Dispatch May 2009

"The War Is Bitter and Nasty"

A journalist in Africa relies on grim reports from a schoolteacher writing to him from inside the chaos of Somalia.
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Whenever things get particularly bad in Mogadishu, Somalia, I hear from Abdi. I recognize his emails immediately. They pop into my computer under one of two equally benign subject headings— “Hi” or “Hello.” Clicking them open, I get machine-gunned by messages like this one, from February 24:

Hello dear Paul there is a terrible war taking place in the capital Mogadishu today, yet i don’t know who is fighting but the war is really bitter and very nasty, i shall drop a line of updates. Abdi

Abdi includes the weather in his combat bulletins. He will write, for instance, that the sun was shining when mortar bombs fell one day on Mogadishu’s Bakara market. (Top of the morning to you mister Paul.) Or that Somalia’s wet season has coincided with the fundamentalist Al Shabab rebels’ latest offensive against the risibly weak central government. (Whatz more there are rain and those have began in the capital and its environs.) Abdi doesn’t waste much time with Spell-Check. His prose gives the impression of having been pounded out fast, and possibly in the dark. His most prolix missive, 209 words long, showed up last month:

Hello fisrt of all let me share my pleasure with the family of Richard Philips who has been held by Somali pirates for five days and later was rescued by US navy . . . (there followed fifty words describing the average Somalis’ perfect indifference to this American mega-story) . . . in other news, a heavy explosion has been heard in Mogadishu before a few minutes but we don’t exactly know where and what casualties . . .

Abdi—whose full name I am obliged to withhold for his own safety—is not a professional journalist. He is an intense, wispy, Somali schoolteacher, aged twenty-four, who dresses, against all better judgment, like a rapper in a perennial war zone now dominated by Islamic extremists. I met him two years ago in Mogadishu, when it was still remotely possible for Western reporters to visit that shell-blasted corpse of a city without being kidnapped by radical Al Shabab insurgents or assorted clan mafias. (Things have gone downhill since.) Back then, he appeared at my safe house uninvited, startling my rent-a-guards, who supposed that my presence was a secret. He wanted to complain about the indignities of survival in a country that hasn’t had a functional government since 1991—virtually his entire young life. He proceeded to do so in slangy English, learned, in part, from black-market DVDs of Hollywood action films. “It sucks to be here, man,” he told me with great feeling. I liked him immensely.

Abdi has been corresponding with me ever since. His letters ricochet out of some dingy, generator-powered cybercafé in the Horn of Africa about once a week. Such heartfelt memos are familiar to most foreign reporters who cover the continent: emails expressing varying degrees of desperation can trickle in from old sources in nasty places such as Congo, Darfur, or the Ogaden for years. But Abdi’s notes plumb lonesome depths of pathos all their own. He might as well be an imaginary friend, writing from an imaginary country.

In April, I happened to be traveling in the U.S. when Somali pirates abducted merchant captain Richard Phillips—unquestionably a brave and decent man—generating what seemed to me like hallucinatory TV coverage. I watched in wonder as, for the first time in my decade of reporting in Africa, Somalia’s dark star rose briefly above the American media horizon. It was a false dawn, of course. Few pundits cared to point out that the American skipper’s hostage ordeal, as awful as it must have been, was one of perhaps only forty pirate attacks on shipping so far this year in the Gulf of Aden—a maritime bottleneck that some 20,000 other vessels pass through each year unmolested. Or that the daring Navy rescue operation unfolded off the coast of a failed state, where U.S. anti-terror policy has contributed directly to what the UN calls “the most pressing humanitarian emergency in the world today, even worse than Darfur."  

More than three million people, close to half of Somalia’s population, are currently homeless and facing starvation. Much of this vast panorama of suffering is due to the worst drought in the Horn of Africa in a decade. But the late-2006 invasion of Muslim Somalia by Christian-dominated Ethiopia—an attack tacitly supported by the Bush administration, which had hoped to crush a growing Islamist movement in Mogadishu—destroyed what little stability was left in Somalia. Bloody fighting between the Ethiopians and Somali rebels scattered at least 750,000 terrified people into the desert. Today the Ethiopians are gone, having declared victory after leaving behind at least 17,000 dead civilians and more anarchy, Islamic radicalism, and, yes, piracy, than Somalia has ever known. Not that many Americans would have made these connections while watching the fulsome coverage of Navy SEAL head-shots on CNN or Fox.

As cable-news candy, the Somali piracy saga is, predictably, already growing stale. The Abdi-grams are still piling up, though: Last week he fired off three, like emergency flares. The tidings are that abysmal.

In May, Somalia’s newest transitional government—its fifteenth in seventeen years, comprised this time of the same Islamists that our Ethiopian proxies blasted out of power, yet who we now find acceptable—were on the verge of losing Mogadishu to that truly scary mob, the Al Shabab fanatics:

Hi dear Paul, many people in the capital are surprised at these Islamists fighting among the innocent people causing the death of many ordianary people . . . now one thing is clear, among Alshabab are foreign fighters who fight alongside Alshabab and tookpart most of the wars in the city for the past two days . . .

And so Somalia devolves, invisibly, into an African version of Waziristan—a vast, newly-polarized Islamist hotbed the size of Texas, where few outsiders dare to go. I won’t. At least not anytime soon.

Abdi’s most recent emails have been arriving as I dismantle my newspaper’s Africa bureau in Johannesburg. Horizons are shrinking in U.S. journalism. Soon there will be one less American news outlet that has to worry, if that isn’t too generous a word, about covering Somalia’s woes—or Washington’s complicity in them. Technically, I suppose, I don’t have to answer Abdi anymore. But of course I will. I can imagine him ordering his few remaining students to hit the floor when the gunfire erupts too close. I can see his neighborhood’s old mango trees—and new rubble. Perhaps rain is falling on the environs of Mogadishu. I hope he’s not still wearing his ball cap backwards.

Last week I sent out the ritual mass email to friends and colleagues, alerting them to my new civilian email address. The first inbound message was from an ornithologist at Cornell. The second came from Abdi.

Paul Salopek, a former Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent and the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes, is writing a book about Mexico.
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