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Armchair Politician

Death stalks Mogadishu

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U.S. officials say they opposed the Ethiopian incursion at first. But eventually the Pentagon provided crucial satellite photos to the Ethiopians that helped crush the Islamic Courts militias. This was Washington's first military engagement in the Horn of Africa region since 1993, when 18 American soldiers died in a botched UN peace-enforcing operation popularized in the movie "Black Hawk Down."


Today, the faint sounds of propellers mutter over Mogadishu for hours every day. Embittered city residents say they are CIA drones launched from offshore warships, eavesdropping on local cell phone calls. If so, American intelligence officers have a lot of paranoia to sort through.


Ordinary people threatened


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Violent intimidation is fabled in Mogadishu. In recent months, Somali radio journalists have been shot on their way to work, blown up in their cars and had their offices raked by gunfire to dissuade them from reporting negatively on either the government or the Islamists.


But less well-known is the explosion in threats against ordinary people. Most appear to come from technology-savvy rebels.


"The calls are very matter-of-fact," said Ahmed, a telecommunications expert in Mogadishu who began receiving the dreaded "Private Number" calls after bidding for a government contract. He asked that his full name not be used.


"They say, 'The bullet is coming' or 'Kiss your children goodbye tonight,'" Ahmed said. "Then they hang up."


An impoverished man named Abdul was told: "You will be asking for water soon" -- a Somali reference to the burning thirst that comes from being gut-shot. His offense? Ironing the trousers of delegates at a recent Somali peace conference. He quit immediately and has sunk back to scrubbing clothes in his neighborhood for a pittance.


"The insurgents are threatening more and more people, it's true," admitted Abdi Hassan Awale, Mogadishu's overwhelmed police chief. "Their aim is to cripple us. We can't control the mobile phones."


Awale noted that Hormuud, the Somali cell phone service, hawks phone cards on street corners for as little as $3, without contracts. Those making the threats block their phones' numbers. They use the card once. Their identities are untraceable.


Another form of intimidation is simply killing without warning.


According to more than 20 independent interviews, a sampling of spontaneous political murders in Mogadishu in recent weeks includes a tea-seller shot when she sold food to despised Ethiopian patrols in the Hawl Wadaag district; a 12-year-old cigarette boy executed for doing the same in front of a Western medical clinic; two women shot after leaving an Ethiopian base at an old pasta factory; and a man killed for programming Ethiopian music into the occupiers' cell phones.


And so the city shuts down in fear.


Many of the shops around the national stadium have been shuttered, the local people complain. An Ethiopian base there has made business impossible. The shop owners were hit with death threats from both sides for selling -- or not selling -- snacks to the foreign troops.


Meanwhile, the Ethiopians can't even change their paychecks into local currency. A Somali money changer was killed as an example to others. The Ethiopians have resorted to stopping buses at gunpoint and forcing drivers to cough up their bundles of almost worthless Somali shillings.


"I don't recognize my people anymore," said Hawa Abdi, who runs the displaced people's camp outside of Mogadishu that was attacked by hungry troops. "I feel Somalia is lost. There is no Somalia. It is just a name."


Trained in Ukraine as a nurse, Abdi, a Mogadishu native, has managed her sprawling camp for 17 years. She squinted out over its sea of huts, domed like Native American wickiups but fabricated from scraps of trash. Even the trash looked old, tired. The camp is growing. Refugees from Mogadishu are arriving at the rate of 50 or 60 a day. Some kept on walking, nobody knew where.


Abdi put her hands gently on her head, as if her head hurt.


"You can only stay frightened for so long," she finally said. "And I am really tired of it."


Walking back to her office, she said she couldn't stay in Mogadishu anymore.

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