As Egypt comes to terms with one of its largest terror attacks in recent times, sadly the region in general is all too familiar. Faarah Adan, a freelance journalist based in the UK and US, was visiting his home city of Mogadishu when he was caught up Somalia’s worst terror attack to date. injuring more than 500. His graphic account captures all the human horror.
I had always heard about explosions going off in Mogadishu, but nothing had prepared me for what I was about to witness. It was a bright Saturday afternoon in October at Mogadishu’s busy Zoobe junction, one of the city’s vital arteries leading to the airport.
A string of shops, hotels and restaurants lined the length of the road. Street vendors, donkey carts, tuk-tuks and buses all jostled for space, slowing down the traffic stream and leading to some altercations.
It was my first visit to Mogadishu in 20 years and I was all expectations. People went about their businesses at a sedate pace, undeterred by the monotonous rituals of life in Mogadishu.
Everything seemed quite normal, the surroundings with a serenity enriched by the cool wind drifting across from the ocean. Intuitively, however, I refused to be at ease just yet, for I had learnt during my short stay here that things in Mogadishu could change quite abruptly. And they did.
I was walking through the streets with tremulous enthusiasm, accosted by the delectable smell of aromatic spices wafted by the breeze, when all of a sudden, the sound of bullets cracked through the air, followed by screeching tires and blaring horns. “Lie down! Lie down!” screamed my friend, Abdi Nur, a 27-year-old Mogadishu resident who was showing me around the city. Instinctively, I took cover behind one of the vehicles parked alongside the road and surveyed my surroundings.
In the distance, a large truck was speeding towards us. Not far behind the truck, Somali forces in “technicals” – improvised military vehicles with a machine gun on top – gave chase, aimlessly shooting at it.
People began crouching down in order to avoid the bullets, shoving and pushing each other as they did so. Some barely managed to crawl back into the shops they had just exited. Others ran for their lives, but before they could reach safety, a huge explosion ripped through the junction, destroying everything in its path.
In less than a split second, the force of the blast violently wrenched vendors’ carts from their stands, burned vehicles, demolished buildings and broke windows over a kilometre away.
For a moment, the situation seemed surreal. Everything appeared to be moving in slow motion. Wooden planks, cardboard boxes, pieces of metal, fruits, and debris all flew in the air.
Slammed against a wall
The force of the blast picked me off the floor and slammed me hard against a wall. I felt my ribcage crush against it. The sharp stabbing pain in my chest constricted my breathing. I collapsed to the ground. My head throbbed and my entire body ached, but the pangs of the pain, benumbed by a sudden paroxysm of fear and confusion, were the least of my worries.
Another series of powerful explosions occurred at a fuel depot nearby, igniting a huge blaze. The raging inferno devoured nearby buildings and vehicles and incinerated dozens of people in an instant. Razor-sharp tin roof fragments, pieces of metal, and shards of glass all showered down on us like shrapnel, cutting through human flesh with lethal force and maximising the damage of the explosion.
I struggled to stand, but my legs could not carry me. I tried to run to safety, but no sooner had I started to crawl than the wall above me came crumbling down, burying me, along with two other young men, under the rubble.
It was hard to grasp exactly what was going on. I was confused, shaken and frightened. I tried to claw my way through the rubble in order to extricate myself, but to no avail. Concrete blocks had firmly pinned me down. I lay beneath the heaped tiers of wreckage, inhaling the smoke and dust, desperately waving my hand through a small opening, until I was pulled out by some civilians. My guide, Abdi, was nowhere to be seen.
I was fortunate enough to have survived with minor injuries and mild concussion, but dozens of people were buried under the demolished buildings, their bones pulverised under the weight of the rubble. Others were burnt beyond recognition in the explosion and the subsequent fire at the fuel depot.
I managed to walk a few dreadful steps before stumbling and falling on the ground. In front of me, plumes of thick black smoke billowed out, soaring into the sky. Dozens of dismembered corpses littered the scene, while smouldering remnants of fire continued to tear at the surrounding area.
