Guided by memories, mayor of war-torn Mogadishu sets out to rebuild the city

Mohamed Ahmed Noor left his comfortable London home to run one of the most dangerous capitals on Earth: Mogadishu, Somalia.
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Saturday, November 20, 2010; 9:33 PM

IN MOGADISHU, SOMALIA On the night before Mohamed Ahmed Noor left his London home, he gathered his family together. He was leaving a comfortable life, his six children, seven grandchildren and his wife, who made their home into what he calls "a garden in heaven."

He was leaving it all to run one of the most dangerous capitals on Earth. That night, more than four months ago, Noor told his family he might never return.

"I may be killed any time. You have to accept this," Noor recalled telling them.

Noor is the mayor of Mogadishu. To some, he is an idealist, struggling to repair a shattered city, and armed only with a bare-bones plan, ambition and memories of the beautiful place it once was. To others, he's an inspiration, a promise of what this quintessential failed state could become if only there were more men like him.

On a recent morning, Noor entered a ramshackle primary school. A dozen bodyguards with hardened faces surrounded him. Like most days, Noor was on a mission. He swiftly looked at a blueprint for a building to be paid for with United Nations funds. Then the lean, outspoken 55-year-old with a silver goatee, round face and intense brown eyes stood before a large crowd of children. His voice rose.

"If anyone tells you to kill, don't accept that. We are all Muslims," he said with conviction. "You will inherit the country. A good future awaits you."

There were no cheers, no thunderous applause; only blank stares, shy smiles and a sense that words matter little in war-riven Mogadishu.

A long ago peace

Noor grew up in a capital that was once among the continent's most peaceful. He played basketball in boarding school and college. His fondest moment was of playing in an exhibition game in 1972 with the 7-foot-2 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who visited Mogadishu with his Milwaukee Bucks teammates. "He was so tall," said Noor, who is about 5 feet 10.

Noor dreamed of moving to the United States. He even had a map on his dorm wall. But he never made it.

Instead, Noor left for Saudi Arabia in 1977 after he grew concerned about the socialist policies of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. By the early 1990s, he and his family sought asylum in England and settled in London.

Like many Somali exiles, he remained attached to his motherland. He headed a European Union funded nonprofit group that provided business advice to Somali immigrants. He also monitored events unfolding in Mogadishu through Somali news Web sites.

When Ethiopian troops entered Somalia in late 2006 to suppress an Islamist uprising, Noor founded a group that opposed the invasion. That brought him into contact with political players in Somalia; he made several exploratory trips to Mogadishu to see whether he could play a role in the new U.S.-backed transitional government. He felt a responsibility to give back to his homeland. "I wanted to bring change," Noor said.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company