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My Parents’ Country, in the Grip of the Shabab

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NAIROBI, Kenya — One evening in August, I climbed onto a dusty old truck in the Dadaab refugee camp in the eastern Kenyan desert, about 50 miles from the border with Somalia. A tarpaulin in the truck bed covered the sacks of beans it was transporting to the Somali capital, Mogadishu. The driver readily picked up some passengers: four women and eight men for $60 each.

The women sat in the front beside the driver. I sat with the men on the tarpaulin. Six truck tires were strapped onto the tarp. We had to hold onto the tires to keep from falling off the truck as it bumped along a dirt road through a forest. Yet I was excited.

My parents had lived in the Dadaab camp since fleeing Somalia’s civil war in 1991. And it was only this year that my reticent father opened up and spoke to me about his childhood in Luuq, a seaside town in southwestern Somalia, and about Mogadishu, where he was a soldier in the 1970s.

I was born in Dadaab, 22 years ago. With more than a quarter-million people, mostly Somali refugees like my parents, the camp has turned into a sprawling city.

It was also this year that my parents moved to the United States to join my sister. After they left in the summer, I felt compelled to travel to Mogadishu, the city of my father’s youth. The stories my parents told me described a Somalia and a childhood that I would never experience, a world before the civil war, before the rise of Islamic militants and truck bombings like the one on Oct. 14 that killed more than 300 people in Mogadishu. I wondered whether I would belong in Somalia, and set out to discover it.

The truck drove on through the forest. The laughter of hyenas pierced the night. I searched for patterns in the stars. On the second morning, we were told we had crossed the border. We were in a quiet village named Tuulo Barwaaqo. The sky was as blue as it was in Dadaab. It was the same forest. The desert soil looked the same. But I was elated to be in Somalia.

A few hours later, we reached Shibah, a village so silent I wondered if it had any people at all. A tattered black flag hanging from a pole beside the road signaled that the village was controlled by the Shabab, the militant Islamist group battling the Somali federal government.

Travel through Shabab territory had rules. You stopped when you saw the black flag and looked for Shabab men. They charged a fee at the first checkpoint you encountered and issued a receipt, which allowed you to cross their land without paying again. It granted you safe passage through Shabab country — unless the militants suspected you of being a spy or a journalist, which meant certain death.

The checkpoint was deserted. We passed several villages with black flags. When we stopped, we couldn’t even find clean water to drink. There were no men around; only women and children. “The men have either joined Shabab or gone on Tahriib,” said a woman I met in Daifa, one of the villages. “Tahriib” refers to the desperate journeys of African immigrants on perilous seas to Europe.

Later in the afternoon we reached Waraha Dhobley, the first sizable town in our journey. The houses here had iron roofs. There were young men on the streets. Nobody wore a uniform. I couldn’t tell who was a Shabab soldier.

The shops were open, and women sold tea by the cup. Everyone was already in the mosque for the afternoon Asr prayer. We alighted to seek food. I walked into the first restaurant I found. A woman inside told me to get out.

“Why?” I asked.

“Get out first,” she shouted.

A young man walking outside overheard us and came over.

“Sheikh,” he asked me, “why are you not in the mosque?”

During prayers the Shabab expected everyone to be in the mosque. “I just arrived here,” I replied. “I am traveling.” I knew in Islam the rules were relaxed for travelers. “Serve him,” the man told the woman, his voice now soft.

A little later, I followed Adan, the driver, to a Shabab post to pay our passage tax. We entered a structure of wooden blocks hammered with corrugated sheets all around and painted blue.

A boy of about 17 or 18 took out a customs form printed in Somali with sections for the names and addresses of the driver and the owner, the starting point and destination, the amount of luggage, the number of passengers and the amount to be paid. He charged us the standard rate for trucks carrying goods: $230.

Most drivers preferred Shabab-controlled roads to government-controlled ones. They saw the Somali government soldiers as greedy and corrupt and had a name for them: “Cali-Uus,” or “the big-bellied Ali.”

A journey through Shabab country was predictable. There was a sense of order: You knew what to expect and how much you had to pay. It was striking in a country where all institutions had broken down, where corruption choked everything.

