Wrecked city picks up the pieces as tide of war turns

The Times of London
Baidoa, Somalia

Beneath a shady tree in the courtyard of a shattered government villa, dozens of old men have gathered to talk about the liberation of their city.

“For three years al-Shabaab colonised us,” said Maalim Ali Barre, a clan elder. “Now we’re free.”

Until ten days ago, the strategic city of Baidoa, central Somalia, was a stronghold of the Islamist militant movement that is allied to al-Qaeda and which controls much of the war-torn country. Now it is the prize of advancing Ethiopian troops who, with the help of local militias, have forced al-Shabaab from the city, the third largest in the country.

Its capture is the latest in a series of military setbacks for al-Shabaab, which declared its incorporation into al-Qaeda in February but now finds itself fighting African Union peacekeepers in Mogadishu, Kenyan troops in the south and Ethiopian forces in the west — as US drones seek out and kill its top commanders.

“Al-Qaeda was controlling from the border to Baidoa,” said Brigadier-General Yohannes Woldegiorgis, of the Ethiopian National Defence Force, now quartered with his soldiers in a bombed-out compound. Al-Shabaab’s pick-up trucks mounted with machineguns were no match for his tanks and artillery, and the 300 Islamist fighters in Baidoa fled. “There were some small ambushes but not much resistance, which shows they are weak,” the general said. “Al-Shabaab is history.”

Ethiopian intelligence officers claim that al-Shabaab fighters have been scattered towards the southern port city of Kismayo and to Afgooye, a town outside Mogadishu, both of which remain firmly under the militants’ control.

However, not everyone shares their convictions. Abdifatah Gessey, the governor of Bay region, of which Baidoa is the capital, returned from exile last month as the final skirmishes were being fought in his home town. He said that some militants had simply buried their guns and put away their uniforms: “They are hiding here in Baidoa.”

The city he now helps to run is battered by neglect rather than bullets. Along tree-lined avenues, militia fighters in ragged uniforms and flip-flops loll about or stroll the dusty pavements, arms around each other’s shoulders. Their appearance is in sharp contrast to the Ethiopian soldiers in their smart fatigues and red berets who stand alert on street corners, guns trained on alleyways of rubble.

The signs of fighting can be seen in the collection of administrative buildings that al-Shabaab used as its headquarters, and which have been put to the same purpose by the Ethiopians. Walls are bullet-pocked, windows missing and roofs collapsing. The interiors offer a glimpse of how al-Shabaab fighters lived.

An Ethiopian army captain, Mahamoud Yissak, shows off a collection of old mortars and mines, detonators and switches that were found scattered around the walled compound. The garden is littered with rusting lorry parts; an abandoned anti-aircraft gun is mounted on a trailer in the long grass.

The mildewed walls of the main building, a villa that has hosted numerous presidents and warlords during 23 years of war in Somalia, are covered in graffiti. There are childish, charcoal drawings and scratched engravings, mostly of AK47 assault rifles.

Captain Yissak describes al-Shabaab fighters as “kids and teenagers” who have been brainwashed by Islamist ideology. He has been here before. When Ethiopia invaded its neighbour in late 2006, he was posted to Baidoa and Mogadishu before the army withdrew in the face of popular resistance and attacks by al-Shabaab’s nascent guerrilla movement. “At that time people liked al-Shabaab. There was a lot of support for them,” he recalled.

However, the violent punishments and crippling taxation soured relations between al-Shabaab and the people.

The Ethiopians are keen that their military intervention is not seen as an attempt to “Balkanise” Somalia. Dina Mufti, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, insisted that Ethiopia would pull out of Somalia as soon as it was “stabilised”.

The people of Baidoa hope the passing of al-Shabaab’s reign will herald a new beginning. “We want to live like people in other countries. We want to be part of the world,” Mr Barre said.