Sometimes the most a U.S. congressman can hope for is a little drive-by diplomacy.
On Monday, Rep. Donald M. Payne, a Democrat from New Jersey, made a surprise five-hour stopover in this dangerous seaside capital -- against the advice of his family and the State Department. The trip was meant to highlight the progress of Somalia's new transitional government and prove the nation was back on track.
It was a rare, if abbreviated, visit by a U.S. government official to the Horn of Africa nation. But a trip that began as a way to encourage U.S. engagement in Somalia ended with a sour reminder of why this country has been left to toil as a failed state for 18 years. Insurgents lobbed mortar shells at his departing plane, injuring civilians on the ground.
Payne, 74, who was unaware of the attack until his plane landed in Nairobi, Kenya, was undeterred. He'd received a similar welcome from a warlord's militia on a 1993 visit.
"We shouldn't focus on the few negative elements when the overwhelming majority of people want to make it work," he said.
His delegation, which included a reporter for The Times, landed at Mogadishu's beachfront airport. The city may be in ruins, but approaching the runway -- sandwiched between turquoise surf and rolling sand dunes -- felt like landing at a resort.
Any picturesque qualities end there. After squeezing into a sweltering African Union armored personnel carrier, Payne got his first glimpse of the city in more than a decade. It was something of a shock.
"It's in a little worse shape than I remember," he said.
The modern-day ruins of Mogadishu are pockmarked and battle-scarred. Vast sections of the city are deserted. It's hard to distinguish new destruction from damage caused years ago.
At the same time, the city is struggling to come back to life after virtually emptying last year during renewed fighting. Confidence in the transitional government is luring thousands of displaced people to return home. Illegal checkpoints have been dismantled. Shops are reopening.
"People think Mogadishu is the worst place on the globe, but you look at the streets and see children playing, men talking," Payne said. "You see life."
At the prime minister's office, government officials spoke of their key accomplishments since a reorganization two months ago replaced the president, prime minister and Cabinet.
Since the beginning of the year, the new government has overseen the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops brought in to help fight insurgents; stabilized the capital; and adopted Sharia, or Islamic law, as the nation's legal foundation, a concession to Islamic militants.
The overhaul was rooted in a reconciliation that included most opposition groups and major clans, including several Islamist factions that had been supporting the insurgency.
But Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke warned that the government's survival hinged on its ability to improve security -- and fast.
"We don't have much time," said Sharmarke, a former U.N. political advisor with family in Virginia. "I'd say about two to three months."
The government is seeking about $4 million a month to enable it to rebuild the army, which fell apart last year when the government ran out of money to pay soldiers.
Payne later heard from a panel of women about the human cost of the war, including sick children, lack of schools, violence against women and single mothers fighting to fill the gaps in social services.
"We've been doing this for the past 18 years and we are tired," said Zahra Mohamed, who leads a women's group. "We hope this will be the last government experiment."
Their presentation exposed a cultural divide of sorts between Payne and his hosts. The Newark congressman requested the meeting because he views women as the unsung heroes of Somalia's war. But when the women arrived, the male Somali ministers left to return phone calls, chat with one another and generally ignore what they had to say.
"Don't abandon us to these men," Mohamed joked, urging Payne to push for international support for Somalia.
Payne assured his hosts that he would lobby Congress and President Obama to release more funds for security, but he reminded them that they need to prove themselves by delivering services to the people.
As he left, Payne said he believed his trip proved that Somalia is a place where diplomats and aid workers can resume their work.
Hours later, after hearing about the mortar attack, he said he hadn't changed his mind.
"Somalia is a place that almost has no friends," he said. "People don't go because they see it as a dangerous place, or a place with no hope. But to me, that's the time to go."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun