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How the cruel militia legacy stalks Somalia

By | April 5th 2011


For years, the militant al-Shabaab group controlled the Somali town of Bulla Hawa and surrounding areas, where it imposed strict sharia laws and ruled with a heavy hand.

Weeks after the militants were thrown out of town by a combined force of Ethiopian and Somalia government soldiers, the fear they planted in residents has refused to go away.

In the nearby village of Dabat, Habiba Adan surveyed the damage caused by recent fighting. All around her, houses shelled by the soldiers had been reduced to ashes. Now that the militants are gone, there is an uneasy sense of calm.

But like the rest of residents, she will not discuss the al-Shabaab reign for fear of reprisals.

Government soldiers in full combat.

"I don’t care who is good between the government and al-Shabaab. All we want is peace," Adan said last week.

She added: "I was not rich, but I had a good house where I lived with my children. Now, I have nothing. Everything was burnt down." Her grandmother, Hawa Warsame, clung onto her, trembling.

Around them, government soldiers patrolled the village amidst fears the militants would try to retake the town. The militia, which is said to have links with al-Qaeda, controls large areas of the lawless country.

Somalia has had no effective government since the ouster of dictator Siad Barre in 1991. The terror gang took control five years ago following the ouster of Islamic Courts Union, which had been credited with installing some semblance of order.

Out of control

In recent weeks, however, al-Shabaab has come under fire from government forces and African Union soldiers, who have wrestled some areas out of its control. They include some districts in the capital, Mogadishu.

However, the well-armed group, believed to be funded and controlled by foreign jihadists, is putting up a spirited fight for control. In Bulla Hawa, soldiers said five of their own were killed, alongside more than 20 militants.

Government forces and the militants have suffered substantial losses in intense fighting in Dobley, a town about 25 kilometres from the Kenyan border centre of Liboi.

The Transitional Federal Government, whose mandate ends in August, is struggling to get a foothold amidst poor funding and the ever-present terror threat.

Lack of resources stands out in Bulla Hawa, where the soldiers patrol the streets in rickety vehicles. Occasionally, pick-up trucks hoisted with sub-machine guns, locally referred to as technicals, zoom by. Many of the soldiers are in fading army fatigues, while others are in civilian clothes. "We are not even getting paid for this," a soldier reveals, asking not to be named. "But that does not worry us too much. We want to bring peace to our country."

Lack of resources and incentives could lower morale, as well as make it difficult to maintain discipline.

Taken over

A command centre used as the militia group’s local headquarters has been taken over by the soldiers, who now use it as their operations base. However, the cruel legacy of al-Shabaab hangs over the town. In the centre of the small town is the public court, where the gang would try suspects and sentence them to death.

"They cut off the heads of up to ten people in the past year," a resident said.

For the soldiers, the hard part appears not yet to be over. Many residents are believed to be al-Shabaab sympathisers, and may now be spying for the scuttled group. There are signs that the group is yet to give up and may resort to terror techniques to take back the towns.

At the government’s new command centre, soldiers showed a small crater next to sandbags used in the offensive.

"It was caused by an explosion two days ago. They had buried a bomb which they detonated by remote," a soldier said. Four people were injured.

Residents said the gang was also choking supplies by detaining trucks in major towns. Hundreds of trucks laden with goods had been held in Baidoa and other centres.

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