Back To A Burning City

I arrived at Aden Adde International Airport in Mogadishu late last week. As I was going through customs, I could clearly see the signs of ICU-Djibouti that was led by the current president of the TFG, Sheikh Sharif: former ICU security officials who are now in the TFG, scanning the arriving crowd for members of Shabab whom they know. I know two of them; I avoided speaking with them so as not to endanger myself when I go out of the airport.

I wanted to go to Suq Bacad on the Shabab side of the city. It would normally take me about 20 minutes if all the roads were open, or an hour if Industrial Road – which was closed when AMISOM took the Defense Ministry – was open, but it took me almost three hours! I had to take a minivan to Elasha Biyaha, which is located about 15 Kilometers from the city center, then take another minivan that took me through a dirt road – which circumvents the TFG-AMISOM positions in Jalle Siyad Military Academy and the Defense Ministry – to Bakara market and from there to Suq Bacad.

On my way to Elasha, the minivan was stopped at a Shabab checkpoint. Normally, they would just look for known TFG operatives, and then let the travelers be on their way. But after seeing me, the soldier wanted to know what was in my bag. I said clothes. Then he wanted me to open it and search it myself. I opened it and told him to search it himself. I told him that if I were to search it myself, I would search it in such a way as to hide whatever I was carrying if it was illegal. I could see through his mask that he was smiling broadly. Just then my friend “searched” my bag for me. The soldier then patted me on my back and told me to take care and get used to how things were.

When I got back on the car, the people were all complaining about my behavior. They felt I was being childish and that I was lucky that the soldier at the checkpoint was a “good guy”. They said normally I would be hit and arrested for disobeying orders. I felt that this crowd was mostly cautious when it comes to Al-Shabab and that they did not really feel that they were friendly. Nevertheless, they considered the Shabab more honest than the TFG and cited the fact that the soldier did not want to put his hands inside my bag as proof that he was avoiding being blamed for ‘lost’ items, if any. To be fair, that is true, and Shabab has more disciplined members than the TFG.

When I got to Elasha, I got a minivan that carried each person for about a dollar to Bar Ubah, which is a road junction at the northern entrance to Bakara market. That is more than what people pay to go to Afgoi (located 30 KM from centre of Mogadishu) from KM4 in Mogadishu! The price we pay for going to dangerous places!

We were lucky it had rained the day before and therefore we could take the dirt road without fear of getting stuck in the sand. Our driver was stupid enough to go through someone’s property, and we came face to face with a machete-wielding young man who was blocking our way. Most of us in the minivan were a little amused by his bravery. In a country where everyone has a gun at home, how can you expect to scare someone with a machete? A woman also helped who tried to convince the boy to let us pass, saying that we were being forced to pass there only by the presence of “enemies” who had forced us to pass this otherwise undesirable path. Luckily, elders from the area came and talked the boy into letting us pass after getting guarantees from the driver that he won’t pass there again. One of the elders made the people laugh by threatening to attack us with arrows if we came back. People thought that this was an area of comedians but it became clear to me that the people there were unarmed. Being so close to the front lines, they can’t risk having weapons there. They would easily be mistaken for enemy fighters by both sides.

The passengers on this minivan were more pro-Shabab than the first crowd. It seems that having to go through hours and hours of rough traveling just to reach a destination that would normally take minutes to reach; government soldiers who mostly harass people who come from the Shabab side; and the government’s random shelling of entire residential areas has mostly pushed the people in more than half the city into the arms of Al-Shabab.

People in the minivan were praising Al-Shabab for their most recent public service: paving a stone road to Elasha Biyaha that is now half-finished. Shabab have been collecting taxes from public vehicles that use the Elasha – Afgoi road. These taxes and money collected from Bakara businessmen are used to fun the road project. Maybe it is time the TFG also did something for the people – and I am not talking about siphoning off donor funds for personal use. If a poorly-financed militant group can do something, surely the TFG can, can’t they?

