Somalia back from the dead
Less than two years ago, its capital was a war zone. No longer. Al Shabaab has retreated and the country has been retaken by AMISOM.
Somalia: A failed state is back from the dead
Less than two years ago, its capital was a war zone. No longer
Eighteen months ago, central Mogadishu was like an African Stalingrad. The heat may have been equatorial but everything else seemed strangely familiar: a dirty cat-and-mouse war, often fought hand to hand among the spectacularly bombed-out ruins of a once-thriving city centre.
On one side were the forces of the Western-backed government, supported by thousands of Ugandan and Burundian troops of AMISOM, the African Union Mission in Somalia. On the other was al Shabaab, a virulent militant Islamist organisation aligned with al Qaida. The two sides had been fighting for control of the capital for three years.
Between offensives it was possible to take a tour of the battlefield, courtesy of AMISOM, whose troops commuted there from their base by the ocean-front airport, shuttling back and forth in convoys of Casspirs, hulking armoured personnel carriers with bullet-cracked windows and V-shaped hulls designed to deflect mine blast.
The front line was an imposing wall of sandbags that snaked through miles of roofless residential districts, a post-apocalyptic ghost town where the danger of random mortar or sniper fire was constant. The soldiers on the fire steps manned their gun-slits from the comfort of smashed-up sofas and armchairs rescued from abandoned sitting rooms. Al Shabaab had developed an extensive network of tunnels and trenches, and in some places they were dug in less than 50m away. They had learned to crawl even further forward, under cover of night and the sound made by the shredded tin roofs flapping and clanging in the hot sea breeze, and to lob grenades over AMISOM’s parapets.
AMISOM had been advancing recently, although progress was costly and desperately slow. A Ugandan commander told me that it could take three days just to clear one small house. At this rate, he calculated, his men would still be fighting through Mogadishu in 2015.
Today, though, there are no trench lines in Mogadishu. On 6 August 2011, to the astonishment of just about everyone, al Shabaab pulled back overnight from all city centre positions. Their propagandists called it a tactical retreat, but it turned out not to be temporary. The insurgency was collapsing across central Somalia and falling back on its heartlands to the south.