The World's Most Dangerous Place: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia - James Fergusson (2013)


Chapter 4. Aden’s story

AMISOM HQ, March 2011

I was fortunate, up at the OPD one morning, to meet a young man called Aden Ibrahim who had come in complaining that he felt ‘dizzy’. The cause was never diagnosed, although I suspected that straightforward hunger had much to do with it. Aden’s cheekbones were protuberant even for a Somali; his black trousers and spotless white shirt hung off him in folds. He spoke a little English, but at first seemed so shy of using it that I gave up, and moved off to find someone else to interview. But he came after me and tugged on my sleeve, murmuring with a backward glance that he did want to speak to me, but in private, not here by the reception area where there was no telling who might be watching from the crowd. And so, with some misgivings, I led him back towards the Gate of Hope, and sat him down beneath the gaze of the AMISOM sentries among some sandbags in a half-built machinegun nest.

The story of what had happened to him and his family turned out to be so engrossing that we didn’t stand up again for two hours. He was only twenty, yet almost every terrible thing that can happen in a person’s life seemed already to have done so. He was a walking epitome of the Somali catastrophe.

Aden was born in Tieglow near Baidoa in the south-central region, the son of a poor sorghum farmer. His parents, two sisters and a brother lived together in a three-roomed mud hut built by his grandfather. They belonged to an obscure sub-clan of the southern Rahanweyn people, a background that came to determine the family’s fate.*

The Rahanweyn, who account for perhaps 20 per cent of all Somalis, have long been marginalized by the other clans. They are marked out by the ‘Mai Terreh’ Somali they speak, a dialect quite different to the standard ‘Maxaa Tiri’ Somali used everywhere else. Like many Rahanweyn, moreover, Aden’s clan were settled farmers, who have always been looked down upon by the nomads, the country’s ‘aristocracy’, even though all the farmers had done, over the centuries, was to adapt to their environment. As inhabitants of the south, a fertile region irrigated by Somalia’s only two significant rivers, the Shabelle and the Juba, why would they be nomads? But in the nomads’ eyes, the settled life was an easier life that had softened the Rahanweyn farmer clans, and that made them degenerate.

As the civil mayhem of the 1990s took hold, the farmers were at first persecuted and then pillaged by the mainstream clans. This is one of the reasons that a disproportionate number of Rahanweyn, the great losers of Somali society, later came to support al-Shabaab, a movement whose back-to-basics Salafism theoretically transcends the clan system. The south, in fact, was al-Shabaab’s heartland from the start. In 2011, an estimated 30 per cent of the movement’s foot soldiery, over 4,000 fighting men, were Rahanweyn, with another 1,000 classified as ‘students and farmers’ from southern minority clans.1

Despite the dangers of belonging to a Rahanweyn farming family as the civil war ignited, Aden remembered his childhood in Tieglow with fondness. Although his district was tribally mixed, it managed to escape the worst depredations of the clan militias. Many of his family’s relations lived close by, providing a sense of security and community. Aden’s father had brought his children up in the gentle old Sufi tradition, where food and work were shared equally, and neighbourly relations were governed by a culture of mutual respect: ‘The complete opposite,’ Aden remarked bitterly, ‘of the clan system in Mogadishu.’

In a good harvest year his father’s farm produced twenty sacks of sorghum, almost double what the family needed. But the rains were uncertain throughout the 1990s, and when the sorghum failed, life became much harder. In one year, Aden remembered, the family went without a proper meal for three months. But the drought of 2000–1 proved too much even for these hardy survivors, and the family were forced to shut up the house and trek east to Mogadishu to find an alternative living. The move was supposed to be temporary, but when the time came to return to Tieglow, the family refused to go. Mogadishu offered a far better chance of survival than the drought-stricken region they had left behind.

The city was kind to them at first. His parents opened a small shop on the edge of the Bakara Market, selling combs, mirrors, pens and other bric-a-brac. They made enough money to send the children to school, which Aden loved. His mates called him Ateera (‘Body Slam’), a typical Somali joke nickname, since his skinny build was the exact opposite of a wrestler’s. He recalled playing football as a young teenager inside the roofless wreck of the old parliament building, where he said a journalist from the New York Times had once interviewed him, a memory that I guessed had prompted him to ask to talk to me.

