Wed, Oct 02, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Fight against al-Shabaab tests resolve of the African Union

Even as events in Keyna were unfolding, the African Union military is fighting a brutal and deadly war hundreds of miles to the north in Somalia

By Mark Doyle  /  The Observer

When I asked this grey-haired Somali about the al-Shabaab presence in Gobweyn he shrugged as if to dismiss the question.

“Al-Shabaab are everywhere,” he said through a translator. “They are here; they are in Mogadishu. And look what happened in Nairobi — they are there, too.”

An ambiguous response. It could have meant he condemned this widespread presence — or he could have been boasting about it. Maybe he was an innocent elder; maybe he was an al-Shabaab supporter.

More telling, perhaps, was a farmer I met in Kismayo who had fled to the regional capital from his home town of Jillib to the north, in the heart of al-Shabaab-held Somalia. This man, Musa Ali, once had 6 hectares of land on which he grew mangoes, beans and maize. He also had a seven-roomed house, he told me — very prosperous by Somali standards. However, Ali was now living in a camp for displaced people in Kismayo on an abandoned municipal rubbish tip. His only room now was a 0.6m2 enclosure of rusting corrugated iron sheets with the carcasses of two armchairs.

“Al-Shabaab took half my crops as taxes,” he said, “and would not let my girls go to school. It was so oppressive. I could not breathe. So I prefer this place” — his arm swept in the filthy vista of the rubbish tip — “to my farm.”

AL-SHABAAB’S REACH

When the commander of the southern Somalian sector of AMISOM, Kenyan Brigadier Antony Ngere, showed me his map of “Al-Shabaab Infested Areas” it included a large number of red blobs where AMISOM rarely ventures.

“This is a difficult war to win,” the bespectacled brigadier said. “It is slow. However, that is no reason not to fight this war. We shall continue to fight it, and we shall win.”

Al-Shabaab’s status as a military force to be reckoned with became clear to me on our short journey across the frontline from AMISOM-held Kismayo to the al-Shabaab-held village of Gobweyn — beyond which are larger al-Shabaab-controlled towns such as Jillib and Buale. On the side of the rough tarmac road I saw lines of sandy foxholes and trenches stretching into the distance. The trenches were littered with the detritus of war — bullet casings, scraps of uniform and empty food tins.

“These are the al-Shabaab positions,” Sierra Leone army Lieutenant Joseph Adekule said. “They come here at night to fire on our defences around Kismayo.”

They certainly do. I spent eight nights in Kismayo — staying either at Kenyan positions or with the Sierra Leonean forces. Every night I heard heavy gunfire — from automatic rifles to big anti-aircraft-style machine guns, mortars and artillery. At both the Kenyan and Sierra Leonean bases I slept only 200 meters from the AMISOM frontlines. I didn’t get a lot of sleep.

ONGOING FIGHTING

Most of the firing appeared to be from AMISOM troops after short bursts of “incoming” fire from al-Shabaab. AMISOM officers sought to minimise the harassing of their positions by telling me these were mere “probing attacks.”

However, the “probing” of the AMISOM lines by al-Shabaab was in reality very similar to the muscular Sierra Leonean patrol I accompanied into al-Shabaab-controlled Gobweyn. The main difference is that the Sierra Leoneans and I were able to ride into the al-Shabaab village in an armored personnel carrier. However, the tall young Sierra Leonean Lieutenant Adekule who led that patrol was also “probing” his enemy’s lines. If one of the sides were overwhelmingly stronger, they would overrun the others’ positions. However, they are not.

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