MOGADISHU, Sep 1 – It seems an unlikely choice: fleeing the palm-fringed beaches of tourist paradise Zanzibar for the bombed-out buildings of war-torn capital Mogadishu, one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
And yet opposition supporters from the Tanzanian archipelago did just that when they fled post-election violence in 2000; they recount their epic journey into a violent city most people are desperate to leave.
“We feared prison and violence, being arrested if we stayed home,” said Hamis Mohammed, one of about a hundred Zanzibaris living in Mogadishu, where gunmen cruise the ruined city in heavily armed pickup trucks.
“First we ran to Kenya, but we did not feel safe there and could not make a living, so after many years, we are now here living in Mogadishu,” Mohammed added, a supporter of Zanzibar’s Civic United Front (CUF) party.
The refugees said police cracked down on supporters during post-election violence in which some 30 people died, forcing several to leave by boat to Kenya.
Over a decade since they left, many of the Zanzibari community here now cohabit in one crumbling and bullet-scarred building, a former government ministry abandoned during the two-decades of war in the city.
“The situation here in Somalia is not good, but we survive,” said Salim Ahmed, one of the leaders of Mogadishu’s Zanzibari community, as the crackle of rifle fire echoes in the distance.
“We get no support from aid agencies, so we find small jobs – barbers, beggars, fishermen, or as labourers,” he added.
The Zanzibari’s journey is the opposite of tens of thousands of Somalis, who have fled to neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia from drought, famine and conflict, while others have braved the dangerous sea-crossing to troubled Yemen.
The UN has described Somalia, where a civil war has been going on since 1991, as facing the most severe humanitarian crisis in the world, with several regions including Mogadishu declared to be in famine.
“God willing, we will go back home someday,” said Masud Rashid, who left the white-sand beaches of the Zanzibari island of Pemba in 2001.
A dream to go home
He spent over a year in Kenya’s giant Dadaab refugee camp, before leaving in frustration as refugees are barred from work and travelling to Mogadishu during a period of relative calm because he heard jobs were available.
“We have many problems here, but we are still fearful of going home,” added Rashid, who works as a barber, and is now married to a Somali woman.
“Coming to Mogadishu was not a choice, it was the only place we could a find a place to be left alone, and where we could work,” said Abdul Abdallah, a Zanzibari fisherman, wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “make love, not war.”
“The Somalis treat us ok, we go to the mosque together, it is only that you can never tell when there will be fighting here.”
In the crowded market outside, sacks of grain from the UN World Food Programme are illegally sold, alongside a stall selling empty ammunition boxes.
Zanzibar and Mogadishu do share historical links: sea-faring Zanzibari sultans once ruled the Somali capital in the 19th century.
But modern similarities are few: tourism is the main foreign currency earner for Zanzibar, famed for its lush spice plantations and historical buildings, listed as a world heritage site by the United Nations cultural organization.
Mogadishu, meanwhile, has been at war ever since the toppling of Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, with battles between rival warlords and militia groups devastating the once elegant city.
Battles break out almost daily, and visitors to Mogadishu are warned to wear flak jackets and hire armed guards to prevent kidnap.
Yet slogans daubed on walls around the refugees’ homes provide messages of hope amidst the violent city.
“Everyman got a right to decide his own destiny,” the graffiti reads, a line from reggae legend Bob Marley. “We will fight the little struggle.”
But Zanzibari leaders said the situation had changed since the refugees fled.
The semi-autonomous archipelago has since elected a new president and local legislature, and the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party has formed a coalition with their former fierce rivals, the CUF.
“We welcome them back if they are still citizens of Tanzania – they should not be afraid of arrest if they did not commit any big offence,” said Mohamed Aboud Mohamed, a state minister.
“We have a new Zanzibari Government of National Unity comprising leaders from the main political parties,” he added.
The CUF leader also called for them to return.
“We need them back home to join hands in building our country after several years of political hatred and division,” said Seif Sharif Hamad in a statement, who is also Zanzibar’s vice president. “We are now working together.”
But the return remains a slim possibility at present, the refugees say, citing both security concerns and lack of funds.
“It would be a dream to go home if it is true that we can be safe there,” said Mohamed Said, another refugee. “But I don’t know how we would get back from our exile without help.”