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Fugitives From Somali Capital Describe Horrors Of War
MARKA, Somalia, May 27, 2006 — A baby with its leg blown off by shrapnel. Corpses in the streets. The wounded writhing in pain inside wheelbarrows, the only ambulances around.
Horrible memories have followed those who fled the war-ravaged Somali capital, Mogadishu, this week for the relative safety of this town about 50 miles down the coast. At night, the evacuees still dream of the artillery shells that exploded around them. They cannot get the rat-a-tat of automatic weapon fire out of their heads.
"When you witness a 1-year-old whose leg has been cut off by a mortar shell, it stays with you," said Halima Ahmed, 50, who left Mogadishu two days ago with her 85-year-old mother in a donkey cart. "We've witnessed so many things."
The exodus has come on foot, inside packed minibuses and atop overloaded trucks. Some fled with nothing but their children in their arms. Others took mattresses and cooking pots. All sought to outrun this nasty war, the worst Somalia has seen since the fall of its central government in 1991.
The fighting pits the capital's notorious warlords against Islamist leaders trying to turn the country into a religious state. The United States appears to be in the mix as well, with officials saying that Washington is concerned about foreign terrorists in the country and is working with Somali leaders.
The American officials say a small number of foreign fighters with links to Al Qaeda are operating within an alliance of Somali Islamic groups and hope to turn the anarchic country into a place not unlike Afghanistan under the Taliban. The officials would not confirm or deny reports that warlords were being paid to apprehend the foreigners.
For many of the people running for their lives from Mogadishu, the fighting is as incomprehensible as so many past conflicts: a shootout between rival militias, both heavily armed with all manner of weaponry, in which civilians are the ones bleeding the most.
"I have no idea who is fighting who," said Hadiyo Mohamed, 25, who fled Mogadishu three days ago with three young children. "I was just going about my daily activities as a housewife when shelling began."
The fighting erupted in February, only to worsen as the months have passed. Fueled by arms from foreign governments in the region and beyond, the battle for power has cost more than 300 lives, even as the leaders on both sides portray themselves as defenders of the people.
"We don't consider either side as good," said Issa Ali, 40, who fled with his wife and three children. "God knows which is the best to rule Mogadishu."
The warlords have ruled Mogadishu for 15 chaotic years, using young gunmen to extract as much revenue as they can from checkpoints, ports and airstrips within their turf. They have struck alliances with business leaders, who pay protection money.
But the Islamic leaders have quietly emerged as a major force, with huge political, economic and military strength. They have slowly filled a void, creating Islamic schools and courts and providing social services unavailable anywhere else. In recent days they have captured crucial areas of the capital, seizing control from the warlords.
But among the moderate sheiks are hard-liners who American officials say have formed a small Qaeda cell in Mogadishu. To combat those extremists, American intelligence officials have formed a relationship with the warlords, who call themselves the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism.
"Clandestine third-country involvement" is what a report released this month by an expert panel convened by the United Nations calls the behind-the-scenes activity by American operatives. Without explicitly naming the United States, the panel suggested that Washington had provided financial support "to help organize and structure a militia force created to counter the threat posed by the growing militant fundamentalist movement in central and southern Somalia."
The situation has eerie parallels to Afghanistan, where warlords so disillusioned the population that the hard-line Taliban were able to move in to fill the void in the mid-1990's, slowly taking over 90 percent of the country, including the capital. After that fundamentalist government provided safe haven to Osama bin Laden and his backers, the United States and its allies overthrew it.
In the case of Somalia, Americans are not the only ones involved behind the scenes. The United Nations panel found that Ethiopians have been arming the fledgling government that has convened outside Mogadishu, in the inland town of Baidoa.
To counter Ethiopian influence, the government of Eritrea, which broke away from Ethiopia after a civil war, has provided arms to the Islamists, the panel said, detailing precise shipments of weapons provided by each side.
The panel also accused Italy of violating a United Nations arms embargo in Somalia, saying it had shipped trucks and "a number of large, long, sealed boxes" to the transitional government. In addition, Yemen has shipped pickup trucks, military uniforms and military boots to the transitional government, the experts found.
All of the countries named by the panel have denied violating the embargo.
As battles rage on the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia's transitional government, which was formed after two years of peace negotiations in neighboring Kenya, largely sits on the sidelines. Its officials have issued declarations calling for an end to the violence, but to little effect.
In fact, four of the chief warlords involved in the fighting hold top-level cabinet posts in the government and have so far openly flouted calls for them to lay down their arms. The Islamists have also thumbed their noses at the government, especially its call for a foreign peacekeeping force to bring order to the capital.
No matter who wins the fight for Mogadishu, residents fear that peace will not be the result. "Even if one side wins, they will then fight amongst themselves," said Issa Mohamed Gaal, 60, who fled fighting in Mogadishu in March.
Hussein Nour Ali, 43, argued that a religious state would bring order to the chaotic country and allow people to live their lives. "We support the Islamic courts because they support peace," he said.
But another displaced Mogadishu resident standing at his side objected to that interpretation. "Peace?" he said. "They're fighting too."
Source: New York Times