Editor's note: "Life in Hell" is a running GlobalPost series about life inside Somalia, the world's most failed state.
MOGADISHU, Somalia — How do you bring road lighting and clean water to a city fast approaching its third decade of near ceaseless civil war? How do you remove 20 years of piled garbage? How do you make the city safe, once again, to walk the streets and go to the markets?
These are the questions that vex Mohamed Nur, the mayor of Mogadishu.
Nur, 55, has one of the most difficult jobs in the world: running a city so dangerous that most ordinary activities are life threatening. Stray bullets and indiscriminate mortars claim lives every day as African Union-backed government troops battle Al Shabaab’s Islamist insurgents.
The Mogadishu of today is not the pleasant place of Nur’s memory.
“I was born in this city, in a hospital that still exists but is completely destroyed. I grew up here. I was educated here,” he told GlobalPost. “At that time Mogadishu was one of the best, most beautiful cities in Africa. Very clean, very peaceful. At night I used to walk … there was nothing to be afraid of. The city had nightclubs, bars, restaurants. Mogadishu was full of life.”
At boarding school and university Nur had a map of the United States on his wall and won his reputation as a basketball player. Tarzan was his nickname because as an athletic young man he was willing to use his strength in a fight when necessary.
Today Nur's daily exercise is running up and down the stairs of the hotel where he lives 30 times every evening.
Nur wakes at 6 a.m. as the sun rises over the wrecked city; it is usually quiet before the fighting starts. By 8 a.m. he is in his office in a government-controlled district called Hamar Weyne where he has a sweeping view of the Indian Ocean.
With a budget of just $50,000 a month — a portion of the roughly $1 million that Mogadishu port brings in each month — and a population of around 2 million people, Nur’s resources are stretched thin. But in Hamar Weyne, already, drifts of trash have been bulldozed, markets are bustling during daylight hours and, sometimes, there is electricity.
“It is my pilot project,” said Nur who sees a symbolic importance in lighting at least part of the city.
“For the last 20 years the people of Mogadishu have been defeated mentally, psychologically, and compelled to accept living in the dark. To live in darkness and fear go hand in hand, that is why when the sun goes down animals go to their caves to peer out, because of darkness. I want to light the city, light the streets of Mogadishu, the markets of Mogadishu,” he explained, saying that he is committed to improving his city.
Suddenly the interview is interrupted by two bangs, very loud, very close. Until then Nur had been oblivious, not even blinking, as gunfire and louder explosions echoed across the city, but these are close, the sound of outgoing artillery from a nearby detachment of soldiers from the African Union Military Operations in Somalia (AMISOM).
“Oh, I hate that,” he said, suddenly angry. “How a man will feel with that kind of bombardment! That may hit civilian quarters. I hate it. They are aiming where they cannot see.”
Later, Nur shouts into his mobile phone berating an AMISOM commander for shelling the frontlines of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG).
“My first priority is to make sure, 100 percent, the security of the city, or at least the security of the districts that the government controls, to make them free of insurgents, assassinations, landmines,” said Nur.
When Nur returned to Mogadishu this summer he left his wife and six children in London where he had lived since fleeing the civil war in 1993. There he had a successful business and a safe, comfortable life with his family, yet he chose to leave it all for a difficult job in a dangerous place.
“I saw some light, that maybe in this position I could do something to build the confidence of the people of Mogadishu, that I may contribute from inside the country, to mobilize the population of Mogadishu. If they support the government and defend the city then we can defeat easily Al Shabaab,” he said.
Nur had come back before, in 2006 during the brief reign of the Islamic Courts Union when peace returned to Somalia for the first time since the collapse of the government of military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre 15 years earlier. Recalling the destruction he found then, Nur paused, took slow breaths, wiped his eyes, paused again then spoke in sentences broken with emotion.
“I landed at an airport 50 kilometers outside Mogadishu. I had to drive from there to Mogadishu … that was the most difficult … it was the first time to see Mogadishu … the center of the city was one of the most beautiful places in Mogadishu and it had been destroyed completely, the best places in Mogadishu had been destroyed,” he said.
But then Nur saw the private hospitals and universities that had sprung up, the telecoms and electricity companies, the money transfer agencies that funnel around $1.6 billion a year into Somalia from relatives living abroad.
“All this development had been at the hands of Somalis alone. When I saw this I became happy and it changed my mind: Although Mogadishu had been destroyed, we can rebuild it,” he said.
Nur’s optimism is a necessity in his job and it comes through when he bristles at Mogadishu’s reputation as the world’s most dangerous city.
“It’s not true that this is the most dangerous city in the world, I think that is Baghdad or Kabul where more are killed in a day,” he said. “It is dangerous, there are flying bullets, but we know where our enemy is.”
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