Fear and starvation in Mogadishu

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad writes: Three decades ago, Mohamed Siad Barre, commander of the Supreme Revolutionary Council, head of the politburo of the Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party and the last ruler of a functional Somali state, built vast concrete buildings all over Mogadishu. The beautiful city on the coast of the Indian Ocean, with its Arabic and Indian architecture, winding alleyways and Italian colonial-era villas, was dominated by these monuments. They were Third World incarnations of Soviet architecture, exuding power, stability and strength. The buildings – like the literacy campaigns, massive public works programmes and a long war against neighbouring Ethiopia in the late 1970s and early 1980s – were supposed to reflect the wisdom and authority of the dictator.

Sycophants and poets sang Siad Barre’s praises in these buildings, and schoolchildren waved ribbons and flew flags in their courtyards to celebrate his birthday. But in the deserts beyond the city walls nomadic tribes were agitating for war. When the Soviet Union fell and the unpredictable dictator could no longer play his hand in the Cold War game of African dictatorships, he was toppled. His clan was defeated by the clans he had marginalised.

Tribesmen poured into the city and Siad Barre’s state collapsed. The fighters ransacked Mogadishu’s Arab and European quarters and stripped its cinemas and ministries bare, shelled its old stone houses and hammered bullets into the walls and columns of its bars and cafés. Tribal commanders installed themselves as kings of crumbling neighbourhoods. Clan wars fragmented into sub-clan wars and then into sub-sub-clan wars. Tribesmen fought and killed other tribesmen and then turned against men of their own tribe and killed them. The fighters replaced their camels with Japanese pick-up trucks and fitted them with guns, turning them into war wagons. Everyone had been fighting for so long they forgot why they had started fighting in the first place and a miserable lethargy settled in. Generations of young men were born into the war, boys whose real mother was a Kalashnikov and whose only knowledge lay in the killing of other boys.

Twenty years later, Siad Barre’s monuments stand over a city of the dead and dying. They are landmarks in a battleground crisscrossed by front lines. ‘The Hotel Al-Uruba front line,’ people say. ‘There are food shipments at the Ministry of Health line.’ Trees and shrubs grow out of the broken walls and millions of bullets have marked the ruins with hairline cracks. You walk in fear of snipers and kidnappers and then a man comes up to you and points at a crumbling façade and says this was the Italian cinema, or at a pile of ruins on the beach and says that was Bar 54, the best bar in Mogadishu.

In the second decade of fighting, in 2006, when the warlords were exhausted after the long, incestuous wars, an alliance of Islamists called the Islamic Courts Union suppressed the warlords and brought a semblance of stability to Somalia. Most members of the Courts were traditional mullahs teaching the Quran in villages or local clerics dispensing justice according to sharia law in the absence of any other judicial system. Among the Courts there were few jihadis.

The Americans, pursuing their quixotic war on terrorism, hired some of the remaining warlords to work for the CIA, forming the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism. When the alliance was defeated by the Courts the Ethiopian army, with the blessing of the Americans, invaded to crush the Islamists. After fighting a vicious war for more than a year the invading army withdrew, leaving tens of thousands injured and maimed and thousands more dead, most of them civilians. Mogadishu was further destroyed – if that was possible – and tens of thousands joined the long caravan of Somali refugees driven from their homes by indiscriminate shelling.

A corrupt, dysfunctional, ‘transitional’ government was left to rule, guarded by African Union troops. But the worst outcome of the Ethiopian invasion was the rise of al-Shabaab, a small faction of the Courts at the beginning but a formidable power by the end of the war. They were supported by the Eritreans, the Ethiopians’ nemesis, and by 2009 controlled most of southern Somalia and Mogadishu.

That was the first year the rain failed.

Al-Shabaab ruled most of the city and their fighters were young. They imposed a brutal and arbitrary punishment code and beheaded their enemies. The government and its African backers controlled a small sliver of land to the west of the city and used it to try and shell the Islamists into submission.

The war continued and the rain failed again.

This summer al-Shabaab – weakened by internal divisions and the drought and under pressure from African Union troops armed with tanks and artillery – withdrew from Mogadishu. The government and African Union troops took over their positions but the rain refused to come and the city filled with the starving.

Badbaado means ‘salvation’ in Somali. It’s the name of a stretch of ruins and wild scrub on the outskirts of Mogadishu a few hundred metres from the closest al-Shabaab position. Thousands of tents fill the area: it is now the biggest refugee camp in Somalia.

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