January 19, 2007

Conflict in the Horn of Africa: The streets of Mogadishu

After a brief taste of stability under the Islamic Courts, a new conflict is spreading. Steve Bloomfield reports from the city where civil war has become a way of life

19 January 2007

Standing amid a pile of rubble on a Mogadishu street corner two young men, faces covered by red scarves, loaded their rocket propelled grenade launchers. Three spare grenades and an AK-47 were slung over their backs. By their feet lay a box containing a remote-controlled mine similar to the improvised explosive devices that have proved so deadly to British and American soldiers in Iraq. A second pair of similarly armed men stood at another junction 200 yards down the road; two further pairs were stationed nearby.

Watching the fighters take up position in the Black Sea area of southern Mogadishu, 37-year-old tea shop owner, Nuuro Mohammed Diirive, called for a "resistance" to drive Ethiopian troops out.

"Somalia has been confiscated by Ethiopia," she said, waving her arm in anger. "We are not free people. We are under the colonial master. We must find an army to resist them."

Mrs Diirive, a mother of seven, said Somalis should be prepared to lay down their lives to defeat Ethiopia. "We will use suicide bombing. Maybe my children will do that."

The same pattern was occurring across the battle scarred Somali capital yesterday afternoon. In the north of the city 10 masked men stood outside a mosque waving their AK-47s in the air and chanting "Allahu akbar".

In the past few days the price of a rocket-propelled grenade launcher in Mogadishu's Bakara arms market has risen from $400 to $1000. Sales of AK-47s have soared. "The Islamic Courts are arming now," said one trader.

A decade-and-a-half of civil war takes its toll - on a people and on a city. Once upon a time there was a beauty to Mogadishu. Now, it is a city utterly destroyed by war. Through the bullet-riddled walls, crumbled houses and crater-filled streets it is possible to see how far the city has fallen. The remains of an ornate white-washed baroque balcony sits above a handful of destroyed shop-fronts where malnourished goats are now the only customers.

There is barely a single building which is not scarred in some way. Most have been so badly damaged they can hardly be called buildings anymore. Entire streets are lined by nothing more than piles of rubble. A thin layer of grey dust covers everything, from donkey carts to telegraph poles.

Yet the modern world clashes jarringly with the past. Goats and cattle vie for space on Mogadishu's potholed highways with brand new 4x4 Pajeros imported from Dubai.

Despite there being no central bank or functioning ministry of finance, Somalia's black economy continues to thrive. Market stalls are crammed on to every major street, many of them selling khat, the mild narcotic that was banned by the Islamic Courts.

For the six months that the Islamic Courts were in control of the city there was a level of peace and security here that had been absent for the preceding 15 years. Even those who soon tired of the Courts' increasingly radical leadership and their insistence on banning music and the broadcasting of World Cup football matches agree that their rule made Mogadishu more stable.

Less than a month ago Ethiopian and Somali government troops rolled into Mogadishu driving out the leaders of the Union of Islamic Courts who had controlled the capital since June. The Islamists had been expected to put up a fight. Instead, they appeared to crumble. Their leaders were chased from town to town while Mogadishu itself fell without a shot being fired. The United States, which gave tacit approval to Ethiopia's invasion, had accused the Islamic Courts of being run by an al-Qa'eda cell and of sheltering terrorist suspects. US air strikes attacked the fleeing Islamists in the village of Ras Kamboni and the Courts appeared to be defeated.

But now the insurgency against Ethiopia's occupation has begun. Members of the radical Islamic group, al-Shabaab, have re-emerged in Mogadishu vowing to ambush Ethiopian and Somali government soldiers. "We are not defeated," one of the fighters told The Independent. "We are back in action."

The only piece of clothing which signifies their membership of al-Shabaab is a red scarf wrapped around the face and head. If the attacks on Ethiopian and Somali government troops are successful they said they would take off their scarves and disappear into the city. By nightfall, al-Shabaab fighters were positioned in four key areas across Mogadishu, waiting for troops to drive past.

Al-Shabaab's leader, Arun Ayro, is back in Mogadishu having fled with other Islamic Courts leaders to Ras Kamboni. Fighters on the street said yesterday that Mr Ayro would not leave until the Ethiopians were defeated. Many analysts had expected al-Shabaab to defend Mogadishu when Ethiopian troops invaded. Instead the Courts announced they were withdrawing from Mogadishu in order, they said, to prevent bloodshed. The al-Shabaab fighters on Mogadishu's streets yesterday gave a different reason. "We did not want to be hit by the Ethiopian bombs," said one. "We feared the air raids." As Ethiopian and Somali government troops took control of Mogadishu, al-Shabaab melted away into the city.

