Learn about the world’s most dangerous cities, and what precautions residents and travelers take to protect themselves. Part one: Mogadishu, Somalia.
n front of me are copies of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey (the wonderfully condensed Samuel Butler translation, if you’re wondering). All three are hailed as landmark pieces of literature, and all three share a common theme: travel. The hero’s journey, known in literary circles as the monomyth, is a narrative technique ubiquitous across storytelling traditions. A hero must leave behind all that is familiar, all that is safe, wherever or whatever they call home, and venture into the unfamiliar.
It’s easy to see why this theme has been so successful in fiction. When Bilbo sets off with the company of dwarves, he sheds the daily monotony of the Shire—and how many of us fantasize about doing just that? It resonates with something inside us, a gut feeling that we are the heroes of our own stories. We crave danger as much as we fear it, if only to look back on a life well-lived. But adventures are few and far between in the real world. There are relatively few of us who do it for a living, and even then—adventuring full time is a slightly more nuanced exercise than we’d find in the pages of Melville, Tolkien, or Homer.
And that’s where travel comes in. It’s the one element of the monomyth we can successfully replicate. There may be no gold-hoarding dragons, or obsessive ship captains, or wine-loving cyclopes—but they aren’t needed. In the real world, travel alone suffices. To leave behind that which is familiar is to challenge oneself, and meeting that challenge is all the adventure we’re likely to need.
Still, a five-hour drive to Walt Disney World or the Grand Canyon do seem paltry in the monomyth department. I’m certainly not recommending them, but there do exist travel options which exploit the “life in danger” aspect of any readable adventure. Take a trip to Mogadishu or Pyongyang, for example, and you’ll find yourself a single mistake from death in the former, and general enslavement in the latter. Did I mention you can book these trips through a travel agency? Even in Western nations like the United States, cities like Camden, New Jersey or parts of Detroit, Michigan are deadly to those who aren’t constantly vigilant.
If you aren’t quite ready to stare gruesome Death in the eye, there’s no need to despair. We can always live vicariously through those brave enough to live, work in, or travel to the most dangerous places on Earth. If the stories presented in this series seem any less romantic than the exploits of Bilbo, Ishmael, or Odysseus, it is only because these people face the reality of a hopeless situation every single day. When the violence erupts, no heroes arrive to face the evil onslaught. Here, there are only people. People who must adapt to the death, insanity, and poverty of their surroundings, or join the mounting pile of bodies.
ntil recently, scenic Mogadishu was widely considered the most dangerous non-Latin American city in the world. Advances against Al-Qaeda affiliated Al Shabaab did alleviate the situation slightly in 2011-2012, but it remains virtual suicide to visit the city without armed guards, and even then your chances of making it out alive aren’t great. In short: this is a long way from Walt Disney World.
The website WikiTravel posted this warning on the city’s wiki-page:
There is a high threat from terrorism, including kidnapping, throughout Somalia, excluding Somaliland. Terrorist groups have made threats against Westerners and those working for Western organizations. It is known that there is a constant threat of terrorist attacks in Mogadishu. The city also remains in great danger of suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks carried out by extremists who manage to get past security checkpoints around the city. Walking the streets of Mogadishu remains very dangerous, even with armed guards. Tourists are emphatically discouraged from visiting Mogadishu for the time being, while business travelers should take extreme caution and make thorough plans for any trips. Travel outside Mogadishu remains extremely dangerous and should be avoided at all costs. Those working for aid agencies should consult the security plans or advice of your organization.
Those mad enough to visit the city face three options: die in the airport, die on a bus, or die on a boat. I exaggerate, but the danger posed by local militants can not be overstated.
The safest of the three is air travel, arriving at the Aden Adde International Airport. As you might expect, the facility is very basic. A Westerner’s best bet is first traveling to Dubai, from where Somali-based Jubba Airways launches flights.
Road travel is extremely risky even when accompanied by an armed escort. Warlords rule the routes in and out of Mogadishu, and your best chance for a safe arrival is hiring a local militia to act as security. Boat travel is even worse—the Somali coast is a notorious haven for pirates. It can be arranged, however, with cargo-ship captains in Mombasa. Hitching a ride to the port of Mogadishu is a feat even Odysseus wouldn’t scoff at.
There is only one tourist agency in the world that offers guided visits to Somalia. According to WikiTravel, Extreme Land Tours, which also arranges travel to Afghanistan, will organize a tour of Mogadishu and other Somalian locales for those willing to take the risk.
Life inside the city
In 2014, a native-Somali and a Canadian visiting Mogadishu with an NGO related their experiences inside the city in a reddit AMA. The users remained anonymous to protect their safety, so for the purpose of clarity; I’ll call them John (Canadian visitor) and Abshir (Somali native).
“My sister’s friend went to the court to resolve some issues and legal papers,” Abshir writes.* “On the way back, they stopped somewhere to get drinks. She got into the car and noticed a woman who was wearing jilbaab (long overhead garment). She appeared to be pregnant and she was struggling to walk. She told me the lady looked like she was suffering from heat stroke or something. The woman collapsed somewhere, and my sister’s friend grabbed a bottle of water and wanted to run across the street to help her and give water. Before she even got to other side, she was pulled back into the car by her envoy and strongly told off.”
