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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.

Somaliland

Work starts on new UAE naval base in Somaliland

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ARABIAN BUSINESS — Divers Marine Contracting has started construction of a United Arab Emirates naval base in a semi-autonomous region of northern Somalia.

The closely held Sharjah-based engineering group began work on the project after being awarded the $90 million contract in April, Managing Director Abdulla Darwish said in an interview in Dubai.

The facility, being built near the regional port of Berbera, is expected to be completed by June, he said.

Berbera is located on the Gulf of Aden, 260 kilometers (162 miles) south of Yemen, where UAE troops in a Saudi Arabia-led coalition are battling Houthi rebels.

Somaliland’s foreign minister said in May that the UAE leased the airport in Berbera for 25 years as part of a pact for a military base. The gulf country is also building a military installation in Eritrea.

The Somaliland naval base will include a 300-metre L-shaped inland berthing port with a depth of 7 metres “to support the military airport,” accommodating naval vessels to patrol the Gulf of Aden, according to Darwish.

“It’s not a commercial port,” he said. “It’s only for naval vessels.”

Somaliland Foreign Minister Saad Ali Shire didn’t immediately respond to two calls to his mobile and two emails seeking comment. A UAE foreign ministry official didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Somaliland

New Somaliland president to strengthen ties with UAE

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As the self-declared state of Somaliland welcomes its new president – the fifth in a line since breaking away from Somalia in 1991 – it is looking to the UAE for a new chapter of cooperation.

Professor Ahmed Ismail Samatar, head of Public Policy for the ruling Kulmiye Party, told The National that its victorious candidate, Muse Bihi Abdi, views the UAE’s achievements with “admiration” and is keen to develop the existing ties between the two regions.

“The new partnership that’s developing between Somaliland and the UAE is a high priority for the government,” he said. “We want to deepen and strengthen and thicken the relationship with the UAE.”

The region of 4 million people has not been internationally recognised but it has recently drawn in sizeable investments from the Gulf.

Earlier this year, the government agreed to let the UAE establish a naval base in its port of Berbera.

That came after Dubai’s DP World last year signed a multimillion dollar, 30-year contract to develop the same port, which is on the south coast of the Gulf of Aden.

This month, DP World said it would also develop an economic zone in the region, modelled on Dubai’s Jebel Ali Free Zone.

The new economic zone is aimed at positioning Berbera as a gateway port for East Africa, by encouraging investments and trade in the warehousing, logistics, manufacturing and related businesses.

“DP World building out the port of Berbera is an excellent way of injecting energy into the economy,” said Professor Samatar, who is himself formerly a Somali presidential candidate and Member of Parliament.

“There is a great deal of anticipation around the project. The people of Somaliland are hoping it becomes a major hub for goods to come and go, and of course there are other positive side-effects, such as increasing employment and developing infrastructure.
“For the military base, too, there are benefits such as greater security for the people of Somaliland. However, these benefits need to be fleshed out in more detail to the people.”

The Kulmiye party has six core public policy priorities, as laid out in their manifesto. These are: economic growth; national security and unity; foreign policy; healthcare; justice; and education.

In each of these, Professor Samatar believes there is room to develop the relationship with the UAE.

“There is so much that Somaliland can pick up from the UAE, whether it’s in education, health, business, technology, security, international relations, you name it,” he said.

“The UAE is a very cosmopolitan place; its government is run properly, its businesses are run properly, and there are international standards that the Somaliland people and their new president view with a great deal of admiration,” he said. “They want to adopt the same practices, so they can lift their own country up.”

“Even just the culture of competence, and having institutions that work well. And having an ambition to improve them even further. In that way, the UAE is a model for us, and we would be wise to observe it and learn the tricks of the trade.

“But it is important that the relationship is built carefully, it is deep, and it is intelligent.”

Asked about future projects with the UAE, “there is lots we would like to propose,” Professor Samatar said.

“Take a look at our long coast line, for instance. We need to think about how to use and really maximise that coast – from building fishing ports to developing tourism. These are areas where we can certainly learn from the UAE.

“Exploration for energy is another thing this government is focused on – not just using solar, but also natural gas, petroleum and so on. This is something else the UAE is very good at.

“And then there’s infrastructure building – this country badly needs roads, and telecommunications systems.

“So I see lots of areas where we can partner with the UAE. Indeed, the possibilities of collaboration are much more promising than just the port and the military base.”

Dr Michael Walls, chief observer for the International Election Observation Mission in Somaliland, agreed that the relationship between the UAE and Somaliland has the potential to grow further under the new president.

“A win for the ruling Kulmiye party’s candidate was always going to result in the easiest transition in terms of a relationship with the UAE,” he said. “It means there’s no need to go back and renegotiate deals struck by the previous government. So, from the UAE’s perspective, it’s really business as usual.”

He added: “Now the election is out of the way, I think things will move much faster on the port as well as developing the military base. And I have no doubt the new president will be hoping to benefit from closer cooperation with the Gulf, from improving the roads, to health, to education.

“From here on, I believe we will see more investment and what’s more, we’ll see evidence of that investment, as the projects start to come to life.”

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Briefing Room

Somalia says it requested U.S. air strike which killed 100 militants

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Somalia’s government said on Wednesday it had requested the U.S. air strike which killed more than 100 suspected militants on the previous day to help pave the way for an upcoming ground offensive against Islamist militant group al Shabaab.

The United States military’s Africa Command said on Tuesday it had killed more than 100 of the al Qaeda-linked insurgents in an air strike on a camp 125 miles (200 km) northwest of the capital Mogadishu.

“Those militants were preparing explosives and attacks. Operations against al Shabaab have been stepped up,” Abdirahman Omar Oman, the Somali minister, told Reuters.

“We have asked the U.S. to help us from the air to make our readied ground offensive more successful.”

The United States has ramped up operations in Somalia this year after President Donald Trump loosened the rules of engagement in March.

Africom reported eight U.S. air strikes from May to August this year, compared to 13 for the whole of 2016. Including Tuesday’s air strike, it has reported five strikes in Somalia this month alone.

The Pentagon said the U.S. military would continue to target militants in strikes in coordination with the Somali government.

A Navy Seal was killed in a raid in May and U.S. forces were present at a controversial raid on the town of Bariire in August, in which 10 people were killed.

Al Shabaab has lost control of most of Somalia’s cities and towns since African Union peacekeepers supporting Somali troops pushed the insurgency out of the capital Mogadishu in 2011. But it retains a strong presence in parts of the south and center.

Somali president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, a dual U.S.-Somali citizen, has taken a harder line than his predecessors against the insurgency since he was sworn in earlier this year.

But his plans have been repeatedly thwarted by the poor state of the Somali military and political infighting.

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