The Battle of Mogadishu took place nearly more than 30 years ago in 1993 and its subsequent depiction in the film Black Hawk Down has remained a fixture of my childhood since high school. I still remember the night when we went to watch the film with my fellow high school freshmen and some of its scenes, as inaccurate as many of them may be when it comes to Hollywood depictions, have still stuck with me ever since.
Since then the American military has long pulled out from Somalia (more than 2 decades ago!), and even in August 2011 the militant group al-Shabaab entirely withdrew from Mogadishu. Mayor Mohamed Nur then capitalized on that opportunity to stabilize and rebuild the city with the close help of the UN, USAID, and DRC. In the 12 years since, the city and government administration have harnessed a data-driven approach to post-war reconstruction and enacted subsequent large-scale rehabilitation of roads and general infrastructure, with cooperating residents cooperating and improving upon civil, municipal, and police security.
Therefore when we received an exclusive invitation by a local organization there to conclude our Horn of Africa trip in Mogadishu, Somalia, I immediately replied with a meme of Liam Neeson giving his affirmation. Although I had not been intending to go out my way to visit, I also wouldn’t turn down an invitation if I would already be in the area. My unconventional reply then encouraged our Western representative — Rowan — to turn that invitation into a real trip, and now we’re here with the unique privilege of witnessing Mogadishu’s early renaissance.
After a gloriously convenient in-terminal stay in Addis Ababa’s Skylight Hotel last night (10 minutes from bed to gate C11 all the way on the opposite end of the terminal!), I joined Rowan, Vincent, Anthony, Prashant, and Gerry (whom I last traveled with last month in South Sudan) at the gate and arrived on an early Ethiopian Airlines flight from Addis Ababa that got us in at 12:15pm in the afternoon.
Our seatmates, local Somalis, next to us struck up a conversation with pointed curiosity why we were visiting as tourists and expressed gratitude that we were one of the few Westerners to give Somalia a chance.
Although their conversations also came with a few warnings not to wander off on our own unless we ditched the backpacks and cameras (so we can better blend in and look less like tourists), I never felt any nervous energy or concern. They got even more excited at pointing out that the Mayor of Mogadishu, Yusuf Hussein Jimale, was sitting only a few rows ahead of us in business class. Jimale then came out to say hi to some of us in economy.
We landed at MGQ and what felt like a very very busy airport.
Believe it or not, the Somalia visa is on arrival for Americans!
But to make it on arrival, it is very likely that if you’re coming to Somalia you’d also already have a local guide or fixer to assist you with all immigration formalities:
After approaching the immigrations desk and providing my invitation letter above, my passport and $60 USD in cash, they called our fixer to confirm, took a quick photo of me with a camera, quickly gave me back my documents, and sent someone to take my passport to the back while I waited off to the side.
Within 5 minutes they returned with this beautiful new visa on arrival in my passport already stamped and approved.
Probably the fastest and most efficient visas on arrival I’ve had since Kurdistan, Iraq!
Once everyone got their luggage and we met the others in our group, including a guy named Chris whom I had run into last year in Baghdad, we walked out to our jeeps to take us to Shamo Hotel where we then checked in.
You got your gun next to my “gun.”
Our hotel may ring a bell for some keeping up with Somali current events; its conference hall was attacked in 2009 targeting dignitaries attending a graduation ceremony for local Somali students. When graduating local students were also inadvertently killed, public opinion turned against the terrorist group al-Shabaab, ironically leading to Hotel Shamo becoming probably a safer place to stay now that any group wanting public support for legitimacy would not want to repeat the same mistake at the same place again.
Now it’s where we had our lunch on our second day in Mogadishu.
After freshening up, we drove out and met our armed police escort to accompany us. What made it even more surreal was that our guide and driver was playing clips from “Black Hawk Down” on his car dashboard monitor.
As we drove out from Shamo hotel, I noticed the Arco Di Tronfo Poplare seemed very familiar…
… the arch was reproduced almost accurately in a scene from Black Hawk Down:
Arguably the top must-see site in Mogadishu is the beautiful long beach at Lido for a swim and boat ride with the locals.
Starting from a restaurant overlooking the beach, we walked down a flight of steps and took off our shoes for a stroll.
There a few boats were waiting for us to take us for a 15 minute sail up and down the coast:
As we sailed by, the hundreds that were swimming turned around and either yelled the equivalent of “screw you” with laughter, or cheered “Peace and Love!” to our boats. Very surreal. It honestly felt like the “screw you” part felt more as a playful use of what they knew in English than a intentionally malicious tell-off.
We then returned to sit by on the beach and let the locals there chat with us:
After an hour at Lido, we then drove to The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier:
Then we stopped at a café for some sweets and Somali tea.
One of my favorite parts in Mogadishu happens to be our simply walking down the street afterwards …our armed police escort in front, and an armed jeep flanking us to our left added to the atmosphere.
We then returned for dinner back at the hotel, but only after taking in a sunset from our rooftop overlooking Mogadishu and hearing the occasional gunfire every hour or so in the background (it felt like I was back in my medical school rotations and looking out my hospital windows in Brooklyn).
