Somalia is 'another Afghanistan'

Recently trained members of the Somali National Army. (Stuart Price, AFP)

Recently trained members of the Somali National Army. (Stuart Price, AFP)

Omar Abdullahi Mayow has hard eyes and a furrowed brow. But when he smiles, something lifts. The lines around his eyes shift, easing into tired resignation.

The camouflage of his Transitional Federal Government army uniform is too new to be sun-faded, the embroidered turquoise patch of a Somali flag vibrant in its novelty on his left arm.
He has not been in his new kit long, but the 32-year-old said he had waited years for the opportunity.

Mayow had been an al-Shabaab fighter. He volunteered on behalf of his ­family when the recruiters came in an attempt to protect the rest of his relatives. His sacrifice raised them above suspicion despite their government jobs.

On the frontline for 10 days at a time, there had never been the choice to retreat. Mayow's expression hardens. "They tell you: 'You can't turn your back on the enemy. You can't run.'" Mayow is the only survivor of a unit of nine men.

Sitting in the desolate concrete stands of Mogadishu Stadium, a sporting field turned African Union base, another man is quietly watching Mayow speak.

Abdikarim Sheikh Abdi Ahin said he joined al-Shabaab to protect the Qur'an. But after being asked to open fire on people in a mosque during Friday prayers, he realised that "al-Shabaab themselves had become the infidels".

Ahin watched a fellow fighter suspected of being a spy "slaughtered like an animal" – he draws a hand across his neck – beheaded in front of a crowd.

After that, defecting became like a gush of water, he said.

"This Muslimness that everyone is using to attack each other – I knew that one day it would come to me," Mayow said. So he left, warning ­others. "I told them that if they didn't come with me I'd have to kill them." He fingers the edge of his new uniform.

But the escalating numbers of defectors are not all leaving solely on ideological grounds. Many are leaving because of fear and pragmatism.

Ronald Kakarungu, spokesperson for the African Union Mission in Somalia, said well over half the defectors were under 18 years old.

As al-Shabaab loses ground, it is also bleeding men. They did not have equipment, Ahin said, no concrete numbers, no clear chain of command. Kenya's commitment to oust the militants and battalions of Ethiopian troops known for their cold viciousness has bolstered the African Union, which is making gains where Western forces have failed.

Amisom said they were advancing on the port of Kismayo, al-Shabaab's last stronghold, where the militants allegedly draw most of their revenue. Kenya's prime minister, Raila Odinga, vowed that his troops would take the strategic city by the end of August and has deployed his navy in a seafront offensive to try to keep his word.

Eyewitnesses in recent weeks spoke of "big red balls flying in from the sea" and both the United Nations and Human Rights Watch have called for investigations into civilian casualties.

African Union control
This week, Amisom announced that it had wrested the historical port town of Merca from the militants, bringing its whitewashed walls and minarets into the control of government forces.

Afgooye and Afmadow are towns that have fallen to African Union control, but as the frontline pushes outwards from the capital, bravado is tempered with caution on Mogadishu's streets.

A private security contractor, who asked not to be named, told the Mail & Guardian that despite the claims of gains by the African Union Mission in Somalia, the war continued. "Al-Shabaab are still in the city. It's just a different kind of war, with bombs and small arms on the rise. We can't win. It's going to be another Afghanistan and it's going to continue for years," he said.

Talk of a truth and reconciliation commission is surfacing in government circles, but most believe it is too early for such an attempt.

Abdurahman Hosh Jibril, the former minister for constitutional affairs and reconciliation and a newly appointed MP in Somalia's fledgling federal Parliament, said his country was full of grievances and narratives of pain.

Jibril said any form of transitional justice had to be Somali-led and steer away from retribution towards healing. He wants a commission modelled on South Africa's. But any form of resolution will have to wait until the country's fragile political transition process culminates in a stable and, crucially, functioning government.

African Union and Somali government officials admit that a coherent demobilisation process will have to wait until the end of the war. In the meantime, an ad hoc series of camps seeks to give men and boys deserting al-Shabaab's ranks a form of makeshift relief.

For Mayow and Ahin, sitting in the disintegrating stadium blocks of Somalia's capital, transition, hope and a belief that things will change is all they have left.

But in a country that has survived more than two decades of civil war, emerging bruised and battle-scarred, trust may seem hard to come by.

They will share food with the men they only recently vowed to kill. They will share jokes with those who only recently vowed to kill them. And in the shifting sands of Somali loyalties, they will embrace the inherent contradiction in the choices they have been forced to make for survival.

It is the Somali way – and it is how a nation will tentatively seek its own absolution.

People fight to live, not to vote

The perplexed face of President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed gives a half-hearted thumbs-up to passers-by from posters on walls, cars and lampposts across the capital, next to the tentative smiles of other presidential hopefuls on adjacent surfaces.

Presidential campaigning for a secret parliamentary election is under way and the United Nations said it expected Somalia to have a head of state within a week. The country now has its first speaker in its fledgling federal Parliament, Professor Mohamed Sheikh Osman Jawari – a teacher turned law expert back from years of living in Norway. But his win shifts the clan-divided playing field of Somali politics.

The field is narrowing in a race that will likely pit interim prime minister against interim president, but it may not necessarily reflect the choice of the Somali people.

Mogadishu's residents – those living in domed aqals (huts), cobbled together from plastic bags and thorn tree branches, dotted about the devastation of hollow buildings; those camped in year-old white Turkish aid plastic tents; those who have walked for days with their families and cannot go home – will not vote.

Little has changed in the sprawling camps for the displaced. There are old faces and new. There are fewer families crammed into the dust around feeding centres. There are more families scattered around town, fending for themselves in makeshift communities, fighting for survival.

The UN said it was increasingly difficult to differentiate between those whom drought and famine had displaced and those who constituted Mogadishu's resident urban poor. The international committee for the Red Cross estimates there are more than 400000 urban poor in the city, alongside about 200 000 internally displaced. Many of them have been living in improvised shacks for up to 20 years.

The UN's humanitarian chief for Somalia, Justin Brady, said there was a vast chasm of divergence in terms of development. "Mogadishu is really a city where people are living in an entire century. You have people living in the modern day and people living in conditions that seem 100 years ago," he says.

Few, if any, are benefiting from the economic development of the city, despite improvements in security. And beyond Mogadishu's African Union-secured ­borders, conditions are even more ­desperate. –

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