The World's Most Dangerous Place: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia - James Fergusson (2013)


Chapter 1. An African Stalingrad: The war against al-Shabaab

Hawl Wadaag district, Mogadishu, March 2011

Of the West’s many fronts against Islamic extremism around the world, I am thinking, this one has to be the most literal. I have the oddest feeling that I have stumbled on to a film set: a Hollywood producer’s recreation of a front line, not the real thing.

I am sitting on a faux antique armchair, with sagging springs and the stuffing spilling out, in the living room of a wrecked townhouse in downtown Mogadishu. A colonel of the UPDF, the Ugandan People’s Defence Force, who has requisitioned the house as his field headquarters, is waving a stick at a large wall map. His name, helpfully spelled out on his breast pocket, is John Mugarura. Both he and the map are interestingly spot-lit by sunshine from a jagged hole in the corrugated-iron roof where, I have just been told, a mortar shell exploded the previous night.

‘In the last two weeks, my battalion has advanced here, here and here,’ the colonel booms, ‘and we are . . . here.’

He taps on the bottom edge of a red-inked ‘U’ that cuts across the heart of the city: the al-Qaida-linked militants of al-Shabaab on one side, us on the other. A cluster of yellow arrows surrounds our position, which is marked with the Uganda Battle Group acronym UGABAG.

Mugarura’s diction is the same as all the other Ugandan officers I have met: clipped, confident and elision-free, almost more English-sounding than the English. It is fifty years since Ugandans fought for the British Empire’s East African regiment, the long-disbanded King’s African Rifles, yet the colonial legacy lives on. The colonel’s rank is still denoted as it is in the British Army, by red flashes on the lapels of his jacket. Even the name of the man who sent him here, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, means ‘Son of a man of the Seventh’, a reference to the KAR’s Seventh Battalion. Mugarura’s blue-black cranium, shaved bald in the regulation way, shines with perspiration as though polished. He reminds me, as many of his colleagues do, of Idi Amin, as played by Forest Whitaker in the film The Last King of Scotland.

‘We have now paused to allow our TFG allies to come up and protect our flanks,’ he continues. ‘There is no question that we are winning. The problem is the speed of our progress, which is too slow . . . we give the enemy an opportunity to regroup every time we stop.’

The TFG is Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, whose forces are supposed to be leading this war. Mugarura and the 9,000 other mostly Ugandan ‘peace enforcers’ who make up AMISOM, the UN-mandated African Union Mission in Somalia, are officially only here in a supporting role. The truth, of course, is that the foreigners are running the offensive – AMISOM versus Islamisom, as the local joke goes – because the TFG’s ‘army’ is actually an uncertain alliance of clan militias incapable of leading anything much. There have been stories of TFG troops deserting their posts, and of shooting at each other instead of at al-Shabaab. They are even suspected of selling the enemy their weapons and ammunition.

‘So the TFG,’ I ask, ‘is now actively impeding the advance against al-Shabaab?’

Mugarura turns and blinks languidly at me. His face is expressionless but he pauses for longer than seems necessary before answering. This is another trait I have noticed among the Ugandan officers, although I have yet to get used to it and still find it mildly unnerving.

‘There is room for . . . improvement among our TFG allies,’ he says eventually. ‘Of course there is. If this was not the case there would be no need for our presence here – because they would have no need for our help.’

I look over at Richard and Ngethe, the only other non-combatants here. They both work for the public relations department of AMISOM. Richard is the senior of the two, an ex-British soldier and a former Whitehall political advisor. His expression remains opaque. But Ngethe, an easy-going cameraman from Nairobi whom Richard is training up, rolls his eyes: confirmation that we are going to be spun the official line today. Mugarura is not the type of officer to risk saying anything controversial to a visiting foreign journalist.

It is midday, and a hot, salt-laden wind is picking up outside. The twisted strips of iron around the hole in the roof begin to flap, clanging like a gong, a noise that is answered from the roofs of all the neighbouring houses. Mugarura says the enemy have learned to manoeuvre at night using this noise as cover; it will be a relief when the harsh Jilal season gives way, in April, to what passes for a monsoon in Somalia. Desultory gunfire sounds in the distance. I feel, inappropriately, like sleeping: a reaction not so much to the sweltering heat as to the adrenalin expended on the short but much-anticipated journey here in one of AMISOM’s armoured personnel vehicles. But then a solitary rifle round lands with a loud snap somewhere above our heads, the ricochet skittering away across the rooftops. ‘Harassing fire,’ says the colonel with a dismissive wave. ‘They are trying to keep us pinned down.’

I had been thinking of removing my flak jacket for a few minutes in order to shake out my sodden shirt. I had thought, too, of taking off my borrowed helmet, which is so heavy it is making my head loll. The Ugandans in the room have removed theirs, after all; and because this is my first time at the front – indeed, it is my first time in Somalia, as well as the first time I have ever worn body armour – I am inclined to copy them minutely. This no longer seems a good idea. Through a smashed window I can see two soldiers slumped against the wall of a courtyard, playing cards. The incoming round causes one of them to glance up at the sky, as though wondering if it is going to rain. He decides that it isn’t, and returns to his game. I touch the Velcro on my hips, and – nonchalantly, so as to avoid seeming frightened – tighten the chin-strap of my helmet to the last available notch.

