MOGADISHU, Somalia — For the United Nations, the war-torn Somali capital is one of the ultimate "hardship posts." The U.N.'s few foreign employees based there are entitled to lucrative hazard stipends in exchange for living in one of the world's most dangerous cities. But for Turkish aid worker Orhan Erdogan, it is his family's home base.
Erdogan, a 45-year old veteran of crisis zones such as Darfur, moved from Istanbul to Mogadishu last August as the aid group he works for, Kimse Yok Mu, ramped up its efforts in response to the severe famine in the Horn of Africa. His four teenage children are now in school in neighboring Kenya, but Erdogan and his wife live together in Mogadishu. "My family lives here to share the reality with me," Erdogan said. He doesn't downplay the risks. "Our lives are always in danger; one can expect to die any time in Somalia. However, the satisfaction of delivering aid to starving people who face death keeps us working, whatever the security situation is."
Erdogan is far from alone. Turkish Ambassador C. Kani Torun, Ankara's first Somalia-based envoy since 1991, estimates there are between 150 and 200 Turkish nationals currently based in the country. At least 500 more Turks -- many of them with little experience abroad -- came to volunteer in the months after the famine was declared, a period that corresponded with the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice.
The influx of Turkish aid workers has corresponded with a fresh interest by the Ankara government in Somali affairs. In 2010, Turkey established itself as a key international player in Somalia by hosting an international conference in Istanbul that focused on security and investment in a country more often thought of for piracy and social chaos. Then last August, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a landmark trip to Mogadishu, traveling with his family and a plane full of ministers and advisors. They only stayed for the day, but the visit -- the first by a non-African leader in more than 20 years -- made a lasting impression.
"In Turkish culture, it is believed that something good will come out of all bad experiences," Erdogan wrote in an article for Foreign Policy last October. "In Somalia, too, this disaster [the 2011 famine] can mark the beginning of a new process by focusing international humanitarian efforts and global attention on the plight of the region."
Turkey's leadership in Somalia has left some international players impressed (the Turks are "ballsy," one Western analyst told me), others skeptical ("cowboys," said a Western aid worker), and most a bit of both. But there's no question that Turkish aid workers have received a warm welcome among Somalis, achieving a level of access that their Western counterparts can only dream of.
"Prime Minister Erdogan smashed that wall that made Mogadishu a no-go zone," Mogadishu mayor Mohamed Nur said. "That was the best gift that Somali people can have in the last 20 years. It completely changed the face of Mogadishu" and marked the start of a series of visits by foreign ministers from other countries, he said.
Make no mistake: Mogadishu is still extremely dangerous for foreigners, especially humanitarian workers that hail from Europe and the United States. In a grisly incident last December, a disgruntled member of Médecins sans Frontières' own local team gunned down two of the group's longtime employees in Mogadishu. A month later, U.S. Navy SEALs staged a nighttime raid to rescue an American aid worker and her Danish colleague who had been kidnapped in central Somalia and held for three months.
Kidnapping risks are so high and security so unpredictable that until recently few foreign aid workers were able to spend any significant time in Mogadishu, and many areas in the south continue to be considered totally inaccessible. One Western aid worker employed by a government with a long history of humanitarian engagement in Somalia said that he has only ever traveled to the capital once in seven years on the job -- and then only for a day.