Dazed survivors and rescuers stumbled upon one another. Confused, shambling figures emerged from the collapsed buildings and poured down onto the road, going from one corpse to another, searching for any hint of life in them. Some of the survivors were completely covered in blood while others simply wandered around, vacantly staring into the burning vehicles, unable to comprehend what had just occurred.
Outside the demolished wall of one of the buildings, a woman was screaming. “Ahmed! Ahmed!” she repeated frantically, searching for her son. She ran to and fro, rummaging through the debris and gesticulating wildly, until a group of women restrained her.
“Calm down, Amina, calm down,” they told her, “it is God’s will.”
She dropped to the ground in despair. Tears gently rolled down her eyes. As the crowd consoled the grief-stricken woman, I rolled over onto the pavement and, edging forward with great difficulty, peered through the cracks in the debris. The lifeless body of a young man lay under the rubble, alongside other bodies.
A group of young men helping the survivors quickly rushed to the scene. Grimacing with pain, they dug through the rubble and uncovered four bodies. Amina’s
son and three other men, lying
next to each other, were all covered in blood and almost unrecognisable.
Dressed in what seemed like a once colourfully embroidered shirt, the state of Amina’s son, no more than twenty-five years of age, was perhaps the most shocking. His face was badly deformed. Shrapnel had punctured his body and the bone in his lower arm was bent backwards and protruding through the skin. It was a scene too gruesome to continue observing.
Pile of mangled wreckage
More than 350 people died in the blast and the collapsed buildings, according to official government figures, and nearly 60 are still unaccounted for. As I stood there, all that remained of the once-bustling Zoobe Junction was a pile of mangled wreckage and a blackened road bestrewn with rubbish and human body
It was only when I was admitted to Madina hospital, however, that I began to fully fathom the magnitude of the explosion that I had just barely survived. The corridors of the hospital were flooded with victims with injuries of varying degrees of severity; from minor cuts and bruises to major lacerations and third degree burns. All were in shock and all clearly gripped by intense fear.
In addition to the nauseating stench of blood and pus that had vitiated the atmosphere, there was a cacophony of piercing wails and painful groans. Distraught relatives searched for their loved ones as the casualties filled the hospital in overwhelming numbers. The charred remains of more than a hundred human corpses were scattered in a corner. None of them was recognisable.
My guide, Abdi Nur, was later also admitted to the hospital on a stretcher, with a crushed shinbone. Despite the frantic efforts of the doctors, however, his leg – barely attached to his body – was amputated.
Incompetence and wilful negligence
Since the bomb blast, a stream of criticism has continued to assail the government of Somalia and its leader, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, commonly known as “Farmajo”, meaning “cheese”.
In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, the first responders were courageous ordinary civilians who came to rescue the injured. Government officials, paramedics and firefighters took hours to respond to the explosion, allowing hundreds of innocent victims to be incinerated in the fire.
Dozens of lives that could have been saved by a swift call to action were, as a result, tragically lost due to the deplorably sluggish government response, incompetence and wilful negligence.
The explosion revealed flaws in intelligence gathering, highlighted government weaknesses, and exposed its failures. The Somali government and the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) have not been quite forthcoming with the facts of the bomb blast, focusing instead on mobilising the wave of public
anger generated by the attack in order to garner moral support, marshal the public and muster the morale of the fragile nation’s dispirited forces.
Instead of addressing the root causes of Somalia’s insecurity – the endemic corruption that gnaws away at the heart of all its institutions and the prevalent social injustices – Farmajo’s government pounced on the incident in a fit of political opportunism to revive its dwindling prestige.
The Somali government has the tendency to capitalise on human tragedy in order to make short-term political gains when, in the broader perspective, it is failing abysmally. The Mogadishu truck bomb was a clear indicator of that phenomenon. In the face of such damning failures, it is always easy to blame the al-Shabaab bogeyman in order to absolve the government of all responsibility.
It is time for the government to come up with viable and enduring solutions to Somalia’s security problems rather than clinging on to the oft-repeated mantra of “we have defeated the terrorists”. For, if anything at all, the truck bomb and the constant wave of car bombs in Mogadishu boldly demonstrate that the capital city is still woefully insecure and the Somali government still woefully inadequate.