Thursday, 2 April 2020

Somali clerics help fight coronavirus and Al Shabaab's COVID-19 messages

I have been lucky enough to talk to Somalia's most senior religious leader, Sheikh Ali Dheere, the deputy minister of foreign affairs, Osman Aden Dubow, the deputy coordinator for the Prevention and Countering of Violent Extremism in the Office of the Prime Minister, Koshin Abdi Hashi, and the university professor and senior adviser in the ministry of foreign affairs, Mohamed Ali.

The told me about what Somalia's religious community is doing to help stop the spread of the virus and to counter Al Shabaab's messages that coronavirus has been imported by 'crusaders' such as the Africa Union intervention force, AMISOM.

I wrote a BBC report about it, which you can read if you click here: My piece on Somalia's religious leaders and coronavirus

Sheikh Ali Dheere washing his hands
Sheikh Ali Dheere entering the mosque
I took the following pictures of a koranic school in a Mogadishu camp for the displaced - all madrassas have been closed in an attempt to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Here is the text of a report I did for BBC radio about the initiative.

As the number of coronavirus cases continues to increase in Africa, there are fears the disease could wreak havoc in countries affected by conflict. Somalia, which has been in a state of war for more than thirty years, is a prime example. Although there have been only three confirmed cases so far, the government is deeply concerned about the possible spread of COVID-19, and about messages about the virus sent by the country’s Islamist group Al Shabaab. Our Africa Editor Mary Harper has been speaking to members of Somalia’s religious community:

In a recent communique, Al Shabaab said coronavirus was being spread by what it described as ‘crusader forces who have invaded Somalia and the disbelieving countries that support them’. The militants, who control much of Somalia, have also said Muslims cannot catch the disease. This is what the government is up against. In an effort to counter Al Shabaab’s messages and teach Somalis how to protect themselves, it has enlisted the support of the influential religious community. The deputy minister of religious affairs, Osman Aden Dubow, says their help is essential as they are the most trusted people in the country. After the closure of Somalia’s tens of thousands of madrassas, koranic teachers and imams have been recruited to spread the word about COVID-19. They will drive around in cars mounted with loudspeakers to tell people to wash their hands for twenty seconds with soap and water and to maintain a safe distance from each other. The same messages will be transmitted from the minarets of mosques. But even if they get the right information, hundreds of thousands of Somalis won’t be able to protect themselves. Displaced by violence, floods and drought, they live in over-crowded camps, without access to soap and water, and no way of keeping apart from each other. Somalia’s most senior sheikh, Ali Dheere, says anything that causes harm in Islam is not permissible – and that certain practices such as washing the dead will have to change in order to stop the spread of the virus. People are also being encouraged to pray at home, although there has been no mention of closing mosques – a highly sensitive issue in this deeply religious country. It’s not just Al Shabaab that is spreading incorrect information about coronavirus. Some Somalis believe it is a divine punishment imposed on China for its treatment of Muslim Uighurs. Some say it has hit America because the US oppresses Muslims. Somalia’s government and religious community have a mammoth task ahead of them, both in terms of busting myths and of teaching people how best to protect themselves.

These are some photos I took of IDP camps in Somalia. I do not know how people are going to practice social distancing or find enough water and soap to wash their hands regularly in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus.

Here are a couple of photos by the Reuter's news agency showing people washing their hands with ash: 

And, finally here is a photo I took of a mosque in Mogadishu's commercial district, Bakara Market

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

US airstrikes and civilian deaths in Somalia

This is a report I did for the BBC about Amnesty's recent findings on civilian deaths and US airstrikes in Somalia.

