Said Muhammad Abukar, a mere 40 days old, lay grey and trembling on an operating table in Madina hospital. His tiny stomach was slit down the middle. Doctors were searching for shrapnel in his abdomen. There was a large hole in his lower back.
Muhammad Abukar Ahmed, Said’s distraught father, told The Times that eight members of his family had been about to flee from war-torn Mogadishu when a shell hit their house in the residential area of Mahad Alab. The building was destroyed. It took Mr Ahmed, 25, a teacher of the Koran, 15 minutes to dig himself out of the rubble. “I didn’t know if I was going to live, let alone my son,” he said.
In the past month Ethiopian troops supporting Somalia’s deeply unpopular Government have pounded residential areas controlled by insurgents. The civilian death toll has reached four figures. Thousands more have been maimed and injured. An estimated 320,000 inhabitants — nearly a third of Mogadishu’s population — have fled in terror.
In five days spent in and around a city reverberating with the constant thud of mortars and bursts of gunfire, The Times saw burnt-out slums, huge refugee encampments, hospitals overflowing with the sick and injured, and enough misery to last a lifetime.
It is hard to overstate the suffering of this forgotten country. Last year Somalia tasted peace for the first time in 15 years of bloody civil war when the Islamic Courts movement drove out the warlords who had made their country a byword for anarchy and mayhem. But Washington saw the Courts as a new Taleban sympathetic to al-Qaeda, so it conspired with neighbouring Ethiopia to remove them as part of its War on Terror.
In December Ethiopia’s formidable army routed the Courts, and installed a Somalian “transitional federal government” that includes some of the very warlords the Courts had ousted, and depends for its survival on thousands of soldiers provided by Somalia’s oldest and most bitter enemy. The new Government is now battling against a growing insurgency, and legions of petrified Somalis are caught in the crossfire.
On our first afternoon in Mogadishu we were interviewing doctors at the Madina hospital when we heard explosions. Minutes later a convoy of cars, minibuses and trucks began delivering men, women and children — all civilians — with blood pouring from shrapnel wounds.
They were carried, wailing and moaning, into the casualty centre on trolleys, in people’s arms, in crude stretchers fashioned from blankets. They were laid on tables and the lino floor, soaked in their own blood and vomit. The doctors and nurses were soon struggling to cope, sweat coursing down their faces as they bandaged wounds and rigged up intravenous drips in the intense heat. But still the injured came — 30, 40, 50 of them. Amid the pandemonium a man with a stick fought to restrain a mob of frantic relatives.
Survivors said Ethiopian troops had fired three shells into a market in a neighbourhood called al-Barakah packed with women buying fresh milk. A dozen were killed outright.
The Government says the Ethiopians are responding to insurgent attacks, and that it has warned civilians to leave the insurgent-held areas of Mogadishu. But such horrors have become commonplace, and some European diplomats believe the Government and its Ethiopian backers could be committing war crimes.
In the past few days Ethiopian shells have hit a mosque, a minibus, a hospital and HornAfric, Somalia’s leading independent radio station. One night alone 73 people were killed in northern Mogadishu, and in three days last weekend the Madina treated 245 wounded civilians.
The casualties fill its foetid wards, corridors and overflow tents, and lie under trees outside. They are people like Ruqio Muse, a 22-year-old mother of three young children who said her thigh was shattered by an Ethiopian sniper’s bullet as she retrieved goods from her clothing stall in one of the city’s battlegrounds. Next to her lie two semi-comatose girls — 16-year-old cousins — whose skin was burnt from their faces by a landmine explosion. Ahmed, 14, has had a leg amputated.
Saida Ali Muhammad, 40, had fled Mogadishu with her children but returned to sell milk when she was hit by shrapnel in both legs. “This is shameful,” said her uncle, Farah Rage, as he tried to cool her with a fan. “We are in the middle of two crazy groups, one calling themselves insurgents and the other saying they’re the Government. Both are in concrete buildings so it’s the civilians who die.” Hussein Dhere, the hospital’s despairing deputy director, said his staff were working round the clock and “if this lasts another ten or twenty days we can’t cope. I feel very sorry. Sometimes I’m angry. Our people are dying.”
We had first visited Mogadishu early last December, five months after the Courts ousted the warlords, and found a city still rejoicing. Gone were the ubiquitous checkpoints where the warlords’ militias killed, extorted and stole. Gone were their “technicals” — Jeeps with heavy machineguns mounted in the back. Hundreds of Somalis were returning from foreign exile, businesses were reopening, and for the first time in a generation people could walk around safely amid the ruins of their once-fine capital, even at night.
The Courts’ leadership undoubtedly contained Islamic extremists with dangerous connections and intentions. They banned the narcotic qat, cinemas, Western music and dancing. But the Courts also achieved the almost impossible task of imposing order on one of the world’s most dangerous cities, and for that most Somalis were content to accept their strict Islamic codes.
