Al-Shabaab militants banished from town after years of terror leave legacy of fear

The Times of London
Kismayo, Somalia

In the centre of Kismayo, beside a police station that served as a militant headquarters, is the tree-lined Liberty Square, where a tall column celebrating Somalia’s national heroes lies on the ground in dismembered chunks.

The square was a place for people to relax but al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda-aligned extremists who controlled this city before being chased out a few weeks ago, saw it as a symbol of un-Islamic idolatry and a government they opposed. During al-Shabaab’s four-year rule, it was turned into a public punishment and execution ground. Alleged spies and murderers were shot and adulterers stoned to death. Suspected thieves had limbs hacked off and crimes such as smoking or skipping prayers were punished by flogging.

Residents were forced to watch, or face similar punishment themselves. “Everything was terrible under al-Shabaab. Every day we lived in fear,” says one resident who, like most others, does not want to be identified.

Faced with a far more powerful enemy, al-Shabaab’s fighters fled Kismayo under cover of darkness on September 28, a day after hundreds of Kenyan troops landed on a beach north of the town. The Somali National Army and the Kenyan-backed Ras Kamboni Brigades (RKB) militia had moved in from the south and west.

As in other towns vacated by al-Shabaab over the past 14 months, there was little fighting in Kismayo itself and the breathtaking war damage that characterises the capital, Mogadishu, is largely absent. The port city clings to a horseshoe-shaped bay of white sand and startlingly blue sea. It is a ramshackle low-rise town of flat-roof stone buildings, mosques and rickety tin shacks. Wide sandy streets lined with shady trees and tangles of wires drooping between telegraph poles run between the flaking pastel-coloured walls of Swahili-style houses with balconies and shuttered windows.

It could be beautiful but for now seems empty. The UN refugee agency reckons that 15,000 people fled Kismayo last month and none has returned in the weeks since al-Shabaab left. The reason is that the current peace in Kismayo could scarcely be more fragile.

The port generated an estimated £30 million a year for al-Shabaab, making it a prize worth fighting over for the town’s new rulers, and there is no certainty who that will be. Sheikh Ahmed Madobe, leader of the RKB, is positioning himself but so too are others from different clans, increasing the chance of another conflict erupting. In an effort to keep the peace, there is an impressive show of force in Kismayo: Somali National Army soldiers wear camouflage, the RKB wear solid green, Kenyan soldiers in armoured vehicles shuttle to and from the airport.

For residents, the years of al-Shabaab rule have left basic services in ruins. Kismayo General Hospital is in a pathetic state. In the only operating theatre, the rusting surgical table sags beneath broken lights and there is a pungent smell from the toilet down the corridor. Wary of insecurity, aid workers have not yet come to Kismayo but this week two planeloads of surgical equipment and enough drugs to last three months were flown in by the World Health Organisation.

For Abdisamir Haji, a Leeds-trained doctor who struggled on for years as the only one in the city, the support could not come soon enough. “The hospital is reviving, it gives people hope,” he says.

But hope is wrestling with fear in Kismayo. Al-Shabaab are gone but their rule is still fresh in the minds of the city’s residents and the dread of their return is palpable. “We are still living in terror that al-Shabaab will make a comeback,” says one man, who does not want to be named. “They are still here, hiding among the people. They can kill anyone any time.”

At the weekend, soldiers from the 4,000-strong Kenyan contingent of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom), based at Kismayo’s airport, carried out house-to-house searches and arrested 72 suspected militants, including a woman believed to be al-Shabaab’s most senior female representative in Kismayo.

Charcoal export dilemma faces country’s new rulers
The gateway to Kismayo is a kilometre of tarmac lined by mansion-sized piles of charcoal sacks. Black dust covers the ground and swirls in the air when a vehicle passes. Casual labourers, smeared in soot and sweat, weigh and pack the 25kg bags.

Businessmen here claim the stockpile of 5 million sacks are worth as much as $50 million but they are unable to sell them because of a UN embargo placed on Somali charcoal in February in a bid to cut funding to al-Shabaab.

With the al-Qaeda linked Islamists gone the city’s powerbrokers want the embargo lifted and they are growing impatient with everyday that passes. “The economy of this city is 90 per cent charcoal,” said Sheikh Ahmed Madobe, a former governor of Kismayo and the head of the Ras Kamboni Brigades, a powerful local militia.

At Kismayo’s natural deep-water port where charcoal used to be exported to Dubai there are just a few vessels. The goods they unload – staples such as pasta and rice, cooking oil, salt and sugar – are more expensive because the ships now return empty.

A group of businessmen styling themselves the “Jubba Business Community” is requesting a seven-month suspension of the embargo to allow them to sell-off the stockpile. “When the charcoal trade stops everyone suffers, from the top to the bottom of society,” said one businessman who did not want to be identified because, like the others, he maintains trade links inside al-Shabaab controlled territory.

It is a potentially explosive dilemma for Kismayo’s new military rulers. Releasing the charcoal will likely mean funds reaching al-Shabaab and the sale will stimulate further trade, worsening the environmental destruction that contributed to last year’s famine.

But to refuse will alienate Kismayo’s key players as well as its ordinary citizens. It will create enemies the government and its allies cannot afford and make the winning of hearts and minds impossible.