By Christina Goldbaum
By the time Muna Hassan did her last rounds of the blast site, the clean up crew was removing only scraps of metal and wood. The week before, in the aftermath of the deadliest bombing in Mogadishu’s history, the same crew had been pulling carbonized remains and bits of bodies from beneath the rubble. Those unrecognizable pieces were then gingerly placed in white trash bags, taken to a cemetery, neatly lined up, prayed for, and deposited in unmarked graves.
Throughout the week Muna, a former journalist who volunteered to coordinate the emergency response team created after the Al Shabaab attack, had been re-connecting some families to their injured love ones and offering the devastating news to many others that their missing husbands, sons, and daughters were not registered at any of the city’s hospitals. She had said through tears that this—the devastation, the deaths, the feeling of utter insecurity—was not her Mogadishu. Such suffering was supposed to be part of the past.
Somalia’s capital these days is a city of stark contrasts in a country with too many conflicts to name. But the bombing on October 14, 2017 that left over 500 people dead in one of the largest terrorist attacks in the world since 9/11 was a dramatic reminder that the simmering, unconventional conflict with Al Shabaab continues in the country’s shadows.
Seven months earlier, I had decided to move to Somalia, yearning to put my finger on the pulse of the conflicts here. In three years of freelancing from Nairobi, every budget cut, every staff job lost, and every older journalist wistfully describing the long lost days of expense accounts and bureaus and actual salaries made me wonder whether a career as a foreign correspondent really existed anymore. I thought this would be the place to find out.
Amid the politics of the past year, with foreign policy tweeted out in rapid and often contradictory missives, a continent that was already difficult to sell to editors fell even further off their radar. Yet it was clear in Somalia and across Africa that chaos in Washington had metastasized, infecting U.S. government operations all over the world. In Africa, with the Department of State hemorrhaging quality diplomats and the Department of Defense operating with more power and less oversight, high-stakes U.S. foreign policy mishaps were inevitable, and the damage done potentially irredeemable.
Listening to people on the ground is the crux of good journalism. When I moved to Somalia, I was the only foreign correspondent permanently based in this country, and that is still the case. For much of the past year, most of my stories have begun with conversations on rooftops or in the hotel lobbies of Mogadishu drinking a nightly cup of tea and partaking in the ancient tradition of “fadhi ku dirir,” which literally translates to “fighting while sitting.”
The gossip of the day is laid bare as people sit around a table or on cushions sprawled across carpeted floors. Northerns and Southerns, those from large clans and those from small, from the coast and from the regions, debate everything from which sub-clans are fighting in which areas to the whispers of illegal arms shipments making their way into the city. For Somalis in Mogadishu, this is the typical chat with friends at the end of a work day. For a journalist, it is a goldmine of potential tips.
In recent months, the conversation has centered on the ever-changing roster of Somali political appointees that challenge the Trump administration’s own rotating cast of characters, and also on the presence and influence of foreign meddlers: the gulf states fighting a proxy war on Somali soil, the Asian nations trying to make inroads and actual roads in East Africa, and, yes, the Americans and their guns and drones and movielike soldiers and subtle yet powerful political influence.
In Somalia, as elsewhere on this continent, the low-level but ever-present US-backed war takes place mostly in the hard to reach rural areas referred to here as “the regions.” There are drone strikes in terrorist-held territory, interrogations conducted in U.S. military bases built in the middle of the desert, nightly shipments on C-130s landing invisibly at the Mogadishu airport, and ground operations conceived, planned, and often carried out by U.S. Special Operations Forces “advising and assisting” the local military.
U.S. Africa Command admits none of this. Its three- to five-line press releases—often filling in the blanks with new locations or numbers of terrorists killed—repeat that U.S. soldiers act in an advisory capacity, they take action only in consultation with and in support of the Somali Federal Government, and their command takes accusations of civilian casualties very seriously.
Much of this rhetoric is either meant to obscure a clandestine war about which the U.S. public knows little to nothing or is, simply, delusional. That’s not to say every action U.S. Special Operators take in Somalia is a misstep. It’s not, and much of what they’ve done has been effective, weakening Al Shabaab. But I’ve also seen firsthand the U.S. military acting with an air of entitled impunity as the intricate workings of this country, the details revealed by the daily fadhi ku dirir, are all but lost on the soldiers who need to understand them the most.
Freelancers like myself all over the world, often operating on shoestring budgets and with little to no institutional support, despite our empty bank accounts and the utterly un-glamorous lives we lead, believe as those who came before us believed that holding those in power to account and breaking down the boundaries that divide people is hugely important. And like those who came before us, we are drawn also by that age-old, addicting sensation that no decline of the industry can smother: the feeling of chasing down a ground truth obscured in the edges of our world and plugging into something much bigger than ourselves.
When the House Foreign Affairs Committee held its first congressional hearing on U.S. counterterrorism in Africa in December, it was clear that much of what rightly concerned them was the result of high quality on-the-ground foreign reporting. Nearly all the questions posed to the Department of Defense and Department of State representatives centered on the headlines from Africa this year: the Islamic State’s slow shift into Libya, Boko Haram’s expanding reach in West Africa, and the impact of the anti-abortion Global Gag Rule defunding aid to women across the continent.
So as tempting as it is for Americans to focus attention inward as American democracy feels like it is imploding, it is vital to remember that the United States is still a power that reaches into lives, and sometimes deals death, around the world. If Chinua Achebe’s famously wise words were right, if evil really does thrive best in “quiet, untidy corners,” then foreign correspondents must persevere there.
Christina Goldbaum reports for The Daily Beast. She has worked across Sub-Saharan Africa reporting on U.S. foreign policy, peacekeeping, migration flows, and human rights.