Turkey’s soft power working in war-torn Somalia

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A Somali child holding a Turkish flag at a humanitarian camp. Photo - ChangingTurkey.com

Residents of Mogadishu wake up every morning to some good news, a rarity they’ve been afforded during the last eight months than ever before.

A Turkish engineering team starts drilling of a new borehole soon after sunrise in a sprawl of plastic refugee shelters and mortar-blasted buildings in the Somali capital. They’re surrounded by kids running around and playing games as well as armed guards who chat lazily under a tree, guns across laps.

These government contractors are not far from the frontline in one of the world’s most dangerous cities, part of a huge Turkish development effort to restore normalcy that has eluded its citizens since 1991.

Residents across the Somali capital say Turkey has done more in eight months than the international community has ever achieved during the last twenty years. With every engineering machine that breaks ground for construction, the perception that Mogadishu is a no-go area gets shattered over and over.

“Our government likes to help anyone in crisis so we came here without thinking anything,” said the lead engineer, Mehmet, who asked Reuters to change the name because government employees are not authorised to talk to the media without permission.

Al Shabab, the Al Qaeda-linked rebels, retreated from the city in August thus bringing an end to the daily street battles and shelling between the militants and African Union troops. Not many countries have capitalised on this rare chance to ramp up aid to a famine gripped central and southern Somalia.

Turkey is the first country to have sent 500 relief workers and volunteers to Mogadishu’s bullet-scarred wastelands, unleashing a wave of humanitarian aid. While innocent civilians praised Ankara’s efforts to restore hope in their city, Islamist militants struck back with a string of suicide bombings and roadside blasts.

“Of course it is dangerous but we don’t think about those things. Inshallah, nothing has happened to us. If we are afraid, we can’t operate,” the engineer said.

Mogadishu is hosting lots of Turkish flags – white crescent moon and star on red background – and billboards marking out Turkish reconstruction projects in potholed streets that are lined by rubble-strewn ruins and mountains of garbage.

Turkey has made foray into the Arab World with unwavering support for the “Arab Spring” – from Tunisia to Syria – drawing a lot of attention on the international stage. However, its humanitarian initiatives in Africa have gone little noticed by the media more focused on China’s involvement in the sub-Saharan region.

Ankara is making good use of an opportunity to bolster its image as a soft power on the global stage in a country which has seen the worst of Islamic extremist terrorism and US-led intervention and counter-terrorism.

Turkey hopes to pave the way for its thriving energy, construction and agriculture sectors by doing the most basic rebuilding.

Amid reconstruction also comes healing of the wounds of thousands of Somalis who have been burning in the fire of civil war and foreign intervention. Beneath Mogadishu’s gutted parliament building, Turkish medics perform surgery in a packed makeshift field-hospital.

“We come here with our hearts, not for money,” said one Turkish doctor scampering between the inflatable tented wards.

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A Turkish volunteer doctor checks patients at a Turkish run hospital in Howlwadaag district, southern Mogadishu, 20 May 2012. Some 500 Turkish relief workers and volunteers poured into Mogadishu's bullet-scarred wastelands, unleashing a wave of humanitarian aid. Photo - Feisal Omar/Reuters


Turkish aid workers move freely in vests adorned with the national flag in stark contrast with UN staff and diplomats who depend on  armoured personnel carriers to get beyond their bases in the military-protected airport.

While majority of Somalis are Muslims and brothers in faith, the Islamic extremist Al Shabaab militia denounces Turkey’s involvement as a “cover for the Western invaders” and has targeted Turkish interests. Turkey is a Muslim majority state with a secular constitution.

The Al Qaeda-linked terrorist group has carried out some brazen attacks on the Turkish humanitarian contingent. In October, a suicide truck-bomber killed 72 people, many of them students applying for Turkish scholarships. In December, a car bomb blew up metres from Turkey’s newly re-opened embassy but caused no Turkish casualties.

Turkey’s Ambassador C. Karin Torun, on his first ever diplomatic posting, insists it is a question of political will more than anything else.

“Our aim is to show a different model can work in getting help to the people,” said Torun, Turkey’s first ambassador in Somalia since civil war erupted in 1991.

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