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Inside a city of fear - in Mogadishu there is death by cellphone
By Paul Salopek
Mogadishu, Oct. 18, 2007 - There are so many ways to die in Mogadishu. You can walk, as an old lady here recently did, into the path of a roadside bomb planted by Islamic rebels. The insurgents haven't perfected their timers. They missed the passing government patrol. The grandmother was decapitated.
Just as likely -- and lucklessly -- you might cross paths with renegade units of the half-starved government troops. Two weeks ago these forces shelled the Hawa Abdi displaced persons' camp with an anti-aircraft cannon. They wanted to steal the camp's donated food. Armed refugees fought back fiercely.
Everyone is hungry in Mogadishu. And, of course, that can kill you too. Shops are closing. The price of rice has doubled. And skeletal, ocean-eyed babies are appearing at the city's few feeding centers -- tiny harbingers of a man-made famine.
Finally, in a typically resourceful Somali twist, there is death by cell phone call. Mogadishu still offers one of the cheapest mobile phone services in Africa. Aid workers marvel at former city residents who hide in the bush, calling from cardboard hovels to request emergency food. Yet today even this remnant of normalcy is becoming an instrument of murder.
"When the phone's screen says 'Private Number' most people don't answer," said Abdirahman Yusuf Sheik, a sleep-deprived journalist with Radio Shabelle who receives up to four phoned death threats a day. "It means someone is calling to assassinate you."
People have been reliably executed after such threats in Mogadishu. Sheik is desperate to flee. As many as 10,000 other terrorized urbanites a month are already voting with their feet, the UN says. And that's why this seaside African capital, the scene of the newest and perhaps murkiest front in America's war on global terrorism, is starting to look like one colossal ghost town.
More than 10 months after Ethiopia invaded Somalia with covert U.S. help, ousting a radical Islamist regime and installing a secular government, the future of this vast, chaotic country that helped coin the phrase "failed state" still hangs in fragile balance.
The weak transitional government has clung to power longer than any other national authority over 16 years of bloody clan brawls and outright civil war. But the remnants of the Council of Islamic Courts, a Taliban-like coalition that ruled much of Somalia for six months in 2006, are cranking up a ruthless insurgency. Some anti-terror strategists worry that the U.S. could be drifting once again, this time accompanied by its Ethiopian ally, into containing yet another open-ended rebellion and propping up a nation-building project that seems scripted straight from Iraq or Afghanistan.
One sign of the challenges that lie ahead is the miasma of fear choking Mogadishu.
Few outside aid workers or journalists travel these days to Mogadishu, easily Africa's most violent city. They are wise to stay away. A recent visit to this ruined capital revealed an eerily depopulated metropolis awash in threats, intimidation and political assassinations.
Women are being shot by Islamic extremists for selling milk to occupying Ethiopian troops. The often unpaid and demoralized national police and army are hunkered at checkpoints in "green zones" of dubious government control. And all the armed groups are accused of egregious human-rights abuses.
Shabab, the guerrilla wing of the deposed Islamic Courts, is widely reported to deploy schoolchildren to chuck hand grenades at Ethiopian soldiers. And on Wednesday, government security officers are alleged to have raided a UN compound and snatched the senior food distribution official in the city. The government resents the UN for provisioning rebel-held areas.
UN: 400,000 have fled
Twenty years ago Mogadishu was an Indian Ocean backwater where local women wore jeans and Europeans feasted late into the nights on cheap lobster. Today the UN estimates that fighting between rebels and the government has frightened away 400,000 people, or more than a third of the city's wary population. Rail-thin women veiled Arab-style scuttle between bombed-out buildings. A few police battle-wagons laden with heavy machine guns buck down the largely abandoned sand streets. And by nightfall the city's remaining families barricade themselves indoors.
Mogadishu 's city center was destroyed in Somalia's 1991 civil war. It retains the elegiac stillness of a classical ruin -- like Pompeii.
"Somalis learned to survive years of chaos under the warlords," said Mohamed Ibrahim, referring to the clan battles that mauled Somalia's capital in the 1990s.
"But this is no longer human," said Ibrahim, a Somali who works for a Western medical organization and who now sleeps at a different house each night after receiving anonymous phone threats, probably from insurgents. "What you see around you is a whole city that is dying."
Things weren't supposed to unfold this way when Ethiopian tanks roared across the border in December to topple Somalia's Islamic Courts movement, whose harsh rule at least brought calm to Mogadishu's feral streets. The new government, backed by thousands of Ethiopian troops, was supposed to usher in an era of national reconciliation.
Source: Chicago Tribune