But now they are back. The start of the insurgency was announced yesterday in the form of a leaflet which was distributed across the capital. Titled "Heavy Warning", and with two pictures of AK-47s, the leaflet said that Ethiopians, who they referred to as "colonialists", would "face new insurgent operations and attacks".

They warned Somalis to stay away from Ethiopians "and their stooges", a reference to Somalia's weak government, which was only able to defeat the Islamic Courts with the backing of neighbouring Ethiopia. That backing has come at a price.

Ethiopia was already deeply unpopular in Somalia following two invasions in the past 45 years. Now there has been a third, Somalis appear united in wanting Ethiopian troops to pull out.

Osman Hassan Abdulaahi, a lecturer at Mogadishu University, is also angry. "Ethiopia is an occupying force. We are under occupation. We are the same as the Palestinians and we should fight like they do. If someone occupies your land you must take up arms to show resistance." Mr Abdulaahi, 40, accused the interim Somali government, headed by a former warlord from the Puntland region, Abdullahi Yusuf, of succumbing to the sort of tribalism that has ripped Somalia apart since 1991. "He is not doing a proper reconciliation," said Mr Abdulaahi. "The country will slide back into civil war."

Civil war has been a near-permanent state for Somalia since the military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown 16 years ago. Successive attempts at establishing a new central government failed and Somalia's capital was carved up by warlords - big businessmen who employed clan-based militia to stake out their territory. In a country awash with AK-47s and with no rule of law, arguments tended to be settled at gunpoint and Mogadishu became the most-dangerous city in the world.

Mustafa Mohamed fled Somalia in 1989, becoming a refugee in London. Starting work as a waiter he eventually rose to become an assistant manager, working at one of Terence Conran's restaurants, Le Pont de la Tour. Now he is back in Mogadishu leasing 4x4s to wealthy Somalis and a handful of western visitors.

Sitting in a café in southern Mogadishu he said the city has already begun to become more unstable since the Courts left on 28 December. "The Courts believed that if you did not follow their religion as they do, you could not be a part of them but they had the support of the people," he said. "They did a job that no one could have done. Everybody was scared of killing when they were in charge."

Few appear to be scared of killing now. The sound of gunfire ringing through the night sky has become a constant soundtrack to life in Mogadishu. Locals call it "Somali music" and in the past few nights the music has become louder.

"I don't know how long it will be before more trouble strikes," Mr Mohamed, 37, said. "We are just waiting to see if something goes wrong this weekend. You don't know when the next bullet is going to strike you. You have to be careful where you go and who you mix with."

But for many of Mogadishu's estimated two million inhabitants, the threat of violence is just one of the many fears that stalk their lives. For the city's poorest, most of whom fled to Mogadishu to escape civil war in other parts of the country, life is no different whether it is under the warlords, the Courts or the government. Work is difficult to come by and the lack of income inevitably leads to empty stomachs.

The dusty track leading to Nasato Saciid's home is littered with rubble. Bracken and cactus trees have sprouted through the ruins of crumbling shells that once were houses. Eight members of her family live here among the debris. At night they all crowd into the only room to still have a roof. If they had a mattress, there would be nowhere to put it.

During the day her four children play among the rubbish. Her five-month old baby girl lies on a mat protected from the sun by a ragged cover made up of more than 30 different bits of cloth and tarpaulin tied together with string and propped up by a thin log.

Just 25-years-old, Mrs Saciid, has spent almost her entire life trying to find a way to survive in a country falling apart. She spends her days at home looking after her children. Her husband was once a mechanic but can find no work in his trade. Every morning he leaves the house at first light to go to Mogadishu's markets seeking work. "If he gets some money I cook for the children," said Mrs Saciid. "One day we get meals, one day we miss."

Yesterday she missed. Her husband returned with just 3,000 Somali shillings - the equivalent of 13p. Mrs Saciid was able to buy a small amount of millet which she cooked for her children but she and her husband were forced to go without.

"There was a bit of peace under the Courts," she said, "But life was about the same. They did not create any businesses. They did not open any schools. I can't predict who is good. They are all alike. They do not create a society."

Her eldest son has just started to go to a local madrasa. "I did not want to send him there. The Koranic schools teach too much geography and history of their land in Arabia." But there are no other schools and Mrs Saciid, who never had the opportunity to go to school herself, is determined to ensure her children get some form of education.

"What future will my children have?" she asked with a sad smile. "It is a very hard life and I don't expect it to get any better."

Independent Online

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