I was surprised at how quiet all the fronts were. I knew that the quiet can only mean one thing: there was to be a major battle in the horizon. Both sides were preparing to face-off. The drone that was encircling the city the whole day on Friday 20th May made it clear that Mogadishu was still at war (people were saying that it was a Helicopter, but it didn’t look like one to me). Unfortunately for Shabab, they massed their troops around the defense ministry perhaps to try and take it back but unknown to them at that time, AMISOM was preparing to attack from another front (AMSIOM may have been informed of Shabab’s imminent attack in the Northern part of the frontline and decided to divert Shabab’s efforts from that area).

I went inside Bakara market later in the day to confirm whether my sources were correct in telling me that Shabab still held all the southern junctions of Bakara ( Halwadag, Aden Adde, and Bakara Junctions). I went to the first two, taking pictures at the second junction. TFG supporters from the country I was coming from and also within Mogadishu had been floating rumors that the TFG had taken all three junctions. As always, they were lying on purpose. The only new area the TFG had taken was in Bondhere district where AMISOM Tanks had smashed through a slum and taken about 100 meters stretch of street, effectively forcing the Shabab units in the adjacent streets to also move back to avoid being cut off from their supply lines.

On my second day in Mogadishu, I was woken up by thunderous blasts that seemed to be coming from Bakara market. I thought it was just another day of random shelling, nothing more. By 9 PM, I saw someone claiming that AMISOM had taken Halwadag in the morning. I felt like it was false government propaganda, so I asked my friend to put on the radio. He put on a pro-government radio which was airing news that TFG forces were in control of Bakara all the way to Bar Ubah, and that Suq Bacad had earlier fallen to government forces ( I was in Suq Bacad and therefore knew that they were lying). I wondered who listens to these radio stations anyway! I decided I wanted to hear what Radio Quran – the official Shabab radio in Mogadishu – was saying about the battle. There was a Nashid (inspirational poetry that is sung) called Lanallah (meaning we have God) on air. I immediately deduced from the fact that they had that Nashid on air that they had indeed suffered losses in the early morning battle that was still raging (that Nashid speaks about how ‘we’ have God no matter what the oppressors do – good to listen to when you are down and want to get your spirits up). When the presenter came on, he did confirm of an AMISOM Tank present at Hawlwadag junction (Shabab radio does not hide territorial losses but exaggerates body counts of the TFG and AMISOM).

I was surprised at how that could have happened so easily in so few hours, so I called a commander in the military who confirmed that not only was Hawlwadag taken, but so was Bakara junction at the southwest entrance to Bakara market.
The info I got from various sources suggested that AMISOM tanks had used the same tactics as they did in Bondhere, bulldozing slums and taking single dirt streets, forcing the Shabab in the adjacent streets to retreat and allowing AMISOM tanks unhindered access to the main paved street and eventually the road junctions.

By Sunday morning, all the southern road junctions to Bakara market including Aden Adde junction had been taken by AMISOM troops. They are not camped out in the junctions, but rather 20 meters to their south, while the Shabab are 20 metres to the north of the junctions.

With businesses basically leaving Bakara for Shabab-held Elasha Biyaha, if the objective was to capture a tax-rich area for the government, that objective is now out of grasp. TFG and AMISOM had a chance to take Bakara intact before the businessmen took first truckloads of money and then goods, and before Shabab massed troops into Bakara market.

Taking Bakara proper will prove harder than the TFG likes to admit. With dozens of concrete buildings with narrow roads which are impassable for tanks, it will be a bloody infantry battle as the TFG has now painfully found out after initially entering Bakara, only to be routed by a numerically inferior force. Now that Shabab have put snipers and DshK guns on top of buildings and dug trenches, it will be harder than ever. It took the TFG and AMISOM almost two years forcing Shabab away from Makka Mukarama Road and the slums that surround it to Wadnaha Road (which is fully controlled by Shabab beyond Aden Adde Street). It will surely take much longer to dislodge Shabab from Bakara market, which has been continuously in the hands of the Insurgency since March or April 2008. Unless Shabab is forced to flee Bakara due to losses in other fronts, they will never leave Bakara due to its strong defensive properties.

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