The Times of London
“This is a peacekeeping mission in a place where there is no peace to keep,” said Major Ba-Hoku Barigye, spokesman for the operation in Somalia, as he squatted behind a wall of sandbags on a roof in central Mogadishu.
Next month, the African Union mission (Amisom) will have spent three years in a city that has been a graveyard for peacekeepers from the United Nations and America.
At the weekend Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary-General, said that United Nations peacekeepers would not be deployed here until the fighting has stopped. It has been going on for decades.
The 5,300 Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers are all that stand between Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the Islamist al-Shabaab insurgents, a group with links to al-Qaeda and Yemeni extremists. Since peacekeepers arrived in 2007, more than 70 of them have been killed in Mogadishu.
The front line is a city block known as K4 because it is 4km from the port. “K4 is very strategic. For anyone to control Mogadishu they have to control K4,” Captain Kenneth Wabwire, the commander of an Amisom detachment, told The Times as we crouched on the roof of the bombed-out former Egyptian Embassy. Bullets flew overhead, occasionally smacking into concrete walls or sandbags.
“Since morning we have been under attack from sniper fire,” Captain Wabwire said. His Ugandan soldiers occasionally peered over the sandbag wall at the whitewashed buildings less than a mile away from which militants were taking potshots.
The junction at K4 connects the airport to the seaport allowing humanitarian supplies, military equipment and consumer goods to reach the city and beyond. The Ugandan position overlooks the K4 roundabout, its centrepiece a 20ft-high plinth whose statue has been shot away. Young boys sit in its shade while next to them cows root through plastic bags and rubbish. The barrel of a T55 tank sticks through the wall of an abandoned cinema but they pay no attention.
K4 is attacked almost every day. At night the assaults intensify. The commander says that his soldiers ignore rifle fire, responding only when mortars get close to their compound. Amisom is criticised for its indiscriminate bombardment of civilian districts but Major Barigye says that under the circumstances, the troops show restraint.
The peacekeepers have also been attacked with roadside bombs and suicide attacks, techniques that Western intelligence sources say are taught by foreign jihadis who have bolstered the ranks of al-Shabaab in recent years. Last September the mission’s Burundian deputy commander and 16 other peacekeepers were killed in suicide attacks on the Amisom Command Headquarters and a compound used by DynCorp, a US contractor.
With only 5,300 present of a mandated 8,000-strong force, and with scarcely enough vehicles to move its own troops around, it is impressive that Amisom has stayed this long.
The last mission pulled out in March 1995. It had 28,000 peacekeepers and lasted less than three years. It was curtailed after the infamous Black Hawk Down episode in 1993, when 18 US Rangers were killed.
For now, a stalemate is in place. Amisom, with its peacekeeping mandate, is not allowed to go on the offensive. That must be done by government forces, which have proven incapable of the job. “We can get Mogadishu under control in less than 30 minutes,” asserted Major Barigye, “but at a cost. Not to us, but to the population.”
Ismael, the Islamist footsoldier, explains why he joined al-Shabaab
“In our country there are three paths: you can join al-Shabaab, you can join [the government forces] or you can go abroad,” said Ismael Mohamed. “Me, I don’t have money to go away so I join al-Shabaab.”
Ismael, 21, is a typical Islamist footsoldier. He is neither a jihadi nor an extremist; he loves God and Manchester United. He is a young Muslim with an education — his English is excellent — but no opportunities in a country that has been at war for as long as he has been alive.
Civil war led to the collapse of Somalia’s last Government in 1991. The rebels then turned on one another in a fight for power. Many Somali youngsters know nothing of life without war.
Al-Shabaab’s leaders are militant nationalists and Islamic extremists but the rank-and-file fighters are hired guns, conscripts or volunteers. Ismael joined up during last year’s failed rains when food was scarce and al-Shabaab was in the ascendancy — weeks earlier it had launched a fresh offensive against the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). “I didn’t have anywhere to stay or anything to do.” My friends, some of them were al-Shabaab and they would tell me that TFG is not Muslim, but al-Shabaab is Muslim,” he explained.
President Sharif Ahmed’s US and Western support marks him out as an infidel to al-Shabaab. “He is kaffir,” said Ismael.
In Mogadishu, Ismael lived with other young al-Shabaab fighters in a shared house in Bakara Market, an Islamist stronghold and no-go area for government forces and African Union peacekeepers (Amisom). He would wait for a call then take up his AK47 and go into battle. “I was mujahidin for real,” he said proudly.
During a gunfight on the streets of Mogadishu, four months after joining al-Shabaab, a mortar explosion mangled his leg and peacekeepers took him to their tented hospital close to the sea. Sitting on a camp bed, he rubbed the bandaged stump where his left leg used to be. “My leg, it is a small wound only,” he said with an ironic smile.
Ismael is grateful to Amisom for saving his life and has renounced al-Shabaab. “What I believed before and what I believe now are different. I felt that Amisom was my enemy but they were very helpful to me.” As he spoke he turned a leather-bound Koran over and over in his hands. He has given up the violence of the Islamist insurgency, but remains a pious Muslim. Soon he will be discharged; he would go back to his mother’s house in a district called Medina, but he is worried.
“TFG (Transitional Federal Government) troops are there and they know me very well; maybe they will kill me. And if I go back in Bakara maybe al-Shabaab will kill me. I would like my country to be at peace but I don’t know how … Me, I cannot see any peace, just fighting.”