Mogadishu’s Oasis of Peace

‘Don’t worry, we’re not under attack, it’s just an assassination’. As a senior government official’s car exploded a few blocks away from where we were having our meeting, our Somali colleagues carried on talking business and sipped their tea with a composure that can only come from living in a city like Mogadishu. That said, after only three days cooped up in a hotel in Somalia’s capital, I quickly appreciated how easy it is to ignore the distant explosions and the intermittent gunfire – stark reminders of the city’s instability.

This became immediately clear after a somewhat disconcerting landing over the sea at Mogadishu’s Aden Adde International Airport, which was swarming with Somali Police and AMISOM forces. Security was extra tight, we were told, because of the recent explosion that blew a hole in the fuselage of a Daallo Airlines flight to Djibouti. No one so far, as I’m writing this, has claimed responsibility for the attack, probably because the suspected bomber only managed to blow himself up and get sucked out of the hole he created.

Despite the heavy security, we were through immigration in minutes, thanks to the help of Hassan, our hotel’s transport manager. We were staying at the Peace Hotel – what Time magazine once referred to as ‘the best hotel in hell’. Bit harsh on Mogadishu, but it’s certainly one of it’s finer establishments. (Ranked #1 of 5 B&Bs in the city on Tripadvisor by the way). It’s not cheap, though, at $150 a night. The compulsory 30-second lift from the airport in an armoured Land Cruiser is also $150, and their grand tour of the city – if you’re brave and rich enough – is a cool $1,000.

These seem to be the going rates for security in Mogadishu – something that the hotel’s owner, Bashir Yusuf Osman, doesn’t take lightly. The hotel is set back quite a distance from the road, in between which his heavily-armed private security team man numerous steel barriers. One of these guards sits behind a wall of sandbags in a shipping container behind the main gate, so the hotel’s warm welcome is an M16 rifle pointed at your head. The perimeter is lined with blast-proof walls, too, and a Somali police officer sits on the roof scouring the surrounding streets for any sign of a threat.

As a consequence of all this, the hotel certainly lives up to its name, providing a reassuring sense of security, and even a weird feeling of tranquillity. There’s a large rooftop terrace with great views of the sea and the city, and the rooms are spacious and comfortable. The focal point is a large, leafy courtyard, where its resident ministers and foreign regulars converse over cappuccinos and copious amounts of watermelon and mango juice. These are mainly served by Kenyan waiters: I was told Somalis don’t like taking orders.

The chef is Kenyan too, and the food was excellent. Lunch and dinner usually involved a creamy peanut or potato soup; a choice of grilled camel steak or fresh fish; sides of garlic-infused basmati rice, hand-cut chips, pasta salad or roasted vegetables; and for dessert the sweetest slices of watermelon I’ve ever tasted. There was a lot on offer for breakfast, too, with the choice of eggs, pancakes and Weetabix. Don’t ask for cornflakes though, as you’ll just get a bowl of crushed-up Weetabix.

Because we only spent about 30 minutes outside of the hotel, most of our days were spent working or relaxing in the courtyard, listening to the frequent gunshots outside. ‘If there’s no return fire’, a Somali friend said, ‘then it’s just practice’.

As much as we enjoyed lounging in the courtyard, we soon became too familiar with the hotel’s surroundings, and even rejoiced at the introduction of lemonade as an alternative to mango or watermelon juice. Because Bashir values the safety of his guests (and his reputation) exploring the city is ill-advised. So we definitely weren’t pleased when informed that our flight back to Nairobi had been cancelled.

Our only alternative seemed to be a ‘Sam Express’ cargo flight. We booked our seats straight away, not only because we were keen to go home, but because the prospect of flying in a cabin full of sheep, goats, miraa and whatever else was being ferried across the border sounded like a great experience.

Our expectations of the airline weren’t helped by an airport staff member who said: ‘Oh you’re flying with Sam Express? I’m so sorry’. Sadly we discovered that we wouldn’t be precious cargo, but that it was a regular passenger plane, and had to make the compulsory stop in Wajir like every other flight from Somalia. This seemed a bit pointless – why not just conduct a thorough security check in Nairobi?

I was grateful to be home all the same. Hopefully, next time I travel to Mogadishu I’ll be able to see more of the city and a little less of it’s finest hotel – as peaceful as it may be.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation