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Drinking Fanta With Islamist Militants



Nairobi — During my first trip to Mogadishu, Somalia, on my last night in town, as I was packing up my things, someone unexpectedly knocked on my door.

It was the hotel manager, and at first I thought he had come to settle the bill, but he remained silent in the doorway in a way that caught me off guard. I looked up from my mess of computer cords and chargers and sweaty clothes scattered across the floor.

“Abu Mansoor’s looking for you,” he said.

“Abu Mansoor?” I gulped.

“Abu Mansoor.”



In this town, you didn’t want Mukhtar Robow, known by his nom de guerre, Abu Mansoor, looking for you.
He was a leader of al-Shabaab; people spoke of him in hushed tones that conveyed reverence and fear. It would be much better if Abu Mansoor didn’t know who you were. Or where you were staying.

I followed the manager downstairs, eyes locked on his back. As soon as we walked into the reception room, the manager turned around and disappeared. Abu Mansoor stood waiting for me, flanked by two boy soldiers.

He had a prayer bruise on his forehead, something you get only by banging your head against a prayer mat thousands of times. He wore a long shirt and short pants that stopped above the ankle — like capri pants, a Salafist interpretation of a cryptic clause from one of the Hadiths that says, “Whoever trails his garment on the ground out of pride, Allah will not look at him on Judgment Day.” With bright eyes, he motioned toward a table where two bottles of orange Fanta sat, one for him and one for me. The boy soldiers watched me closely.

“Please,” Abu Mansoor said.

I sat down and took a quick, nervous sip, the soda tasting sweeter because of the circumstances. I’ll admit it: I derived a slight thrill from sharing a Fanta with a real militant. “I heard you were asking a lot of questions about the Islamists,” Abu Mansoor said.

Before I could answer, he reached down under the table. The spit in my mouth dried up. I was sure he was going to pull out a gun.

THIS WAS THE FALL of 2006, just months before a failed American-backed effort to crush Islamist “aggression,” when there was a rapidly shrinking sliver of an opportunity to bring peace to Somalia. Somalia. I know what Americans see when they hear that word, because I, too, saw it before I ever actually set foot here: pirates and starving people, shot-up buildings and lifeless sand landscapes, AK-47s and battered jeeps, anarchy and ruin. Somalia seems to represent angry Islam and all that is wrong with the world and a threat to us.

But what I saw on that first trip stunned me, and this is one of the unsung thrills of journalism and maybe life itself, developing a hypothesis of how the world works and having that hypothesis shattered. An alliance of Islamist clerics had just seized Mogadishu. With grass-roots support, they had driven out a cadre of clan warlords who had been covertly supported by the C.I.A. It’s hard to keep a secret in Somalia, a country with an intense oral tradition and a mobile phone network that is amazing given Somalia’s history as a failed state. And so the C.I.A. effort was uncovered quickly and failed. Western diplomats started calling the Islamists the “African Taliban.”

Of course, very few of these diplomats had ever been to Somalia, but I was new and impressionable and eagerly jotted down their comments as if they were facts. So I was surprised when I started exploring Mogadishu to find boys — and girls — in school.

One of the first things the Taliban had done when they seized power in Afghanistan was to close girls’ schools, believing that half of humanity deserves to be shuttered in ignorance. But in Mogadishu I saw young couples strolling by the seaside, and men and women working together to lift garbage from the streets. It didn’t seem like window dressing. There were no other foreign journalists in town. This was just normal Somali life, finally resuming.

The peace was secured by young men with struggling beards and green prayer caps. They talked little but carried enormous guns. They succeeded at something no one else had managed to accomplish, including 25,000 American soldiers sent to Somalia in the early 1990s by the first President Bush in a humanitarian operation that ended in ignominy. For the first time in 15 years — and sadly the only time since then — Mogadishu wasn’t an abattoir. The killing had stopped, and the populace seemed indebted to the young men who had stopped it. They simply called them the Youth, but they used the Arabic word, al-Shabaab.

The point of all this isn’t to airbrush the Shabaab and the later horrible things they did. I’ve covered those, too — attacks in Kenya that maimed friends and suicide bombings that smeared children across walls. Even from those earliest days, known Qaeda terrorists were hiding within the Islamist ranks, and I’m not saying it would have been easy sifting out the moderates from the messianic killers. But the American government didn’t even try.

In December that same year, the Pentagon helped the army of Ethiopia, Somalia’s historic enemy, invade.
That decision set off a chain reaction that continues to plague us: The Islamists were pushed underground; the Shabaab became an insurgency, then a terrorist group; pirates hit the high seas; famines broke out across the land. The American government keeps getting sucked deeper in, and just this month, a Navy SEAL was killed near Mogadishu, the first known American combat casualty in Somalia in more than 20 years. I can’t help wondering whether his death could have been avoided.

I WAS RELIEVED that evening when Abu Mansoor came up not with a pistol but with a black plastic bag.

“I got this for you in the Bakara market.”

I reached in and pulled out something relatively slender but as heavy as a brick.

“It’s in English,” he said. “Will you read it?”

I didn’t know what to say. It was the most beautiful Quran I had ever seen. He leaned toward me and grabbed my hand.

“We don’t have a problem with Americans,” he said. “Look at you, you’re here, we’ve been protecting you all week — maybe you didn’t even know it. We want peace, we crave it more than you could ever understand, to get out of this darkness, to stop killing each other, to stop being the laughingstock of the world.”

He looked me squarely in the eyes, as had many of the other Islamists I’d met that week.

“Ever since I was 15, I’ve been dreaming of Shariah. And now ….” He was so choked up, he couldn’t even finish his sentence.

What we often see as a nightmare, Shariah, traditional Islamic law, is another man’s dream. Abu Mansoor and his colleagues were true believers in their religion’s dogmas, but at the same time, they were turning to Islam for a very logical reason. Somalia’s civil wars and chaos had been caused by clan rivalries; Islam was a way to unite a violently divided people. If we don’t try to at least understand what is driving people to embrace the things most Westerners oppose — like Shariah — then we are doomed.

Abu Mansoor took one last swig of Fanta, killing it, and stood up. His last words to me were, “See you soon, inshallah.”


Somalia: Detained Children Face Abuse + INTERVIEW



Boys arrested in security operations have often been held by intelligence forces, namely Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) in Mogadishu or Puntland’s Intelligence Agency (PIA) in Bosasso. Intelligence agencies decided how they categorized children, how long they kept children, and if and when they handed them over to UNICEF. Independent oversight of screening processes and custody has been severely limited.

Officials and guards have subjected children to coercive treatment and interrogations including cutting them off from their relatives and legal counsel, threatening them, and on occasion beating and torturing them, primarily to obtain confessions or as punishment for speaking out or disorder in the cells. A 16-year-old held for months in a NISA facility in 2016 said: “They would take me out of my cell at night and pressure me to confess. One night, they beat me hard with something that felt like a metal stick. I was bleeding for two weeks, but no one treated me.”

Children also described being held with adult detainees in dire conditions for days without seeing family. A 15-year-old detained in a mass sweep in 2017 and held by NISA for several weeks said: “I couldn’t sleep at night as there was no space and I suffered from excruciating headaches, but received no medication.”

While the criminal prosecution of children is not common in Somalia, the authorities make use of an outdated legal system to try children in military courts, primarily as adults, for security crimes, including solely for Al-Shabab membership, Human Rights Watch found. Since 2016, over two dozen children have been tried in military courts in Puntland alone. Children face proceedings that fail to meet basic juvenile justice standards with limited ability to prepare a defense and in which coercive confessions have been admitted as evidence.

Boys who were first used by Al-Shabab and then detained by government security forces said that felt doubly trapped and victimized. “I feel afraid and let down,” said a 15-year old whom Al-Shabab abducted and then sent to fight in Puntland in March 2016, only to be captured and sentenced by a military court to 10 years in prison. “Al-Shabab forced me into this, and then the government gives me this long sentence.”

While federal and regional authorities have handed over 250 children to UNICEF for rehabilitation since 2015, this has largely been the result of sustained advocacy and often after children have spent considerable time in detention.

Somali authorities should end arbitrary detention of children, allow for independent monitoring of children in custody, and ensure access to relatives and legal counsel. If children are to be prosecuted for other serious offenses, they should be tried in civilian courts that guarantee basic juvenile justice protections, and any punishment should consider alternatives to detention and prioritize the child’s reintegration into society.

Somalia’s international partners should press for civilian oversight of cases involving children, seek independent monitoring of all detention facilities, and call for the credible investigation of abuses against children, including by intelligence officers, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Somali government should treat children as victims of the conflict, and ensure that children, regardless of the crimes they may have committed, are accorded the basic protection due to all children,” Bader said. “Authorities across the country should improve supervision of children in detention and prioritize rehabilitation in addressing their cases. International partners should help bolster child-specific judicial and other procedures.”

