MOGADISHU, SOMALIA — In a capital that pulses with the sounds of war — the rumble of armored trucks, the crash of mortars,
The crack of AK-47s — Radio Xurmo was an oasis. haunting Somali love songs, vibrant Arabic pop, even Bob Marley and
Michael Jackson filled the airwaves. The news, however dire, was bookended by melodic nationalist tunes that evoked
Somalia’s lost glory. Now, the songs have vanished,” declared Yasmin Mayo Mohammed, 35, minutes before She prepared
To read the news. Radio stations have become the latest front in an unrelenting war that is a struggle as much for Somalia’s identity as its territory.
Three weeks ago, a hard-line militia, Hezb-i-Islami, ordered stations in Mogadishu to stop playing music, Declaring it un-Islamic. Radio Xurmo complied; the Islamists have killed Somali journalists for less cause. the station is located in a sliver of the capital controlled by Somalia’s U.S.-backed transitional government. Silencing the music sent a loud message that the government was too weak to face down the Islamists.
So the government ordered Radio Xurmo and other stations in its territory to play music — or shut down. The next day, a Hezb-i-Islami leader called the station’s director and warned that if the music did not stop, the militia would bomb the station.
The government cannot protect us,” said Mohammed, one of the station’s 11 employees. “The Islamists have the ability to kill anyone, anywhere.”
In Somalia’s oral culture, music has shaped society for centuries.
Singers crooned about family values, ancient rituals and past empires. Collectively, music helped forge a national identity, if superficially, in a region dominated by clans. “It is a source of oxygen, as important to us as the water we drink,” said Mohamed Hassan Haad, a senior figure in the powerful Hawiye clan.
And ever since Somalia plunged into anarchy after the central government fell in 1991, its people have relied on music to escape and to preserve their morale.
It makes you feel life is still okay,” said Mohammed Aden Ahmed, 22, a hotel waiter. “It is the wall between you and the violence.”
An ideological battle
Hezb-i-Islami and its main rival, al-Shabab, have banned music in other provinces for months. They have prohibited women from working at radio stations. And as the militants pushed into the capital, they carried along their ideological conflict.
Somalia’s Information Ministry eventually told the five stations in government-controlled areas that they were free to decide for themselves. Only the government-run Radio Mogadishu — located in a compound protected by African Union peacekeepers
Inside his heavily guarded office, Mohammed Sheik Hassan, the head of Somalia’s national security agency, fumed. “It was a stupid action on their part,” he said of the other stations. “Why should they obey those who are on the other side of Mogadishu?”
But Mohammed Osman Aruz, a Hezb-i-Islami spokesman, laughed. There is no government in Somalia,” he said by phone from the town of Harardhere. “It’s very easy for us to impose our views.”
Today, Radio Xurmo feels like a graveyard. Outside, the street bears the scars of battles fought over two decades. Men clutching guns are everywhere, but none are assigned to protect the station. The war’s front line is two miles away.
Inside the station, dark hallways lead to offices closed off by two iron-grilled security gates. behind them, Mohammed somberly read news about a U.S. special court to try Somali pirates. She paused. It was time for what should have been a music break.
She motioned at the engineer, who promptly slid a switch. A recording of gunfire erupted from the speakers, filling the gap during which music was once played.
Mohammed read the next news item, quoting a United Nations official pleading for more
African countries to send troops to Somalia. She looked up and motioned again. More recorded gunfire. On the other side of the capital, employees at Radio Tusmo use mortar shelling as sound effects.
We wanted to make the same sounds as the militias,” explained Abdul Mahmood, 21, the station’s chief editor. “If they say no to the music now, they cannot say no to the mortars because they are firing them.”
Losing more than music
Like others, the station has lost tens of thousands of listeners since the ban. The loss is profound, because the music was also used to attract young listeners to programs teaching moderate Islam, human rights, health issues and reconciliation in Somalia’s fractured society.
We were the moral soul of the people,” lamented Omar Wardare, a moderate imam who used to play soothing Sufi music on his religious show.
Mohammed expects to be banned from speaking on the radio, if she stays alive long enough.
As she prepared to leave the station, she donned a black abaya that covered her entire body, save for her brown eyes. She did not wear it out of tradition.
This is for my security,” she said.
Two hours later, at Radio Mogadishu, a talk show host snapped his fingers to the rhythm of a vibrant Somali song. He flirted with his female co-host. But playing music comes at a price.
Mohammed Ibrahim Raghe, 22, the station’s sound engineer, fled his home after he received a death threat. he now lives at the station. “For six months, I have not gone outside the gate,” Raghe said.
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