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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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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.

[*Danish]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

98

For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.

🇮🇷🎓  IN OTHER NEWS

Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Thoughts on Facebook's new name? Zuckerverse? Tell us how the news look in your corner of the world: Drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

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