These were years of genuine hope for many Somalis. A Transitional National Government was formed in 2000, ostensibly offering the country its best chance of peace in a decade. But ultimately neither the TNG, nor the Transitional Federal Government which succeeded it in 2004, was able to secure a lasting political settlement. Both were fatally weakened by corruption and the vested clan interests that had dragged the country into civil war in the first place.

From their outset, the fledgling government institutions were challenged by the Islamic judiciary who thought, perhaps understandably, that they could do a better job of running the country. The collapse of Barre’s dictatorship had left a vacuum that had to be filled by something, and since 1991, starting in the south of the country, a system of government by judges had evolved – a historically rare example of a ‘krytocracy’ – under which local courts offered not only Sharia justice but, eventually, police services, education and even healthcare. In April 1999 they took control of the Bakara Market, the commercial heart of Mogadishu. Five years later, in 2004, the courts had formally amalgamated into the Islamic Courts Union, or ICU.

By Somali standards, the ICU’s administration was not a bad one. Civil society functioned without the corruption that plagued daily life in the areas supposedly controlled by the TFG. The streets were policed by officials wearing distinctly Arab-looking thobes and keffiyehs. Serious crimes such as rape and murder were sometimes punishable by stoning. The strict Salafist doctrine that the ICU judges imposed was in fact imported from Arabia, and was almost the antithesis, within Islam, of the liberal, hymn-singing Sufism traditionally practised in Somalia. The movement was not popular with everyone, therefore. Richard Burton wrote that ‘though superstitious, the Somal are not bigoted like the Arabs, with the exception of those who, wishing to become learned, visit Yemen or El Hejaz, and catch the complaint. Nominal Mohammedans, El Islam hangs so lightly upon them, that apparently they care little for making it binding upon others.’

On the other hand, the ICU did bring security to the areas under their control – and to a people weary of war, that could easily overcome any ideological misgivings. In this respect, the ICU’s support was comparable to that enjoyed by the Taliban when they took over Kabul in 1997. Those Afghans’ brand of Islam (and the harshness with which they sometimes enforced it) was not always popular either. But they did restore order to a city that had suffered years of brutal civil war, and that, to Kabulis, was worth almost any sacrifice. For a while, Mogadishu’s Bakara Market became one of the safest places in the whole country, as well as the obvious choice of destination for a family of refugees like Aden’s.

In 2005, however, a group of clan warlords, jealous of the ICU’s grip on the Bakara Market and its revenue-raising possibilities, stopped fighting each other and agreed to turn their guns on the Islamists. Crucially, the ‘Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism’ – some of whose members were also ministers in the TFG government – was supported by the US, who were concerned that the ICU was a front for, or at least sheltering members of, al-Qaida. This was precisely the same concern they had had about the Taliban, who sheltered Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in the years before 2001. The CIA, who reportedly funnelled $150,000 a month to the anti-ICU Alliance, was particularly interested in Comoros-born Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, an al-Qaida leader implicated in the cataclysmic US embassy bombings in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi in 1998, which killed 223 and injured more than 4,000.2

The ICU may have harboured extremists, but it was not an extremist organization per se. It actually encompassed quite a wide range of Islamist doctrine, from Sufi moderates to Salafist hardliners, which meant, among other things, that its ideological direction was never very fixed. Even in 2006, the UN secretary-general Kofi Annan was unable to say if the ICU was a good or bad thing for Somalia.

‘I don’t know much about the Islamic Court group,’ he told a reporter. ‘What I can say is that the people of Somalia are totally fed up with the warlords, that I suspect that most Somalis, except those with vested interests, will say good riddance.’3

After the outrage of 9/11, however, the Bush administration was in no mood to pay attention to such nuances. Any friend of their enemy was their enemy.

