Anarchy and death rule in Mogadishu, a city on the front line of terror

The Times of London
Mogadishu, Somalia

On Monday afternoon a seven-year-old boy called Mohamed was hit when an 82mm mortar shell exploded outside a health clinic in Mogadishu where his mother works as a cleaner.

Afterwards he lay on a hospital floor, shivering and terrified. His bandaged left arm, hand and leg were peppered with angular chunks of shrapnel. Crouched beside him his mother, Fatima, wiped tears from her eyes.

But Mohamed was luckier than the five Somali civilians and Ugandan peacekeeper who died in the explosion at the busy outpatient centre.

The mortar landed just beyond the concrete and razor-wire perimeter of the main base of the African Union peacekeeping force, known as Amisom. There were dozens of civilians, mostly women and children, waiting to be seen by doctors. Only two hours earlier Captain Ronald Mukuyi, an Amisom doctor — the peacekeeping force runs the clinic and the nearby hospital — had told The Times: “When people are inside we can ensure their safety but when they are outside we cannot.”

Death or injury comes often and randomly to the inhabitants of Mogadishu, a place where the thump of mortars and staccato pop of machinegun fire punctuates day and night. The human cost of 22 years of war has been catastrophic. Hundreds of thousands have died, more than half a million scrape by in refugee camps across East Africa and almost half the population depend on food aid for survival. This month another 80,000 were forced to flee their homes.

The Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) has been in place now for exactly a year. To mark the occasion al-Shabaab, the Islamist militant group linked to al-Qaeda, launched a ferocious attack yesterday morning. It was the worst fighting that residents had witnessed in months: explosions rocked the capital and bursts of gunfire rang out through the night.

Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, the President, has the backing of the UN and Western powers but his administration and its security forces face almost daily attacks by al-Shabaab and another Islamist fighting group, Hizb al-Islam. Today Somalia is a new frontline in the global war against terror, its violent anarchy the perfect breeding ground for jihadist fighters who train here and in Yemen, a few hundred miles to the north.

Throughout the overlapping and almost continuous rounds of fighting it is the ordinary people of Somalia who have suffered most. Nowhere is this clearer than in Mogadishu, a city that stands as a blasted monument to the years of destruction. Spread along the Indian Ocean coast, the city offers glimpses of its former beauty. Close to the port are ornate piazzas, colonnades and extravagant curving façades overlooking a clear blue sea.

But an array of weaponry has taken its toll, the gutted and wall-less buildings left like listing honeycombs. Mile follows mile of shattered city blocks and sun-bleached broken streets. In some areas multistorey buildings have crumpled to the ground; others are flecked with fist-sized bullet holes gouged out by high-calibre weapons. Barely a pane of glass or doorframe remains, just crumbling walls, rubble-filled rooms and staircases rising through broken roofs to nowhere.

Mad Max-style battlewagons known as technicals race along the roads — they are made by welding a high-calibre machinegun on to the flatbed of a pick-up truck or a 4×4 with the roof sawn off. A single bullet can rip a person in two. These DIY killing machines are ever present in the street battles between Somali gunmen.

From the city’s central business district of Bakara market, a forbidden zone where al-Shabaab holds sway, occasional mortars fall on the tiny part of the city under the nominal control of the Government and its 5,300 Amisom protectors.

On Tuesday afternoon the sounds of assault rifles, machineguns and mortar fire rang out for hours. On Thursday morning the barrages were just as heavy. Yesterday al-Shabaab fighters lobbed mortars until AU peacekeepers returned fire with tanks.

For the visitor it was unrelenting and frightening but it was nothing unusual to the people of Mogadishu, who have learnt to live with the imminence of death. “We can be talking like this, then a minute later a stray bullet or a mortar, and you are finished,” one resident said.

Despite the horror and destruction, a semblance of life goes on. Battered minibus taxis rattle down the streets; money transfer agencies funnel remittances to relatives; shops sell electronics from Dubai. Men in sarong-like cotton macawis, sandals and shirts drink sweet strong tea and smoke cigarettes on the dusty pavements. Some have guns but most do not. Veiled women walk by, their bright robes billowing in the sea breeze. Children wave eagerly from behind the corrugated iron doors of makeshift homes tucked into abandoned ground-floor shops.

