’ escapade and even more worryingly it’s a hotspot for Al-Shabaab, an offshoot of Al-Qaeda. With that in mind, I started reaching out to various contacts in my travel world who could provide me some remnants of safety, and I ended up with a shortlist of 2 ‘agents’ who could secure me a visa for Somalia, armed guards, a guarded compound, and some ‘tours’ of Mogadishu and the surround areas, 4 days or so, for a vaguely affordable price.
Just before I confirmed I had one last contact, an American guy Rob (thanks buddy), who had experience in war zones and had actually been to Mogadishu (and was ambushed by terrorists and nearly died, not good). I spoke to him about my 2 contacts and he told me, in no uncertain terms, that choosing agents based on price in a place like Mogadishu, Somalia was tantamount to stupidity and suicide. Furthermore, he would only ever use one guy in Mogadishu, and the cost should be irrelevant, that guy was Bashir (firstname.lastname@example.org), a young entrepreneur and founder of the Peace Hotel, Mogadishu, the safest hotel compound in the city . Rob was more informed than me, so I took his advice and organised everything with Bashir, he was amazing to deal with, and it was the right choice to go with him. Before long I had my flights from Istanbul booked, and was ready to go.
And with that I was off. Bangkok to Istanbul, Istanbul to Djibouti, Djibouti to Mogadishu, Somalia. Bashir had organised an airport pick-up, and then an armed escort to the compound. From there I’d settle in, and then each day I’d have 2 day tours of Mogadishu, a 3rd day escape from the city to the beach and then finally on the 4th day, depart where I’d fly to Oman and try (and fail, 5 times) to enter Yemen, quite the duo of countries those 2 would have been.
Landing in Mogadishu was a weird vibe, the airport is pretty snazzy due to Erdogan’s back slapping with the Somalian Government, but we’ll leave that there, but a sexy airport can’t hide the reality, and after my escort has me stamped through immigration, I jump into the $200,000 armored SUV, along with 2 Somalis and their AK47s, my guide, and 4 more guards in the back. Check point, after check point, the security was intense but the Peace Hotel is still in ‘the safe zone’ (ironic) near the airport so you don’t have to traverse the most dangerous stretch from the airport to the city. It’s often targeted as the terrorists know there may be diplomats, politicians, journalists, aid workers etc running back and forth from the airport, so it’s a prime spot for attacks. Happy to dodge that one today . As I was leaving Istanbul airport 8 hours or so ago, I had heard reports of an attack in Mogadishu and I was worried about the security but also worried that the flight would be canceled, but alas, it wasn’t. So when I arrived I was asking what had been happening with the attack in the city.
It turned out that one of the other secure hotel compounds had been attacked by Al Shabaab, the compound belonging to the group that I had been in contact with, wow. Al Shabaab had heard government officials were staying there so one suicide bomb car blew up the blast wall, another suicide bomb car then hit the secure wall and blew it up, Al Shabaab stormed the compound killing anyone on sight but hunting down the Government officials, 7 dead. You could see the smoke in the sky, maybe only 5km away. This was a worrying start to my trip.
We headed straight to the Peach Hotel regardless, just a stone’s throw from the last airport check point, checked-in, logged on, and relaxed for a late afternoon and delicious dinner. I even managed to score a Somalian football shirt from the old lady in the compound, finally a good omen for my trip.
2 DAYS IN MOGADISHU; BLACK HAWK DOWN, BULLET HOLES AND THE OLD CITY
I woke up early the next day, excited and scared about the day ahead. I had no idea what to expect, what the city would even look like, would people be walking around? Can we stop for tea? Literally, I knew nothing. What I did know was that we’d be going to check out the site of the Black Hawk Down movie, that would be a strange experience.
So we loaded up the SUV, 4 guards in the back of my SUV, one in the front, the driver and me and my buddy Scott who had agreed to join at the last minute. In front of us was another SUV as part of our entourage, only this one was even bigger with 8 fully armed guards, it was like a scene from Rambo and in all honesty I don’t know if it made me feel more secure, or less secure, in an odd way. I couldn’t help but think we were drawing a lot of attention to ourselves but these guys knew best so off we went.
During the next 2 days I had a really fascinating time. The fish market, stopping for Ice Cream, ‘Peace Park’, almost convincing myself that it wasn’t THAT dangerous. Although not being allowed to enter the fish market until the AK-wielding unit covered all exits and were on their ear pieces the whole time was very unnerving, and after spending sometime in the market, it all felt a little off. The smiles I had been used to in other East African countries had been replaced by looks of suspicion as opposed to curiosity, tension rather than warmth. The feeling didn’t escalate much until 10 minutes later Mohamed suggests we go and drive past the compound that was attacked yesterday, before I could say know, we were literally driving past it, and suddently the reality of the situation re-dawned upon me. This place is no joke, and although the blasts and the bullet holes were scary, the scariest and saddest thing of all were the local Somalias going about their daily business next door to a smoking massacre scene. They have no choice but to carry on, no escape from the carnage, and it’s truly heartbreaking.
