A gravedigger with more than 20 years of experience, Hassan is finding life in Mogadishu’s newfound stability hard.
He became a gravedigger at the height of the civil war, when he used to dig at least 30 graves a day. “I became a gravedigger in 1991, when burying dead bodies was the best business in Somalia.”
People who want to bury their deceased family members ring his cell phone to ask him to dig graves for them. He listens religiously to the cacophony coming from downtown Mogadishu for the sound of loud bangs or continuous rounds of fire.
“When there is a loud bang, we know it is an explosion. When there is a sustained gunfire, we know something is wrong and people may die. Deaths mean there will be business for us.”
However, with gun battles falling in Mogadishu these days, the number of people brought to the cemetery for burial has almost fallen markedly.
“Two years ago I used to bury 30 bodies a day, now I bury one if I’m lucky and often I bury none.”
The father of four is struggling to put food on the table for his young family. His children have been forced to drop out of school because he can’t afford to pay their school fees. He is struggling to provide one meal a day.
After more than 20 years of continuous fighting, Somalis finally seem to be emerging from the dark days of their civil war.
“Somalis are tired of fighting. They know now, first hand, that fighting each other brings only two things: death and destruction. Somalis are the biggest driving force behind the return of peace in Mogadishu,” says Abdullahi Mohamed Shirwa, chairman of the Mogadishu-based peace advocacy group Somali Peace Line.
More than 17,000 African Union soldiers are now in the Horn of Africa country to support the weak government in their fight against the hardline rebel group al-Shabab.
Under increased military pressure, al-Shabab has retreated from major cities in south-central Somalia. This has moved the frontlines of the war away from populous cities and town, reducing deaths. “Mogadishu is no longer a frontline, and Bakara Market [the biggest market in Somalia] is no longer been shelled and fought over by al-Shabab, Somali government soldiers and African Union (AU) troops, so the number [of] deaths has decline greatly,” said Shirwa.
At the height of the civil war, 14 gravediggers used to work seven days a week at Abdirashid Ali Sharmake cemetery, but currently only two remain, one of whom is Ali Hassan.
Fifty-one-year-old Mohamed Jama, a father of seven, is the other remaining gravedigger.
Jama dug his first grave in 1994 for $30, and never looked back.
He remembers the days, just over a year ago, when AU soldiers and al-Shabab were fighting in Bakara Market. “I sometimes use to make about $300 a day when they were fighting in the busy market. Many people were killed and were brought to this cemetery to be buried.”
He recounts that business was even better before, when warlords constantly fought for turf, leaving countless people dead.
Even though Jama made the most amount of money during those years, he remembers that time as the worst in his career.
“Their militias would many times bring live people to the cemetery, then order us to dig graves before executing the people in the graves we just dug right in front of our eyes, telling us to bury them.”
Those years continue to haunt Jama: “I don’t like to dig a grave for a person standing next to me begging for mercy.”
Some of his colleagues were killed when they refused to dig graves for militias. “Five of my friends were killed when they refused to dig grave for militias when they brought a live person.”
Despite those challenges, his seven kids went to private schools and he had a maid helping his wife with housework. The family lived in a four-bedroom rented house, but have now moved from their rented house into a camp for internally displaced persons.
The pinch of peace
It’s not only the gravediggers feeling the pinch of peace in Mogadishu. The dead bodies brought to Jama for burial are usually wrapped in a white piece of cloth.
According to Muslim customs, when someone dies they should be wrapped in a white piece of cloth called kaffan before being buried.
With the number of deaths in Mogadishu falling greatly, kaffan sellers in Hamar Weyne have also been left wondering how to make ends meet.
“Two years ago we use to sell at least 49 metres of kaffan a day. Now, we barely sell two metres,” says kaffan seller Mohamed Abdi Khadir.
He’s been forced to diversify his target market from selling kaffan for burials to selling it as a tablecloth to new top-end restaurants opening in Mogadishu.
“In Mogadishu, if you don’t adapt with the changing currents, you will die.”
Jama feels he is too old to change his career. He speaks clearly about what will put food on the table for his family: “For us, we are happy when there are bombs going off and fighting taking place. I have seven children and a wife to feed.
“If others don’t die, they will die.”