The Shabab forbade bribes, khat, smoking and music. Most Somalis approved, even if they did not actually follow these rules. You traded freedom for safety.

Around dusk we arrived in Buaale, a city on the Jubba River. We were stopped by Shabab soldiers in military uniforms and masks on a bridge. Two young soldiers asked us to step down from the truck with our bags. They searched the luggage.

Before setting out, I had been given several pieces of advice about traveling through Shabab areas: Discard your smartphone or at least hide it. Cut your hair (I had a cropped fringe; I got a crew cut). Don’t wear body-hugging jeans. Don’t carry items suggesting that you are a journalist.

Adan, the driver, hid a notebook I had on me. We were questioned and frisked simultaneously. We were asked to remove and unpack our bags. The women were told to stand aside. Only their bags were searched.

One of the passengers, Abdi, was caught with a smartphone. The Shabab soldiers gave him a hammer and ordered him to destroy it himself. They tore Halima’s Somali passport. Hassan had the wrong haircut and they shaved the middle of his scalp. Nobody protested.

We couldn’t leave Buaale at night because of a curfew. The town had large oak trees. It also had farms and concrete buildings. There were shops and restaurants, an ice-cream parlor, some fluorescent lights, too. The people spoke in hushed tones. When they spoke of the Shabab, it was in praise. The only loud voices were of the children.

Everyone seemed to be tuned to the local radio station, Al Rahma, run by the Shabab. A speaker spoke about the faith and the land being under threat, about foreign troops looting the country. The Shabab were the warriors trying to stop them.

The next day, a few miles after the last Shabab checkpoint, the truck entered Afgooye, a city controlled by the Somali government.

Afgooye was beautiful, with large farms, impressive buildings, numerous shops. I watched heavily armed Burundian soldiers, in Somalia on an African Union mission, marching down a road. And there were scrawny Somali boys with guns roaming the streets. I was told they were the government.

I could use my smartphone and play music. I had my freedom. I wasn’t sure about my safety, though. The next morning, I set out on the road to Mogadishu, the city of my father’s youth.

Crime

Somalia’s first forensic lab targets rape impunity

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AFP — Garowe – The new freezers at Somalia’s only forensic laboratory can store thousands of DNA samples, although for now there are just five.

The big hope is that they could be the start of a revolution in how the troubled Horn of Africa country tackles its widespread sexual violence – provided some daunting hurdles are overcome.

The first sample arrived at the start of the year taken on a cotton swab from the underwear of a woman, a rape victim from the village of Galdogob.

It was wrapped in paper and driven 250km to the Puntland Forensic Centre in Garowe, capital of semi-autonomous Puntland, slipped into a protective glass tube and placed in one of the three ultra-low temperature fridges.

If DNA ID can be teased from the sample, this would be a crucial step in convicting the woman’s rapist.

No longer would it be a case of he-said-she-said, in which the survivor is less often believed than the accused. Two decades of conflict and turmoil have made Somalia a place where lawlessness and sexual violence are rampant.

“Now, people who have been raped hide because they don’t have evidence,” said Abdifatah Abdikadir Ahmed, who heads the Garowe police investigations department.

But with the lab, he said, “it’s a scientific investigation. There are biological acts you can zero in on.”

Challenges

Not yet, however.

Abdirashid Mohamed Shire, who runs the lab, has a team of four technicians ready but is awaiting the arrival of the final pieces of equipment.

Their work to provide the evidence that might convict or exonerate is yet to begin.

And the pressure is on. The freezers mean the DNA samples can be safely stored for years but Somali law allows a rape suspect to be held for a maximum of 60 days. Shire needs the analysis and identification machines urgently so that, as he put it, “justice will be timely served”.

The laboratory, partly funded by Sweden, was launched last year after the Puntland state government enacted a Sexual Offences Act in 2016, which criminalised sexual offences and imposed tough penalties.

But technology alone will not solve Somalia’s many judicial weaknesses.

The DNA sample from Galdogob, for example, was stored in unclear and unrefrigerated conditions for five days before being sent to the lab, meaning a defence counsel could potentially argue the DNA evidence had been tampered with.

