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U.S. sends dozens of troops to Somalia for 1st time in decades

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The U.S. military is sending dozens of regular troops to Somalia in the largest such deployment to the Horn of Africa country in roughly two decades.

The United States pulled out of Somalia after 1993, when two helicopters were shot down in the capital, Mogadishu, and bodies of Americans were dragged through the streets. Even now, Somalia’s fragile central government is struggling to assert itself after the nationwide chaos that began with the fall of dictator Siad Barre in 1991.

The U.S. Africa Command on Friday said this deployment is for logistics training of Somalia’s army, which is battling the extremist group al-Shabab that emerged from the country’s years of warlord-led conflict. About 40 troops are taking part.

The U.S. in recent years has sent a small number of special operations forces and counter-terror advisers to Somalia, and President Donald Trump recently approved an expanded military role there. It includes carrying out more aggressive airstrikes against al-Shabab and considering parts of southern Somalia areas of active hostilities.

The country’s new Somali-American president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, last week declared a new offensive against the extremist group, which is based in Somalia but has claimed responsibility for major attacks in East Africa, including the Garissa University attack in neighboring Kenya in April 2015 that killed 148 people.

Al-Shabab also caused alarm in February 2016 when it claimed responsibility for the bombing of an airliner that made an emergency landing with a gaping hole in the fuselage shortly after taking off from Mogadishu.

The extremist group this week announced that its recent escalation of deadly attacks in Mogadishu and elsewhere is in “doubled response” to Trump’s approval of expanded U.S. military efforts. On Sunday, Somalia’s new military chief survived a suicide car bomb attack following his swearing-in, while 13 people were killed. A day later, a suicide bombing at a military academy in Mogadishu killed at least five soldiers.

Al-Shabab was chased out of Mogadishu several years ago by national and African Union multinational forces but still controls some rural areas. Meanwhile, fighters pledging allegiance to the Islamic State group have emerged in the northern part of the country.

Pressure is growing on Somalia’s army to assume full security for the country as the 22,000-strong African Union force plans to leave by the end of 2020. Last month, the head of the AU mission said Somalia’s army has been unable to take charge as expected.

The AU force will begin withdrawing in 2018, “and if this departure begins prior to Somalia having capable security forces, large portions of Somalia are at risk of returning to al-Shabab control or potentially allowing ISIS to gain a stronger foothold in the country,” the head of the U.S. Africa Command, Commander General Thomas Waldhauser, said last month.

Chicago Tribune

Briefing Room

Hunted and hated, Somali tax collectors gird for battle

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MOGADISHU, Feb 16 (Reuters) – Ahmed Nur moves through the Somali capital of Mogadishu with a bodyguard of six men, a pistol in the waistband of his baggy trousers. He speaks of his work in whispers; seven of his colleagues have been killed in the last three years. But Nur is no intelligence operative. He’s a tax collector.

Now the central government’s imposition of a five percent sales tax last month, part of its efforts to win billions of dollars in international debt relief, have put him at the heart of a showdown with the country’s most powerful businessmen.

So far, the government’s efforts have been slowly working; domestic revenue was up to $141 million in 2017 from $110 million in 2016, said Finance Minister Abdirahman Duale Beileh.

But much more is needed before the government is self-sufficient, a key step toward accessing about $4.6 billion in international debt relief. The final amount is still being assessed.

Somalia has been wracked by civil war since 1991, and the cash-starved, U.N.-backed government in Mogadishu is desperate to claw in the revenue it needs to pay staff and provide services like security.

The military, which is supposed to fight al-Qaeda linked insurgents, is in tatters and a combination of corruption and cash shortages mean soldiers rarely receive their $100 per month paycheques.

“People ask for security services prior to paying tax. But the government cannot deliver the required services to the public unless tax is collected,” Nur confided to Reuters in a restaurant, glancing over his shoulder. “It is like the egg and chicken puzzle.”

Some progress was made last year: tax agreements have been reached with airlines and telecoms companies, and an income tax exemption for parliamentarians has been reversed.

“These are important measures and show the strong commitment of the authorities to reform,” said Mohamad Elhage, who leads the International Momentary Fund’s Somalia work.

Debt forgiveness would give the government access to credit that could be used to fund services, binding Somalia’s often quarrelling federal states closer together.

It could also wean the government off cash from donors such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which often have diverging agendas that can destabilise Somalia’s fragile politics.

“Increasing our revenue is a very important benchmark for the road map to clear the (debt) arrears,” said Beileh. “Our objective to cover our expenses is very important.”

Achieving that will depend, in part, on men like Nur.
TAX COLLECTION ON THE FRONTLINE

Somalia’s al Shabaab rebels are known for their ruthless efficiency at collecting tax and spy networks that track profits. Businessmen misstating their profits are likely to get a terse reminder to pay the difference or face a bullet; tax collectors who cheat the movement could be executed, a former al Shabaab enforcer told Reuters.

