Hopes of recovery still burn in Somali town choaking on charcoal

The Times of London
Buur Gaabo, Somalia

Buur Gaabo elder
Clan elders say that most of their capital is tied up in charcoal (Times photography, Tristan McConnell)

Beached fishing boats and house-sized stacks of charcoal mark the front line at Buur Gaabo. Hundreds of thousands of sacks of charcoal languish here, worth millions of pounds in Somalia and tens of millions to the Dubai-based traders who once visited.

The charcoal trade ceased when the Ras Kamboni Brigades (RKB), a powerful Islamist militia backed by Kenya’s army, took control in October and pushed al-Qaeda linked al-Shabaab militants across the channel and out of the area for the first time in years.

Under military pressure on three fronts, al-Shabaab have pulled back to coastal strongholds to the north in Merca and Kismayo. The latter’s port earns the group up to £32 million a year, a third from the trade in charcoal, according to a report by UN investigators.

In an effort to choke off al-Shabaab’s finances and slow the catastrophic environmental impact of deforestation, a UN embargo was placed on charcoal from Somalia in February.

“We are the ones who have stopped the charcoal trade, we take that responsibility,” said Mohamed Farah, a regional commander of the RKB who doubles as district commissioner of the ramshackle town from which his militia draws its name. But the ban has disappointed traders and depressed the local economy.

“I have a lot of charcoal in Buur Gaabo: 5,000 sacks,” said Hassan Noorieye, a businessman based in the main town of Ras Kamboni, 60km to the south. “During al-Shabaab, the charcoal business boomed, boats would come and go direct to Dubai but now that has stopped.”

Buur Gaabo charcoal
Ras Kamboni Brigade soldiers patrol part of Buur Gaabo where sacks of charcoal have been stranded since the trade was stopped (Times photography, Tristan McConnell)

Ali Noor Kasim, a clan elder, said he had 15,000 sacks worth £39,000 sitting on the sand in Buur Gaabo. In Dubai, where it is mostly used for smoking shisha pipes, the charcoal is worth four times as much.

“We understand there is an environmental impact, but most of our capital is tied up in that charcoal. They should let us sell what is there. We are not cutting any more and al-Shabaab will not profit,” Mr Kasim said.

Since al-Shabaab withdrew from Ras Kamboni, there has been no fighting, yet the town has seen few other improvements.

“When we liberated this area we expected the international community to come and help, but they didn’t respond the way we had hoped,” Mr Farah said.

The fragile peace allowed the World Health Organisation (WHO) to open the region’s only medical centre last week and there is hope that other aid agencies might follow, bringing boreholes for drinking water, food, schools, and support for the town’s dilapidated fishing industry.

“Everything is from scratch: health, education, water and sanitation,” said Abdi Raghe, co-founder of the African Rescue Committee (AFREC), a local aid agency working with WHO and others to provide basic services.

For years, this region of southern Somalia has been the homeland of Somali Islamists and their foreign jihadi comrades.

A few kilometres north of Ras Kamboni is a former al-Shabaab training camp that was struck by missiles fired from a US drone a year ago. All that remains is an open well with puddled brackish water amid low dunes overlooking the sea.

Just 35km north of Ras Kamboni is Wajir, another al-Shabaab training camp that is still operational. Foreign fighters from Britain, the US, Asia and elsewhere are believed to run the camps, teaching guerrilla tactics and preparing suicide bombers.

Ras Kamboni itself was a rear base for al-Shabaab, where fighters and commanders could rest and recuperate, where fresh fish is plentiful, and goats meander sandy tracks between palm-roofed mud shacks fenced with old fishing nets.

The town is tucked into the corner of a wide sandy bay, sheltered from the heavy monsoon tides by a string of tiny islands. Pirates, including the gang that kidnapped the British tourist Judith Tebbutt last year, used to frequent the islands and secluded beaches but the new administration has kicked them out. Its next target is Kismayo itself.

Somali and Kenyan government officials have repeatedly stated that the city will be taken in August and few expect to meet much resistance from al-Shabaab, which may well melt away, swapping traditional warfare for terror tactics.

The man most likely to end up ruling Kismayo is Ahmed Madobe, an Islamist and former governor of the town, who fell out with al-Shabaab in 2009. He is eager to reinstall himself but his ambitions may trigger yet more fighting.

Mr Madobe is from a clan with kinship links to the Ogaden, a rebellious and marginalised region of Ethiopia. Security analysts say it is hard to believe that Ethiopia will allow an armed Ogadeni group to establish a power base on its border that could become a rear base for rebels.

Al-Shabaab’s days in control of Somali towns may be numbered but the prospects of a lasting peace remain slim.

Sentenced to ten lashes for having a cigarette
Jama Jibril fled his hometown of Kismayo two months ago after one humiliation too many.

The 40-year-old labourer was walking home clutching a small sack of groceries when an Islamist militant stopped him. In the bottom of Mr Jibril’s bag was a solitary cigarette. Mr Jibril had planned to go home after a long day’s work, close the door, lock himself in the loo and enjoy a smoke.

“Us smokers are colleagues,” said Mr Jibril. “We stick together, we smoke together. We have secret words to talk of cigarettes because they are forbidden.” He had been caught and would be punished in accordance with al-Shabaab’s draconian form of religious law.

He was locked in a cell for 48 hours then taken before a Sharia court and sentenced to ten lashes, a punishment carried out immediately and publicly.

The testimony of Mr Jibril and others interviewed in Ras Kamboni, a town controlled by a government-aligned militia 300km south of Kismayo, offers a rare insight into the bizarre and brutal life of a town under the sway of al-Qaeda.

Residents described a fearful place watched over by al-Shabaab spies. Talking on a mobile phone, listening to the radio, drinking one cup of tea too many, chewing the popular narcotic herb khat or skipping prayers would trigger a visit, and a beating or worse, from masked gunmen who stay in military camps encircling the town.

In the past, Kismayo’s militants have held Koranic recitals at which youngsters competed to win hand grenades, rifles and ammunition. Mr Jibril and others told of even stranger behaviour.

Groups of enforcers roam the town armed with scissors to trim unruly hair. They also chop inches off trousers that cover the ankle in keeping, the militants said, with the Prophet’s medieval dress. “They cut your trousers, they cut your hair, you have to grow a full beard. People are really under pressure,” said Omar Mohamed, a trader who ferries goods on his boat from Kismayo to Ras Kamboni, a journey that takes 24 hours by sail boat.

The city serves as a base for some of the hundreds of foreign fighters who have answered the call to jihad, bolstering the ranks of al-Shabaab. They wander the town openly, said Mr Mohamed. “There are so many white guys around,” he said.