African force brings an armed peace to the Black Hawk city

The Times of London
Mogadishu, Somalia

Amisom soldier

A Ugandan Amisom soldier keeps watch on the northeastern edge of Mogadishu (Times photographer, Nichole Sobecki)

Shoppers in the Somali capital stroll in a market past stalls selling mangos and melons and camel-milk tea.

But just a few blocks away from this tranquil scene near Bakara market, hidden among thorn trees and cactuses, lie the shattered remains of a Black Hawk helicopter shot down in October 1993 by militia fighters.

Eighteen American soldiers died in the battle that signalled the end of the last international peacekeeping mission to Somalia when 22,000 US and UN soldiers failed to pacify Mogadishu. Now, after four years and the deaths of 500 peacekeepers, an African Union force, Amisom, has succeeded where the US, UN and Ethiopia failed.

“Over the last 20 years Somalia became a danger to itself, to its neighbours, to the region and to the entire world. Now we are getting out of that,” Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, the Prime Minister, told The Times in an interview at his fortified residence. Under pressure from Amisom, al-Shabaab — Islamist insurgents with links to al-Qaeda — withdrew from the capital in August.

“It has taken a huge sacrifice from Amisom fighters, we have had many casualties,” said Wafula Wamunyinyi, a senior Amisom official.

Ugandans and Burundian make up the 9,600 Amisom troops and have stayed the course despite seeing their dead comrades being dragged through the streets and paraded on websites.

Mr Wamunyinyi said the gains were “fragile” but they have opened up a rare opportunity for Somalia.

In February Britain will host an international conference on Somalia, which David Cameron described as “a failed state that directly threatens British interests” through kidnappings, radicalisation of young Britons and piracy. Last week Ban Ki Moon became the first head of the UN to visit Mogadishu for 18 years. “I believe we are at a critical juncture,” he said. “We have a very limited window of opportunity.”

Sporadic gunfire still rattles across some Mogadishu streets, but the frontlines are now several kilometres from the city’s heart, a roundabout called K4, where bullet holes have been plastered over and a fresh coat of paint has been applied. Two years ago, Shakalla was a frontline detachment just one kilometre from Bakara market; now it is a playground for children.

In the eastern suburb of Huriwa, trenches snake through the gardens of abandoned villas. Ugandan and Somali soldiers peer down machinegun sights at the deserted streets taking potshots at anyone they see. Firefights lasting 20 minutes at a time erupt daily.

Al-Shabaab is also under pressure outside the capital. More than 2,000 Kenyan soldiers invaded in October and hundreds of Ethiopian troops followed last month, creating at least three frontlines against the insurgents.

There is talk of Amisom absorbing the Kenyan forces as part of a plan to boost its numbers to 20,000 and push out of the capital. Residents say that Mogadishu’s peace, while welcome, does not compare with the days of the Islamic Courts Union, a popular movement that defeated Somalia’s warlords and briefly held power in 2006 until a disastrous US-backed Ethiopian invasion that fuelled the rise of al-Shabaab.

“The time of the Islamic Courts was a gift from Allah: it couldn’t last,” said Ali Guled, a lorry driver. “But the Shabaab that came after was the worst time in all Somali history, so at least now we have some peace.” But the insurgents have not left entirely. They launch lethal roadside bombings and suicide attacks seemingly at will.

In October a lorry bomb in the city killed more than 70 people. Earlier this month 15 explosions were detonated in two days, according to officials who maintain that government contractors are defusing more bombs than explode.

Even as a tentative normality begins to take hold in the city, the attacks are leaving people more afraid than ever.