Al Shabaab were not available for comment.

As an agent of the U.N.-backed government, Nur cannot dole out amputations or executions. If a businessman refuses to pay up he can theoretically be arrested, if he has no powerful friends to protect him. But often, they will simply prevaricate, said Nur.

That’s what many businessmen are doing in the face of Somalia’s new tax. Mogadishu port has not unloaded a commercial vessel for nine days, port authorities told Reuters on Wednesday, as businessmen refuse to pay the new levy.

Trader Aden Abdullahi complained that he was already paying for port services and customs, and paying the Islamic tax of zakat to the poor. He can’t afford another five percent, he said.

“We see this idea as intentionally or unintentionally direct economic war on Mogadishu traders,” he said, shaking his head in disapproval in his wholesale grocery shop.

“The other problem is that the rebels tax us and I am sure they will also raise tax if the government raises tax.”

Some Somalis also say they are reluctant to pay up to an administration that many consider corrupt and inefficient. Almost all of Somalia’s budget goes on paying its politicians and civil servants; ordinary citizens see little being spent on improving public health, education or infrastructure in their bullet-scarred city.

“We pay various taxes by force. There is no beneficial return from the government. We do not even have roads and I have been paying these taxes at gunpoint for the last ten years,” 40-year-old minibus driver Hashi Abdulle said, referring to money extorted at government-controlled roadblocks.

But Minister Beileh says that criticism is outdated and citizens are confusing private extortion with public taxes. The government is putting reforms in place, he said, like trying to work out how to issue individual tax numbers and empowering the ministry of finance to take the lead on tax collection.

“People are used to dealing with … individuals, individual offices, individual soldiers, illegal tax collectors who did not belong to government,” he said.

“Changing that culture is also becoming a challenge … We are trying to close all the loopholes.”

(Additional reporting by Katharine Houreld; writing by Katharine Houreld; editing by Giles Elgood)

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Somali migrants in Libya don’t want to go home

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WASHINGTON — Somali government efforts to evacuate a large number of Somali migrants from Libya hit a snag after the delegation sent there was unable to persuade migrants to abandon the dangerous sea journey to Europe and instead return to Somalia.

Members of the delegation say the migrants have told them they have suffered during the journey to Libya and feel that they have “nothing else to lose.” Officials say the migrants are determined to make a final attempt to reach European shores.

The delegation arrived in Tripoli Monday, and its members say they have visited detention camps and received some migrants at the Somalia embassy, but so far only 11 people have expressed an interest in returning to Somalia. The number of Somalis who have migrated to Libya is estimated to be between 5,000-6,000, officials say.

While the vast majority of the Somali migrants in Libya are being held in areas controlled by militias that were too dangerous for the delegation to visit, nonetheless they say the majority of the people they have met made it clear that they don’t fear taking more risks to reach Europe.

False hope

Mariam Yassin is the Special Envoy for Migrants and Children’s Rights of Somalia and was among the delegation. She says lack of access to many of the Somali migrants is a factor, as they are held in areas not controlled by the Libyan government. But the main the reason given by people for not returning, she says, is that migrants are desperate to reach Europe.

“I met this woman who said, I was here in Libya for less than two years, I spent $18,000, I’m not going back to my mum with nothing, I’m not going back,’” Yassin explained.

She says the proximity between Libya and Europe gives people false hope. From Tripoli the lights of Lampedusa, Italy, are visible, and that gives migrants hope that they can reach Europe.

“They say they have suffered enough and want to take the last chance,” Yassin told VOA Somali.

Yassin said when migrants are told that there are alternatives to the risk, and that they could have the same life in their own country, there is a doubt in their eyes that the risk they are taking is not worth it, but they are determined to reach their target.

“We can’t force them, but we’ll give them awareness and encouragement to return,” Yassin says.

Beatings, torture

When the Somali delegation arrived in Tripoli on Monday, they met several Somalis who lived in terrible conditions, having just been released by the smugglers.

One of the men released said he was beaten on his back, chest and legs. He was shaking and said one of his eyes lost sight. But when the Somali Ambassador to the European Union Ali Said Faqi offered him the chance to return, the man who could barely speak grinned and said, “Insha Allah, I will either return or continue my ambition, it will be one of those.”

Ahmed Abdikarim Nur, commissioner of refugees and internally displaced persons of the Somali government said 99 percent of the people who are traveling are young people, and the youngsters are particularly reluctant to go back.

“They feel they spent all their parent’s wealth, and possibly they did not tell their parents when they started traveling to Libya, so they feel they have nowhere to return to, they are traumatized,” he said.

Unaccompanied children

Yassin was particularly documenting the situation of unaccompanied children who are willing to return. She said she only persuaded two of them, one 16 years old and the other 17. They have been in Libya for a year and half. She said both were traumatized and would not give a lot of information about their ordeal.