‘We certainly want to work with people in Somalia who are interested in combatting terrorism,’ said Sean McCormack, a spokesman for the State Department. ‘We do have concerns about the presence of al-Qaida.’4

Kofi Annan, using remarkably frank language for a secretary-general of the UN, said it was unequivocally ‘wrong’ of the US to support warlords, but even that criticism was ignored. The US decision to take sides against the ICU was to have profound unforeseen consequences – for Aden’s family, for Somalia, and for the world.

The showdown came in May 2006, when street fighting for control of the Bakara Market blew up into a full-scale battle in which more than three hundred people died. Cowering behind the shutters of their little market shop as the fighting raged outside, Aden’s parents and older sister were all killed instantly when a TFG mortar shell plunged through the roof. Aden, his brother and his other sister only survived because they happened to have gone to visit some neighbours that day, and had taken shelter there as the firefight intensified.

‘We all have to submit to Allah’s will,’ said Aden tonelessly.

Allah hadn’t finished with the family yet. In June 2006, the TFG was driven into exile in the western town of Baidoa by the Islamists, who took control first of Mogadishu and then the entire south of the country. This greatly alarmed Christian Ethiopia, Somalia’s historical rival in the region. Backed by the US, President Zeles Menawi ordered an invasion in support of the TFG. The ICU people’s militias were no match for Ethiopia’s well-equipped military, who advanced until they occupied Mogadishu, an occupation that was to last until 2008.

The ICU was now in crisis. Some of the moderates among them, led by Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a former secondary school teacher and the movement’s one-time commander-in-chief, favoured negotiating with the newly reinstated government. Sheikh Sharif eventually signed a peace deal with the TFG, in Djibouti in 2008; he was rewarded with the presidency of Somalia the following year. The hardliners, however, refused to have anything to do with the TFG. They were led by Sheikh Sharif’s great friend and mentor, Sheikh Hassan Aweys, a former army colonel who had been decorated for bravery during Siad Barre’s Ogaden War.

Presenting himself as a rallying point for outraged Somali nationalism, Aweys and his allies launched a ferocious guerrilla campaign against the TFG and their Ethiopian supporters, whom they portrayed not just as infidels but as proxies of Uncle Sam, the Great Satan himself. Soon they were being reinforced by foreign jihadis from around the world, bent on a fight against the latest army of kuffar to taint holy Muslim soil. The hardliners were badly divided at first, and even fought each other, notably in a ferocious battle for control of the important southern port of Kismayo in 2008. But the factions overcame their differences and eventually united under the banner of al-Shabaab in 2010, with Sheikh Aweys emerging as their spiritual head. As a former colonel, Aweys insisted that his new troops were properly drilled and trained. The force that emerged was highly disciplined by Somali standards. Later propaganda videos made much of their ability to parade in formation and to march in time. Many units even wore matching camouflage uniforms beneath their keffiyeh-swathed heads, adding to the impression that they were, as they claimed to be, a legitimate army of national liberation. The world’s newest and potentially most dangerous Islamist insurgency had come of age.

None of this was good news for the surviving members of Aden’s family. The fighting in Ethiopian-occupied Mogadishu was intermittent, but could flare up at any time, deadly and unpredictable. After the destruction of Aden’s parents’ shop – later made irreparable when al-Shabaab dug a communications trench through the middle of it – he and his siblings went to live in a neighbouring district with an aunt and uncle who had moved, like them, from Tieglow to Mogadishu some years before. Soon afterwards, the youngest of the children, Aden’s nine-year-old sister Xawl,* was shot through the kidney by a stray bullet. Then their uncle, a bus driver, was killed by Ethiopian army gunfire as he plied his usual route near the port.

At sixteen, Aden was now his dwindling family’s main breadwinner. Remarkably, considering the dangers of travelling about the city, he continued to attend school, where he was employed as an assistant teacher when he was not in class himself. He was paid between $15 and $20 a month. In 2008, though, even this meagre income dried up as the school was finally forced to close by the fighting.

‘I never managed to graduate,’ he said sadly. ‘I never won any certificates to help get me a good job.’

