From a way off, as he entered the café, he looked young and handsome but when he sat down there was something wrong in that face. He moved like a man with a terminal illness. For no particular reason I decided he was carrying a bomb in his briefcase. I felt the urge to run, to escape this crowded place. Instead we ordered tea.
We met because I was looking for certain contacts in Mogadishu and I had been told he could help. I introduced the subject in a roundabout way, but I could see he knew exactly what I was after. He was obliging, breezily described his network of friends and connections, and told me he would set up the introductions. I kept my eyes on that briefcase placed next to him on his seat and when he reached for it I wanted to shout out. I wondered if he had noticed as he picked the case up and shambled out of the café.
After that he wouldn’t leave me alone in Mogadishu. I tried to shake him off but I kept hearing he was looking for me. He arrived in a place five minutes after I had left. The missed calls and messages piled up. At some point he was joined by a figure in a jilbab. I imagined them traipsing after me, a sick man and a black gown tick-tocking like Captain Hook’s crocodile.
In the past two years, Somalia’s capital has been booming, both as business takes off and bombs explode. For me traffic jams are not a tiresome consequence of a new economy — they’re terrifying. This is when the IEDs go off, the suicide jacketeers attach themselves to your window like exploding limpets. And as a westerner you don’t get out and walk to your appointment. You are a prize target — but usually armed guards surround you, even when on a lonely road you disembark for a pee.
Grenades exploded outside my hotel walls in the evening, while gunfire and thuds flared through the night. At breakfast, when I asked what had happened, my host would look puzzled and say ‘nothing?’ I climbed on to the hotel’s flat roof and planned my escape route, should attackers scale the walls or breach the main gate. At least, I comforted myself, the Sick Man and the Jilbab did not know where I was sleeping. Perhaps I was paranoid. Maybe he was just a poor man and not my nemesis — but why come after me with this figure in a black gown?
One didn’t always have to fear suicide attackers here. Once Somalis were so proud and, in my eyes at least, magnificent that a jihadi, however militant, could never stoop to blow himself up in a crowd of innocents. Stand and fight, yes; to stroll at the pace of a browsing camel in streets raining bullets, to bare his chest with a scowl at his executioners. For years, extremists from the East whined about precisely this — that Somali hardliners were too dignified to destroy themselves in acts of terror. All that changed in 2005, when a veiled woman detonated herself at a military checkpoint. Since then suicide bombings have become a signature of Al-Shabaab operations in Somalia.
I’ve seen the aftermath of explosions in rooms, the walls and ceilings spattered with blood and guts like Jackson Pollocks. At detonation, the attacker turns to aerosol — all except for his extremities, so that the hands, feet, genitals fly off intact. Heads pop off like champagne corks. Anthropologists of suicide bombers have claimed the killers are sexually frustrated youths, who bandage their genitals in the hope that these parts will remain whole at the point of entry to the virgins of paradise, and that martyrdom is dubbed the ‘wedding’. Psychotic, devoid of religious validity, such behaviour is like that of the Professor, an anarchist in Conrad’s The Secret Agent, who scuttles through London with a bomb in his pocket — his finger always poised over the trigger — living a mission that is not so much a political cause as a type of performance art.
I was about to tuck into lobster one balmy evening at the hotel when my host came to say I had visitors. ‘Who?’ ‘A young man and a woman — here, to see you.’ Again I had the urge to flee, and I saw myself as Captain Hook again, running upstairs and over walls and through dusty streets. ‘Oh, no, where are they?’ My host smiled, ‘Don’t worry, they are outside the gate. Come and have a look at them, if you like.’
I abandoned my lobster and my host led me to the gate, where there was a sort of turret filled with guards manning weapons and radios above a perimeter of razor wire and a thick, high wall. One of them invited me to peer down a peephole made of bulletproof glass, which looked down on the scene outside the gate. There they stood, the Sick Man and the Jilbab. More missed calls piled up on my phone. ‘Let me suggest you do not allow them in,’ said my host. ‘Quite. Kindly tell them I am indisposed.’ A guard opened a metal hatch in the big metal gate and yelled something. As I watched through the peephole, the duo hesitated, the Sick Man looked irritated and they walked away. Tick tock, tick tock.