In 2005, after more than a decade of civil war, the armed conflict in Somalia heated up once more when the Transitional Federal Government, then operating from Kenya, tried to reenter Mogadishu. Violence broke out between militias in the capital and spread throughout southern and central Somalia, creating an estimated one million refugees. In the following years, Mogadishu was frequently called the most dangerous city in the world. During this time, Bashir Yusuf Osman, a Mogadishu native, founded the Peace Hotel, a fortified space and fixing business that provided safe accommodation and local know-how for the reporters and aid workers that flocked to the country during the chaos.
He spoke to R&K about the story that almost sent him to jail, surviving a kidnapping, and finding people to trust in a city where everyone is armed.
Roads & Kingdoms: How did the Peace Hotel get started and what kind of services do you offer?
Bashir Yusuf Osman: I started the Peace Hotel in 2005, while there were only a few hotels, and the owners were quite old, old fashioned. I was the first one to start services for foreign people: journalists, NGOs or consultants. I got that idea when I met some people who came to Mogadishu interested in covering the situation.
There was a civil war. There were a lot of threats, kidnappings, assassinations. I was facilitating the accommodation, security, fixer, everything. Wherever they want to go, whoever they want to meet. There was a real danger for them because there were so many militias. They were hunting foreign journalists to kidnap. And to get people to agree to be interviewed was very hard because everybody was scared of the consequences.
So I was a big hustler. Slowly, I convinced Somali people that it’s good for journalists to cover the real situation in Mogadishu. And a lot of journalists did a very good job. The Peace Hotel was the only place they could come and stay. It helped the Somali people connect to the international world.
R&K: What do you wish foreign journalists knew before coming to work in Somalia during the fighting?
Osman: In Somalia, there was a time when the situation was changing every hour. You are in Mogadishu and the situation seems quite good but within one hour, everywhere there is fighting. For outsiders, it’s very difficult to understand how the situation is changing. One day you are outside in Mogadishu and the next day you are on lockdown, you cannot go anywhere, because of the security situation.
And the other thing: at that time, when [local journalists] were planning to cover a story and planning to meet some people, when you meet them immediately they started to be scared. They say, “Nobody will protect me. The people who see the news, they’ll come and maybe they can kill me.” But with the foreign journalists, people really talk more. With the local journalists, they really cannot talk more about the security situation. Some people are easy to kill.
R&K: How did you persuade people to talk to journalists?
Osman: It took me a lot of effort. Maybe this is going to be off record, these people when they take photos maybe they will [hide] your face. To convince them, you need people to support you. I tell them that if you are going to be silent, nobody will help you. But slowly, the situation changed. It’s not like 2005 to 2010. People have changed their minds about freedom of speech; they’ve started talking a lot.
R&K: Why did that change?
Osman: Now, there is a government here. The people don’t worry like before. The government is controlling some areas. The people, they don’t worry about gangs or some clan militia, freelance militias, kidnapping people.
R&K: Are there any stories you worked on that were particularly memorable to you?
Osman: The government, when the foreign journalists cover the real story, they want to deny it. They don’t have the power to arrest the foreign journalist, because if you live in New York, nobody can arrest you in Somalia. So the government accused me. They said it was a fake story. I said the government gave the journalist a visa and the permission to cover the story. The government at that time wanted to arrest me.
R&K: What was the story?
Osman: It was a story with the New York Times about child soldiers. The journalist came and met the small child soldier and he was interviewing and filming and then when the New York Times released it, the government started to deny everything. They clearly attacked the Peace Hotel. They said the Peace Hotel people gave the guns [to the children] and the New York Times journalist gave money to the child for the story. That was not true. When the Times released it, it affected the government. [International] funding for the government was cut because of the child soldiers. The stringer working in Mogadishu fled, but I stayed.
R&K: When you go out into the field, how much security do you need?
Osman: Depends on the area. Usually we take either eight or six people, something like that. But sometimes we take very light security. For example, if [the journalist] wants to talk to a woman about a rape, she will be scared, so we keep a low profile. But if we are going to the front lines, we have to take like ten security guys with very heavy arms. You have to have a contingency plan and response plan in case something goes wrong.
R&K: Armed groups in Somalia know that a number of foreign governments will pay massive ransoms to extract their citizens if they are captured. If someone that you hire gets even a tiny cut of the ransom money, it could be life-changing. How can you ensure that the people you hire aren’t tempted?
Osman: It’s a good question. Actually, this was my biggest challenge. Some of the people working with me could have earned hundreds of thousands of dollars, while I was giving them a couple hundred. But they have very strong principles. Before 2005, they were people who were already working with me. I had a small company exporting and importing spare car parts. They were people I was working with before. They were very loyal to me. They would die for me. We knew that the militia, if they saw us as soft people, a soft target, they would attack, but they saw we were very loyal to our job, and strong, and so we were never attacked.
R&K: How were they prepared work as security after working in car part imports?
Osman: In Mogadishu, everybody knows how to carry a gun, how to fight. Even young people playing football know how to use an AK-47, it’s not something new for them. It’s like how the young children in New York play with toys. We are playing with guns. It’s something that is available everywhere. And the people spend time training, because you have to have self-defense. So the people working with me, they already had an idea about guns, but we did have a training about how to work as a close protection team. Some of the guys are still working now. Now they are the trainers, when we recruit new people. They have more than 10 years of experience.
R&K: In 2010, you were kidnapped along with British security consultant Frans Barnard. What happened?
Osman: Yeah, I was kidnapped with this British guy, he was a security consultant. We were in south-central Somalia and we were at a guest house. The people who kidnapped us were the people who were guarding us. It took so much effort to get him released. I said to myself, either I will die or they will release him.
R&K: In the articles about the kidnapping, you were usually barely mentioned, even though you were held hostage as well. Does that bother you?
Osman: Actually, I did not want to be in the news. At that time, I was working low-profile. No photos, no interviews. That was my policy to survive working in Mogadishu. So I was not bothered.
R&K: Do you still work as a fixer?
Osman: Now I train the young guys and they work for me. Today I am in Nairobi, but five or six journalists are at the Peace Hotel right now covering Somalia. It’s good for the Somali people for everyone to know the real story in Somalia. I don’t think Mogadishu is like it was before, the most dangerous city in the world. There is a huge difference.