After Somalia descended into civil war and chaos back in 1991, cultural life in the capital city of Mogadishu disappeared in successive waves of terrorism, famine and conflict. One of the casualties, as warlords and militias fought over the capital city, was the National Theatre.
But last year, after African Union troops drove out the militant Islamist group al-Shabaab, a fragile peace came over Mogadishu. And in April this year, the battered National Theatre was reopened with great fanfare.
In an article in the German daily Die Welt, reporter Christian Putsch describes how Jabril Abdulle, the director of a Somali peace organisation called the Centre for Research and Dialogue, coaxed the city's beleaguered artists into reviving the theatre, to make it the hub of a revitalised art scene:
Music was forbidden until the al-Shabaab terror organization lost its merciless grip on the capital nine months ago. Until then, the theatre had been used as an arms depot. Now the idea is for it to become a lasting symbol of peace in a nation that has known war since 1991. The bombed roof hasn’t been repaired yet. Only a generator provides electrical current. And the theatre is dusty through and through. But that’s not important – because where there’s culture, there’s life. There’s freedom.
That vision suffered a body blow when a suicide bomber blew herself up at the theatre's grand opening last month, killing nine others and injuring dozens. A VIP to whom Jabril Abdulle had just given his reserved seat was among those who died. Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack.
But Mogadishu's artists have stood strong, urging Abdulle to continue his work:
...having a theatre again is like rain after drought. Artists have had to work underground for 21 years... “The warlords saw artists as a threat to their power,” Abdulle explains. “To them, culture is more dangerous than the military because it’s an expression of self-determination."
Since the bombing, Abdulle has helped organise an exhibition of paintings, a play and even an upcoming talent show at the theatre. He's also planning a concert he hopes will draw 4,000 people. “Believe me,” Adbulle says, “our will is unbroken. Nothing – not people, not weapons – can break it.”