Tudor Clee, a defense lawyer from Auckland, New Zealand has visited every country in the world. So when he says, “Mogadishu is probably the one place where you’re thinking, ‘Am I totally crazy?’ for coming here,” that says something. Yet Clee’s visit probably wouldn’t have been possible at all if it weren’t for Bashir Yusuf Osman and his team at Peace Hotel 1, which provides accommodations and security to foreigners who want to visit Somalia’s capital city.
If you ask Osman about the level of violence and instability in Mogadishu, he says that things really aren’t that bad these days. In fact, he draws a comparison between the violence in Somalia and mass shootings in the U.S.
“Mogadishu is sometimes like that, where people are killing other people,” he says, a relatively recent example of violence being the truck bomb that killed hundreds in October 2017, an attack blamed on militant group al-Shabaab.
But by and large, things are getting better all the time, according to Osman, hence his move towards opening an additional hotel property or two, including a beach resort.
Meanwhile, you might be wondering what it’s like to visit Mogadishu and stay at Peace Hotel 1, which is located less than a hundred meters from Aden Adde International Airport. Clee can tell you, having spent three nights at the property. His visit included a one-and-a-half hour trip “outside the wire”—that is, a “drive-around” trip outside the walls of the compound, enabled by armed guards and vehicles provided by the hotel.
Clee says the hotel is an “exceptional value,” that the staff took really good care of him, and that he would go back to Mogadishu and stay at Peace Hotel again if given a chance.
“The beach and seaside atmosphere were amazing” he concludes. “It’s a tragedy to think that if there was peace what a great tourist destination Mogadishu would be."
With all of the above in mind, following are outtakes from our recent conversation about Peace Hotel 1 and Mogadishu.
Tell me about the security at Peace Hotel.
There are armed guards for the compound, but what makes the Peace Hotel unique is that they have a security room with a big screen with Google Earth. It shows all the bombings and every incident that has happened in Mogadishu. So they have an idea when and where there have been problems and are able to give some intelligence in terms of where things could happen.
What about driving around in Mogadishu?
It’s basically a requirement to be in an SUV with blacked-out windows. And there’s a Toyota pickup in front with four armed guards sitting on the back. When we got to checkpoints we went around them or rolled through them. And when we got to the beach [for example], the armed guards would jump off the back of the Toyota and fan out to see if anyone looked threatening. What those guys were looking for is armed men looking to kidnap us. When they gave the signal we would jump out of the SUV and walk down to the beach.
The locals were super friendly. They come up to you and want to have a photograph and say hello and welcome. But we had to keep moving; our guards said, “You’ve got 15 minutes here.” From there we went to the fish market, which was a little more exposed, so that was quite quick.
There was no feeling of any danger in terms of street crime; that’s not what you are worried about. The thing you are worried about is a car bomb going off when you’re driving.
Or being kidnapped?
Or kidnapping, but when you have that sort of security detail you would probably get something of a heads up in the sense that if they saw anybody with a decent-size weapon, there would be a commotion before you are grabbed.
But you have to trust that your guards won’t turn on you, right?
Absolutely, and that’s one of the biggest risks, because the guards probably aren’t being paid particularly well. I mean they are probably being paid well for a Somali, but if you are kidnapped by al-Shabaab they are expecting at least half a million dollars. So to pay someone $50 or $100 for a tip-off probably sounds like a good idea.
But any of the fixers that I’ve used—in Libya or Syria or anywhere—they are professionals and you’ve got to trust them. Otherwise you aren’t going to do anything or go anywhere.
What did you like best about what you saw in the city?
The number one thing that surprised me—and that I enjoyed—was the street art. In some African countries the street signs and signs for shops are hand-painted. They paint what is for sale inside the shop, because there are literacy issues and things like that. So you look at a wall and it will have a gas container on it, or it will have a painting of a guy getting his hair cut.
In a lot of places in Africa those hand-painted signs have disappeared [replaced by plastic signs] so it’s actually quite nice to see. But in a place that is a little behind in terms of trade—like Chad, or Somalia—the shopfronts have this incredible artwork illustrating what is for sale. And they can be colorful and humorous paintings.
But trying to photograph the art through tinted windows while traveling at speed was difficult, though I managed to snap a few cool pictures. If you could walk the streets of Mogadishu you could easily spend two days just walking and taking pictures of all of this incredible art.
Anything you wish you had seen or been able to photograph?
One thing I didn’t get a photo of was Villa Somalia—the equivalent of the White House in America. We were just about to get in the car to go there when [the guards] said: “We’re not going out.” I said, “Why is that?” They said Villa Somalia is being shelled. If we had left thirty minutes earlier it would have been real shit to be in the middle of that to say the least.
But you get told “you’re not going out,” and that’s it. That’s your day. You sit and eat watermelon for nine hours and then go to sleep because you can’t leave the hotel.
But the next day we drove to Villa Somalia and there was a lot of rubble there. The whole building had been totally destroyed.
Did you chew khat while you were in Mogadishu?
Everyone in East Africa is totally wasted on khat all the time. [Our handlers] said even when the war is on and things heat up and the airport closes, the planes carrying khat still land because al-Shabaab needs it just as much as the other guys. So the khat planes are safe. I chewed it just to fit in with everybody, but for me it doesn’t do much.
I understand you were also given a Somali nickname while you were holed up in the hotel.
Basically almost every guy in Somalia is named Mohamed, so it gets really confusing. So everyone has a nickname and it’s usually something that is visually obvious. A guy with one leg might be Mohamed Hopalong. The nicknames can be quite brutal.
We were sitting on the roof of the hotel drinking coffee and camel milk and they were talking about what they could call me. They noted that when I would stand up that I would walk a little bit funny. I said yeah, I’ve had hip surgery and my leg is a little stiff so I’m sort of wobbly at first.
Then one guy said, “You can be ‘Wooden Leg,’” And I said, “That’s cool.” He picked up his phone and dialed and spoke to someone in Somali. Then he was quiet for a bit and hung up. Finally, he said, “It is confirmed.” He had to call the tribal leader for approval.
Did you visit the area where the Black Hawk helicopters crashed during the Battle of Mogadishu?
The area where the Battle of Mogadishu took place is still considered to be pretty dicey. The streets are very narrow so if there is a problem it’s a very difficult area to get out of. If you’re a tourist you can go to the area but there’s a much higher risk factor. Same with Bakaara Market; it’s also dicey because in a confined space the security guys can’t see how safe you are.