A prison warden at a prison in Garowe, Puntland state, in northeastern Somalia, December 2016. Fifty-four boys, some as young as 12, sent to fight by Al-Shabab in Puntland, spent months in this facility far from their homes. A military court sentenced 28 of the 54 boys to long prison terms, which they are now serving in a rehabilitation center in Garowe. © 2016 Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images

Interview: How Security Forces in Somalia Fail to Protect Children

Over the last decade the Islamist armed group Al-Shabab has recruited, often forcibly, thousands of Somali children – under age 18, using many as fighters on the front line. Over the last two years, Somali security forces have arrested suspected Al-Shabab sympathizers – including children. Senior Africa researcher Laetitia Bader spoke to Audrey Wabwire about what happens to these boys in detention, and why protecting their rights has proven elusive.

How is it that children get involved with Al-Shabab in the first place?

Al-Shabab uses many means to recruit children, including enticements, deceit and force. Poor rural communities, with little protection, are particularly vulnerable to this sort of pressure.

Some boys I spoke to said they were taken at gunpoint from Quranic schools, where children receive religious instruction. Sometimes they are told that that they are going to a Quranic reading competition. One boy went to such a competition and won. After winning, he thought he would get a chance to go to another school, and he was dropped off at a school. Later that night, Al-Shabab fighters picked him up and took him to a training camp. He was then trained with other children and sent to fight in Puntland. His father had encouraged him to take part in this competition because he thought he would get money or a prize. This boy was in prison when I was spoke to him, and his father now feels guilty for encouraging him.

Security forces also conduct mass sweeps where they cordon off an area of a recent attack. They then arrest young men or boys in the area for further interrogation. Some boys who are picked up in mass sweeps on flimsy evidence never get to a chance to give their side of the story – including those with no connection at all to Al-Shabab.

Somali authorities are unlawfully detaining and at times prosecuting in military courts children with alleged ties to the Islamist

What is life like for a child who is arrested for being a member of Al-Shabab?

Their life is tough. Boys picked up for security offenses can spend months in detention, held for coercive interrogations, in dark cells, unable to sleep for days because there is no space to lie down. One boy said he got unbearable headaches because he never slept. They are detained with adults, sometimes violent criminals. One boy told me he was hit by a guard when he complained about being locked up with adults. And only those from powerful clans or who are better off financially have any chance of being allowed to get in touch with their parents.

One boy who was 16 when he spent months in the custody of the intelligence agency in Mogadishu, the capital, described being repeatedly interrogated. He was also badly beaten and left with a deep wound. I saw a scar left by this injury.

What is Mogadishu central prison’s juvenile section like?

The conditions are poor. Although children sleep separately from adults, they mingle with adults in a common area during the day including during meal times. At the time of our visit, each child had a mattress on the cement floor, although officials pointed to bunk beds that were being built for the juvenile section. They appeared to have little opportunity for exercise apart from playing in a large open-air courtyard that the adults also use.

The children had no access to education, although we have heard recently that they may be starting to offer some classes.
Launch Map

What happens to the boys when they are released?

None of the boys I spoke to were unscarred by the experience.

Two boys told me they dropped out of school. One felt his reputation was tarnished. A 15-year-old boy said that for people his age, the fear of being recruited by Al-Shabaab or arrested by security forces for being at the wrong place at the wrong time leaves them with very little freedom because they have to constantly watch out for both Al-Shabab and security agents. Several said they’d stopped doing what normal teen-age boys like to do: hanging out in the streets with their friends.

Over 250 children have been handed over to the United Nations and its child protection partners for rehabilitation. This is in line with the government’s commitments. But too often, this has only happened after significant pressure on the authorities, and after the kids have spent months in detention.

Was there any child who really stood out for you?

There was a 15-year-old, an orphan, who was picked up in a security operation in 2015 following an assassination in his neighborhood. He was held at a police station in Mogadishu for several weeks. Others were released to their relatives, but he had no one coming for him, no one bringing him food. They insisted that he must be an Al-Shabab fanatic because he had no friends or family.

One boy was recruited at 14 and spent two years in Al-Shabab’s ranks. Al-Shabab fighters beat him when he tried to find a phone to call his family. He eventually ran away with other boys.