He was lucky to find work as a porter at the Keysaney Hospital, a converted prison in the north of the city, which always seemed to be overflowing with maimed civilians and was itself frequently shot at or shelled. Aden’s 14-year-old brother, Mohammed, briefly managed to open a stall in the Bakara Market, a smaller version of the bric-a-brac shop his parents had run. Aden helped him when he wasn’t at the hospital, but the venture came to an end when the shop next door was hit by a shell which started a fire that destroyed all his stock. Meanwhile his sister Xawl, now eleven years old and only recently recovered from the bullet that had cost her a kidney, was hit again, this time in the head by a fragment of shrapnel.

The fighting in the city the following year, 2009, was the fiercest Aden had ever experienced. Al-Shabaab had driven the last Ethiopian soldiers from Somalia by then, leaving the TFG defended by an uncertain alliance of clan militias, supported by an African Union peace-keeping force judged by most to be still too small and under-equipped to hold the line. As the militants closed in on the AMISOM base, all flights in and out of the airport were suspended, heightening the sense of isolation and abandonment among the city’s beleaguered inhabitants.

‘The shelling from both sides was indiscriminate. Our house was shaking from the rocket fire. It went on 24 hours a day, for weeks. I remember the hunger when we ran out of food. It was impossible to leave the house to search for more . . . Our neighbour was killed during one fight for our street. He lay outside, and no one could bury him. If you stuck a finger outside, it would be shot off. There were a dozen bullet holes in our door . . . I hid under a bed, and prayed to Allah. I was sure I was going to die.’

It was Mohammed who cracked first under the strain.

‘He couldn’t stay in Mogadishu any more,’ said Aden. ‘He told me: “I prefer to die than to go on living like this.” The pressure was too much for him. He had to go somewhere safe.’

Such places were not easy to find in Somalia, though. Mohammed decided instead to make the perilous journey to Yemen, adding another epic subplot to the family saga. Not long after his fifteenth birthday he took the last few dollars from the family savings tin, crossed through al-Shabaab lines and bought a place on a truck heading north to the port of Bossasso. Here he paid $80 to a gang of people-smugglers to take him across the Gulf of Aden. The boat was overloaded, however, and half way across when the weather turned rough, the smugglers forced some of their passengers to walk the plank. Anyone who resisted or even objected was either shot or beaten to death.*Mohammed, thankfully, survived to tell Aden the tale in a phone call a few weeks later, by which time he was somewhere near Sana’a, the Yemeni capital, hoping to find work as a labourer.

‘My brother is very brave,’ Aden said.

For the last eight months, though, there had been no word from Yemen. Aden was naturally desperately worried. He had heard that it might be possible to trace his brother through the International Committee for the Red Cross, but only if Mohammed had thought to register himself with them when he arrived in Yemen, and he had no idea if his brother had done this.

‘I just hope he isn’t dead,’ he shrugged.

Aden was also anxious to escape Mogadishu in 2009. The city was becoming impossibly dangerous, with suicide bombings ever more common, although even Somalis were shocked by an attack in December at the Shamo Hotel that killed twenty-five people, including three government ministers, and injured sixty more. Aden had no time for the moral equivocation displayed by Colonel Kiyungo. The attack, he said, was ‘very evil’. Most of the dead were medical students who had gathered for a university enrolment ceremony, a rare cause for celebration in Mogadishu that had drawn a crowd of hundreds. Carnival turned to carnage when the bomber, who was dressed as a woman, approached the speakers’ panel and said ‘Salaam’ – Peace – before detonating the explosive belt hidden beneath his jilbab. Sheikh Sharif called the atrocity ‘a national disaster’ and blamed al-Shabaab, although they denied responsibility; according to one report, the bomber was a 23-year-old loner from Denmark.5

Whoever was responsible, al-Shabaab, now unconstrained by any rival ICU faction and in full battle cry, had become a truly terrifying organization. As a young man of fighting age, Aden was in particular danger.

‘The streets were filled with al-Shabaab press gangs,’ he recalled. ‘All men were targeted, but especially young men like me. And so I ran, alone, back to Tieglow.’

