The film Jaws was released in the summer of 1975. It slowly made its way to beach towns around the world, inspiring nightmares and cementing sunbathers to the sand. When Jaws arrived in Mogadishu, Somalia, people might have thought New England was a nearby place, and even that the film was about their own town.
Between 1978 and 1987, 30 shark attacks were documented off of Mogadishu’s famous Lido Beach. All but two were fatal. The construction of a new port had broken through coral reefs, allowing bull and tiger sharks to come closer to shore. Most of the fatalities occurred in the summer months of the monsoon, when the salinity of the water attracted even more sharks. During these years, the rains coincided with Ramadan, just as the abattoir up the coast went into high gear, throwing entrails of goats, camels, and cattle into the water.
Mogadishu in the 80s was a capital of wide, tree-lined streets, coral-stone homes, and a famous Indian Ocean breeze. Since it was settled around a thousand years ago, it has occupied a space at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, African, Asian, and Arab worlds. The openness of its people, a seaside virtue, is on display at the beaches, especially along popular Lido, in the center of town. Back then, a running club met once a week there. Somalis and expatriates jogged together in shorts, the women unveiled. Stalls lined the street behind Lido where kids would sell sea exotica and ivory. Beach clubs dotted the stretch of sand, where you could have lunch on the deck and watch people wade into the water.
The slaughterhouse along the coast that brought the sharks was always busy. Somali society centered on livestock, especially camels; despite having the longest coastline on the continent, Somalis never ate much fish. President Siad Barre, who had come to power in a 1969 military coup, set about establishing fishing cooperatives and declared two days of the week as fish-eating days to stave off food shortages.
Eventually, Somalis tired of Barre’s brand of scientific socialism. In practice it came to focus more on elaborate displays of statehood—constructing dozens of monuments and organizing regular parades—than on the actual workings of a state. His style of management stood at odds with the population he sought to control, for which self-reliance and private enterprise has always reigned. Finally, mired in corruption and weakened by several clan-based armed opposition groups, the government fell in 1991. Barre fled the country, and the national army dissolved.
So began a war whose end we have not yet seen.
Divisive clan politics laid waste to Somali society, and a catastrophic famine accompanied state collapse. More than 300,000 people died of hunger the following year, prompting the first of many botched international interventions.
One morning before dawn in December 1992, more than 100 foreign journalists waited on a beach just south of Lido. They watched the dark ocean, looking for signs of a supposedly secret US Marines operation intended to pave the way for food distribution. A CBS news crew caught the arrival of the advance reconnaissance team with night-vision scopes, and they broadcast it live. “This is literally a three-ring circus here on this beach right now,” a captain shouted over to the press corps.
For the next 20 years Mogadishu’s beaches were quieter. People stayed indoors, fearful of spontaneous firefights that pockmarked the city’s white coral walls and left rubble in most streets. Breaks in the violence never lasted long.
When I visited in January, the peace on Lido did not feel like a mirage. Facing the sea, my back to the ruins, I could almost touch it. The throngs of people were thick, and walking through them made me think it would be impossible to feel lonely in this city, if only because of the beach. It was Friday, a holiday, and everyone was here.
Ever since fundamentalist al Shabaab militants were chased from the city by an African Union peacekeeping force three years ago, Lido Beach has become a trope for peace, the stage for Mogadishu’s renaissance. Journalists get their color from Lido, describing the azure water and the reopened cafés. Last year, a seaside restaurant was bombed—a symptom of al Shabaab’s changing strategy in Mogadishu, where they now pursue guerrilla-style IED and suicide attacks.
These days, private security guards surround the perimeters of the cafés. Kalashnikovs hang loosely around the arms of men who have worn them for one militia or another their entire adult lives—and in some cases even since childhood. Behind them, young members of the Somali diaspora from Canada, Sweden, and Britain sit at tables sipping lattes. Many of them now work for the new government. Before coming back, their memories of the city were filled in by parents who knew Lido before the war.
We had come to take portraits on the beach and were setting up our lights on the balcony of a restaurant. The security team we’d hired blended in easily. To hold the table, we ordered a pitcher of mango juice—which no one really drank and instead just got in the way of all the batteries and lenses. Everyone watched us. Our gear and frantic preparations prompted many English speakers to come over and ask what we were up to. Protected by the restaurant’s own security detail and high barbed-wire fences, they loved the idea, they said. They wanted to show the world Somalia’s positive side. But they did not want to be photographed themselves.
People on the beach were more willing. Groups of young boys volunteered one another to be subjects. Some put piles of sand on their heads to get our attention. Soon we had to start turning people away.
The photos have no agenda, aside from trying to show normalcy, to introduce images of daily life from a country where the ordinary, to an outsider, is remarkable. If they were to contain a political statement about the direction of Somalia, they would serve to ignore the turbulence of the country’s past. The images are records of who was on Lido Beach on a day in late January—what they wore and whether they were smiling.
After a string of deadly attacks in Mogadishu and neighboring Kenya earlier this year, al Shabaab threatened to scale up bombings during Ramadan. The Somali police closed the beach in response. The crowds have gone once again.
Watch our documentary, Portraits of Mogadishu.