A few years ago, Mohammed's best friend was killed by a mortar while walking along the street. Mohammed couldn't sit in the classroom without thinking of the boy. He quit and became the fisherman he is today, sometimes hauling his daily catch to the sprawling Bakaara market, though the neighborhood there is in the hands of al Shabaab militia. He remembers showing up at the market one day and finding ten people lying motionless in the street. He remembers trying to sleep that night and instead seeing the faces of the dead.
Asked to recall memories of when life was good, Mohammed stares out toward the sea. His smile is not of the youthful kind. "I don't remember any," he says.
Two weeks before my arrival, Mohammed's father woke up in the morning with his usual headache, a lingering result of his injury. He had volunteered to join a group, mostly women, to clean up the rubbish along Maka al Mukarama Road—the main thoroughfare from the Mogadishu airport—in exchange for food. He arrived an hour late, just in time to hear the explosion. Lying along the road were his co-volunteers—cut to pieces by a roadside bomb, their faces seared beyond recognition. A child stood, glassy-eyed, over the bodies. Forty-four women were taken to the hospital. Half of them were dead.
The violence has a psychic hold on the city, yet is strangely elusive to visitors. The damage is near but not so near until, in a fearsome rush, it claims you. And thus, it is possible to wake up at six in the morning to concussive blasts, as I do on my fourth morning in Mogadishu—to walk downstairs and out into the shaded patio of our fortified hotel and discover the innkeeper rocking serenely in his swing as he sips his Yemeni coffee, the beans for which he keeps hidden in his bedroom. As I take my seat, he asks if I enjoyed the kingfish we were served the night before. We talk about his children who have emigrated to North Carolina and Georgia. About the power and intelligence of Siad Barre. ("There isn't another, and there won't be another!") About Barack Obama, the excellent pasta he remembers eating in the Italian city of Bergamo, his side business in Dubai—and yes, a bit about the early morning blasts, which turn out to have been mortars launched by insurgents at TFG troops (and which instead killed several innocent civilians), followed by a prolonged exchange of gunfire in the city center. The violence comes up in conversation only glancingly, as a detached happenstance, thoroughly surreal.
Except it's all too real. Later that morning, we visit Medina Hospital, as we have every day since our arrival, in a macabre ritual. Two days ago we visited the women recovering from the roadside bomb on Maka al Mukarama Road—badly burned, several missing limbs, and many visibly pregnant. The new explosion near our hotel has added another 18 victims and sent the hospital into critical mass. The floors and walls are streaked with blood. Disfigured patients lie on stretchers in the hallways and on the porch. Clusters of family members stand nearby—all of them worried, surely, but no one sheds a tear.