- Published on Wednesday, 13 June 2012 14:37
- Written by BC & Agencies
In a sprawl of plastic refugee shelters and mortar-blasted buildings in Mogadishu, a mud-caked Turkish engineering team monitors the drilling of a new borehole while their armed guards chat lazily under a tree, guns across laps.
These government contractors are on the frontline of a huge Turkish development effort in one of the world's most dangerous cities - one which U.N. agencies and international charities prefer to deal with from the safety of neighboring Kenya.
Across the Somali capital, a bombed-out shell after two decades of fighting, residents say Turkey has done more in eight months to shatter the perception that Mogadishu is a no-go zone than the international community has achieved in twenty years.
"Our government likes to help anyone in crisis so we came here without thinking anything," said the lead engineer, Mehmet, who asked Reuters to use a pseudonym because government employees are not authorized to talk to the media without permission.
The retreat of al Qaeda-linked rebels from the city in August ended the daily street battles and shelling between the militants and African troops, and offered a rare chance to ramp up aid as a famine gripped central and southern Somalia.
Some 500 Turkish relief workers and volunteers poured into Mogadishu's bullet-scarred wastelands, unleashing a wave of humanitarian aid as the 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.
Turkish flags - white crescent moon and star on red background - flutter in the coastal breeze and billboards marking out Turkish reconstruction projects dot the capital, where potholed streets are lined by rubble-strewn ruins and mountains of garbage.
Turkey's "Arab Spring" forays into Middle Eastern diplomacy, have drawn much attention on the international stage. Its launch into Africa, however, has gone little noticed by a world more focused on China's involvement in the sub-Saharan region.
A hotspot in the U.S.-led war against militant Islam, Somalia offers Ankara an opportunity to bolster its image as a soft power on the global stage.
There may also be rich trade pickings for Turkey's thriving economy in the energy, construction and agriculture sectors; but first comes the most basic rebuilding.
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 doctor scampering between the inflatable tented wards.
While security rules restrict foreign U.N. staff and diplomats to fleeting visits beyond the military-protected airport in armored troop carriers, Turkish aid workers move freely in vests adorned with the national flag
Their access, it seems, has nothing to do with religion. The Islamist al Shabaab militant group has denounced Muslim Turkey's involvement as a "cover for the Western invaders" and has targeted Turkish interests.
A suicide truck-bomber in October killed 72 people, many of them students applying for Turkish scholarships. Two months later a car bomb blew up meters from Turkey's newly re-opened embassy but caused no Turkish casualties.
Turkey's Ambassador C. Karin Torun, on his first ever diplomatic posting, described it as a question of political will.
"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.
Istanbul has just hosted an international conference on Somalia, focusing on improving infrastructure and security.