His home town, however, was not the place he remembered. Half the population had disappeared, either killed or driven out by the fighting or the famine. Many had fled to refugee camps in Ethiopia, or Kenya, or further abroad; and al-Shabaab, he discovered, were as firmly in charge here as in Mogadishu. Empty houses were looted or squatted in. Houses still in use were requisitioned at gunpoint. Aden had planned to hide in the countryside with any family friend or distant relative he could find, but he was picked up almost immediately by an al-Shabaab patrol, and imprisoned.

‘There were twenty-two of us, all young men like me,’ he recalled. ‘They were trying to make us join them. We were shackled together and put in a cell four metres square. For three days and nights they preached at us – especially at night. We were not permitted to sleep, or eat, or to go outside except at prayer time. They kept asking, “Are you ready to martyr yourselves, are you ready to die?”’

The pressure was intense, and eventually around twelve of the captives succumbed. Aden knew one of them slightly, a lad his age called Gumo Shahi* from Beledwayne, 100 kilometres away. Gumo’s home had been destroyed in recent fighting, and his family, always very poor, were now destitute. He agreed to join al-Shabaab when he heard that a small salary was on offer.

‘I stayed in touch with Gumo for a while,’ said Aden. ‘He used to call me from Bur, near Baidoa, and then from central Somalia. He changed his mind about al-Shabaab. He said they never paid him anything. They only gave him food to eat. But it was too dangerous to desert, and then he was killed in fighting near Guri’el.’

Gumo’s new career had lasted all of two months.

Aden was not fooled by al-Shabaab’s promises. He had seen enough of them in Mogadishu to know what they were about, and had no intention of fighting for their cause, let alone dying for it. He spoke as little as possible and kept his eyes on the ground and eventually his captors grew bored of taunting him and let him go. Aden’s contempt for them was total. There was no manufacturing the hard, bright look in his eye as he listed a long catalogue of abuses.

‘They stop people from playing football – even kids. They beat people for being late for prayers; teachers are beaten for teaching girls. If you have a mobile phone, they check to see if you have any films or music on it. They even check the ringtone. And if they do not like it they will destroy the phone and take your money and make you swallow the SIM card . . . Their culture has nothing to do with us. Somalis are naturally moderate, not extremists. We can’t make sense of any of this.’

In one notorious example of over-zealousness, in Jowhar in April 2010, al-Shabaab banned the use of bells in schools, on the grounds that bells were ‘a sign of the Christian churches’; henceforth, the teachers were to signal the end of class by clapping their hands.

‘What they are doing has nothing to do with Islam,’ Aden repeated. ‘They just want to control people.’

(Their zealotry, however absurd, was no laughing matter for the Somalis forced to live with it. In 2009 in the Bakara Market in Mogadishu, a young man called Ismael Khalif Abdulle was arrested on what he later claimed were trumped-up charges of theft, and subjected to a Sharia punishment rarely practised in the Islamic world: cross-amputation. Along with three other youths, in front of a crowd forced by the militants to watch the spectacle, Abdulle’s right hand and left foot were hacked off, without anaesthetic, with a knife usually used for the slaughtering of camels. His suffering did not end there. A fortnight later the al-Shabaab commander Fuad Shangole, a Swedish passport-holder who for twelve years had run a mosque in Stockholm, arrived at the house where the four youths were recovering to announce that the judges had made a mistake. ‘He told us that our legs had been cut too low down, and would have to be shortened,’ Ismael Khalif explained later to a British reporter. ‘He took the end of my leg, and put three fingers above the stump and said: “That’s where it should be.”’ This time the operation was carried out with a plumber’s saw. Once again, there was no anaesthetic.6)

To Aden, the hypocrisy implicit in the way they extorted money from people in the name of Islam was almost worse than Shangole’s barbarity. In the coastal town of Marka in 2009, al-Shabaab decreed that gold fillings were a sign of vanity and therefore unIslamic. The decree was enforced by patrolling militiamen who mounted spot checks on the passing citizenry, and yanked out any offending teeth they found with pliers.7 Aden described how another gang took to stopping buses and ordering all young boys to drop their trousers to prove they were circumcised. If they were not, they were subjected to instant surgery with a kitchen knife, right there at the side of the road – a ‘service’ for which customers were charged $3.