With a sadder tone, we continue on, until reaching the scene of Black Hawk Down, the carcasses of the tanks still there, simply towed to the side of the road and left, as there is no effective Government to initiate any proper sense of council or community, so it stands to this day.
After this I was ready to return to the compound, and so we did just that. It was a lot to take in. I had wanted to come to Somalia proper to show the other side of the story, I love to show the humanity, the beauty of places as I had done in countries like Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea but with all the chaos here, it’s hard. This place really was a warzone, and to be frank, I didn’t feel right being here. That being said, the people I dealt with on a personal level had been hugely friendly, the staff at the hotel, the ‘guide’, Bashir, all amazing, but you can’t escape the reality of what is happening here, and as a European, I wasn’t safe, that’s a simple fact.
The next 2 days were more positive however. Bashir really is quite the entrepreneur and he has plans for a beach resort, so we went to check out his land and go for a swim in the ocean there at Gezira beach region. Leaving Mogadishu behind and walking amongst the sand was a world apart from the previous days, but as you look at the horizon and watch our guards scour the distance for any untracked cars moving into our space is a constant reminded. Somalia though, aesthetically, is wonderful. When peace returns, one day, this place can flourish once again. The people, by nature, are so hospitable and warm, and although the country has been through so much, there is still opportunity here and I hope one day, more people can come and see their untouched coasts and explore a region that very few have managed to see for the last couple of decades.
THE OLD CITY and a CATHEDRAL
I love Islamic architecture, it’s one of the reasons why the Arabic world is my favourite region, and the architecture followed Islam through East Africa, so we headed over to the old city to check it out. For a start, there is a Cathedral, which is the last thing I’d expect to see in downtown Mogadishu! Secondly, there is very little of the old city left. Bullet holes, air strikes, suicide bombs, you can see shadows of beauty, but it’s so so scared.
We continued our trip, visiting Bashir’s cousin who is building his own version of the Peace Hotel. It’s good to remember, that despite all the crazy terrorists, people are trying to live their lives, build their businesses, provide for their families. So when I ignore the sights and connect with the people, you never forget that we’re all the same, but these guys have been dealt a far rougher hand, and their strength and courage is impressive.
That evening, we had a little treat. Bashir was out of town, so the locals decided we could risk going to a local hang-out, which was a great way to sign off on our trip. Just as you lose hope for a place, you get it all back in an instant. We stopped at a local shisha restaurant, pool tables, chicken wings, drake tunes banging out the speakers, I even met a couple of English Somali kids who had been getting up to no good in London so their parents had sent them back to Mogadishu to straighten them out (not exactly Parenting 101). It was a really fun evening, laid back and not dissimilar to nights I would have with friends near my home in Bangkok, Thailand minus the booze of course. And with that it was time to return to the compound to draw a line under one of the most extreme trips of my life.
AIRPORT ATTACK, FLIGHTS CANCELLED
When I logged on as soon as I got back to the compound I had an email alert saying my flight was cancelled. We had heard something flying through the sky as we were in the youth centre earlier that evening, but I couldn’t make it out properly. Turns out it was Al Shabaab firing mortars through the sky, attacking the airport, and the barracks at the airport. Oh shit.
I was on twitter, tweeting journalists, trying to find out what the hell was going on, but the info was so scarce. Our compound was only 1km from the airport though, so it wasn’t ideal. I got through to one journalist via twitter DM and told me not to worry, it was a long distance attack, and the terrorists were probably 5km or more away, but after the attack on the compound as I arrived, and now this, I was ready to leave. How ironic then that the airport was shut down and all flights cancelled. We were stuck, and our 9am flight wasn’t looking likely. Without much to do, and with no more info forthcoming, Scott and I tried to be calm and go to bed. Honestly, I actually slept well, I guess the emotions of the day had worn me out. As soon as I woke up though, I remember we were kinda stuck, the guards told me that the airport had only closed for 12 hours under fire, and would reopen, meaning our flight only left an hour or 2 late. The airport isn’t exactly inundated with planes, so getting a new slot to take-off wasn’t a problem.
One last armoured escort to the airport and we were there. The month previously, I’m not sure if you saw on the news, but a terrorist had taken the plane from Mogadishu to northern Somalia (same route as me) and had detonated a bomb in the plane, but detonated too early during take off, and had managed only the door of the plane off, then got sucked out himself, died, and the plane turned around and landed with no casualties? Anyway, with that happening within the last 30 days we were expecting insane levels of security. Nope. Quick bag check, through security, and we were off. Madness. I was connecting in another airport in Somalia, on to Kenya, to Dubai and then to Oman, it had been a crazy few days, and with 20 hours of flights ahead of me, I didn’t know where my head was. But I had now been to Somalia properly, I certainly hadn’t cheated myself this time. My advice? Stick to Somaliland, and wait for some modicum of peace before trying Mogadishu, it could be the last place you ever visit. Safe travels x