MOGADISHU, Somalia — Hell started at sunset.
It was a Friday night in Somalia’s capital. The managers of the Hayat hotel had finished their last prayers and sat down for coffee, tea or dinner. Families, businessmen and government officials were there – some of the many who see the promise of rebuilding their country after decades of war.
Hotels are refuges in Mogadishu, but also targets. The extremist group al-Shabab, affiliated with al-Qaida, has been carrying out complex attacks on them for years, starting with explosions and holding out for hours as a handful of fighters exchange gunfire with security forces until a bloody morning end.
This time around 35 hours followed when an explosion broke the peace of the Hayat. It was the longest attack in Somalia’s history.
Last weekend’s siege could be a turning point for the Horn of Africa and its quest for greater security. In the days before the attack, new president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud had vowed an offensive against al-Shabab to drive it out of much of Somalia it has controlled for years.
Terrified Somalis then watched as 21 people in the Hayat were killed and some were dismembered, their remains were published in propaganda videos by al-Shabab.
The attack was “a window into the mindset of today’s Al-Shabab and how it has turned into a more obscure, sinister and nihilistic movement,” the Somali Wire newsletter wrote on Wednesday, pointing out that the hotel was not a “normal” target. , but “a modest hotel whose customers were mostly ordinary people.”
Now Somalia’s president swears “total war”.
In a national speech this week, he spoke with new determination. Al-Shabab “is like a deadly snake in your clothes,” Mohamud said. “There is no other solution but to kill it before it kills you.”
Standing in the rubble of his hotel, still marked with blood and flesh, owner Abdulkadir Mohamud Nur could hardly think of more death.
The 60-year-old was stunned when he said he was helpless as he was a short walk from the hotel for prayers when the attack began. Calls flooded his phone quickly. A suicide bomber had exploded at a side gate, callers said, and gunmen raided security forces, firing at anyone they found.
“I couldn’t get any closer to the hotel because of the gunfire,” Nur told The Associated Press.
It was chaos. One survivor, Ibrahim Bashir Ali, joined the frenzied hotel guests who tried to hide in the hall where afternoon coffee was served. Amid the gunfire, he saw the attackers wearing “combat outfits”. Al-Shabab fighters sometimes disguised themselves in security uniforms.
“There were hand grenades that turned everyone to stone,” Ali said. He broke two windows and jumped out of the second to escape, injuring himself.
Nur, the hotel owner, immediately thought of his two brothers, Abdirahman and Shuaib, who had come to have lunch and afternoon tea with him. They were still inside, but he didn’t dare to call them.
“When such attacks occur, people are advised not to call those they believe may be at the scene of an attack,” Nur said. “The ringing telephone could attract the attention of the attackers.”
It was wisdom that came from years of watching Al-Shabab’s attacks on the capital.
Nur later learned from hotel colleagues that Abdirahman had been murdered near the reception area while he was looking for a place to hide. And on the second day of the attack, he himself found Shuaib’s body.
“We trust in God’s destiny,” Nur said, his face contorted with sorrow.
The length of time it took the Somali security forces to end the siege and even communicate among themselves has been questioned and criticized. Initially, a Turkish-trained paramilitary force was sent to the hotel, but was beaten back by the attackers. Then a group trained by US troops arrived and managed to rescue survivors on the ground floor while restraining the gunmen.
Somali Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre says those who did not respond to the attack will be punished. Security forces did not comment.
The four-storey hotel, in a highly fortified area near the international airport and government buildings, has been shattered. Reconstruction, like anything else in today’s global economy, would be expensive with the rising cost of building materials.
And yet 67 employees depended on the hotel, and on its owner, a reminder of the vulnerability that remains in Somalia.
“I wonder how these people will go about their lives,” Nur said.
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