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Somali diaspora see hope and opportunity in Mogadishu

COLUMN ONE

The relative peace in Somalia's capital has seen a revival of business unlike anything since 1991. Emigres are flooding back with money, ideas and confidence.

August 27, 2012|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
  • Ahmed Jama has staked $200,000 to build a hotel and restaurant complex at Jazeera Beach, on the edge of Mogadishu, Somalia's capital.
Ahmed Jama has staked $200,000 to build a hotel and restaurant complex at… (Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles…)

MOGADISHU, Somalia — In the years to come, Ahmed Jama will be seen either as a visionary or a lunatic who squandered his money on a crazy dream.

That crazy dream? To bring tourists to his hotel on the shores of one of the world's prettiest beaches — which just happens to be on the edge of a city known for more than 20 years as the world's most dangerous place.

Mogadishu.

In his dream, there won't be half a dozen guards with guns on the back of an SUV for most foreign visitors, like now.

And the haunting memories of ruthless warlords, crippling famine and terrifying armed children will have faded.

Instead, there'll be surfing and swimming, seafood pulled fresh from the sea and little shops selling exotic shells and tourist souvenirs. On that, he's staked $200,000 to build a hotel and restaurant complex at the magnificent Jazeera Beach.

It has all the elements of a tourist brochure: white sand, azure sea, boats bobbing like sea gulls, a mysterious rocky island just offshore, a village on a point with little pink and white houses, all set out as the breakfast view below his quaint open-air restaurant.

Jama wanders through the place gesturing proudly at the tiled floors, fresh paint and colorfully decorated ceilings. It's not five-star luxury, but at $100 a night, its market isn't foreign tourists — yet — but the Somali diaspora nostalgic for their homeland the way it used to be.

But even his wife, Amina, isn't convinced. She visited, with their children, and swiftly made plans to fly back to London, where Jama lived as an emigre during his country's long nightmare.

Craziest of all, he says he's doing it not for the money, but to foster hope, after countless failed efforts to rebuild the nation.

"The message is there is a good side to Somalia," says Jama, 46. "There will be change here. It's a beautiful country. We need change. That's my message."

This capital city teeters on the razor edge dividing war from peace, as if it could yet slip back into the chaos that found as its international symbol the searing image of American soldiers' bodies being dragged through the streets after their Black Hawk helicopter was shot down nearly two decades ago.

The vacant windows of bullet-pocked ruins give the city a haunted, mournful air, and a new government is yet to form. But the streets are crowded, the roads are choked with cars, and the shops are daubed with gaudy, freshly painted murals.

Women in bougainvillea colors float through the little street markets, shopping for food. Old men prod their walking sticks into ankle-deep puddles left by recent rains. Outside a shop, an artist applies his brush carefully to a wall, poised to add yet another splash of garish color.

After more than 20 years of violence, people almost dare not hope that — this time — peace will actually stick. But the revival of the city is so infectious, they can't help it.

A year ago, the Shabab, a radical Al Qaeda-linked militia that had ushered in a new reign of terror, abandoned Mogadishu, and has since lost more territory. But the sporadic suicide bombings, daily sputtering of gunfire and sinister targeted assassinations are enough to raise fears that the Shabab can still strike fatally at the city, or that the Somali warlords and businessmen who profited so much from decades of war have not had their fill.

In coming days or weeks, the parliament that was just selected will elect a president. He will appoint a prime minister, who in turn will choose a Cabinet, in a process designed to balance the power of Somalia's clans. If it goes wrong, no one here is in any doubt that the country will slump once more into violence and warlordism.

But the relative peace has seen a revival of business unlike anything since 1991, when the fall of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre led to 21 lost years. In the fish market, buyers and sellers throng around neatly arrayed rows of the glistening catch. New buildings are going up and Mogadishans frequently boast that instead of AK-47s, the city rings with the sound of hammers.

Emigres are flooding back with money, ideas and confidence, brushing off concern about whether the peace will fracture. Turkish Airlines now runs a direct flight from Istanbul to Mogadishu, and it's hard to get a seat on the inbound flight.

A year ago, it would have been unthinkable to open what is claimed to be the country's first commercial bank. Or build a hotel on a white sand beach.

A skinny figure in a baggy T-shirt and too-big trousers, Jama shambles down the beach below his almost-finished hotel to greet some visitors. He drops the final consonants of words as if scattering coins to beggars, in the twang he picked up living in Britain's east Birmingham and West London for nearly 25 years.

As a student, training as a chef in the British Midlands, he was hurt by the way people talked about his country — as if there was a fatal, inevitable Somali "character," condemned to violent self-annihilation.

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