Other boys described the dangerous military operations for Al-Shabab that made them decide to flee. The boys often also got malaria while training. They lived outside in poor conditions, and sometimes the nights were cold and made them particularly miserable.

Why shouldn’t the boys be arrested? The Somalia government has a duty to protect against Al- Shabaab.

Even if a child has committed a serious crime, they still need protection. Under Somalia’s international legal commitments, detention should be the last resort and for the shortest time possible since it is traumatic for children. They need access to their family and to lawyers. They also need to be kept separate from adults.

Somalia’s constitution defines children as 18 and under, though laws in other regions make 15 the age of maturity. Children are also criminally responsible from 15 onward. Even when children commit serious crimes, though, international law requires the justice system to treat them differently than adults, providing greater protection and prioritizing rehabilitation over incarceration. While Somalia has laws that spell out protections for children charged with crimes, these are rarely implemented. The laws need to be harmonized and reformed so that Somali children are protected within a functioning juvenile system.

What can parents do if their children are imprisoned?

I conducted most of my interviews for our report in early 2017, after Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, known as “Farmajo,” had recently been selected as president. There was an atmosphere of promise and hope in much of the country. The detained boys and their parents were hopeful, too, and believed that there would be justice in their cases if they could be reviewed.

Many parents I spoke to were scared because their children have been sentenced by Somalia’s military court. They feel that if they appeal, they will make things worse. Lawyers at the court told them that appeals worsen the situation, even though this is not always the case. A lot of recruitment happens in rural areas where parents have no means to seek redress for their children who have been treated improperly.

How did you do this research?

I traveled around Somalia in places where children had been arrested, such as Garowe in Puntland. I also traveled to areas where recruitment has been high, for example the Bay region. I spoke to relatives, to understand how children get caught in — and leave — Al-Shabab, and what happens when they return home. In Mogadishu, I spoke to boys who had been arrested during security operations. I also interviewed government officials and visited Mogadishu central prison’s juvenile section, where boys sentenced for Al-Shabab-related crimes are being held.

What’s it like working on a country that faces conflict and insecurity? What keeps you hopeful?

What keeps me hopeful? The incredible stories of survival and hope. It was inspiring to hear from parents who, despite what their children went through with Al Shabaab and while detained by the government, believe that systems can improve.

Incredibly, the boys still have hope for their future, despite dropping out of school and losing friends. One 16-year-old who had spent three months in Puntland prison said he was happy to be receiving education while in prison. There is an education program in the prison because of international support. He said that with his knowledge of English, he could later become a translator.

The Somali government has genuine security concerns. However, so many people still believed it was worth their while telling us their story. No one had ever shown interest in these boys or asked them what happened. It was a privilege to hear these often painful accounts for the first time, and to let us tell their story.

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Somali refugees in Kenya between rock and hard place



NAIROBI, Kenya- Around half-a-million refugees stranded in Kenya face an impossible choice: either go home to al-Shabaab-wrecked Somalia under a controversial UNHCR “voluntary repatriation” program or stay and face massive debts accumulated due to food shortages at camps.

The dire situation can be witnessed firsthand at the Dadaab Refugee Complex in North Eastern province where over 486,460 refugees have taken asylum, according to figures released in January by The UN Refugee Agency.

Somalis living at the complex, which hosts thousands of makeshift refugee shelters, told Anadolu Agency the only reason they came to Kenya was because they were forced to flee the civil war back home and the threat of al-Shabaab militants who have killed many in the Horn of Africa region.

Dadaab is located 474 kilometers (294 miles) from capital Nairobi. It is an arid place with no paved roads but just swathes and swathes of barren fuscous-golden brown sand. Usually there is no sign of life en route to the camp except for lizards skittering across the sand. But sometimes people appear out of nowhere who can be seen herding camels. They are locals of the area who are mostly nomadic pastoralists and are always on the move.

As soon as one reaches the refugee complex, the picture of neglect and misery hits in the face as harshly as the scorching heat under which the extremely poor people live there.

Anyone who approaches the K1 block at the camp gets overwhelmed with requests from refugees scrambling over a barbed wire fence, urging for food, water, money or anything that one could spare for them.

Men, women and children can be seen squeezing into any spot that provides them with shade, others stare aimlessly into the distance deep in thought.

Tales of horror are in abundance here. One man said he arrived at the camp after spending three weeks in hiding after his family was killed in Somalia. Many others shared similar graphic realities.

