Photo credit: Jeffrey Onyango
Photo credit: Jeffrey Onyango

When the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled

Building on past Saferworld research, this series of illustrated long-reads shares the perspectives of Somalis that have lived through three decades of conflict. They chronicle their own experiences and their perspectives of international interventions in the country. The suffering they have endured and witnessed highlights the ways that current strategies have distorted rather than addressed the causes of violent conflict in Somalia, emphasising the urgent need for a new approach.


Chapter 1: Somali perspectives on Al Shabaab, international involvement and counterterrorism

In the destructive war in Somalia, regular people are often the ones who suffer the most. For the first of our series on Somalia, those living on the front lines of the ‘war on terror’ spoke to us about their experiences.

Reclining on a shaded balcony in the bustling Taleex neighbourhood of Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital city, Odawa remembers his life here in the 1980s, when as a teenager he watched his country implode into civil war.

He reminisces about his childhood in Heliwa, on the far end of the old industrial road that runs out of the city’s north-eastern outskirts. He still lives there, within walking distance of the colonial Italian cemetery and the old confectionary factories. A ghost from Somalia’s past, the warehouses now lie empty, pockmarked after thirty years of conflict.

“I’m lucky to have seen a time when there was stability and we enjoyed free education and healthcare,” he says. “Things that no African country enjoys even today.”

Now a businessman, Odawa has seen his city transformed in recent years. Glossy shopping malls and office blocks have sprung up while diaspora have returned from Europe and North America, bringing foreign currency and new and often controversial ideas and tastes with them. Yet hopes that increasing investment and economic growth might drag the country out of conflict have as yet gone unfulfilled. The sight of burned out vehicles and the hollow skeletons of once-glitzy beach-side hotels reminds residents of Somalia’s violent past and present.

Mogadishu’s scars have been dealt by countless hands – from warlords, clans and Islamist militias to fragile Somali governments and foreign armies. For the last decade, a brutal insurgency led by the armed group Al Shabaab has terrorised the fledgling Somali state and the people it hopes to rule.

Mogadishu’s scars have been dealt by countless hands – from warlords, clans and Islamist militias to fragile Somali governments and foreign armies.

In response, the United States, United Kingdom and the European Union have supported a costly campaign to defeat the group. They have funded and trained the 20,000 member African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), a stabilisation force deployed since 2007 made up of troops from neighbouring countries.[1] They have invested heavily in a credible Somali National Army (SNA). And the Pentagon, alongside Ethiopia and Kenya,[2] carried out offensive raids with Somali Special Forces inside territory controlled by Al Shabaab, while conducting dozens of airstrikes against the group - with civilians often caught in the crossfire[3]

As Odawa speaks, an explosion rings out. He points to smoke rising from the National Theatre. Fifteen minutes later, more smoke – this time outside the old parliament building. The two car bombs that day, both claimed by Al Shabaab, leave fifteen people dead and many more injured. Such attacks occur almost daily around the country. In 2017, the group’s deadliest year so far, they claimed nearly 1,500 lives. The assassination of Mogadishu’s popular mayor Abdirahman Abdi Osman, who had taken a strong stance against the group, sent a stark message to Somalis that anyone who sides against Al Shabaab is not safe in the country.

Of course, it is Somalis who bear the brunt of war and who are left to pick up the pieces. But being stuck between a determined insurgency and a vast international coalition intent on destroying it, their needs are routinely forgotten.

For Odawa, international military involvement has only made the situation worse. The move of the Ethiopian military in 2006 to crush the government of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), allowed Al Shabaab to emerge as a resistance movement that turned public dismay over foreign intervention into popular support, willing recruits and cash.

"That was the worst day in my life, seeing Ethiopian tanks on Somali soil,” says Odawa. “I can't forget that.”Odawa was at a checkpoint in Heliwa when Ethiopian tanks first rolled into Mogadishu a few weeks later. Within days, the ICU government, which was made up of a range of Islamist organisations and sharia courts, was forcibly removed from power. They had overthrown the previous US-funded warlords only months before.

