On a recent drive in downtown Mogadishu with ten heavily armed bodyguards, I passed the site of the old US embassy, and observed a melancholy scene that Britain and the USA might ponder if they decide to bale out of Iraq early. The embassy has been totally demolished, either out of hatred or because Mogadishu’s benighted inhabitants need bricks with which to build their hovels. The site is now a forest of thorns browsed by camels. Washington has long regarded Somalia as nothing but a nasty backwater populated by ungrateful Africans, but the continuing violence there — much of it directed by Islamic extremists — suggests that the country may become the springboard for an Africa-wide Islamic jihad.
When the Somali government fell in 1991 and civil war broke out, US navy helicopters were diverted from the Gulf to pull out the American diplomats. One Somali who witnessed the evacuation was a friend of mine, Abdulkadir Yahya, who worked at the embassy. As gunmen scaled the walls, Yahya gathered his wife and children to wait to be rescued with the foreigners. Just as the helicopters were about to lift off, the Americans told Yahya that he and his family would have to stay behind. One tossed him the keys to the ambassador’s office and yelled, ‘Here, what’s left of the money and food is all yours!’
I met Yahya a few days after he had been left behind by his American employers and he managed to laugh about it. He was kind, clever and, like many Somalis, he had a stoical sense of humour. Ignored by the world, Somalis were committing what Yahya drily called ‘geno-suicide’. Once, over a plate of lobster in the ruins of the Lido Beach Club — which still served lunch despite the lack of a roof and mortar-bomb holes in the wall — Yahya told me, ‘In Somalia, if you have nothing you starve.