Ahmed Jama’s dream of opening a string of restaurants in his home city has been a costly one. The would-be catering mogul has lost relatives, friends, staff and customers. Now he faces the task of rebuilding his beloved Village Café in central Mogadishu after it was devastated in a twin suicide bombing on Thursday evening.
A slight man in his mid-forties, the British-Somali who is usually found in his chef’s whites from the catering firm Bookers, has become a popular figure during the Somali capital’s fragile recovery. He already carries a scar on his cheek from another suicide attack, earlier this year, when a woman blew herself up a couple of rows ahead of him at the reopening of the National Theatre.
This week he came within five minutes of being killed. The Village Café is just across the street from the battle-scarred theatre and had been a popular haunt for MPs and journalists. “I had just left the restaurant,” a shocked Mr Jama told The Independent. “It was only five minutes.”
Up to a dozen reporters had been at the café in the morning, drawn by the owner’s ingenious coal-fired espresso machine – a solution to the constant electricity and fuel shortages. A handful were still there when two unidentified men entered the premises later in the day. Three journalists were among the 15 people who died when the bombers detonated themselves.
A Reuters photographer who reached the scene soon after saw bodies strewn everywhere and two severed heads – a macabre feature of such attacks, where the suicide bomber is decapitated by the force of the blast. Five of Mr Jama’s employees whom he describes as his “extended family” were among the dead. A cousin of his was also wounded.
After his family took him to the UK in the late 1980s as the regime of the socialist dictator Siad Barre was crumbling, Mr Jama began to develop an unusual ambition for a Somali man, that of “learning the cooking” as he puts it. While Somalia was engulfed in a civil war he was studying catering at Solihull College, near Birmingham, before going on to work in a string of restaurants.
Eventually he moved to London and opened up his own place. The first incarnation of the Village was a hit with the city’s large Somali diaspora community, serving Somali dishes with a taste of the spicy West Midlands. Today the Hammersmith eatery is run by his wife, Amina, who has stayed behind with their three children. Like many of his friends in Britain, she warned him against going home but he went anyway in 2008.
The four years since he returned to a city unrecognisable from the one he left behind have featured almost unimaginable highs and lows. He has opened three businesses, helped to reinvigorate Mogadishu’s nightlife with the late-opening Sports Cave, and invested tens of thousands of dollars in building a modest hotel and restaurant south of the city on the beautiful white sands of Jazeera Beach.
He has also witnessed carnage while the city was still contested by the Islamic extremists of al-Shabaab, and been car-bombed, threatened and hit in the face with shrapnel from the theatre attack. Despite all of this and Thursday’s deadly assault, he remains determined.
As he said yesterday from his beachside place in Jazeera, where he was busy making chilli sauce for the lunchtime crowd: “What am I going to do? Sit down and cry. Give up? I’m not going to run away, I’m going to rebuild.”
He admits to feeling shocked and sad over the loss of life and angry with the extremists intent on bombing Mogadishu back into the bad old days. But for the al-Shabaab militants who claimed responsibility for the attack he had a typically defiant message: “I’m not kneeling down, I’m standing up.”