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Daily violence bleeds life out of Somalia's largest market
MOGADISHU, September 24, 2007 - As the holy month of Ramadan builds up to the Eid al-Fitr feast, market alleyways in Muslim countries usually teem with activity and shoppers stocking up on dates and other products.
In Mogadishu, Bakara market has become a by-word for violence and danger. The sprawling neighbourhood and its narrow mazy streets have seen the worst of Somalia's seemingly never-ending strife in recent months.
"It's Ramadan and people are fasting, they should not have to endure such trouble and violence," says Hadia Sheikh Dahir, as she shuffles briskly out of the market area after buying dates for the "iftar" meal which breaks the dawn-to-dusk fast.
"It's the only place we can go for shopping and now it is dying from the violence and inflation," she explains, pulling two of her three children by the sleeve.
Muslim charities used to hand out dates and other Ramadan products in Bakara. This year, they are nowhere to be seen.
Ethiopia 's mighty army came to the rescue of Somalia's embattled transitional government and earlier this year defeated an Islamist militia that briefly controlled large parts of the country.
Since then, the Islamist-led insurgency has concentrated its efforts on Mogadishu and reverted to guerrilla street tactics, launching daily grenade, roadside bomb and gunfire attacks against government targets.
According to an AFP count based on reports by hospital sources, at least 80 people have been killed in Bakara market alone since June, most of them civilians.
With its windy streets, shaded by coloured parasols and connected by low, flat rooftops, the market area in southern Mogadishu offers ideal cover to insurgents and endless possibilities to lose police patrols.
"I never go to Bakara without checking that it's safe," said Abdurazzak Mohammed Ali, who sells sugar and flour in a wheelbarrow.
"You always have to be ready for an ambush, you can just die or get wounded at any time. There are explosions and gunfire almost every day in the market area and it has become a very dangerous place," he explains.
Bakara used to be a residential district and hosts a few Italian-era coral stone houses that were the trademark of the once thriving seaside capital.
Mogadishu is now a city where a million Somalis try to survive amid an eery decor of half-crumbling buildings pockmarked by years of chaos and shortages.
The area was initially a haven for traders fleeing Mogadishu's flashpoints after the 1991 ouster of former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre touched off a bloody power struggle.
Bakara has since grown into Somalia's premier commercial hub, a place where merchants from all over the country buy and sell anything from food and clothes to electronics, perfume and currencies.
It had also turned into a regional arms free market, with a dedicated section dubbed "Irtogte" -- which means sky shooters in Somali -- where dozens of assault rifles, rocket launchers and mortars could be traded daily.
A crackdown by Ethiopian-backed government security forces has since sent arms dealers scurrying underground but the continued violence could well force the market's other businesses to shut down.
"Many merchants have fled the area and removed their belongings, shifting to other places; everybody is emptying the market since the hell started flaming," says Mohamed Husein Dahir, a Bakara grocer.
"I had a pharmacy in Bakara market but I had to close it down completely after a colleague was shot dead in front of my shop... I never want to witness people being killed again," says Mohamed Mowlid.
The 28-year-old chemist recently relocated in the northern Mogadishu neighbourhood of Suq Baad.
Local residents and shoppers are often torn between resentment towards the insurgency's reckless tactics and the security's ham-fisted response.
"The government forces are destabilising the market instead of maintaining order, because they open fire indiscriminately and kill people when they are targeted by the insurgents," Maryan Adan Mohamed, a 36-year-old woman buying bread for four orphans she took under her care.
The capital and the country are under nobody's full control, with rival Somali camps as divided as ever.
The internationally-backed government has achieved little in three years of existence and appears reluctant to talk to its Islamist foes.
For its part, the opposition has consolidated around a platform whose main priority is to remove Ethiopian troops from Somalia by any possible means.
"I have never seen such a confusing situation, even when the warlords ruled Mogadishu there wasn't that much bloodshed in Bakara," says Adan Ali Ahmed, a 42-year-old resident of southern Mogadishu.
He believes there is a deliberate attempt by security forces to undermine business in the market.
"We have asked the traders to turn their weapons over to the government so that the security forces could guarantee their safety and that of the whole market as well," Somali police spokesman Abdulwahid Mohamed says.
"But this has not happened to the extent we had hoped for and the local traders continue to support the insurgents," he adds.