October 19, 2022
October 19, 2022
In 2020, Somali Public Agenda established the Center for Public Policy and Service Design- since re-named the SPA Policy Lab – with the mission to help public and civic institutions design human-centered policies and services using action research and design tools. Since then the SPA Policy Lab has been building the necessary infrastructure and expertise in research, policy, and service design. We were therefore excited to partner with Interpeace in designing an intervention for the community in Beledweyne that aspires to advance peace, address past grievances, and build the capacity of existing local institutions to do the same.
This work is dear to us. We knew there were problems in the region when we set out, but we proceeded anyway. We were fully aware of the ongoing security operations by the government forces and the Macawislay militias against al-Shabaab in the Hiiraan region, in which the governor of the region Ali Jeyte has been playing a key role. I accompanied two other SPA colleagues and a staff member from Interpeace for — what we planned as — weeklong fieldwork stay in Beledweyne. We had made arrangements to meet and talk to different people, understand problems and grievances, and generate a new understanding of who the local actors and institutions are that might provide the needed reconciliation and healing in Beledweyne.
We intended to return to Mogadishu with this primary data, and together with our design experts and fellows, use this as a novel resource along with innovative design tools to develop a set of prototype interventions that might more successfully address past grievances and injustice and advance peace in Beledweyne. Later, we would be able to share these first-pass ideas with the community in Beledweyne to refine them, test them, and improve them.
I was extremely excited to work on this because I have a deep connection to Beledweyne: it is where I spent three years during high school. I know the people, and I have some understanding of key issues at stake in the city.
We arrived in Beledweyne on 2nd October, organized the first meeting with our local partner, and had a session on the structure of the dialogue and discussions. On 3rd October, we commenced a workshop with the youth leaders and young intellectuals in Beledweyne. After a brief introduction about ourselves and the work we had come to Beledweyne to accomplish, we started the discussion. I was the moderator. For about 30 minutes, we had an interesting back-and-forth on the key issues and problems in the city and grievances among the community in Beledweyne. That was as far as we got.
We heard a huge explosion.
We were on the second floor of our hotel, which is adjacent to the police station. The people in the room were frightened and for good reason. I turned to look at the door and saw the dust at the entrance gate to the Lamagalaay neighborhood, which is the headquarter of the regional administration and the residence of key Hirshabelle leadership. Some of us initially thought the explosion targeted the police station near us. I informed them that it was the Lamagalaay neighborhood and that we should be calm.
As I was assessing the scale of the explosion while looking at all the dust, I saw a massive fire and we heard another explosion — much bigger and louder than the first — in the same area. Windows in our hotel were cracked or blown out. I know the history of the region and I think that second explosion was probably the loudest one that people in Beledweyne have ever heard. It wasn’t the sound, though. The blast killed a large number of people in Lamagalaay and damaged many buildings. Over twenty people died while more than thirty were wounded. A minister and a legislator of the Hirshabelle state and the deputy governor of finance of the Hiiraan Regional Administration were among those who were killed in the two suicide attacks.
People at the workshop were confused. Some started crying. Others thought we were under an al-Shabaab attack. I tried my best to let them know that the second explosion also targeted the Lamagalaay neighborhood and that our hotel was not a target. After more than an hour, we were thankful and relieved that those who had participated in our workshop had managed to safely leave the venue and get back to their homes.
Our team had an emergency meeting. We decided to stop the work, stay one more day in Beledweyne and then return to Mogadishu. The context was simply not conducive to the open discussion we wanted to create in Beledweyne, and it was not realistic that we could learn what was needed to properly inform our intervention design work. Our attention was then directed toward going home. But not for long.
I returned to my room and tried to focus on responding to emails. That is when I heard gunfire near the police station, which was directly outside my window. As I was trying to assess the situation, a huge explosion was set off right outside. My room door was broken and all windows in my room were blown out. I was lucky that I was not wounded given the scale of the explosion and how close I was.
At that point, all plans were off. We couldn’t even stay in the hotel because there were no rooms where anyone could sleep. The scene had turned into a war zone. We could not go out for more than two hours. We were fearful that hotels themselves may also be a target.
We left the hotel carrying only our computers. We headed to a friend’s house who kindly invited us to stay the night, and we managed to secure return tickets to Mogadishu the next day.
When we returned to the hotel to collect our bags early the next morning, I was horrified by the awesome scale of the material damage caused by the explosions. Many businesses near the Beledweyne police station were completely destroyed. It will take years for the people of Beledweyne to recover from that dreadful day.
Some of my family members who knew I was in Beledweyne and my colleagues were worried about our situation during these long hours. I am grateful to Allah that I did not lose consciousness and that we managed to safely escape the scene uninjured.
Despite these horrible experiences on the 3rd of October in Beledweyne, our mission and commitment to help the Beledweyne community in peace and reconciliation has not changed. We are determined to go back to Beledweyne, spend time with the people, and understand their daily life experiences and the key issues at stake so that together we can develop interventions that can have a positive impact on the lives of the people in the town and surrounding region.