Debts after food cuts

Several people at the camp told Anadolu Agency that after 30 percent food cuts were announced by the World Food Programme (WFP) for refugees living in Dadaab, they were forced to take loans to buy food and ended up accumulating “huge” debts of hundreds of dollars.

Many said it was because of these debts that they were now considering the recently-announced United Nations “Voluntary” repatriation program, which claims “to ensure the exercise of a free and informed choice and to mobilize support for returnees.”

Yassir Zahi said there is nothing voluntary about going back home and added he simply wants to run away from debt like many other refugees like himself at the camp.

“When the food cuts came, we were forced to accumulate debt since October 2017 because even the food was not enough for one person.

“Nothing is voluntary about me going home; I borrowed to buy food on credit and I am not alone; many have done the same, I owe the guy $300.

“All this I did to buy flour for porridge and milk and rice to feed my family; I used to sell flour but I ended up consuming it all with my family; they [money-lenders] came to ask for their money which I didn’t have and they threatened me and my family, especially my 16-year[-old] daughter,” Zahi said.

Through the voluntary repatriation program, the UN has created an avenue for people to clear off their debts “by returning back to my war-torn country,” he added.

In a 2018 report, Not Time to Go Home, Amnesty International also outlined how refugees were being coerced to go back to war at home due to the severe humanitarian crisis.

People left behind

Aamiina Osman, a 75-year-old woman, was found chained to a tree at the camp, attacking anyone who tried to come near her with a handful of sand.

Her adopted grandson Rashid Latif said she used to be happy and jovial but the terrible conditions at the refugee camp had destroyed the old woman.

“Her real family deserted her and went back to Somalia leaving her to fend for herself; they said that because she is too old she would slow them down once they got to war-torn Somalia; being deserted by the six family members made her partially mentally ill,” Latif said.

“On that night [they left], they chained four old women here [to the tree] and their families left; luckily, we found them, otherwise, they would have died; some went back to their homes but I adopted her [Osman] as my grandmother as I am an orphan and I take care of her,” he added.

Lack of funds

UNHCR’s Yvonne Ndege denied that refugees were being coerced to go back home. “The refugees are actually not ‘sent’ — they make a considered and informed decision to return or go to Somalia.

“There is a careful and detailed process that refugees who say they want to return follow before we help them return. That’s accompanied by up to date information from over 30 local organizations on the ground in Somalia constantly updating refugees on the situation back home. There are also what we call ‘go and see’ missions led by refugee leaders who go and see what’s going on in Somalia and come back with info for refugees considering return.”

She also told Anadolu Agency funding had not been adequate to help those wanting to return home.

“75,297 Somalis have voluntarily repatriated to Somalia since 2014, up to Dec 31, 2017; 35,407 returned in 2017 alone.

“There is a funding gap for the whole of Kenya. UNHCR support for refugees is only 32 percent funded, leaving a gap of 68 percent as of the 31st of December, 2017. We need $231.3M but only have $73.1M,” Ndege said.

Marco Lembo from the UNHCR said those who return get a “full package” in Somalia, which consists of conditional and non-conditional cash grants, including one-time payment of up to $1,000 per household and monthly grant of $200. He added that six months of food rations, supported by the WFP, are also given.

Somalia remains dangerous

Somali-based al-Shabaab militants continue to control cities in Somalia amid reports of them terrorizing women, men and children along the Horn of Africa region, which in turn causes massive displacement of people.

Guns have not been silenced in Somalia despite 25 years of conflict in the country. Experts repeatedly warn that going back to Somalia means returning to war and death.

But nonetheless, the Kenyan government has halted any new registration of Somali refugees and recently even disbanded its Department of Refugee Affairs, creating an invisible wall to hundreds of thousands who desperately seek asylum. Kenya had also urged the UNHCR to expedite the voluntary return of refugees after shelving a decision to close the camp due to insecurity.

At Dadaab, most refugees who spoke to Anadolu Agency said al-Shabaab had played a major role in their decision to seek asylum in Kenya to begin with, but now things are so bad at their refugee complex they feel they have no option but to take the hard road back home despite the dangers.

Summing up the sentiments of thousands of refugees like himself, Zahi concluded: “Life here is a hellish nightmare, I tell you”.

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Somalia Tax Argument From Both Sides: Bakara Traders vs The Government



Somalia’s busiest and largest open-air market in Mogadishu has been closed for the past two days.

Business owners in Bakara market are protesting over a five percent tax imposed by the government, in an effort to pay back some of its international debt.


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