Failed States

Why I Keep Going Back to Somalia

What the world's most dangerous place looks like behind the screen of bullets.

Courtesy of Jeffrey Gettleman
Courtesy of Jeffrey Gettleman

In the more than a dozen times I have been to Somalia, I’ve visited refugee camps, insurgent hide-outs, mosques, schools, dimly lit warlord dens, and famished villages. Most of what I do is interviewing and information gathering for the news stories I write. But some of my most vivid experiences never make it into print. Those memories remain in my mind as some of the reasons — work aside — to keep going back in spite of all the dangers.

I’ve danced at a Somali wedding with beautifully made-up women who, behind the closed doors of our hotel, tossed off their veils and grooved to Somali hip-hop. I’ve guzzled glass after glass of camel milk — and paid the price later! I’ve motored up the crocodile-infested Shabelle River and swam in the pirate-infested Somali seas. I sweated it out at a jihadi rally where thousands of Somalis were packed into a basketball stadium cheering Death to America! — with a U.S. passport burning in my back pocket. I’ve ducked bullets zipping over my head and seen countless kids cut down by them. I curled an old tank shell (which I think was still live) that some Somali boys were using as a dumbbell. I’ve crisscrossed the country in countless beat-up pickup trucks lavishly decked on the inside with suffocating amounts of air freshener and the occasional pink feather boa.

Once, while I was riding around with some Islamist fighters, we stopped in the middle of nowhere and offered a lift to a specter-like nomad who materialized from the bush. He was an old man with a map of wrinkles on his face and a long, thin staff. We exchanged greetings. He climbed in next to me, smelling like smoke. I handed him a bottle of mineral water, and he looked at it hard, suspicious. That’s not water, he insisted. Water’s not clear. He took a sip. His lips spread into a knowing smile. See! he said. Water doesn’t taste like that! The Islamist fighters burst into laughter. The old man had been drinking from mud puddles and stagnant rivers his entire life; he had no idea that any other kind of water existed. We tried to persuade him that, yes, this was water too. But he didn’t buy it. When we dropped him off, again at a seemingly random spot in the bush where all I could see were thorn trees and sand dunes, half his bottle was still full. I’m sure he was going to show it to his family — this water that these weird foreigners drink.

This is why I keep going back to Somalia. This dysfunctional, poverty-stricken, war-ravaged country has cast a spell over me. It’s one of the most exotic, authentic, sealed-off places in the world. Its isolation isn’t surprising because the place is dangerous as hell. You can’t just stroll the streets and soak up the mood. I did that in 2006, taking an absorbing walk along Mogadishu’s crumbling seafront. Not far into my saunter, I was taken at gunpoint by the Shabab, a hard-line Islamist group, which wasn’t so much fun. We eventually worked things out, and later one of the Shabab leaders, a tall, grave man named Abu Monsoor, came to my hotel. I could tell from the unblinking way his eyes drilled into me that he wasn’t just another opportunistic warlord. Abu Monsoor was a true believer. He had fought in Afghanistan and was proud of it. He said he had dreamed all his life about bringing Islamic law to Somalia. He handed me a Koran in English, a lovely, hard-bound copy. Please read it, he said. I bought it for you.

Somalis are incredibly hospitable — when they’re not shooting at you. As their guest, you’ll get the sturdiest chair to sit on, the coolest slice of shade, and the choicest chunk of camel meat. I’ve had some bona fide feasts in the country, which always stirs up mixed emotions because so many people here are desperate for a handful of grain. I’ve dined on steak and lobster in a hotel with bullet holes in the walls and drained gallons of fresh-pressed watermelon juice at breakfast. My wife turned 34 while we were working together in Mogadishu in 2007. The hotel staff decorated the dining room with streamers and balloons, grilled some steaks, and capped the fabulous meal with a bright pink birthday cake.

That meal was organized by an older waiter nicknamed Camel Rib. Apparently back in the day, he used to be a real brute, strong as a camel. Everyone in Somalia has a nickname. Some of the biggest, baddest warlords have names like Mohammed the Tall, White Eyes, or Long Hands. My nickname is Adde Yero, which means something like little white man.

Portrait of a failed state: To read more about Somalia’s upheaval, read Jeffrey Gettleman’s The Most Dangerous Place in the World. Click here for FP’s photo essay from inside Somalia.

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