At the seaport, thousands of stevedores earn a few dollars a day unloading goods brought in on wooden dhows from Yemen, India, or Saudi Arabia. Sacks of second-hand clothes, plastic jerry cans of vegetable oil and pallets of fizzy drinks pile up on the quayside. Control of the port means control of Mogadishu’s economy and it has been bitterly fought over by warring militias in the past, but for now it is firmly under Amisom control.

Even so, the twice-monthly peacekeeper supply ship invites a flurry of mortars launched at the port by al-Shabaab. When locals saw white foreigners there this week, they muttered that mortars would surely follow.

Yasin Osman, the deputy port manager, concedes that almost nothing is exported but the port is nevertheless a key earner for the cash-strapped Government, bringing in $11 million (£7 million) in taxes last year. “Government revenue only comes from here and the airport,” Mr Osman said.

Amisom also defends the airport, where a new departure terminal has just opened, complete with lounge, coffee bar and duty-free shop. Two airlines connect Mogadishu with Nairobi and Dubai and a handful of local and private flights also land daily.

Mahamoud Sheikh Ali, the director-general of the Civil Aviation Authority, says that in the next few weeks he will be getting an X-ray machine and a computerised passport control system donated by the International Organisation for Migration, an intergovernmental group. He proudly explains that insurgents have not mortared the airport in more than six months.

Even this apparent normality is a façade: arriving passengers complete an immigration form demanding their name and address as well as the type, serial number, trademark and calibre of their weapons.

A year in power is marked by a rain of mortars
It was supposed to be a moment of celebration, with singing, theatre and poetry as Sheikh Sharif Ahmed marked his first year in power yesterday. His enemies had other ideas.

Shortly before 11am a mortar hit a checkpoint at the entrance to Villa Somalia, the sprawling presidential compound on a hilltop overlooking Mogadishu. Fighting elsewhere in the city had been going on for hours.

President Ahmed sat as still as a waxwork as he watched a wobbly homemade documentary celebrating the achievements of his first 12 months in office. Perhaps he blinked, but in all other ways he made no acknowledgement of the blast.

Somalia’s besieged leader is used to the sound of gunfire.

The next explosion was harder to ignore. Another mortar smacked into a patch of open concrete just metres from the hall in which hundreds of dignitaries and government officials were gathered. Dust, smoke and the smell of cordite billowed through the latticework breezeblock walls.

Mr Ahmed sank back into an outsized leather armchair flanked by his Prime Minister and the parliamentary Speaker. The Defence Minister and other senior government and security figures were also present. In December a suicide bomber disguised as a veiled woman blew himself up at a college graduation ceremony, killing three ministers, but yesterday presented the insurgents with their most attractive target in a long time.

A series of bangs followed and panic spread through the hall. A young woman in the crowd tried to calm others who were scanning the room nervously waiting for some indication of what was going on, or what they should do.

Presidential aides rushed in, waving their arms: the fire was outgoing, not incoming. The African Union peacekeepers of the Amisom force were firing back from tank positions either side of the hall. There were nervous smiles and the ceremony continued.

A mixed choir took to the stage singing in the different dialects of Somalia’s main clans. They struggled to be heard over the rockets firing outside. Soldiers said that the rockets were Soviet-style Katyushas aimed at insurgent positions in Bakara market a couple of miles away. “They have hit us so we are hitting them back,” one said. A dead Ugandan peacekeeper and others with injuries were rushed back to the Amisom base, while wounded civilians were treated on the spot. Outside the hall, casualties were ferried to a makeshift trauma room near by. One was helped as he walked by, his arm bleeding; another was carried in a tarpaulin litter. Heavy machinegun fire thudded away in the background.

As the performances came to an end and people stood for the national anthem, a battered pick-up truck arrived to collect the injured. One was carried out, grimacing with pain, attached to a saline drip; another walked, holding a bloody bandaged hand aloft; a third clutched a dressing to his abdomen. The anthem wound up and the crowd in the hall applauded as Mr Ahmed took to the stage to deliver a speech.

Afterwards, a Ugandan officer said that two alleged collaborators had been arrested and accused of co-ordinating the shelling via mobile phone from the presidential palace.

View PDF here: Times-Anarchy and death rule in city on frontline of terror