Looking for signs of hope in Somalia after Mogadishu’s devastation

Men walk near destroyed buildings as thousands of Somalis gathered to pray at the site of the country's deadliest attack and to mourn hundreds of victims at the site of the attack in Mogadishu, Somalia, on Oct. 20. (AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh)Men walk near destroyed buildings as thousands of Somalis gathered to pray at the site of the country's deadliest attack and to mourn hundreds of victims at the site of the attack in Mogadishu, Somalia, on Oct. 20. (AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh)

Bishop Giorgio Bertin, O.F.M., works at what he describes as “perhaps the smallest Caritas office in the world” in one of the most troubled places in the world. A two-man operation just now, Caritas-Somalia, he said, is trying to determine how it can best intervene in the long-troubled state.

Bishop Bertin leads the Diocese of Djibouti, the only diocese in the Horn of Africa, and serves as the apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Mogadiscio in Somalia’s capital city. Mogadishu was rocked to its core on Oct. 14 by a truck bombing that left 358 dead and hundreds wounded. The missing are still being sifted for among the scorched rubble.


Even for a city that has known years of terror bombings and attacks, this level of carnage came as a shock, said Bishop Bertin, speaking from Milan and preparing to return to Africa next week. “This time it was something really very heavy, something unexpected.

“Unfortunately for Mogadishu, this kind of incident, although they are usually smaller in comparison to this attack, is a kind of a regular affair.”

Mogadishu was rocked to its core on Oct. 14 by a truck bombing that left 358 dead and hundreds wounded. The missing are still being sifted for among the scorched rubble.

Just a few weeks ago, he said, a deceptive normalcy had settled over Mogadishu. The wealthy and powerful moved about, watched over by their bodyguards as usual, but even average citizens had been “moving around the city quite freely.”

“You have moments where things can seem quite peaceful,” he said. “You can have the impression that it is a normal life; unfortunately, it is not normal.”

In 2016 Somalia saw its highest-ever number of attacks from improvised explosives, at least 395, up from about 265 the year before, according to a threat assessment by the Nairobi-based Sahan research group. But none of the attacks achieved the horrific scale of the Oct. 14 bombing, which involved two vehicles laden with explosives. Locals are already referring to the devastation that attack has engendered as Somalia’s Sept. 11.

Two people have been arrested in connection with the blasts so far. Local officials told the Associated Press that the bombers apparently intended to target Mogadishu's heavily fortified international airport where several countries maintain their embassies and where the headquarters of the African Union peacekeeping force is located.

In a familiar terrorist tactic, a minivan loaded with explosives had been intended to detonate outside an airport gate to punch a hole through security fortifications. That would have allowed the second bomber in a larger truck through to complete a more devastating attack.

But both vehicles were intercepted by security forces at roadblocks within the city and their deadly cargoes were detonated prematurely. The minivan exploded without causing harm at a checkpoint. Unfortunately, the truck’s explosives detonated at a busy intersection in the center of the city, maximizing the blast’s killing impact on passing civilians.

“You may eliminate some terrorists, but you do not solve the problem.”

Somali officials told reporters for The Guardian newspaper that they believe the bombing was an act of retaliation for a botched U.S.-orchestrated raid in August that had targeted the small town of Bariire, 30 miles west of Mogadishu, a stronghold of Shabab Islamist extremists. Three children were killed, and local tribal elders called for revenge. Investigators believe that both vehicles used in the attack set out from Bariire.

There are about 400 U.S. military on the ground in Somalia. The U.S. Africa Command in Somalia announced on Oct. 20 that it had resumed its fight against Shabab militants with a drone strike about 35 miles southwest of the capital. At press time it was still assessing the outcome of the strike.

Somalia’s president will announce a “state of war” against the Shabab extremist group, Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khayre said on Oct. 20. The United States is expected to play a supporting role in that new offensive, a Somali military official told The Associated Press

In the wake of such incidents, Bishop Bertin wonders about the role of the United States in Somalia and the long-term impact of its operations and drone strikes against the Shabab.

“You may eliminate some terrorists, but you do not solve the problem,” he says.

A truly effective approach against terrorism in the Horn of Africa cannot rely solely on military options, he suggests. “The approach should be wide—political, economic and tactical. You need to cooperate really with others.

“Sometimes we have the impression that the Americans think it is a waste of time to collaborate, they have an attitude of ‘We will solve the problem.’”

And the Americans are not the only actors in Somalia, he points out. China has a presence here; Saudi Arabia safeguards its own interests; Qatar is here; Turkey and other regional players also have a footprint. Each has their own interests and strategies, but how many, he wonders, are prioritizing the Somali people, who have endured decades of conflict and suffering? The United Nations is playing a humanitarian role in Somalia, he says, but “within the United Nations the members themselves are not very much united in their goals.”

“The only solution is to work together in front of this terrible evil,” Bishop Bertin says. “We should put together our forces to fight this monster that is causing all kinds of disasters.” That fight, he acknowledges, will include the use of force, “but that should not be the only option; it should be a part of the options.”

Somalis, of course, have had a hand themselves in perpetuating the nation’s suffering; inter- and even intra-clan tensions contribute to the violence, he says. Some Somalis have simply resigned themselves to the violence as an unchangeable aspect of their lives.

Still Bishop Bertin finds cause for hope. At the “smallest Caritas office,” he has been busy making plans for various programs, including a school for displaced children in Baidoa, a program for handicapped children and another program for vocational training. He is in negotiation with a Catholic religious order to help bring some of these ideas to fruition in collaboration with local people. Many Somalis, he says, “are really great people, really ready to answer [the nation’s] challenges.”

In fact thousands marched for peace in Mogadishu on Oct. 18 in defiance of the Shabab, who are the suspected authors of the Oct. 14 devastation, though the group has not yet claimed responsibility. Given the unexpected toll on Somali civilians, some believe the Shabab may never admit to its role.

As the death toll grew the day after the bombing, Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed declared three days of national mourning. He donated blood for the victims and asked his fellow citizens to do the same.

On Twitter, he said: “[The] horrific attack proves our enemy would stop [at] nothing to cause our people pain and suffering.... Time to unite and pray together. Terror won’t win.”

Despite the obvious dangers of working in a place like Mogadishu, Bishop Bertin reports no inclination to abandon the work of Caritas in Somalia.

“Of course it is dangerous,” he says, “but we have a beautiful document of the Second Vatican Council, ‘Gaudium et Spes.’” Its wisdom gives him much encouragement. “The joy and the hope, the suffering and the problems of the people are the joys and the hopes and the suffering of the disciples of Christ,” he says, paraphrasing the famous preface.

“We believe that God became man and united himself to humanity,” Bishop Bertin says. “And we as Christians, as Caritas, should be the companions of those who suffer and those who rejoice but particularly those who suffer.

“They are the first priority of Christ,” the bishop says, “and the first priority of the church.”

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