Abdirahman and Omar, two men I looked up to when I was growing up, died in an attack on a restaurant, another tragedy in a city torn between violence and optimism
As a winter storm approached New York in January, I lost my cousin. I lost a very good friend from high school too. Abdirahman and Omar died in the same place during an attack on a beachside restaurant in the Somali capital, Mogadishu.
When I learned of the attack on Twitter, I posted a note of concern for those who were targeted. Lido beach is a symbol of the city’s comeback. It is a space that captures the rhythmic changes of Mogadishu, and the pulsing beat of a city shedding its war-weary image. “Stay safe everyone,” I wrote, rather naively.
Just over 20 minutes later, I went on Twitter again and posted a prayer for those caught “in this dusk of danger and darkness”. I put my phone aside and continued eating dinner with a friend.
An hour later, I came to know about my loved ones’ deaths through WhatsApp. After the first group of people ran to safety, Abdirahman and Omar couldn’t be found. When the siege ended in the morning, family members went back to the restaurant and identified their bodies. That’s when my sister messaged me from Nairobi to break the news.
At first, the words on my screen seemed to reverberate through my apartment. I felt the heat at the back of my head rising. I remember the stillness of the leafless trees outside. The world, for a moment, seemed to rise in collective upheaval and violent silence. Suddenly, I recalled the last time I saw my cousin Abdirahman.
It was on Lido beach late on 11 January – 11 days before his death. He was sitting in the same cafe where he was killed. I had travelled to Somalia for a reporting project.
That night, a friend had picked me up from my hotel, and we went to have dinner together. When we got to the beach, Abdirahman was sat with friends. His feet were buried in the sand and his sandals lay by his side. When I called his name, he leapt from his chair and hugged me. “I thought you were in New York,” he said, “I can’t believe this.” He was warm and cheery that night.
When we were growing up in Mogadishu in the late 1990s, Abdirahman was a pillar of strength for my siblings and me. Every weekend, he would come to our house and help with homework: Arabic grammar, science and, for me, dreaded algebra. He was someone to rely on: shy and reserved, yet a go-getter.
I often saw myself in his image. As a young boy, I hated having to tuck in my shirt. My mother had a hard time convincing me to do that. She would cajole me by saying, “Don’t you want to be like Abdirahman?” And when I said, yes, she would say, “Then tuck in your shirt.” I almost always obliged, even though I disliked it and would, after a while, untuck it again.
Abdirahman went abroad to study agricultural chemistry then completed a masters in agronomics. He had recently returned to Somalia to be among the men and women rebuilding the country. It was in those dedicated and driven circles that he met Omar Olad, my school friend.
Omar was a year ahead of me at Al-Hikma secondary school. He was competitive and sharp, and we encouraged each other. After he left school, he would occasionally call at our house, motivating my brother and I to work hard. Omar was eloquent, with a toothy smile. He became a teacher, and was a lecturer at Simad University in Mogadishu when he died.
What a tragedy, I thought, that two guys I admired met by happenstance and died in the same place. Looking at the Facebook photos of Omar and Abdirahman together, I thought about the wave of violence eliminating my country’s young brains. I remembered my friend, engineer Abdullahi Barre, who was shot in front of his house in Mogadishu in April 2015. I thought about another school friend, Omar Afrah, who narrowly survived a car bomb. I counted the number of journalists, businessmen, aid workers, teachers and lawmakers who I knew and who had been targeted in attacks over the last few years.
The violence that dominates Somalia is as physical and emotional as it is gruesome and ghastly. Those who have the will and the way are either hiding behind barriers or leaving the country. However, through an unyielding veneer of persistence, people in Mogadishu wake up and go to work every morning. They defy the violence and try to have normal lives – until they don’t.
Many have an almost Panglossian view of the city – optimistic and determined despite the hard circumstances. Yet it is hard to ignore the toll of these sporadic attacks, not pitting one warlord against the other, but bright young men and women against those determined to reverse the gains.
I sit here today thinking about Abdirahman’s wife, too. On 4 February, she gave birth to their third child, called Bushra: good tidings.
• Abdi Latif is a freelance journalist, studying at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him @Lattif
This article first appeared at The Gurdian. Here is the link