MOGADISHU, Somalia—It was 2 in the morning when Abdinasir finally found his friend’s body.
Badly burned and wedged between concrete blocks, Ahmed Abdikarim Eyow’s remains were barely recognizable. The rescue team Abdinasir had recruited to search for the friend, with whom he was reunited only days before after a decade apart, hadn’t seen his remains in the wreckage. Only when Abdinasir turned on the light from his phone and began searching himself did the finality of his friend’s death at the hand of Somalia’s unrelenting extremists hit home.
Ahmed was one of over 250 people who were killed in Mogadishu on Saturday when a truck loaded with explosives detonated at a busy intersection outside the popular Safari Hotel in Mogadishu Kilometer Five district. It was the biggest terrorist attack in the history of a city that has long and terrible experience with explosions orchestrated by the al Qaeda-linked terrorist organization Al Shabaab.
Shock waves from the blast could be felt even in the city’s Mogadishu International Airport compound, long considered the most secure area in the city. As diesel from the vehicle-born IED burned in the explosion’s aftermath, the initial white smoke from the blast turned into plumes of thick, black fog reaching as high as the city’s tallest buildings. Firefighters raced to put out the fire as it engulfed the Safari Hotel and spread to neighboring buildings. Somali armed forces and African Union Peacekeepers scrambled to close checkpoints and control mobs of people both running from the site of the explosion and clambering to get to it.
The scene felt like a horrific flashback to times past, people thought, not something that would happen here and now.
Known internationally for a quarter century of civil war, two devastating droughts, and a capital once run by warlords and Al Shabab, those who live here, or who want to come back home here, have begun to think Mogadishu today has little resemblance to its notorious reputation.
It’s a city where young people’s Instagram accounts showcase images of kids swimming at Lido beach, friends Snapchat their Thursday nights trying brick oven pizza at the popular Pizza House restaurant and take selfies in the green oasis of Peace Garden, a public park with the city’s most colorful playground.
Despite the usual clan politics and villages won back and lost again to Al Shabaab, the general feeling has been that this, finally, was the time Mogadishu would shake itself free of Al Shabaab’s hold once and for all. And this is the Mogadishu that inspired Ahmed to return.
Ahmed had left the Somali capital just before the country was plunged into civil war in 1991; he was a teenager at the time and took Somali Airlines to Cairo from Mogadishu, eventually making his way to the United States where he would meet and marry his wife in 2007 and father three kids, one girl and two boys.
He met Abdinasir in 2001 in Minneapolis when he went to send money to his family in Somalia at a money transfer company where Abdinasir was working. The two became fast friends, forming a book club with other Somali-Americans in Minneapolis that met every Tuesday evening to discuss literature and the politics back home.
“[Ahmed] was very energetic about Somalia, very optimistic. When you got him chatting about Somali politics he kept saying the next election he would run for MP,” Abdinasir says. Though never the center of the party, Ahmed was the first to arrange dinners and lunches with friends, and was well respected among the people who knew him.
When Abdinasir left the United States to return to Somalia in 2009, the two kept in touch, although less frequently over time. Abdinasir knew that Ahmed had traveled back to Somalia in 2016 briefly when his mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
After that trip, Ahmed said he wanted to come back to Mogadishu for longer periods and get to know the country he saw rebounding in social media posts with pictures of kids soccer playing in the sand and other returnees from the diaspora sampling pastas at the city’s trendy Caramel restaurant.
When Ahmed called Abdinasir from Minnesota on October 4 to tell him he was coming to Nairobi and Mogadishu, Abdinasir could sense his excitement over the phone. “This time he was very interested, he wanted to see the city and understand how the country was these days, you could tell from his voice how happy he was to be coming back to Somalia,” he says.
Abdinasir told Ahmed they would overlap in Nairobi and Ahmed booked the same hotel where Abdinasir was staying, the Embassy Hotel in Nairobi’s Central Business District, where they were reunited Thursday morning after over 10 years apart. The two spent the day together, getting breakfast at a nearby coffee shop and having lunch in the city’s popular Art Caffe with another Somali-American friend from Minnesota, now Somalia’s ambassador to the U.K., Abdi Aynte.
Ahmed said he had gotten a small consultancy job with the World Bank to research how to increase commerce between Minnesota, home to many Somali refugees resettled in the U.S., and Somalia. He told Abdi and Abdinasir about his wife and three kids and how life back in Bloomington, Minnesota, was getting on.