Today Mogadishu is a warzone once again. The crowds and traffic have melted from the streets. Schools, businesses, roadside stalls and even orphanages have closed. We were the only whites and foreign journalists in the capital, and the first guests in our hotel for three weeks. We had just nine fellow passengers on the only air-line that still dares to fly into the city, and beside the runway stood the wreck of a military transport plane hit by an insurgent rocket.
An estimated 20,000 Ethiopian troops are battling against the insurgents — an alliance of Islamic Court fighters and elements of Mogadishu’s dominant ****** clan who control much of the outer city. The Government’s own army consists of barely 5,000 “soldiers” — former members of the warlords’ militias who inspire fear, not confidence. They man checkpoints and stand on corners in central Mogadishu, flaunting their semi-automatics. Many chew qat. Some steal and extort (we twice had to pay bribes at checkpoints).
Terrified of insurgent attacks, they remove women’s niqabs — Islamic head coverings — so they can see who is underneath.
In December we could move freely around the city, but not now. This time we avoided main roads, used vehicles with tinted windows, and travelled with several bodyguards. Like most inhabitants of Mogadishu, we retreated behind our hotel’s steel gates well before dark. But one day we slipped into the insurgent stronghold of north Mogadishu through the sort of labyrinth of muddy back alleys that thwarted the US rescue effort when two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down over Mogadishu in 1993.
Beyond the green line the streets were almost deserted except for young fighters bristling with guns, technicals carrying rocket-launchers, and men left behind to guard the homes of families that have fled.
On Industrial Road, a major thoroughfare, we were shown trenches and barricades built to obstruct Ethiopian tanks, burnt-out Ethiopian vehicles, and the charred remains of both a charcoal market and a camp for 1,200 homeless families shelled by the Ethiopians.
More than 50 died as fire raged through the camp’s rickety shelters made of wood and plastic sheeting. All that remains is an expanse of ash littered with the blackened remains of cooking pots, lamps and corrugated iron. “My family fled to the countryside,” said Hussain Ibrahim Yusef, a young boy standing alone in the devastation. “We were separated. I don’t know where to follow them.”
Another day we drove south from Mogadishu towards Afgoye. The refugee camps started about ten miles out and went on and on — thousands upon thousands of families who are living out in the bush beneath orange tarpaulins or in the open, sheltered from the blazing sun and torrential rainstorms only by trees.
These people fled with little more than sleeping mats and the clothes they wore. Food is scarce. Vendors charge extortionate prices for water, so some refugees are drinking from dirty rivers. There is no sanitation, and relief efforts are hampered by the lack of security, poor infrastructure and harassment by government soldiers.
We found 1,865 families — perhaps 10,000 people — packed into the 59-acre (24-hectare) grounds of the Lafole Hospital alone. Hawa Abdi, 60, the doctor who runs the hospital with her daughter, said children there were suffering from dysentery.
One adult and four children had died. Pregnant women were suffering miscarriages. Supplies were running out. “We need peace. We need help,” she beseeched.
We also found the new makeshift premises — a few corrugated iron shacks — of the Hayat hospital and nursing school which we had visited in Mogadishu last December. Abdirahman Figi, the hospital chief, said the Ethiopians had shelled it, stolen its money and medicines, then commandeered it for barracks. He said thousands of refugees were at risk from the onset of the rainy season and then winter. “The Islamic Courts brought peace and we were happy,” he said. The new Government was “worse than the warlords”.
In five days we spoke to scores of ordinary Somalis. Overwhelmingly they loathed a government they consider a puppet of the hated Ethiopians. “As long as the Ethiopians are on Somali soil the insurgents will get support,” said Muhammad Ibrahim, a gardener now living with his wife and three children at the Lafole hospital. “In the six months the Islamic Courts were here, less than 20 people lost their lives through violence. Now that many die in ten minutes,” said Hussein Adow, a businessman waiting outside the Madina hospital.
The Ethiopians had closed the main road back to Mogadishu, so we took a deeply rutted dirt track through the bush. We saw columns of black smoke rising above the distant city, and passed countless vehicles struggling southwards with yet more refugees.
Back in the capital we visited another hospital, the Benadir, and saw some of the most harrowing scenes of all. There were no beds. In one bare room after another the concrete floors were covered with emaciated children lying on filthy rugs, tended by desperate mothers. There were 700 of them, most under 5, all suffering from dysentery and cholera contracted in the refugee camps. Nowhere in Somalia is safe any more.
Rise and fall of the Islamic Courts
Mid-1990s Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), a group of local courts, gained popular support by beating corruption and bringing order
March-May 2006 Worst violence in almost a decade between rival militias
June UIC militias seize Mogadishu from warlords. US fears region could fall under the sway of al-Qaeda
September UIC and Government begin peace talks in Khartoum
December From its base in Baidoa the Government, backed by Ethiopia, fights with Islamists and drives them from Mogadishu
January 2007 US attacks suspected al-Qaeda positions in southern Somalia. Islamists abandon last stronghold, port town of Kismayo
March African Union peacekeepers arrive
April 320,000 Somalis have fled Mogadishu since February, UN says
Source: Times archives
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