For many Somalis, the ICU signified an end to the bloody cycle of violence between clans and warlords vying for power. The US-backed invasion, justified as a means to eradicate a breeding ground for ‘terrorists’ in Somalia, only ended up elevating Al Shabaab, the ICU’s most belligerent faction, into a powerful national force.

“The invasion led to a lot of destruction,” says Abdulqadir, an elder from Jamaame. “Al Shabaab came as a result of hate people had for Ethiopia combined with the love people had for ICU... Somalis saw Al Shabaab as a continuation of ICU and welcomed them with open arms”.

When the ICU’s routed leaders fled to Eritrea in 2009, Ethiopian troops withdrew, leaving much of the country under Al Shabaab control. The insurgents advanced into the vacated territory quickly, convincing many Somalis that they were the saviours of the country and its religion, protecting them from their most bitter historical enemy. They were welcomed by locals as they took control in Odawa’s district. Having prolonged their initial six-month deployment by nearly four years at this point, AMISOM peacekeepers were hemmed in, guarding only small pockets of southern Mogadishu and parts of Baidoa in the west.

“The invasion led to a lot of destruction. Al Shabaab came as a result of hate people had for Ethiopia combined with the love people had for ICU... Somalis saw Al Shabaab as a continuation of ICU and welcomed them with open arms” - Abdulqadir, an elder from Jamaame

The grim campaign of violence waged by Al Shabaab since then may have changed people’s minds, but at the time Odawa judged Al Shabaab more on its ability to govern. “Al Shabaab enjoyed local support at the beginning because of their strong administration that was fair in administering justice in the eyes of the public. They also fought those militias who erected checkpoints to extort money from the road users”.

As Al Shabaab gained a foothold, Ethiopian troops returned in 2011 with a Kenyan force moving in from the south. Meanwhile, the surrounded Ugandan and Burundian AMISOM troops in Mogadishu attempted to push the group from the capital.

Tragically, some of the lessons from the first Ethiopian incursion have since gone unheeded. Thirteen years after Odawa saw the tanks drive by, the conflict with Al Shabaab is still stuck in a bloody stalemate. Often locked away in isolated bases and rightly wary of being drawn into ambushes, many doubt the ability of the government or of AMISOM to defeat Al Shabaab.

To end the stalemate, the government and its partners often ask for more and better military hardware, but this may only throw fuel onto a fire that is already raging. Throughout the conflict, military aid delivered to Somalia has been regularly seized in raids or diverted onto the black market – enough to leave 30 per cent of the Somali military unarmed. With this in mind, Somalia’s international partners must look far beyond military intervention if they want to end Somalia’s chronic state of war.

On its current path, the conflict will likely play into Al Shabaab’s hands. Despite the immense suffering it has inflicted on the population, Al Shabaab maintains a degree of support in some segments of society. In part, this is because of persistent public discontent over the role of international and government forces in the country. After so many years of conflict, many Somalis are suspicious of what they see as foreign ‘occupiers’ and a government that can’t provide for the needs of its people.

Despite the immense suffering it has inflicted on the population, Al Shabaab maintains a degree of support in some segments of society.

By contrast, Al Shabaab has built a reputation for forcefully ending clan conflicts, tackling crime and enforcing its severe rules consistently and far beyond its territory. Operating a sophisticated network of courts, road checkpoints and tax collectors, many Somalis, particularly in rural areas, see Al Shabaab as the most reliable justice provider in the country as well as the most feared[3]. Until the government can prove to all Somalis that it can truly protect them and resolve their grievances, Al Shabaab will hold on to some public support – and with it, its revenues, recruits and hideouts.    

“This building we are in now and this neighbourhood were occupied by AMISOM as they fought Al Shabaab, who were also living on the other side of the road” says Deqa, a researcher based in the Mogadishu. Her eyes hidden behind large sunglasses, she describes how she sheltered within the walls of her family home in Taleex as the battle raged on in the streets. “AMISOM came… and did not create a good relationship with the public. They instead lived under their security barricades responding to Al Shabaab attacks which often harmed innocent citizens”. 

