Painting the Decline of Mogadishu

The Somali capital of Mogadishu — the once-beautiful Indian Ocean port — lies in ruin after years of chaos and war. One artist's paintings detail the years of deterioration.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News on a Friday morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

It's not considered polite to say something bad about somebody's hometown. The man we're about to meet is certainly polite, even though the hometown in question is Mogadishu, the capital of war-torn Somalia. It's the bullet-riddled town where he is selling T-shirts reading Beautiful Mogadishu.

Turns out the T-shirt artist is a man who can tell you something about what went wrong in Somalia. NPR's Gwen Thompkins visited his Mogadishu studio.

GWEN THOMPKINS: Every month, Abdul Cotter Awaiz Abdi(ph) writes the word beautiful Mogadishu in black paint on hundreds of ordinary gray T-shirts. He seems ordinary. He has an ordinary face, an ordinary nose. But Abdi's eyes have an usual depth of perception.

Mr. ABDUL COTTER AWAIZ ABDI (T-shirt Artist): (Through translator) Due to a civil war, I decided to show the people another idea that Mogadishu was beautiful and to make the people remember that Mogadishu was once very beautiful.

THOMPKINS: Fittingly, Abdi calls himself and his business Happy Arts. But he's not slaphappy. He knows what the city looks like now.

Mr. ABDI: (Through translator) Mogadishu is not beautiful now because it was destroyed and there is trash everywhere.

THOMPKINS: In a loud, wobbly studio of corrugated metal, Abdi is artist, journalist and historian. He makes money from T-shirts in some fairly routine pastoral scenes. But for years he's been painting other vivid canvases that he almost never shows and refuses to sell.

Abdi has been working in secret to make a pictorial essay of what went wrong in his city.

Mr. ABDI: (Through translator) I (unintelligible) in beautiful Mogadishu. I was also recording all the civil war. And at the end of the civil war, if I am lucky (unintelligible) at that time, I will show the people how the people were killing each other and how it was going.

THOMPKINS: Mogadishu, a once magnificent city by the sea, used to have its own lido overlooking the Indian Ocean. Statues of Somali heroes stood high overhead near spectacular stone houses of government. There were gelato shops and ice cream stands, frangipanis, aneme(ph) trees and bougainvillea too.

But civil war and anarchy has had a leveling effect on this ancient city. Riding around town with Abdi, he points out his old art school near the parliament building of former dictator Siad Barre's military regime. The school was a modest building at the end of a leafy street. It survived Barre's ouster from power in 1991 but the building could not survive the warlords who followed.

Once rival clans got to fighting, nothing was out of bounds. The art building is now in ruin, all shards and crumbles.

Mr. ABDI: (Through translator) When in 1990 there was a war between two main clans, Hawiye and Darod. Then that fighting was happening in this area, we left from the area. Then we came back in 1991 when Darod was ousted from the city and Hawiye was still (unintelligible) here. Then at that time there was another war between Hawiye itself. And at the end in 1995, it was bombed and it collapsed.

THOMPKINS: Abdi wants to get going.

Mr. ABDI: (Through translator) I get sad whenever I see the building because even now I am shocked. I don't come here mostly because I don't like to see my school collapsed. It makes me feel uncomfortable.

THOMPKINS: The next stop behind a row of corrugated metal shacks is, well, nothing. There's a tall tree and a spit of brown dirt not much wider than a game of hopscotch. This was where Abdi was born, in a house under this tree. The house was destroyed by artillery fire in 1991.

(Soundbite of car horn)

THOMPKINS: Hang a right by the presidential palace and ride about five minutes. There's a windy and wild street there with a playground on one side and what looks to be an abandoned gas station on the other. There are lots of children here. This is the place where a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter went down on October 3rd, 1993.

It was part of a U.S. military operation, backed by the United Nations, to capture top lieutenants of a warlord who'd proclaimed himself the president of Somalia. In all, 18 army rangers and other Special Forces died in the incident, now called the Battle of Mogadishu.

This is what the street sounds like today.

(Soundbite of wind)

THOMPKINS: The Islamic Courts Union kicked out the warlords last year in the second battle of Mogadishu. They didn't know what to make of Happy Arts and so in the end they left Abdi alone. Now that Somalia's Transitional Government has come to power, Abdi says he hopes to one day mount an exhibition telling the world about his hometown.

Mr. ABDI: (Through translator) I (unintelligible) at the end because I saw Mogadishu when it was very beautiful, but my children see only the destruction. I wish also some time in their life they see Mogadishu very beautiful and (unintelligible).

THOMPKINS: It takes an optimist to tell the story of this city by the sea.

Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Mogadishu.

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