No peace for the peacekeepers in Somalia

In a khaki tent shielded by sandbags, four Ugandan officers are watching Black Hawk Down, the Hollywood account of the devastating ambush of US troops in the chaotic streets of Mogadishu.

It’s maybe not the ideal cinematic fare when you are a peacekeeper supposed to be maintaining some semblance of stability in the lawless Somali capital, where life is cheap and international troops come under daily fire.

That doesn’t seem to bother these officers, almost transfixed in front of the screen in the mess where they came to grab a cup of milky tea.

“They know they don’t have enough forces to engage us and move us back one foot,” said Major Ba-Hoku Barigye, part of an African Union force shoring up President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’s government against Islamist fighters.

“Our major achievement is that we have been able to demystify the idea that Somalia is a no-go area,” he boasted.

“Three years after [deployment] we’re still here, and I’m sure we will be here for three more years.”

Somalia has been embroiled in conflict since 1991 and Western countries—fearful of it becoming a safe haven for al-Qaeda—are propping up Sharif’s fragile administration in the hope it can restore some order.

His government is in control of only pockets of the capital, however, with the rest held by the al-Qaeda-inspired al-Shabaab movement and the more political Hezb al-Islam militia.

The conflict stormed into Western consciousness in 1993 when two US Black Hawk choppers were shot down and the bodies of 18 US soldiers dragged through Mogadishu’s streets—the incident dramatised by Hollywood.

Today’s AU peacekeeping force is made up from just Burundi and Uganda and has 5 300 troops, well below the 8 000 initially planned.

Installed near Mogadishu airport, the force’s headquarters is a mixture of tents, containers and prefabricated units in a forest just a few metres from the Indian Ocean.

Every morning the troops don helmets and flak-jackets for patrols on board their white armoured vehicles, which they use to resupply forward positions in central Mogadishu or escort Somali officials.

“Without us the transitional government would collapse immediately,” said one colonel, whose men in forward positions regularly come under gunshot and mortar fire. The airport and seaport remain open, at least.

The headquarters complex had been largely spared the effects of the daily clashes between pro-government militia and Islamist fighters, due to what one officer involved in military-civilian operations described as their friendly ties with local villagers.

That was until a double suicide attack in September killed 17 peacekeepers, including their second in command, a Burundian general.

The gutted white facade of the former command centre carries the scars but the officers insist that while the attack cost lives, it failed to achieve its aim of killing the force’s commander-in-chief.

Pinned up across the base is a directive to the troops to, despite the attack, make every effort to ensure Somalis are not left feeling isolated.

“We could have done better, but remember that we are the only peacekeeping mission with the same risks as Afghanistan or Iraq,” said Major Barigye.

“I’m convinced this mission can be achieved in less than a year,” he added.
“It’s just a question of capacities and human power.”

The force lacks both manpower and equipment, he said.

Barigye’s cellphone rings. He picks it up. “The al-Shabaab have taken to calling me with threats,” he shrugged.

Every now and then there’s a buzz overhead. US drones are watching and monitoring.—AFP

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