Updated: 22/02/12 : 07:38:33
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World ::Somali Refugees Flee Militant Strongholds

Chairs, tables, mattresses, the basics of a humble life - are lashed into swaying pyramids on pickup trucks and donkey carts. Children cling to the sides, fearful of being lost, drowned in a stream of humanity fleeing to Mogadishu.

Oddly, this in some ways is a good sign for Somalia.

The United Nations estimates that 15,000 civilians have left al Shabab areas on the 25-mile stretch of road to the strategically important town of Afgoye, the main Shabab base in the area.

Shabab leaders have railed against the mini-exodus on their radio stations. But the flow towards the capital, which takes them behind the lines of African Union (AU) troops, is a clear sign which sort of life ordinary Somalis would prefer. At least for the time being.

Ugandan and Burundian forces, around 9,000 troops, have driven al Shabab militants out of the capital, with the help of forces loyal to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

They are now digging in on the Afgoye road, and manning a defensive line which wraps the seaside city in an embrace of sandbags and guns.

Locals have read the signs though. They have heard American drones overhead, and they have been tipped off by AU troops. Another advance against al Shabab is imminent - and they want to get out of the way.

Adan Mohamed Ma'adan departed Dinsoor, a farming area deep inland, during the drought last year. He settled near Afgoye where he managed to eke out a living as a garbage man. Three days ago he fled again, bringing his wife and three children to the outskirts of Mogadishu where they began making a tent of old sacks tied to a frame of saplings.

"We left because we saw that there would be fighting with al Shabab and Amisom (the AU mission to Somalia). And because we feared that even if we stayed we risked being killed by the Shabab who could accuse us of being spies," Mr Ma'adan said.
When the attack will come is unknown. Al Shabab has threatened to counter attack - perhaps during Thursday's international conference on the futureof Somalia.

But the AU forces are expected to get a major boost later today from the UN Security Council which is expected to vote in favour of almost doubling their numbers - to 17,700.

This would bring Kenyan forces, already fighting the Shabab in southern Somalia, under AU command, and expand the number available to the North. The resolution is also likely to authorise the use of helicopters, small ships, and heavier weapons.

The Shabab are facing attacks on three fronts now. This offers what Britain sees as a "window of opportunity" to press home efforts to rid the country of al Qaeda-linked militant group. And forge a functioning government out of the TFG and clan-based factions which have set up fiefdoms all over the centre and south of the country.

"The purpose of the resolution is to take advantage of a window of opportunity provided by increased pressure on al Shabab... (to) galvanise the international community" behind a coordinated anti-terror and anti-piracy strategy in Somalia, and to try to break it out of its failed state status for the first time in 20 years," a senior British diplomat in New York said.

The extra troops will be essential. Not least to remove the reliance on militias who have said they support the government and have conducted operations against the Shabab - but whose loyalty mostly depends on regular financial handouts.

"We can still make advances but not significant advances without more troops and I think we need more troops now at this critical stage so we are able to push forward and accomplish the task," the AU force commander Major General Fred Mugisha said.

The 'task' has cost up to 800 Barundi and Ugandan lives since 2007, Sky sources said - although Maj Gen Mugisha would admit only to 'dozens'.

The African soldiers typically earn ten times their monthly salaries when deployed on 12-month tours with Amisom. A soldier of private rank can earn around $1,000 a month (650) - perhaps saving enough to buy a small patch of land when he returns home.

After four years of close-quarter fighting in Mogadishu, their morale has been hugely boosted by being able to break out into the bush where they are happiest. But the truth is that they cannot advance much further without risking an attack on their rear by Shabab infiltrators.

Overlooking medieval kilns where coral is baked into lime on the eastern edge of the city, a section of Ugandan soldiers told of how the Shabab attacked at night. Or used a former slipper factory as cover for heavy machine gun 'shoot-and-scoot' assaults.

"They are not so strong now. We generally know when there is going to be an attack because the local people come and tell us," a Ugandan officer manning the small base on top of sand dunes said.

The task of the London conference will be to try to deliver a sort of government that can win as much public support as the AU forces who have delivered Somalia's capital from al Shabab.

Locals remain deeply cynical. The local parliament is split, with factions demanding substantial bribes to back the cabinet's positions in London. Elsewhere militia groups claim they have not been consulted on the talks. And above all, according to senior Sky sources, at least 60% of the aid already being sent to Somalia is being sold on the streets, or salted away by politicians and warlords.

"There has to be a major cultural change. After 20 years of survival by resort to the clan, of 20 years of no laws and of the idea that only the fittest survive, there is no civil society left here," the UN's special representative to Somalia Augustine Mahiga said.

"We have to help them rebuild it - there are signs that some are willing to try. Others still have a lot to learn."