Dinnertime at the Peace Hotel finds the chef, immaculate in white hat and freshly pressed apron, waiting personally on his guests. He serves up a feast of curried fish fillet, french fries, camel meat and spaghetti with ground beef, washed down with freshly squeezed grapefruit juice, cold sodas and bottled waters. Dessert is a bowl of fruit accompanied with hot sweet, milky tea. The palm trees that sway in the salty sea breeze all around us do little to reveal the improbability of this sumptuous meal tranquilly consumed in this city whose name has become a synonym for anarchy. The reminder that we are in Mogadishu rather than in a beach resort in Mauritius comes in the form of the artillery shells and mortar rounds that whiz above our heads like red shooting stars, and the sound of gunfire and screaming from nearby Bakara Market.
The city around us continues to burn and bleed, but inside these sturdy walls, the Peace Hotel accommodation of choice for most foreign journalists visiting Mogadishu lives up to its name. Its attractions to the media visitor are obvious: The hotel courtyard is big enough for an early morning jog; its thatched rooftops offer a safe vantage point for a camera shot of the city's derelict skyline. And, as improbable as it might sound for a country that hasn't had proper functioning telephone lines in almost two decades, there is Internet access. Then, there's the food, and the air-conditioning, running water and 24 hours a day of electricity luxuries few Somalis can afford in a city whose very infrastructure is carved up among rival militias.
So, how does its proprietor, Bashir Yusuf Osman, manage to keep his guests happy? His secret lies in having convinced all parties to the city's conflicts to respect the hotel's neutrality. Situated in the heart of Mogadishu, the Peace Hotel is a commanding presence. And despite the two bullet holes in its front gates created by careless insurgents, until now its boundaries have been respected by the insurgents, warlords, politicians and clan militias battling for control of the city. There are rarely any attacks in or around its immediate premises. "Our hotel is a white flag," says Bashir. "It's a sign of peace. Politicians with biases are not welcome here unless they believe in peace for Somali people and in supporting our guests." More practically, of course, Bashir has gotten around the problem of keeping his guests comfortable by using a complicated system of paying off different groups to keep open the supply lines necessary to satisfy the needs of his guests.
The hotel's most important service, however, may the professional security team that Bashir arranges for every foreign journalist. Several journalists have been targeted or killed in or around other Mogadishu hotels in the past BBC reporter Kate Peyton was shot as she was entering another hotel for an interview with a legislator from Somalia's fragile government. The importance of having a good security team cannot be overstated in this lawless city. The armed bodyguards are hired only after intense screening by Bashir himself. The personnel got their basic military training on the streets of Mogadishu, and all carry small arms, licensed by authorities from the interim government, although the more seasoned veterans of the last military dictatorship are also adept at using anti-aircraft weapons and tanks. Most importantly, however, Bashir does his best to determine that none of them is aligned with any of the combatants out on the streets.
Bashir isn't the visiting journalist's most important contact only because he can keep you safe and comfortable; he is also able to fix meetings with anyone and everyone, from the militant Shabaab fighters to local businessmen to the parliament members of the transitional government. "Journalists come here because they know this is the five-star in Mogadishu," says Bashir. "I give them first class." For veteran war correspondent Ali Musa Abdi the only other guest dining here this evening the Peace Hotel offers something even more important than security. "I come here because they give very good food," he says. "I am very picky about food."
As we finish our meals and lie back picking our teeth, distant explosions rattle the ground beneath us. Ironically perhaps, it is that remote cannonade that may be the key to the success of Bashir's business. After all, there's nowhere in the city you'd rather be, after dark.