By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 5, 2007
MOGADISHU, Somalia, Jan. 4 -- Among the first things Mohamed Abtidon did when the Islamic Courts movement came to town in June was to buy a fancy cellphone, a slim $360 Motorola. Streets once ruled by thieving, bribing warlords finally felt safe, he said, and he walked around chatting with abandon.
Since the Islamic movement was swept from power last week, men draped with AK-47s have appeared once again along the sandy lanes in his neighborhood, and with them a feeling of menace, to which Abtidon has adapted almost instinctively. He put the fancy phone away and is now using an old battered one that he keeps shoved deep in his pocket.
"I switched back to the one I used when the warlords were here," he said. "And I put it on vibrate, because I don't want to let them know I have a phone."
Mogadishu is a consummately unpredictable city, a place where trust in the future is gauged by the ups and downs of the local gun market. In the past 15 years, it has experienced the fall of a dictator, brutal civil war, the rise of a coalition of warlords and the warlords' overthrow by the Islamic Courts movement. Last week, all was undone again when the Islamic fighters were run out by Ethiopian troops backing a fragile, secular government that is now racing to establish itself before the old thuggish militias return.
For ordinary Somalis caught in the flux, day-to-day life has been driven less by ideological allegiance than sheer pragmatism and constant recalibrations.
"However things are going, we just adapt to it," said Mohamed Dere, who works for a telecommunications company in the city and is also an artist. "The reality is we need peace only, however we get it. With the Islamic Courts, the practical side was they gave us peace, so that was the wager."
Like many Somalis, he protected himself with a gun when the warlords were in power, stowed it away when the Islamic Courts took over and brought it out again when the new government pushed the Islamic side out. And like many, he was uncomfortable with the social restrictions the Islamic leaders imposed. For example, they had frowned upon, though did not police, secular music and dancing. But Dere said he feels far more oppressed at the moment by insecurity.
"We are hostages right now," he said. "We have no freedom."
In one way, people here said, Mogadishu was liberated by the Islamic Courts movement, which managed to rid the city of the militias and roadblocks that had functioned like a hundred Berlin Walls. Movement was so restricted that some residents had not seen friends and relatives in years, and children living only minutes from the crashing Indian Ocean had never laid eyes on the turquoise water.
So when the Islamic movement took power in June, Bile Dirie, 36, packed up his family in a Land Cruiser on a few glorious Fridays, drove the entire length of the city's coast and swam in the ocean. He moved out of his apartment in the Baraka neighborhood of Mogadishu, the only place he had felt safe under the warlords' rule, and followed his fancy to a more expansive area called Medina, where he got a bigger house for less money.
When the Courts movement was pushed out last week, however, he feared the return of the warlords' militias and went back to his old neighborhood, an area that appears to have been disassembled and reassembled dozens of times, with its stick-and-tarp markets and loosely hinged doors, spirals of barbed wire and tangled nests of phone lines. Only herds of goats seem to roam Mogadishu freely these days, wandering the sandy streets past trees and rusted hulls of tanks.
"I don't drive around now," Dirie said, sitting in his office. "The militias are still shy, but that's fading."
Mogadishu is a place where, quite literally, the center has not held. Since 1991 there has been no central government in the capital, whose approximate middle is a bombed-out spectacle of ruin -- crumbling Italian buildings, broken colonnades and 800-year-old mosques blasted to abstraction.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi officially opened a district court near the seaside wasteland. Around noon, workers were hauling wooden benches into a whitewashed building and dusting off its tiled floors. The Islamic movement had rehabilitated the court, which is near the city's crumbling ruins, and kicked out most of the clerks, such as Duale Mohamed, who was among those taking up their posts again. He said that less desirable things were coming back, too.
While the Islamic Courts had imposed some discipline on electricity access and prices in his neighborhood, for instance, Duale said that prices were reverting to the whims of clan leaders who "can charge you whatever they like."
Gedi reiterated on Thursday that his top priority is disarmament, but the process has gone badly, with certain warlords wondering why they should trust a government they consider dominated by rival clans, and businessmen wondering who will protect them. Gedi said the government will start forcibly taking weapons Friday.
As that deadline approached, another layer of unease settled on an uneasy city. In one market, a money-changer said he was again hiring gunmen to escort him home from work. "Most people, they are afraid there will be no security," he said.
Besides getting rid of the flashy cellphone, Mohamed Abtidon has lately replaced his gold Rolex with a cheap plastic watch to avoid being mugged by the thugs Somalis call moryan. If he takes a taxi, he said, he takes an old rusty one instead of a newer car.
When the Islamic Courts were in control, Abtidon, 26, who consults for a relief group, dressed more conservatively, tucking in his shirt, wearing a nice belt and leather loafers. These days, though, "you have to dress like them," he said, referring to the moryan. So he wears his shirt untucked.
"And I have started wearing these shoes," he said, showing his old rubber sandals.
"When the Courts left, it has become a new life," he said, in a manner more grim than enthusiastic. "Now has come a problem bigger than not being able to watch a film. Now, you could lose your life."