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An Unusual Calm Returns To Mogadishu
It's business as usual in the streets of Mogadishu after the union announced that it had taken control of the capital city.
Story by MUGO NJERU
Mogadishu, Somalia, August 17, 2006 – Guns have fallen silent. Wailing of mothers and children and funeral processions to cemeteries are no longer a common feature.
This is the new-look Mogadishu–the badly tattered capital city of Somalia where bloodshed had over the last 16 years been a common phenomenon.
For those who have been to the capital at the height of the unprecedented violence that characterized its streets and areas surrounding it, one would be excused to think that he was day-dreaming.
For the chaotic scenes that met one at every corner of Mogadishu–classified as one of the most dangerous places in the world– are no more.
The many roadblocks, which used to be manned by young and illiterate men brandishing machine-guns who would kill at the slightest provocation, including for denying them a few twigs of miraa (khat), have also disappeared.
And hardly are the streets, like previously, littered with "technicals", a term used to describe pick-ups mounted with machine-guns and rockets manned by mean-looking militias.
A Nation team accompanied a Kenyan delegation of Islamic leaders, led by Mandera Central MP Billow Kerrow and National Muslim Leaders Forum chairman Abdillahi Abdi, on a fact- finding tour of the town last week to confirm that normalcy had returned.
For the last three months, the delegation was told, nobody had been shot dead in Mogadishu since the take-over of the town by the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) on June 5.
The union is a loose alliance of Islamic scholars, elders and businessmen who have successfully managed to throw warlords out of the city and a large section of southern Somalia, which they had zoned into mini-kingdoms.
They have been controlling them using battalions of militias.
Some of the warlords would have as many as 250 armed militias to guard them and help them to instill fear into the people, to ease manipulation.
"Simple mathematics will tell you that such a warlord would have a monthly payroll of as much as $1.5 million (Sh105 million) for the militias who got $20 per day to buy miraa and food," said Mr. A.K. Barre, a local businessman.
Some controlled the ports of Mogadishu and Bosasu while others had carved huge territories, which they controlled.
It was no wonder therefore that even reconciling them in Nairobi took so long before the formation of the country's virtually powerless Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of President Abdillahi Yusuf, who sacked his entire Cabinet this month in the wake of disagreements on how to mediate for peace with the ICU.
The Nation team ventured to unravel the enigma behind this hitherto unknown movement, which has taken Mogadishu by storm and is spreading like bush- fire in the entire Somaliland.
And we came face to face with ICU leader Sheikh Shariff Sheikh Ahmed in his office at a fortified solid block in the heart of Mogadishu.
The militias guarding the gates were thorough as were others across the street caressing their weapons, which included sub-machine guns.
The dark, quiet and soft-spoken Sheikh Ahmed does not betray the enormous powers that he yields and from the onset, he appears to be a man who gives serious thought before tackling any issue.
It will take a minute or two before he answers any question and when he does, he has a far-looking stare on him and hardly meets anybody's eyes.
Those close to Sheikh Ahmed describe him as a no-nonsense man who believes in justice for all.
The 42-year-old bearded Islamic leader is a lawyer by profession, having trained in Libya and Sudan. He is also an Islamic scholar.
Although he does not want to divulge much information on the union, he said it traces its roots to 1991 shortly after the toppling of dictator Mohammed Siyad Barre by warlords who later turned on one another over power-sharing, plunging the country into anarchy.
"Businessmen, Islamic leaders, elders and intellectuals form this union and we are not terrorists as some people would want the world to believe," he says.
The Islamic militia's seizure of power has prompted grave concerns in the United States, which accuses the group of harboring Al Qaeda leaders responsible for deadly 1998 bombings at the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Sheikh Ahmed says the local people are tired of fighting and there was now a general craving for security, religious arbitration, rehabilitation of the militias and creating awareness on the people's rights.
The Islamic militants have stepped into the power vacuum and imposed strict religious courts that have become awe inspiring to the entire Mogadishu and a large swathe of Southern Somalia where the ICU has assumed control.
Sheikh Ahmed says the ICU now controls a territory of over 700 kilometers north of Mogadishu. Last week, it took control of Harardheere coastal area, which was the stronghold of pirates, he says.
"We first announce that we are going to take over a certain area with the blessing of the local community and ask militias to surrender peacefully and let us deal with the criminals (warlords)," he says.
"But we use force where necessary to ensure the end to violence, which the people of Somalia have witnessed for so many years," he adds. The Kenyan Press team and a few members of the delegation were spending their nights at a famous hotel situated at Kilometer Four District called Hotel Nasa Hablod, which in Somali means firm breasts of a virgin.
And the Sharia law has started sending shivers to those who might think of taking the errant path–death is punishable by death.
Several cases have been reported in the last three months where the Islamists have killed those who have defied their orders, including some football fans who had insisted on watching the semi-final match between Germany and Italy in the just-concluded World Cup. On June 20, Mr. Elmi Ba Hassan Adow, 28, was executed in public by a man whose brother he had admitted he killed.
Whenever the Islamists take control of an area, a Sharia court leader is installed to ensure that law and order are maintained in accordance with the Koran, the Muslims' holy book.
After joining the union, the mainly illiterate militiamen are taken to rehabilitation camps (there are 15 such rehabilitation camps in Mogadishu and beyond, we were told) where discipline is instilled in them a sense of Islamic teachings besides being banned from eating miraa. They are also taught basic professional skills to enable them earn a decent living away from fighting.
"The scholars and other top officials of the Islamic Courts are busy coming up with a detailed structure of administrating the Sharia law," says Sheikh Ahmed.
But do the Islamists intend to form a government if TFG fails to deliver?
It is a flat denial by Sheikh Ahmed, who insists that theirs is a "noble calling to ensure the rights of the ordinary person are not trampled on".
He maintains that this will be the message the ICU will be taking to Khartoum where a reconciliation meeting is scheduled to take place between them and the FTG when it names a new Cabinet.
But for the time being, a serious environmental campaign has began in Mogadishu where women have taken to cleaning the moulds of garbage from the streets that has accumulated over years.
And be warned if you litter the streets of Mogadishu for a penalty of 500,000 in the local Somali currency, which is an equivalent of Sh38,000, has been declared. The warning is displayed conspicuously at the October 21 National Stadium, where national days used to be celebrated but which was later turned into a garbage dumping site.
And for the first time in years, the city's main street, Makar Al Mukarama road, which goes to the former Government's seat of power, is being cleaned of accumulated sand. However, the presidential palace, the police headquarters, the headquarters of Radio Somalia and other key installations, which are concentrated at the top of a hill called Bar Mudha, are heavily shelled and will require major renovations. So are the castles overlooking the sea, which in the hey-days must have been the enclaves of the high and mighty. An eerie feeling hangs in the air as we pass through the narrow streets to the port as bats flutter from some of the once crystal-white magnificent houses.
And the country's airport is now fully operational, flying in from Europe and Asia those who fled during the war.
An African Airline plane which flew us back to Nairobi from Mogadishu, was virtually empty although it was full to capacity when it arrived from Dubai.
Reports from those arriving at the airport indicated that airlines to the international airport were fully booked over the next few weeks with Somali nationals wanting to get back home after being inspired by the new-found peace.
They are more so encouraged because the Sharia courts are also ensuring they reclaim their homes.
"We can only hope and pray this peace lasts, for these people have suffered violence for a long time," remarked Mr. Kerrow as he left the airport.
Source: The Daily Nation