Why would her envoy prevent her from helping this woman, alone, pregnant, and suffering severe dehydration?
“Apparently, Al-Shabaab or other groups use tactics where they employ sick/disabled/poor people and wait for people to help them, then blow them up remotely. She noticed hardly anyone local got close to that lady. She was emotional, as you can imagine, and I had a hard time trying to justify this. There are people who look like they are dead on side of the street, with no one approaching them.”
John, who was working with an unnamed NGO that focuses on “child soldiers, women who suffer from gender based abuses, and a number of other things”, was asked about things he took for granted in Canada. “I think the thing I miss the most is to be able to go anywhere I want freely on my own.” He said. “I don’t exactly look local and if I walked a good couple of kilometers in any direction by myself I would seriously run the risk of getting kidnapped, robbed, or killed.”
A taxi courtesy of Al-Shabaab
When asked about his scariest experience in Somalia, Abshir relates a story about one of his friends getting up-close and personal with Al-Shabaab. “He went South, to a city called Kismayo. His father owned some land and he wanted to meet with contractors to start a project. I stayed behind. I was going to leave in a week or so to go back home.” For readability, we’ll call Abshir’s friend Cawaale.
Before it was reclaimed in September, 2012, Kismayo was under the control of various Islamic militant groups. Abshir says inter-fighting led to concerns about more violence breaking out in the small port city.
“Apparently, about three different people declared themselves leaders of that region.” He writes. “This obviously meant war is going to break out. The government in Mogadishu can’t do shit since they have no power. Kismayo is a real stronghold of Al-Shabaab. The locals are even fond of them, this could be due to fear or maybe because they are the only ones providing basic services.”
“The city went in lock down. No one can leave or enter until shit gets resolved. This happened about the second day Cawaale was there. People anticipated war there. He was scared, as you can imagine. One day, he was at a local cafe and overheard people asking each other the tribes/clan they are.”
After chiming in with his own heritage, one of the patrons excitedly told him that one of his aunts lived in the city. Cawaale had never met her, but agreed to stop by for a visit.
“They eat and chat. He tells her he is stuck here and is desperate to get back to Mogadishu.”
“Oh, don’t worry child.” The aunt said, according to Abshir. “My husband is local Al-Shabaab commander, and he can take you out. He controls the city, so I will hook you up.” She called her husband, who sent a taxi to her house. Cawaale was understandably nervous, but said everything happened so fast, he had no choice but to accept the offer.
“Taxi drops him at an end of a river,” Abshir says, “across it, Al Shabaab is waiting for him. As soon he meets with them, they ask him to give his phone, laptop etc. to them. They said they will look into them, and if they suspect he is working with their enemy, he will be punished. He started to shit bricks.”
Rightly so, as Al-Shabaab is notoriously unmerciful to those they deem deserving of punishment. Luckily, the commander (his aunt’s husband) arrived and “says he can keep his shit since he is family.”
The group traveled to a nearby village, where they spent the night. Cawaale was scared, sending messages to his father saying he thinks he might not make it out of the situation alive. Everywhere he traveled with the group, he could hear drones overhead, scouting the region. At any moment, he could have been accused of infiltrating the group.
Thankfully, the story has a happy ending.
“Long story short, the last part of the trip he rides on the back of a motorcycle ridden by an Al-Shabaab all the way into Mogadishu.”
“People here have a different concept of safety and death.”
“There is no such thing as 100% safety in Somalia, let alone Mogadishu. I am guarded by guards due to the place where I am staying at, but I know that nothing is full proof. It’s really a matter of an attitude adjustment. People here have a different concept of safety and death, and for many decades have lived with war (and it’s a miracle that so many have survived) so for them death isn’t as traumatizing as it is in West. My outlook has adjusted a bit to accommodate, ’cause otherwise I wouldn’t be able to function ’cause I would be curled up in a corner. It’s really a matter of being sensible in how you do business during the day, and taking all the necessary precautions ’cause you won’t know what it’s like to be in a kidnapping or fire fight until it happens.”
Safety tips for visiting Mogadishu
- Don’t visit Mogadishu
- Always listen to the advice of your security team
- Avoid going anywhere alone
- Avoid leaving your hotel if there is any potential unrest
- Consult your religious authority figure of choice, make legal and financial preparations, and hug your loved ones goodbye before departing.
Rebuilding after decades of war
We’ll conclude this foray into Mogadishu with a little optimism from John:
“[The biggest misconception about Somalia] is that the place is still like Black Hawk Down, and that there are pirates running around everywhere, Captain Philips style. The place is rebuilding itself. It suffers from systematic corruption, however, which is greatly impeding the progress of that change. That is more or less the real issue, along with security.”
Things are indeed getting better in Somalia, but personally; I’m leaving it off my top ten vacation spots for a while longer.
— MogadishuImages (@MogadishuImages) July 15, 2015
— Hamza Mohamed (@Hamza_Africa) July 15, 2015
*Some syntax and grammatical errors have been corrected in the reproduction of John and Abshir’s posts.
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Author: Timothy Bertrand
Writer and journalist living in the Houston, Texas area. Follow me for breaking news, editorials, pictures of cats doing human activities, and other such content from around the web.