Can’t complain over dinner with a view, after which we then congregated in Rowan’s room until midnight, hanging out with drinks and chatting.
The next morning after breakfast at our hotel we started our day at the beachfront where smaller boats would return from the deep sea fishing trawlers carrying their catch of the day.
Walking down the wet, muddy steps from street level as local Somalis carried up juggernaut swordfishes and sharks up the stairs next to us carried such a frenetic energy that I have a hard time comparing the experience with anything else that could come close.
This was a special kind of beach we won’t forget.
From this beach you can spot the capital’s most iconic landmark in the middle among the skyline – the lighthouse. Built in the early 1900s by Italians, the lighthouse represents the colonial past, the disastrous years of civil war, and the struggling present.
We then returned back up the stairs onto street level and walked across for Mogadishu’s bustling fish market – one of the city’s most vibrant scenes and not for the faint of heart or those who get queasy at the sight, let alone the idea of slaughterhouse gore.
Fishermen drag their fresh catch from their smaller boats on the shores up to this market.
The most common catch we saw here was the swordfish. This is where the haggling and auctioning begins.
And then when you go inside the market, you’ll see master craftsmen cutting up the fish with such dexterity that it reminded me of the fish markets in Japan although a lot more crowded in a smaller space.
From the market we returned to another part of the shoreline to see many dried out fish skin for sale.
…and an occasional well preserved shark jaw:
After 45 minutes here, we regained our senses over some coffee afterwards at a speakeasy rooftop café called Carsh:
Returning back to our hotel for a mid-day break, we then had lunch at the conference center as the second part of the group who had stayed a day longer in Asmara joined us at Shamo Hotel.
Now a group of 13, we then headed back out to visit the ruins of Mogadishu Cathedral.
Built in 1928 during Italian colonialism, the cathedral served as the seat of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Mogadiscio between 1928 and 1991 before al-Shabaab destroyed it in 2008.
Take notice of the bullet holes in Jesus.
Continuing to see the influences of Italian colonialism on Mogadishu, we next stopped at the Arch of Umberto I, built in the mid 1930s in preparation for a visit by the King of Italy.
This arch stands in front of the ruins of what used to be the central bank of Somalia.
As the second group then peeled off for their turn to visit Lido, ours strolled through the bazaars and stalls at Hamarwein old town.
This is where the old Mogadishu originated from as it is still referred to as “old town.”
After an hour here unsuccessfully trying to find good quality souvenirs, we made our last stop at Peace Park, an amusement center for families and kids.
The sight of our 7 armed guards and all their assault rifles was a stark juxtaposition to the overall theme of what this park is supposed to promote. But then the park soon lived up to its name as the guy who owned the big swings approached us to express his appreciation that we were visiting Somalia as tourists and encouraged us to return home to let them know how much it has and will continue to change for the better.
We then returned back to the hotel before it got dark where we had a group dinner at the rooftop once more and for the last time. The next morning I was escorted back to the airport to make my afternoon flight out of Somalia and back to Addis Ababa.
The steps to flying out of Mogadishu’s Aden Adde International Airport.
- Your car is likely about to be parked in a very long line outside the first airport checkpoint.
2. Don’t like waiting? Get out of the car and get through by foot. Show first guard your passport and flight ticket.
3. Walk down a hallway and turn a corner.
4. Walk down another hallway.
5. Show another guard your passport and flight ticket. Walk down another hall.
6. There might be another guard checking documents.
7. Walk through a courtyard past the sniper’s watchtower.
8. Once past the sniper’s watchtower, open the door to what looks like a shipping container.
9. Go through your first round of bag checks and metal detectors.
10. Exit the security in the shipping container and cross the street.
11. Keep walking down until you finally see the entrance to the actual airport.
12. Allow yourself to be redirected to a room on your right and line up your bags for your second round of bag checks with a bomb sniffing dog.
13. Exit the kennel inspection area with your bags and head to either domestic or international departures.
14. Go through your third round of bag checks and metal detectors.
15. Approach the desk to check-in
16. The desk then directs you to the actual check-in counters. Check in, get your boarding passes, and get your boarding pass stamped by another desk to the left of the next round of security. If you’re flying business class, a very eager semi-famous whistling airport employee with big eyes may help you along and get you to skip the lines for a small tip.
17. Once your boarding pass has been stamped, go through your fourth round of bag checks and x-rays.
18. Take a breather at any of the shops, cafés, restaurants, or lounges past this point. Then take a deep breath one more time and go to your gate.
19. Once past the gate for your actual gate, go through your fifth round of bag checks (no x-rays this time) with a staff member going through all your belongings inside your bag.
20. Then line up all your bags one more time for a sixth and final round of bag checks with another bomb-sniffing dog.
21. Now you’re ready to board your flight. Everyone boards at once regardless of cabin, and walks to their plane.
22. Say goodbye to Mogadishu. Until we see you again.
- At time of posting in Mogadishu, it was 29 °C - Humidity: 77% | Wind Speed: 23km/hr | Cloud Cover: the pleasant kind of hot