“I tried to speak to the 16 year old but he said, ‘Let us talk on the way to Somalia,’” she said.

The other teenager showed a bit more composure and told the Somali officials that they were tortured while in the hands of smugglers and traffickers.

“They are woken up in the morning, their day starts with insults [by smugglers], they are taken out, beaten, they use electric shocks on their legs, they are sprayed with water and are starved,” she said. “Some vomit blood because of the beating, some die.”

She said the case of the unaccompanied children is particularly worrying. She said some of the children lie about their ages so that the International Organization of Migration and UNHCR won’t identify them and contact their families to get permission to put them under their special protection.

If they are identified as minors and the organizations contact their families they will have no chance of boarding those boats, they don’t want that to happen so they lie about their age,” Yassin said.

Greater risks

Commissioner Nur says the risks people are taking are “beyond imagination.”

“First of all there is no certainty that when they leave Somalia they will reach here Tripoli alive,” he said. “Even if they reach, it will be after they have been sold and resold two or three times like an animal, they will have been beaten, they will have lost their well-being, dignity and possibly their lives.”

While the Somali delegation members were in Libya, a migrant truck flipped over near Bani Walid town Wednesday killing more than 20 migrants mainly from Somalia and Eritrea. One of the Somali migrants who had been held in Bani Walid said he knew many of the migrants traveling in the truck.

He said he knew at least seven Somalis who died in the incident. He said 260 migrants were on board the truck when it flipped over. He said he was told the death toll is higher than reported by media.

As the delegation appealed to the Somali migrants to take the chance to go home, the beaten man they met at the Embassy was still uncommitted about returning.

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Shamsa Abdullahi Bybook: A champion for Somali women’s reproductive health rights

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Mogadishu – Shamsa Abdullahi Bybook was a young nurse in her twenties when she fled the mounting chaos and tensions of Mogadishu in 1989 to start a new life in the United Kingdom. She became an experienced midwife at a North London hospital with a master’s degree from Middlesex University and raised a family.

But she never forgot Somalia. On her periodic visits to her homeland, the mother of six was appalled by the poor medical facilities available to young pregnant women and the numbers who died during childbirth.

“We saw the suffering the mothers were going through,” the 59-year-old native of Kismaayo recalls. “The babies were also dying unnecessarily for (the lack) of a simple procedure called resuscitation and oxygen.”

In 2016, she decided to do something about it. Shamsa and her husband packed their bags and moved back to Mogadishu to found a maternity hospital offering quality reproductive services to Somali women – the Bybook Maternity Hospital.

Shamsa fully realized the risks her homecoming entailed. She was working in London as a part-time newsreader for the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Somali language service when she was sent to Kismaayo on assignment in 1997 and was briefly abducted by armed militia.

Within months of her return to Mogadishu, the maternity hospital opened its doors in the Hodan district of the Somali capital in October 2017. It offers a wide range of inpatient and outpatient services that include safe birthing, pediatric and childcare, female genital mutilation counselling, diagnostic sonography, postpartum care and infertility care.

“We decided to be different by focusing more on quality care. For example, we ensured that no newborn baby dies for lack of oxygen or resuscitation equipment or even incubators. This is important for the country,” she observes, adding that she has also launched a campaign touting the benefits of giving birth in a tub of warm water to reduce maternal mortality rates.

The importance of high-quality medical facilities for Somalis cannot be overstated. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), mortality rates among Somali children are amongst the highest in the world. One out of every seven Somali children dies before their fifth birthday, which translates into a death rate of 137 out of every 1,000 live births. Mortality rates for mothers are also high, with UNICEF flagging that one out of every 12 women dies due to pregnancy-related causes – a death rate of 732 out of every 100,000 live births.

The 45-bed Bybook Maternity Hospital records an average of 50 safe deliveries each month and also treats newborns with breathing complications. Word of mouth has spread the reputation of the hospital far and wide, with pregnant women coming from towns as distant as Afgooye and Jowhar.

“Due to our positive effort, many people now know about our services,” notes Shamsa. “Even less educated mothers tell me they have been told that we have special equipment that help mothers and their newborn babies survive.”

However, the lack of effective regulation in Somalia’s health care sector remains a source of constant concern for Shamsa. She blames poor training and inadequate equipment for causing bodily harm and unnecessary loss of life on a regular basis.

UNICEF notes that Somalia is plagued by inconsistent health care delivery structures, with medical services provided by a mix of health authorities, private entities and international and national non-governmental organizations. The former nurse urges Somalis wishing to improve the state of health care in their country to consider medicine as a career option and expand the number of hospitals that can save lives.

“My husband and I have left our children and our grandchildren to have this (maternity hospital) and help the people who are in need of our services,” she says. “I would advise everyone who has that ambition to go ahead with it because we have been through it. Do not stop, do not become discouraged.”

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