Society

In Somalia, The Show Must Go On

In Mogadishu, artists have been forced to work underground for the past 21 years. Now as the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab warlords lose their grip on the city, Somalian culture rises from its ashes, as symbolized by the reopening of the once bombed Mogadish

The bombed roof of the Somali National Theater in Mogadishu hasn't been repaired yet (Reuters)
The bombed roof of the Somali National Theater in Mogadishu hasn't been repaired yet (Reuters)
Christian Putsch

MOGADISHU - Jabril Abdulle had a seat in the VIP section at the Somali National Theater in Mogadishu. Rightly so, if you consider that for nearly six months the 42-year-old lived for the theater, collecting more than $100,000 in donations. Abdulle, the director of a peace organization called the Center for Research and Dialogue in Somalia (CRD), also dedicated countless hours to helping musicians, painters and actors overcome their fears, all so the building – which during 21 years went unused for its true purpose – could be reborn.

Culture was an early victim of the country's Civil War. Music was forbidden until the al-Shabaab terror organization lost its merciless grip on the capital nine months ago. Until then, the theater had been used as an arms depot. Now the idea is for it to become a lasting symbol of peace in a nation that has known war since 1991. The bombed roof hasn't been repaired yet. Only a generator provides electrical current. And the theater is dusty through and through. But that's not important – because where there's culture, there's life. There's freedom. Those are the things that matter.

The old theater's grand re-opening took place on April 4. Billed as a symbolic starting point for a new era of peace, the ceremonial occasion and concert attracted numerous dignitaries, including Somali Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali.

Jabril Abdulle was assigned a seat nearby, but he graciously gave up his place when a government minister approached the section. The CRD head found another spot off to the side, but then gave up that chair as well when a late-arriving businessman joined the group of dignitaries.

Abdulle's third seat was even further away from the original place, which is probably why he didn't notice the young woman in the long black dress. Eyewitnesses among the 2,000 guests would describe her later as noticeably nervous. She had been sitting towards the back, but then stood up and walked towards the VIP area. That's when the bomb she'd hidden under her black garb exploded.

The woman took nine others to their deaths along with her. Dozens were injured. One of the victims was the man to whom Abdulle had offered his seat only minutes before. Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack.

A fragile calm after decades of war

Weeks later, Abdulle is still shaken by what happened. "I survived through sheer luck," he says. "I've lived in Mogadishu for years, and never before had such a close brush with death."

He knew four of the nine people who died – he knew them well. One was the president of both the soccer association and the Somali Olympic Committee. The pain of losing a good friend hits with the same force whether in time of war or peace. Sadly, it happens more often in Mogadishu than in most other places on the planet. It can wear a person down.

But Somalia doesn't want to be worn down. In August last year, 10,000 African Union soldiers chased al-Shabaab out of Mogadishu. The terror organization continues to control some areas in the center and south of Somalia, but the heart of the country, its capital, once again belongs to Somalis.

When Die Welt visited Mogadishu 14 months ago, the sound of gunfire was the order of the day. The front extended straight through the city, from the southeast to the northwest. The sound has now disappeared from the city.

Over the past six months, 300,000 refugees have made their way back home. During that period the value of the Somali shilling has nearly doubled. Aid organizations are sending their people in again, and the price of real estate has risen. The airport is functioning, and Turkish Airlines has scheduled two flights a week from Istanbul. Banks are opening – the first restaurants, too. All of this is investment in the idea that war will not return to Mogadishu. Not this time.

The current peace, however, is a fragile one. Not a week goes by without an al-Shabaab attack. Only a few weeks before the attack at the theater, a suicide bomber attacked the presidential palace. A few days later, a rocket landed in a refugee camp, killing six. Another suicide attack on Tuesday killed eight, including two members of parliament. In a joint statement, the United Nations and the African Union expressed concern about the peace process in Somalia.

"We can't stop now," says Jabulle. "Our history has been full of little periods of peace before the country sunk back into chaos again. We've reached a critical and decisive point, to see if this time we can't get on another -- sustainable -- path." But he admits that in Mogadishu, people still aren't entirely sure of who is friend and who is foe: there are still al-Shabaab sympathizers.

It's crucial that the fight against al-Shabaab be won outside Mogadishu as well. The African Union is going to shore up its Mogadishu contingent by 7,000 men in the coming months. But parallel to that, institutions need to start functioning properly.

The show must go on

Jabulle says that over the past few weeks he's received innumerable calls and e-mails from artists, politicians, and ordinary citizens, all of them encouraging him not to give up his work to revive the theater. He wouldn't have thought people had that much courage, he says. But having a theater again is like rain after drought. Artists have had to work underground for 21 years. Following the example of the Taliban in Afghanistan, in the 1990s al-Shabaab forbid radio stations to broadcast music in Mogadishu -- even musical ringtones were forbidden, as was dancing at weddings.

"The warlords saw artists as a threat to their power," Abdulle explains. "To them, culture is more dangerous than the military because it's an expression of self-determination." Since reviving the theater, he has organized an exhibit of paintings that deal with the situation in Somalia. A play was performed just a few days before the suicide bomb attack. It was about love - and it brought the audience to tears, Abdulle recalls.

There are still a lot of unanswered questions, starting with how it was possible for the bomber to get inside the theater despite supposedly strict security measures. Transition government soldiers among others were in charge of security. There have been five arrests since the attack, after which the government – considered to be hopelessly corrupt – declared the case solved. Yet despite it all, everyone agrees that the theater is to be opened again.

China, which financed the construction of the theater in 1967, has offered to help. Aid organizations in the United States, and the Turkish government, have also offered to build a new wing. In the present, half-bombed building, a TV studio is being installed.

And in May, a talent show in the style of "Next Star" is on the agenda. Abdulle is excited, but fears there could be last-minute hitches. "It could be the government doesn't let it go through: you never know in Mogadishu." Another performance has also been scheduled. "On the day of the attack, there were 2,000 people in the theater. The concert we're planning this time should draw 4,000."

Abdulle wants to send a strong message to al-Shabaab – particularly after what happened. People outside on the street will be able to follow the concert in the theater on big screens, and the event will also be broadcast live on TV. Abdulle understands the risk. But to do anything else would be giving in. "Believe me," he says, "our will is unbroken. Nothing – not people, not weapons – can break it."

Read the original article in German

Photo - Reuters

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