Human rights lawyers worry the new lab might backfire for this reason.

“A lot of thought needs to be given to how the chain of custody can be preserved in these kinds of cases,” said Antonia Mulvey of Legal Action Worldwide, a Kenya-based non-profit organisation.

More fundamental still is the failure of Somalia’s police to take sexual assault cases – and their jobs – seriously.

Corruption is rife, with a legal advisor to Puntland’s justice ministry saying officers “meddle” in cases, undermining them for personal gain.

“My concern is that the corrupted system could not make a sure success of the lab,” the advisor said, requesting anonymity to speak candidly. “Investing in the lab is good, but we need to think about the preconditions.”

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) which helped pay for the lab is trying to address this by running training programmes for dozens of the Garowe police on sample collection, gender violence investigations and documentation.

But, the legal advisor cautioned that donors can only do so much.

“The issue is more complicated than training police. It relates to the political commitment of the government. UNFPA can train police but who will pay those you train? Are they given power to do the work?”

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Briefing Room

US military says drone strike in Somalia kills 4 extremists

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VOA — A U.S. drone strike has killed several al-Shabab militants in southern Somalia, officials tell VOA.

Local sources said missiles fired Wednesday targeted a rickshaw carrying five al-Shabab militants near Jamaame, in the southern Lower Juba region.

“I can tell you that the airstrike hit a rickshaw and that five militants were killed. It was carried out by U.S. drone, helping our intelligence forces on the ground,” a Somali government official told VOA Somali on the condition of anonymity.

The attack was confirmed by witnesses and local residents, who also asked for anonymity because they feared militant reprisals.

Somali officials said they were investigating the identity of those targeted. Some sources said two of those in the rickshaw were civilians traveling with three militants.

A statement Thursday from the U.S. Africa Command said the strike was carried out by the U.S. military “in coordination with the Federal Government of Somalia.” The statement said the strike killed four terrorists and no civilians.

On Tuesday, local residents in the region reported another airstrike that destroyed an al-Shabab training camp in the nearby town of Jilib. That airstrike, also confirmed by U.S. Africa Command, killed three militants.

The U.S. military has carried out dozens of airstrikes against al-Shabab and Islamic State militants in support of Somalia’s federal government.

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Human Rights

Somali children abused in anti-insurgency crackdown, families say

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Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Wednesday al Shabaab Islamists had forcibly recruited thousands of children – some as young as nine – and hundreds have been detained by Somali authorities.

The detentions violate a 2014 agreement by the government to treat child detainees separately and work with the United Nations to rehabilitate them, the HRW report said.

Government ministers for justice and human rights did not respond to requests for comment. The chairman of Somalia’s military courts, Liban Ali Yarow, told Reuters he did not speak to the media.

Clan elder Ugas Mohamed Wali, said his two nephews aged 12 and 13 were arrested on their way to school last year, along with 17 other teenagers. Both boys were jailed for eight years, he said.

“There are many problems in Somalia. Children are seized and arrested if accidentally they are passing near a blast scene,” he said, showing pictures of the two boys on his mobile phone.

“The 17 teenagers were released when they were brought to Mogadishu because they were from rich families. We had no money and so the two kids were taken into the underground cell where they were tortured.”

HRW cited U.N. figures saying Somali security forces arrested 386 children in 2016 during operations targeting al-Shabaab. Many were released after their parents paid bribes or clan elders intervened, but those whose families lacked money or influence were kept.

Authorities have handed over 250 children to the United Nations for rehabilitation since 2015, the report said, but that was often after months of pressure.

“In a justice system that remains heavily reliant on forced confessions, children are not spared,” the report said, adding that children were “threatened and on occasion beaten, at times in ways that amount to torture”.

Fahmo Mantan Warsame told Reuters her 17-year-old son was arrested three years ago and sentenced to 10 years in jail for being a member of al Shabaab and that she had paid a total of $3,700 to various officials to try to free him.

“They ask you money at every door you go to. The one who writes a letter asks for money. The one who claims he will release a child asks for money. Nothing else. And when they have bled you dry, and after they take all money, they switch off their phones,” she said.

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