The rights group, Amnesty International, says it has unearthed evidence that recent US drone strikes in Somalia killed and injured civilians. The US has significantly increased air strikes against the Islamist group Al Shabaab since Donald Trump took office. It has only admitted to killing two civilians – a woman and a child in 2018 – since it started its air campaign in Somalia more than a decade ago. Our Africa Editor Mary Harper reports:

Amnesty says an eighteen year old woman and a fifty-three year old banana farmer were killed in two separate drone strikes, one in the town of Jilib, the other in Kumbareere village. Three others were injured. The US acknowledged the attacks but said they killed what it described as Al Shabaab ‘terrorists’. Amnesty analysed satellite images and video evidence, as well as speaking to family members and the victims’ communities, who insisted the dead were not members of the militant group. Amnesty says US air strikes have in total killed more than twenty Somali civilians. It is possible the deaths of civilians will radicalise their family members, pushing them towards Al Shabaab. On Tuesday the US military announced it would from next month publish reports on allegations of civilian casualties in its Africa operations. The US is involved in counter-terror operations across the continent, principally in the Sahel and in the east and Horn of Africa.

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Somalia - March 2020

I visited Somalia in March 2020 - here's a report I did for the BBC

 CUE: One of Africa’s longest-running conflicts is that in Somalia. It has gone on for more than thirty years, and has taken many different guises, from clan violence to warlordism to radical Islamist militancy. There’s a huge international presence in the country, ranging from African Union forces to US special forces, but they are unable to restore peace. Our Africa Editor, Mary Harper, has just returned from the country.

It happened a few hours after I landed in the capital Mogadishu. I was in my room – a converted shipping container - in the heavily protected international airport. I heard the crump of mortar fire, not far away. I later heard the weapon had landed inside the ‘green zone’, and that a man had lost his leg. 

The Islamist group, Al Shabaab, had managed to fire the mortar into what is supposed to be the safest part of the city.

A journalist friend told me how a car blaring music had drawn to a stop on an ordinary street, where people were going about their daily business. Two men - dressed casually in Western style clothes - got out of the vehicle. Nobody paid them much attention. They opened the boot and brought out a contraption, used it to fire a mortar, then got back in the car, music still pounding.

This brazen incident showed how Al Shabaab is able to operate in the heart of the capital, which is supposed to be under government control. The group not only carries out regular attacks. It raises taxes in the city, including on goods arriving at the port. It distributes money to the poor and dispenses justice from mobile courts, which are considered less corrupt and more efficient than other courts. I was told even an MP used an Al Shabaab court to settle a land dispute.

The group continues to govern huge swathes of territory, mainly small towns and rural areas. But it is under threat. 

Its middle and senior ranking leaders are targeted by US drone strikes, which also kill civilians and their precious livestock. The Somali army, supported by African Union forces and American advisers, has had some recent success, capturing a string of towns and villages outside Mogadishu, and, crucially, holding onto them. 

The unit Al Shabaab fears the most is called Danaab, which means ‘lightening’. These are elite US-trained commandos, who wear black balaclavas and carry their guns properly, unlike the rag tag bunch that makes up the regular army.

But despite all of this, Al Shabaab continues to strike in Mogadishu, other so-called government-controlled towns, and targets outside Somalia.

The recent mortar attacks on the airport ‘green zone’ have struck fear into the heart of the United Nations and other internationals stationed there, including burly private security personnel and the British embassy with its black door - a brass Number 10 nailed onto it - just like Downing Street in London.

At night time, some UN compounds are not lit up – they are in pitch darkness, a safety precaution against Al Shabaab attacks. One night, I was making my way through the blackness when I bashed straight into a concrete barrier, falling head first into the sand and badly bruising my body. It was humiliating.

There is much talk in Mogadishu of the forthcoming elections. In Villa Somalia – home of the Somali president and other top officials – ministers plot and scheme, and seem to pay little attention to the desperate conditions of people outside the compound. There are about 800 camps for the displaced in the city, with igloo shaped structures fashioned from plastic, scraps of metal and faded pieces of cloth. Some people have lived there for more than two decades.

There are also those who make a fortune from Somalia’s war economy. The internationals are paid danger money even though many of them never leave the relative safety of the ‘green zone’. Somali businessmen and former warlords make multi-million dollar deals in the property, telecommunications and financial sectors. Brightly coloured buildings, shops decorated with cartoon-like paintings displaying their wares, and luxury apartment complexes spring up around the city, some already scarred by Al Shabaab attacks.

Every time I go to Mogadishu, I feel that everything changes on the surface but everything remains the same underneath. Amid the shiny new buildings and bright new technocrats, Al Shabaab, and now the Somali branch of the Islamic State group, carry on killing and bombing.  The government – still – doesn’t work. Somalia’s young population has known nothing but war. Which poses the question: if people don’t know what peace looks like – how on earth are they going to be able to bring it back?

Saturday, 11 January 2020


Here is a list of my forthcoming and past events. Please come if you can!


All events have been postpone or cancelled due to coronavirus


14 February 2020, University of Leicester

Guest lecture on working as a journalist in Africa


23 January 2020, London School of Economics


26 November 2019, University of Westminster

Fusion Doctrine: Lessons Learned from Remote Warfare in Africa


July 2019, Hargeisa International Book Fair

Somaliland Launch of 'Everything You Have Told Me is True'


16 July 2019, Frontline Club, London

Trauma and Reporting in Somalia


7 July 2019, Africa Writes Literature Festival, London

Discussing 'Everything You Have Told Me is True'


20 may 2019, Frontline Club, London

The Many Faces of Al Shabaab

Monday, 9 April 2018

Will Ethiopian treasure (and the remains of a young prince) taken by Britain ever return home?

 This month marks the 150th anniversary of the battle of Maqdala when Britain sent a force nearly forty-thousand strong to Ethiopia after Emperor Tewodros the Second took some Britons hostage. The British soldiers won the battle and made off with precious treasure. More than ten years ago Ethiopia launched a formal claim to get the loot returned. Some of the artefacts has just gone on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and there are hints they might soon be on their way home to Ethiopia. I went to  the V&A and compiled this report for the BBC - click this link to listen: Ethiopian treasure

Here are some photos of the exhibition (provided by the V&A)

Interviewing the Ethiopian ambassador

The British expedition 

The Ethiopian ambassador arrives for the opening ceremony

Close up of the emperor's exquisite golden crown

The Queen's wedding gown

A church
The emperor's crown

Jewellery from the royal household
Young prince Alemayehu who died aged 18
Prince Alemayehu whose remains are buried at Windsor Castle

Golden chalice

Photos provided by the Victoria and Albert museum

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Somali camels

For Somalis, and other inhabitants of harsh, arid lands, the camel is a lifeline. These precious beasts carry their possessions, provide them with nourishing milk and meat, and survive the cruellest of droughts. Much Somali poetry and song centres around the camel. Somalis calculate bridewealth and blood feud compensation in heads of camel, and make millions exporting them to the Gulf. I was lucky enough to visit a camel market in Hargeisa, Somaliland where I came across herders engaged in a camel singing competition. You will also hear camel grunts, camel groans and the special sound camels make when they are in love. My friend Said Yusuf Abdi showed me around.

Here is a link to the BBC radio report about it:  The Somali camel market

The camel herder with the golden voice

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Hadrawi: The Somali Shakespeare

I was lucky enough to be asked by the BBC to make a documentary about the Somali poet Hadrawi who lives in Bur'ao in Somaliland. You can listen to the programme here: The Somali Shakespeare

I took lots of photos while making the programme.

Hadrawi and me

Festive car (I didn't take this photo)

Independence celebrations (I didn't take this photo)

There are many poets in Somaliland including this policeman who has published a book of poetry

Delicious fresh fish in the port town of Berbera

Hadrawi and his wife at home in Bur'ao

Pomegranate growing in Hadrawi's favourite hotel in Bur'ao, City Plaza

No guns or knives allowed in City Plaza

Interviewing Hadrawi

Hadrawi holding some of his manuscripts

Hadraw's personal assistant, Mohammed Suleiman, who makes sure the poems are kept safely. 

City Plaza hotel

A Syrian doctor who had fled from Aleppo was staying at the hotel. He works in Erigavo.

A poet

Recording the sea

Outside Hadrawi's house

Hadrawi's wife

This young camel herder sang beautiful camel songs

Livestock market

These students in Hargeisa all knew Hadrawi's poems by heart

Another poet