“He said he also wanted to explore work opportunities in Mogadishu to see if he could move back to Somalia,” Abdi says. The two agreed to meet up again here on Sunday morning.
Both excited and nervous about his trip, Ahmed called Abdinasir the next day asking what flight he was taking to Mogadishu so they could travel together. When Abdinasir confirmed his early Saturday morning flight, Ahmed rushed to book the same ticket. “He told me, ‘I’m in room 207, make sure you knock on my door if I oversleep,’” Abdinasir says. “I told him I’m in 302, wake me up if I oversleep, too.”
The two had agreed to talk work opportunities on the plane, but instead both slept through the 4:30 AM Uber ride and 90 minute flight from Nairobi to Mogadishu. When they landed, Adbinasir offered Ahmed a ride to his hotel, which Ahmed had chosen because the owner was a family member.
“This guy was new to the city,” Abdinasir told me. “In my heart I didn’t like the area where he was going to stay, but I couldn’t say no to my friend.”
Dropping him off at Safari Hotel would be the last time Abdinasir would see Ahmed alive.
Abdinasir returned to his home, dropped his bags, and headed to his office, about one kilometer from the Safari Hotel. After a quick lunch, he was getting ready to leave the office for home when he heard the explosion. “I cannot even describe it,” he says. “At first I felt like I saw fire in my mind, then intense pressure, then I realized the roof of my office building had fallen down on us.”
One kilometer down the road, an entire block had been leveled. Bodies of those killed were strewn across the blast site, concrete buildings had collapsed to rubble, and a massive fire raged on the truck that had detonated. Witnesses started posting pictures on Twitter, calling the scene “apocalyptic,” and others dragged the wounded into nearby cars to transport them to the hospital. Aamin Ambulances, the only free ambulance service in the city, clocked over 20 trips for each of its 10 ambulances before midnight.
Mohamed Dahir Farah, another friend of Ahmed who worked down the road from Ahmed’s hotel, left his office building through a wall that had collapsed to find a hand lying in the road in front of him.
Abdinasir left his office building and walked, dazed and disoriented, back to his house. There he saw on Twitter that the explosion had happened at the Safari Hotel, where Ahmed was staying. He checked Facebook and WhatsApp to see when Ahmed was last online, but neither showed any activity after the time of the attack.
Around 6 p.m. Abdinasir walked to the nearby Jazeera Hotel where he met up with Mohamed Dahir Farah and they found a car to take them to the hospitals where casualties were being carried. After being turned back at numerous checkpoints, Abdinasir and Mohamed got out of the car and started walking, first to Banadir hospital, then Madina hospital, then Somali Sudan, Kalkaal and Digfer. But still, no sign of Ahmed.
Finally they made their way to the blast site. “We were trying to get help from these firefighters and policemen, but the place was so devastated it looked like no human could survive,” Abdinasir says. “The guy who invented the dictionary doesn’t have words to describe the devastation, it was beyond our imaginations.”
Finally they found one of the receptionists from the Safari Hotel who vaguely recalled booking Ahmed into room 102 or 101. Around 1 a.m., with the help of a rescue team, they dug through the ruble to room 102, which was empty, and then moved onto 101. “The team looked and said they couldn’t find him, so I went in with my phone light and saw something very dark and small lying between where the bed used to be and the bathroom. I said this is him, this is a human being.”
According to Dr. Mohamed Yusuf, Head of Madina Hospital, most of the 218 bodies they received from the site were carbonized beyond recognition, much like Ahmed. The hospital lost 36 of the wounded patients who were admitted, pushing the death toll from Madina hospital alone to 254 people.
“I have never seen anything like this, the strength of the explosion is indescribable,” said Dr. Yusuf.
With the African Union Peacekeeping Force, Somalia National Army, and emergency workers still digging through rubble at the blast site, the death toll is expected to further increase over the coming days as more bodies burned beyond recognition are retrieved.
At 6 a.m. on Sunday, only four hours after they discovered Ahmed’s body, Abdinasir and Mohamed buried their friend in Barakaat cemetery near Ahmed’s childhood home. The ceremony was a quiet one, both friends still grappling with their sudden and unexpected loss.
Now, struggling through tears as he recalls Ahmed, Abdinasir questions his own future in Somalia. “You don’t know if the car behind you will explode, or the one on the right of you or left or behind,” he says. “Will al Shabaab keep haunting this place for a long time? Will they shoot me? Or explode another bomb? I don’t know if I can take that risk, for myself and especially not for my family.”