MOGADISHU, SOMALIA—No one knows exactly when The Communist was born, but it was many decades ago, when the Italians ruled Mogadishu and brought with them pasta and cappuccinos and built boardwalks and majestic ivory white hotels along the beach.
The hotels are just ruins today, battered by RPGs and the AK47 crossfire of battling warlords and terrorists, yet still they stand sentry on Mogadishu’s coastline like prizefighters who refuse to be knocked down.
The Communist, or Shuuci as her name is in Somali, is a little beat-up too, but still standing. Or rather, crawling.
The massive, blind tortoise, with a long gash in her shell, ambles slowly around the Radio Mogadishu compound, stopping to tuck her head into her shell if the noise gets too loud, or a stranger too close.
She’s 80 years old, or maybe 90, no one is sure. When Abdisalaan Ali Mataan started working at the government broadcaster in 1992, the tortoise had already been named The Communist, a moniker given to someone prickly and stubborn. Her larger, gentler male partner was called Gobanimoddon, The Freedom Fighter.
Mataan is a lanky 44-year-old journalist and animal lover with a voice that makes everything he says sound like a secret.
He loves the Radio Mogadishu tortoises and rubs his forehead, blinking back tears, when asked what happened to The Freedom Fighter. “He was a real friend. I felt like he was talking, even hugging me. I’m not sure if I’ve just convinced myself of this, but I saw signs that he loved us,” he says, explaining how he and another colleague would care for The Freedom Fighter.
“The tortoise liked the flowers and could not reach them, so we would cut the flowers and give them to him,” he explains. “That’s how he knew even our sound, if we were moving around, he would come follow us.”
Radio Mogadishu is inside the larger Villa Somalia compound where the president and prime minster are based, and has been the scene of much fighting. In the summer of 1993, the U.S. special forces launched a mission to capture warlord Mohamed Farrah Aideed, which eventually led to infamous Black Hawk Down battle, when two helicopters were shot from the sky and 18 elite American soldiers killed, along with hundreds of Somalis.
U.S. gunships targeted Radio Mogadishu, as Aideed was using the station to spread his message. When the fighting paused, Mataan went to assess the damage.
Beneath the rubble, he found The Communist and The Freedom Fighter, wounded, but alive. The Communist was especially hurt, her shell punctured by the burning debris, her eyesight gone.
In the years since, he has cared for the two, helping protect them in the little compound as the warlords battled, and then Al Shabab, Al Qaeda’s East African group, rose to power, clashing with Somali forces and soldiers with the African Union peacekeeping mission.
It is soothing to help keep something alive when it feels like your country is dying. The tortoises were serene and simple. Somalia is neither.
There is also something about the story of an animal’s survival — or demise — as a symbol for a wartorn country. There was Marjan, the blind and neglected lion of Kabul, who lived against the odds, capturing the world’s attention. When Marjan succumbed to old age in 2002 there were statues built in his honour.
Afghanistan roars; Somalia limps determinedly forward.
If Mataan could afford it, he too would pay tribute to his friend The Freedom Fighter.
“Oct. 6, 2010. That,” says Mataan, “was the worst day of my life.”
The Freedom Fighter had wandered out of Radio Mogadishu’s gates and was run over by a patrolling Casspir, the massive armoured personnel carrier driven by AU forces.
“I came out of work and saw that he was run over and wounded,” recalls Mataan. He asked the Ugandan soldiers in the Casspir to help. They did, escorting a veterinarian to the compound. “But his spine was broken. They tried their best.”
The Communist wandered the compound looking for her partner, taking weeks to resign herself to his loss.
Today she is joined at Radio Mogadishu by a younger male and female.
Abdiweli Egalle, who owns the restaurant adjacent to Radio Mogadishu, helps Mataan, feeding the tortoises leafy leftovers.
Realizing that the younger female was pregnant a month ago, he arranged for a shipment of sand so she could bury her eggs.
Five baby tortoises have now joined the group and they seem to gravitate toward The Communist: a new generation of tortoises for the next century of this country’s history.
They have not yet been named.
Follow Michelle Shephard on Twitter @shephardm