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The Somali government and Al Shabaab militants are only two sides of a war that has dozens of armed actors. It’s a conflict that has moved across the contested borders of Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya, and — as the research and visualizations for the Changing Character of Conflict Platform shows has shown — is extremely dynamic. This is, in part, because of the country’s geostrategic location. Militaries of world powers have rushed to set up bases in the Horn of Africa, in part to keep a careful eye on maritime routes coveted by traders and pirates alike, and also as part of the ongoing Cold War in the Middle East. In such a complex field, no single entity has been able to assert anything that might resemble uncontested authority, making the country less of a nation-state and more of a contact zone. The consequences of the chronic state of conflict have been exacerbated by a harsh geography and climatic conditions that are growing more extreme.
The density and complexity of the conflict makes it difficult to photograph with a panoramic authority. Jan Grarup has tracked this conflict between 2009 and 2013, as the US backed offensive against Al Shabaab intensified, choosing to focus on the human consequences of this layered conflict, pointing his lens at infrastructure in ruins and toward refugees — mostly women and children. He takes us along the path of a young woman who journeys daily to haul potable water home in a wheel barrow and into the back rooms of a mental hospital where the traumatized struggle to keep their sanity. He trains his eye on the devastated built environment and the arid climate. There is something metaphoric to the image of a young boy who has slung a dead shark on his shoulders to carry to the local fish market. It serves as a reminder that the distinction between predator and prey can, in a flash, be quickly inverted. Through Grarup’s images we see, however, resilience, a commitment to flip the script of Somalia as a “failed state” and persevere — even if that means repurposing rubble and rebar as a playground.
— Alexander L. Fattal
University of California, San Diego
Copyright information: Photos are copyright ©Jan Grarup