At times, life in Mogadishu can feel like living in limbo, somewhere between conflict and peace; if there was a gray area between extreme violence and normal life, this would be it.
No two days are alike, and every day presents a new struggle to maintain a normal routine amid infinite uncertainty.
On Monday I drove 25 kilometers outside of Mogadishu to Afgoye, a town in the Lower Shabelle region that has been a spot for frequent al-Shabaab attacks.
The drive to Afgoye is the most menacing part. Many bombs have been remotely detonated from the roadside, indiscriminately targeting military and civilian vehicles. A couple of weeks ago, 18 civilians traveling in a mini-bus were killed by a roadside bomb.
I drove past what remained of the wrecked bus and the deep pit in the road carved by the explosion. I drove past a large cargo plane that crashed off the side of the road mysteriously some months before; the guard riding in the passenger seat in the car with me joked “Welcome to Afgoye Airport!” I could see a charming pink house in the distance. As I drove closer I noticed it slumped greatly to one side. It was bombed soon after it was built and now it stood there, abandoned but still eerily beautiful.
When we finally made it to the Elman Peace Centre, I breathed a deep sigh of relief.
We held a graduation ceremony at the center for 150 youth from Afgoye who had successfully completed a vocational training course. More than 300 people were gathered together at our center for the entire day. The joy and laughter we shared drowned out the sporadic gunfire heard in the background. Just before the sun began to set we drove back to Mogadishu. It was a long, exhausting, but very fulfilling day. I went to sleep content and early that night.
I woke up on Tuesday morning feeling energized. Before even getting out of bed; I scrolled through the pictures from the wonderful ceremony we held the day before and I smiled to myself. "Today is going to be another good day," I thought. I showered, got dressed and headed out of my room to make my way down the stairs, headed for the office.
As I stepped down, I heard a sudden thunderous sound. I knew immediately it was an explosion.
The windows along the staircase shattered instantly.
I dropped everything I carried and shielded my face and head from the pieces of bricks and glass that were flying in all directions. I was closer to my room than I was to the ground floor, so I ran back up the few stairs I had managed to get down before the explosion and entered my room. I stood there for short moment, brushing dust and debris off of myself. I looked around my room that was at this point without any windows, its doors off of the hinges and a small hole exposing the sky above.
Just as I caught my breath, I heard another piercing sound and felt the floor beneath me shake. I crouched down, resting my hands on the floor for balance. When the gunfire slowed after the second explosion I sped down the stairs. I found my mother, the guards, and some of our neighbors standing by the entrance gate. Everyone was noticeably shaken but physically fine. We saw hundreds of people running from the camp for internally displaced people not far from us. I wondered if the explosion had happened there.
It’s not uncommon for security forces to start shooting in all directions after an explosion. I’ve never understood why they do that, especially because they end up killing so many people who managed to survive the explosions. It’s been rationalized before as their attempt to clear the roads and make sure people do not come close to the site of the attack, to minimize further casualties.
So I worried for the displaced I saw running from their shelters into the main road.
Before any official information on the location and targets of the attacks were published, friends and colleagues were calling me from all parts of the city to ask if I was fine, if I had any information since it appeared to be an attack near the airport and within the vicinity of my home. I shared what I knew, which was nothing at that point but that my house was totaled and IDPs in my neighborhood were fleeing their homes frantically. With each call that came through, little bits of information were exchanged. I learned the target was the airport or possibly the UN, but the vehicle laden with explosives was intercepted by Somali security forces and a truck proceeded to blow up before it reached its intended target.
I went on Twitter to learn more, bracing myself for updates on what I knew would be a tragic loss of innocent lives. Twitter has been a useful tool for many of us in Mogadishu; it’s been helpful to get information on what is happening in our own city when official information is not available or is released very late. However, you will also find tweets from citizens condemning the “gloom and doom” reporters, whose accounts are supposedly only active to share gory details when there is a tragedy. Often young activists post beautiful pictures of life beyond and in spite of the conflict, to counter the narrative we so often hear about Mogadishu in mainstream media, which paints it as one of the most dangerous cities in the world. I’m conscious of the importance of both.
A few hours later, everything went back to “normal.” The roads were closed for half of the day but reopened soon after. A major football game was held that same afternoon which thousands of people came out to the stadium to watch.
We woke up with twin suicide attacks and finished in style with celebrating the victory for the football lovers. pic.twitter.com/HIrF3nm0PL— ABDINUR MOHAMED (@Nabad_Somalia) July 26, 2016
The dead were buried by their loved ones, and those whose homes were impacted by the explosion began making arrangements to rebuild after the destruction, my family and I included.
You thank God for being alive and just carry on. That is life in Mogadishu in 10 words.
Ilwad Elman is the director of the Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre in Mogadishu, Somalia and a Countering Violent Extremism Advocate for the Kofi Annan Foundation’s latest initiative, "Extremely Together."