‘These are bad, bad people,’ he concluded, shaking his head and clicking and sucking through his teeth in the Somali way. ‘They are not acting like human beings.’

Aden thought that al-Shabaab’s extreme youth was partly to blame.

‘Even the commanders are only nineteen or twenty,’ Aden explained. ‘They are very ignorant, and that ignorance is easily manipulated. They have no understanding of the world: no BBC, no Voice of America, no access to foreign media at all since 2009. They collect hordes of youngsters to do the cooking and the shoe-cleaning as well as the fighting . . . some of their recruits are as young as nine. If you tell them, “We are going into attack, we are going to destroy America”, they won’t question it; they will just reply, “OK: let’s go.”’

At the level of the street, normality had been replaced by a kind of mad children’s crusade where chaos and sadism ruled. It was like Lord of the Flies with automatic weapons. In the old days, said Aden, the young men of al-Shabaab would have been brought into line by their elders and betters. The problem was that the war had destroyed that system. ‘It is not possible to convene a council of elders because there are no elders,’ he said.

The collapse of the old order had been exploited most of all, in his view, by brainwashing foreigners. It was well known that al-Shabaab’s leadership was mostly foreign. Did al-Shabaab’s fighters not have to wear ‘Pakistani’ clothes, the baggy trousers and long-tailed shalwar kamiz favoured across central Asia? In Mogadishu, furthermore, he had once seen with his own eyes Omar Hammami, the famous white American al-Shabaab leader known as Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki, whose mother was a southern American Baptist and who was raised in Daphne, Alabama.

Al-Shabaab’s leaders, Aden believed, were engaged in a systematic assault on Somali values and culture. The destruction of an important Sufi shrine at Biyoley, 20 kilometres from Tieglow, was a case in point. Biyoley was the burial place of Sheikh Aweys Al-Barawi, a national hero in the late nineteenth century, as well as one of East Africa’s greatest proselytes for Qadiri Sufism.* His grave attracted huge numbers of visitors each year, some of them from as far away as the Congo or the Comoros Islands.

‘Busloads of pilgrims used to come, especially on the Sheikh’s birthday,’ Aden recalled.

Al-Shabaab soon put a stop to that. As Wahhabi Salafists they disapproved of shrine worship, which smacked to them of idolatry. In 2008, therefore, they smashed up the grave and scattered the saint’s bones in the desert.* The pilgrim buses were turned back at gunpoint, the hawkers and traders driven off with sticks.

‘We all hated al-Shabaab for what they did,’ said Aden. ‘In Tieglow we reject them in our hearts, 100 per cent.’

This was not just because of the affront to the local saint. In a region devastated by the vicissitudes of war and the weather, the shrine’s reliability as an income generator made it a mainstay of the local economy. Al-Shabaab could not have done more to alienate the people of Tieglow if they had tried.

Amazingly, this tactical error was repeated in many other places in Somalia. Al-Shabaab was a dogmatic organization that seldom acknowledged its mistakes. The country is peppered with Sufi shrines, and from 2008 the militants took every opportunity to desecrate them, a policy that enraged Sufis everywhere. The Red Mosque in Mogadishu, which I had peeked out at from the Ugandan lines in Hawl Wadaag, was one of the shrines that suffered in this way. Although a professedly non-violent religious order – ‘Sufi Islam is gentle Islam,’ Aden insisted – in 2008 the Sufis formed a multi-clan militia, the Ahlu Sunna Waljama’a or ASWJ, which soon scored several victories over al-Shabaab, notably in central Somalia. Aden’s childhood acquaintance Gumo was in fact killed in one of these battles. By March 2010 the ASWJ had become the TFG government’s most important local ally, and so powerful that they were granted control of five government ministries.