At the time, AMISOM was allegedly responsible for many civilian casualties and – according to monitoring groups – shelling in residential areas in response to Al Shabaab mortar attacks in the Battle of Mogadishu in 2011. The United Nations reported that they were responsible for 178 civilian casualties (95 killed and 83 injured) between January 2016 and October 2017. There were also frequent allegations of sexual and gender-based assaults committed by AMISOM troops – with many such cases ignored and others unreported due to fears of reprisal or poor handling.

“Today, AMISOM is able to freely move around, unlike before when they were very fearful of the local population and on the slightest suspicion, they would fire shots towards anyone who came close to their convoy”, explains Deqa. “Now you will see them sometimes in the police stations and other places. In my view, there is an improvement, although it is small.” 

Government forces are also distrusted by many Somalis. With wages low, and supplies and food both scarce, they are frequently said to harass and extort civilians. The problem was summed up by a resident of Afgoye, a town which regularly switches between government and Al Shabaab control. “The same army was supposed to secure the land but… they are looting the people. Those who oppose them are killed, and there are rape cases. This is why sometimes people prefer Al Shabaab to the government”. Many Somalis are trapped between two sides in a war that has little prospect of ending soon.

Because AMISOM and Somali troops are often unable to hold recovered territory for long, civilians left behind are kept in a dangerous limbo, at risk of severe retribution for cooperating with either side. “As a population, we are confused”, says Mohamed, a shopkeeper based in the outskirts of Kismayo, a coastal city to the South. “We hear that government forces have taken a town, but then we hear that they withdraw. Al Shabaab returns and kills anyone who interacted with the soldiers before the SNA return and target suspected Al Shabaab collaborators. Civilians are stuck in the middle”.

“As a population, we are confused. We hear that government forces have taken a town, but then we hear that they withdraw. Al Shabaab returns and kills anyone who interacted with the soldiers before the SNA return and target suspected Al Shabaab collaborators. Civilians are stuck in the middle” - Mohamed, a shopkeeper near Kismayo

Covert airstrikes by US or Kenyan forces add another threat to civilians, killing dozens a year and destroying many more homes and livelihoods. “Air attacks are frequent in the night,” complained Hassan, a resident of Audhegle, a small town hit by airstrikes in December last year. “Residents are living in constant fear.”

Even when civilians avoid getting caught up in airstrikes, Al Shabaab often punishes alleged ‘spies’ that they accuse of providing the location of militants to US or Somali intelligence services. Mohamed remembers the gruesome aftermath of one airstrike near his home. “They arrested one man, interrogated and tortured him and said that he was paying the informants through his business. They removed his fingernails.”

Many are angry that such abuses go unchallenged. One clan elder from Lower Shabelle lamented that, “up to now, both governments of Kenya and Somalia keep quiet about the issue. We blame the US for all these atrocities committed against our people, whether executed by the US or others, it doesn’t matter”.  

In the face of the suffering brought about by ill-conceived international interventions and the perception of their government’s acquiescence to it, many Somalis see little choice but to seek the protection of clans and other militias. Some seek the help of Al Shabaab itself, which despite its devastating attacks on civilians, can offer protection to those willing to abide by its draconian rules.

Odawa is tired of watching his city reel time and again from unnecessary acts of violence committed against fellow Somalis trying their best to get on with their lives.

“The two main problems facing Somalia today are Al Shabaab and the international community. Somalia will be peaceful if these two threats come to an end.”

Footnotes 

[1] At various points, the mission has consisted of troops from Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Burundi.  

[2] Kenyan and Ethiopian military contingents in Somalia have come under AMISOM mandates and operated independently at different times.

[3] J. Crouch (2018) ‘Counter-terror and the logic of violence in Somalia’s civil war Time for a new approach’, Saferworld; see also https://theglobalobservatory.org/2017/03/al-shabaab-amisom-extremism-afgoye/

All illustrations by Jeffrey Onyango