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Strife's monument: Mogadishu Down
Stewart Bell in Mogadishu, National Post
Mogadishu, January 20, 2007 - The armored vehicles are still there on the street where U.S. soldiers abandoned them during the infamous "Black Hawk Down" incident that has come to symbolize the violence and hopelessness of Somalia. Stripped clean, they are nothing but three bulletproof garbage bins now, filled with household and human waste -- reeking monuments to a 1993 military operation that cost 18 American soldiers their lives.
Their mission was to capture the lieutenants of warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed so that international humanitarian aid could be delivered to Somalis. It ended in failure, but so do a lot of things in this East African port city.
There are few places in the world today that so thoroughly meet the definition of a failed state. Even to call Mogadishu a city seems a stretch. There are 3.5 million people, but few of the institutions that make a metropolis.
The city's administrative, commercial and cultural hub is just block after block of ruins. The old parliament buildings are gone, reduced to a pile of rubble and a bullet-pocked facade. Likewise the national museum, the cathedral, the embassies, the banks, the luxury seaside hotel, the villas along the Indian Ocean.
All have been flattened in the fighting between Somalia's notorious warlords. After the disastrous U.S. attempt to intervene, which ended with mobs dragging the bloodied body of an American serviceman through the streets of Mogadishu, nobody was willing to get between the warring factions, and the city disintegrated.
One by one, buildings fell to tank and artillery fire, and the government and industry collapsed along with them. There is no phone service to speak of, nor mail. The electricity is provided by generators that crash regularly.
Traveling without a weapon or uniformed guard is considered at best a sign of weakness, and at worst, suicidal. The average Somali man will only live to age 45. One out of 10 babies dies at birth.
"Just imagine Toronto with no police, no city council, no authority, no government," said Mo Abdillahi Mohamed, a Somali-Canadian who has returned to his homeland. "It was lawlessness."
Getting to Mogadishu requires patience and optimism. The only commercial airline with service there uses ancient Soviet propeller planes and has been accused by a United Nations monitoring group of smuggling weapons for Islamist militias.
Canadians in charge, Page A18
The National Post's Stewart Bell reports from the capital of Somalia, where a fragile interim government has recently regained control from the Islamic Courts Union.
Mogadishu airport is a beachfront chaos. The government is so new that nobody seems to know what to do with visitors. The passports of foreigners are seized on arrival and returned to their owners only after their names have been cleared by the national security agency. Nobody can fly out without a letter from the government declaring they are not a member of al-Qaeda.
Slightly smaller than Texas and with a population of roughly eight million, almost all of them Sunni Muslims, Somalia has two main regions. The former British colony in the northwest is called Somaliland. Mogadishu is in the former Italian protectorate in the south.
After gaining its independence in 1960, Somalia became a socialist one-party state under Siad Barre. He lasted until 1991, when clan warlords threw him out, setting off fighting between factions vying to replace him.
The warlords ruled Mogadishu until last June, when an alliance of 11 courts that had been enforcing Islamic law took control of the city with the backing of a pro-al-Qaeda militia called the Shabab, which means Youth.
"Every hour of the training was partnered with one hour of preachings of Islam, the jihad," said Yusuf, an 18-year-old butcher recruited into the Shabab. He said the instructors would talk about Osama bin Laden and al- Qaeda. "We used to watch their movies, the training movies from al-Qaeda."
During the six-months they controlled Mogadishu, the Islamic Courts tried to transform the city into their version of an ideal Muslim state. Shaving was banned. Watching soccer on television was banned. Dancing and music were banned. Men and women were not allowed to mix. It was Afghanistan under the Taliban all over again.
On Dec. 24, forces loyal to interim President Abdillahi Yusuf Ahmed, backed by Ethiopian forces, began an offensive against the Islamists, who quickly crumpled. Yusuf said he was sent to the front, but when he saw his fellow Shabab fighters being crushed,
he abandoned his position.
He took off his camouflage uniform and gave his gun to nomads in exchange for civilian clothes. He returned to Mogadishu on foot, using back roads. "They were just warlords who were using Islam," he says of his commanders.
In the three weeks since then, men have been shaving their beards. Once forbidden, lively Somali music, a blend of African and Arab rhythms, can now be heard. Raucous engagement parties with co-ed dancing have resumed.
The new transitional government is now trying to build a Somali police and military so it can disarm the warlords and finish off the Islamic militia, whose members have either fled south or melted back into Mogadishu.
The fighting continues in Mogadishu, but while tanks sometimes make their way through the narrow streets, and soldiers with truck-mounted guns guard the presidential palace, in much of the city the military presence is hardly noticeable.
Gunfire can be heard day and night, and the arms bazaar is still open and selling 500-600 weapons a day, even as some of the strongest warlords are surrendering their huge caches of weapons to Somalia's top general. There was more fighting last night when loud explosions could be heard and flashes could be seen. Local radio reported the presidential residence was targeted by artillery fire.
The country remains too dangerous for foreign aid workers. An Italian nun was killed last year, as well as a Swedish journalist. The few foreigners here travel with two to three uniformed guards, and they dare not venture into the neighborhoods that remain Islamist strongholds.
Several former members of the Shabab said in interviews that the militia has kept many of its weapons and intends to resume full-scale fighting. "I want to tell you that the Shabab will have the last victory," said Saifullah, 19, a trained member of the group.
Before the Afghanistan trained Shabab leader Adan Ayro fled toward the Kenyan border, he told his fighters to stay in the country, Saifullah said. "He told us he will be back, so we are still waiting for him."
But Yusuf said he wants no part of the Shabab any more. He only wants to return to the butcher shop where he worked before he was recruited for jihad. "I want to just start my work again and help my family as I used to."
Street vendors like Yusuf work in the gritty bazaars set up on corners and between Mogadishu's collapsed buildings. Fishermen dump their catches on tables -- red snappers, a sea turtle, a hammerhead shark -- and bunches of fat bananas are plentiful.
With no industry or government, fish and fruit, along with livestock and hides, are Somalia's only sources of income, as well as foreign aid and cash sent by relatives abroad. Unemployment is about 50%, and some 43% of Somalis live in what the United Nations describes as extreme poverty. But some Somalis are making the best of it.
Down an alley filled with cacti and chickens, an old woman sits in the shade of a corrugated metal roof. She is angry. Fourteen years ago, the doomed U.S. Black Hawk helicopter crashed in her yard.
It's still there -- at least what's left of it. But she insists she will not let anyone in to see it because that would only stir bad memories of the time the American soldiers came and so many died.
The head of the neighborhood is summoned by phone and arrives a few minutes later, a clean-cut young man in slacks and a dress shirt.
He speaks with the old woman, and at last they nod in agreement. "She will let you see the Black Hawk," he says, "for 100 American dollars."
Source: National Post