It was six months before Aden could scrape up the money to get out of Tieglow again, by when he had been picked up three times by marauding al-Shabaab gangs. On one occasion a fellow detainee revealed to their bullyboy tormentors that Aden spoke English. This was easily enough to warrant a death sentence among some al-Shabaab. ‘Sometimes it can be dangerous just to talk,’ as Aden pointed out. He was already in trouble with this particular group of fighters because his hair was unshaven at the sides, the style supposedly advocated by the Prophet. Once again, he was lucky: the group’s leader told him he was in a good mood that day, and booted him back on to the street with orders to get his hair cut.

He knew his luck would not last for ever, however.

‘I had three choices,’ he said. ‘To fight for al-Shabaab, to be killed by them, or to run away again.’

Aden fled back to TFG-controlled Mogadishu in the summer of 2010, and had been here ever since. He arrived just in time to witness al-Shabaab’s latest offensive, which was timed, as in 2009, to coincide with Ramadan. This one was called Dhameytirka Dabadhilif, ‘the War of the Elimination of the Stooges’. An al-Shabaab spokesman, Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, issued a statement calling on ‘all al-Shabaab troops, beginning at this hour, to invade and destroy all entrenchments of the apostates and Christians’. The offensive opened with a suicide attack on another hotel, the Muna, a favourite meeting place for TFG politicians. Six MPs were killed. It was just the beginning: in the course of 2010, the city ambulance service recorded over 2,300 violent civilian deaths, and 6,000 more who were injured.9

Aden got into trouble with al-Shabaab yet again when he tried to bring a friend of his, a paraplegic gunshot victim, across the lines to the doctors on the AMISOM base.

‘He’d been at the Benadir Hospital but all they could offer him was a wheelchair,’ he said.

The patrol that stopped him said they would kill him if they ever found him in an al-Shabaab-controlled area again. For that reason, he had not been into al-Shabaab’s areas of the city for eight months.

‘Never mind having your tongue cut out,’ he snorted. ‘There was a time when they’d cut your head off with a sword if they caught you with Ugandan medical papers.’

Life was as hard as it had ever been for Aden’s few remaining family members. The house he had shared with his aunt and sister had been destroyed. Home was now a shell-scrape in the Medina district, with walls formed of sacking strung between trees and a tarpaulin for a roof. They were not alone, for the district was crowded with refugees living rough – there were, he said, three hundred people living in his ‘village’ among the ruins – although there was little sense of community because the refugees tended to keep themselves to themselves. This was for fear of the Amniyat, al-Shabaab’s ‘security’ wing, whose frequently murderous agents were everywhere.

‘It is not possible to tell who is Amniyat and who is not, because they are ordinary people, from soldiers to shoe-cleaners. You cannot trust anyone; you have to watch what you say all the time.’

His was a feral existence, a Hobbesian struggle for daily survival. Food prices were going up, and the only income came from the handful of Shillings his aunt earned by taking in washing. Aden never ate more often than twice a day, therefore.

‘We eat bread. Or maize is cheap. We get beans, sometimes. We used to buy powdered milk, but that has become too expensive. We can’t afford oil or sugar, either.’

It was little wonder that he felt dizzy. On this meagre diet, Aden went out into the city each day, walking the sizzling streets for hours – because he couldn’t afford the buses – in an endless search for work. His current plan was to get a job as a guard at the Villa Somalia presidential complex. The chief of security there belonged to the Jilible sub-clan, the same as him. The problem, he explained, was getting into the chief’s office.

‘Do you think,’ he coughed, ‘that you could help me with an introduction?’

I thought at first that he must be joking. Did he really think I could have such influence? It was the mark of a desperate man, if so; and showed that the power of clan patronage had its limits in Mogadishu, at least if you were a Jilible.

It was still no simple matter to travel about the city. That very morning, he said, his route here had been blocked by a fierce gun-battle, obliging him to make a lengthy detour that caused him to miss a place near the front of the queue for the OPD. On reaching the gate, he discovered a new regulation was in force: all patients had to surrender their wallets and phones to a gang of guards who were charging a dollar to get them back again on the way out. He sucked through his teeth, and sadly shook his head. Such petty official corruption, he meant to say, was the norm here.

The OPD was closing by this time, and the AMISOM sentries, relaxed until now about our occupation of their unfinished machinegun nest, were anxious for us to be gone. Aden, I suddenly guiltily realized, had not seen a doctor, the whole purpose of his coming here. But he said it didn’t matter because, as a matter of fact, he no longer felt dizzy; and added, as we walked together back up to the gate, that he felt much better for having spoken of his troubles to me.

I wasn’t sure how to interpret this. At the time, I cynically took it as a coded, and not inelegant, request for money. I was happy to give him some: $50, enough to keep his family group in wheat or maize for a hundred days. He looked surprised, then very pleased. He quickly folded and refolded it and then, with a glance left and right to make sure no one was looking, slipped it into his shoe. Later, though, I concluded that I was wrong to be so cynical, and that Aden had meant what he said, at least in part. Talking to an outsider really had made him feel better. I was an emissary of a different world, who had affirmed to him merely by showing interest in his stories that Mogadishu was not normal, and that life did not have to be governed by poverty and savagery.

I gave him my contact details and he still emails me occasionally, short letters in shaky English, that always begin ‘dear freind’. He even phones sometimes, always from a different borrowed mobile, his voice pursuing me all the way back to Britain. His letters contain interesting snippets of news from Mogadishu. Once, he wanted me to investigate an organ-smuggling ring he believed was operating out of one of the city hospitals; a friend of his had apparently had a kidney stolen while under anaesthetic for an operation for a gunshot wound. (A story I never pursued, beyond asking the Canadian medic Ed Parsons about it. ‘Anything is possible in Mogadishu,’ he said.)

hi jmaes dear freind

this is a picture’s of the person that I had told you who his kindey

was stolen I summitted all of his evidence like computer result

anad ather letter U will see into your box

byee adden

Most of the time, though, he just wanted help finding work, ideally with one of the foreign NGOs in Somalia, Care or Save the Children or Médecins Sans Frontières – a favour I have never been able to swing for him, although I did try.

My personality I am still jobless

The country’s job opportunities are under hand of special

individual not easy to get a job in Somalia with out help special in

Mogadishu. Without outside help or inside. Things which

encourages that some persons to hold all jobs under their hands

are tribalism and corruption which is part of the manner.

I need your support most if you have any contact with NGOS and

agencies in the home link me to them if you can.

It is good for me having your contacts

We stay in touch. As a Somali fisherman might say: If Aden insists on seeing me as a lifeline to a better future, who am I to cut him adrift? All I can do for now is to tow him through dangerous waters. It would be good, one day, if I could find a way to reel him in.

* I later asked Aden to write down his full clan lineage, although I quickly wished that I hadn’t. He wrote:

A – Rahanweyn

B – Jilible

C – Ilkole

D – Abow enow hasan

E – Gasaro gud

F – Bagadi

G – Abasad

H – Diile (Dhiigle in Somali)

I – Yamen orgin is Yamen

* ‘Aden and Xawl’, Aden explained, is the Somali equivalent of ‘Adam and Eve’.

* Such horror stories remain distressingly common on the well-established smugglers’ run over to Yemen. In 2009, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, some 78,000 Somalis and Ethiopians made this voyage, of whom 376 people were categorized as ‘dead or missing’.

* An odd nickname meaning ‘Pigeon Tea’. Aden’s explanation – that he ‘used to drink tea like a pigeon’ – was unconvincing.

* The Qadiriya is one of three Sufi brotherhoods with strong representation among Somalis; the others are the Ahmediya and the Salihiya. Aweys Al-Barawi was murdered in 1909 by the Mad Mullah, Sayyid Mohammed Hassan, who was jealous of his influence.8

* Wahhabis abhor shrine worship so fiercely that in 1913 they razed all the domed graves around the holy city of Medina, including those of the uncle, father and wives of the Prophet Mohammed himself.