Like much of Mogadishu, this part of Hawl Wadaag, a sub-district known as El Hindi, is built on a grid pattern, with red sandy roadways defining each city block. The blocks are large but the houses within them are small and square and densely packed together behind high compound walls. The gaps between these walls are often so narrow that you can touch either side at once, forming a network of canyons easy to defend and exceptionally difficult to attack. During the civil war of the 1990s, long before the arrival of AMISOM, the district was notorious for inter-block warfare between rival clan militias, and so dangerous to enter that it was known locally as ‘Bermuda’. Now, however, El Hindi is being contested by an army of jihadis whose religiously motivated stubbornness has become legendary.

‘Cleaning out one small little house can take four days,’ says the colonel. ‘It is very costly.’

He is not exaggerating. AMISOM’s casualty rates are proportionally worse than anything experienced by Nato in Afghanistan. Over eight hundred of their soldiers have been killed since they first deployed in 2007, the severest test ever faced by the nine-year-old, 54-nation African Union which, as the continent’s answer to the EU, sanctioned the AMISOM mission. The AU’s Burundian contingent, on the left of the line, suffered worst during the most recent short push, in which over forty of them died in a fight for a single building, the symbolically crucial Ministry of Defence. In the past six months AMISOM have advanced just two kilometres, and they are not even half way to their main objective yet, which is to control the Bakara Market, the geographical and financial centre of the city. The market is reckoned a vital source of income for al-Shabaab, who levy heavy taxes on the businesses there; they are said to police the area ruthlessly, including with brainwashed child soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs and whips. This truly is a forgotten campaign in the global war on terror.

The briefing ends and Mugarura, properly helmeted now and armed with a stout walking stick, leads us off in single file towards the front line proper, 300 yards to the north. Since every intersection between the houses is a potential ambush point, the Ugandans avoid them wherever possible by digging ‘mouse holes’ through the compound walls. The colonel plunges through one of these and we follow him into somebody’s kitchen, left through a hole into a bedroom, down some steps, along a path between two high compound walls, right into the bathroom of another home, up some steps and across the courtyard of a third. It would be easy to get lost in this disorienting maze. It is like negotiating a real-life print by M. C. Escher.

Mugarura’s men are not the only ones to use burrowing tactics. During an earlier offensive, AMISOM were astonished when they overran an elaborate network of concealed trenches. The colonel pauses briefly to show us one which snakes across somebody’s backyard and beneath a garden wall. Its construction is business-like: deep enough to crawl along unseen, but no more. His men, he says, are still finding new branches of this network, which appears to cover half the city. Al-Shabaab have dug secret tunnels under AMISOM’s lines, too. It is impossible not to think of the mine warfare of Flanders during World War One, although the deadly hidey-holes, the post-apocalyptic dereliction, and the constant threat of snipers, ambushes and booby-traps also bring to mind the horrors of Germany’s Eastern Front in World War Two. I did not expect Mogadishu to be an African version of Stalingrad.

Two decades of bullets and abandonment have wrought astounding transformations in the fabric of these buildings. The most exposed walls have been shot so often that their cratered surfaces appear to be dissolving, like the fragile interior of a half-sucked Malteser. At one point our route takes us through a corrugated iron shed which bullets have turned into a giant colander. The latticework of sunbeams it contains is unexpectedly beautiful.

In some of the houses we penetrate, I glimpse the forms of soldiers sleeping on camp-beds beneath grimy grey mosquito nets. A fortnight previously, al-Shabaab’s fighters were resting in the very same places. Scrambling through rooms in dirty boots where shoes were once habitually removed, it suddenly strikes me how deeply violated these homes have been by the tide of twenty years of war. Floors once proudly swept by housewives seem permanently defiled by the accreted filth of fighting men. Alongside the flies and faeces there are tragic glimpses of family lives hastily abandoned: a child’s rusting tricycle, a kitchen cupboard with an old kettle still in it, a pair of curtains in a glassless window frame, flapping in the salty breeze. El Hindi feels haunted by anguished, accusing ghosts.

In an essay written in 2008, Nuruddin Farah, Somalia’s most famous novelist, described returning to his family home in El Hindi in 2002, eleven years after locking the front door for the last time.1 He remembered a six-room home with a spacious courtyard and ‘a kitchen where my mother and her friends used to sit talking as they sifted rice and cooked . . . The city put on a sunny smile soon after siesta; the evenings were starry fun, and the city came alive. In those days, the city was innocent of the meanness of crime.’

In 2002, however, Farah struggled to find his home of many years. The civil war, an era sometimes known to Somalis simply as Burburki, ‘the Destruction’, had turned his old neighbourhood into ‘a zone of total grief’, where the roofless, windowless and doorless houses ‘look like no houses at all’. The devastation called to mind ‘wartime images of humans with their eye sockets emptied, their noses removed, heads bashed in until they were featureless and couldn’t be recognized as humans anymore’. When at last he found his old home, he couldn’t bear to go inside, ‘fearful that I might do or say something stupid, or perhaps even faint from the shock of the destruction before my eyes . . . This was judgement day, and I didn’t like the thoughts that were crossing my mind.’

Out in the derelict gardens of El Hindi today, only thorn scrub thrives, sprouting rich crops of snagged plastic rubbish. The neighbourhood was once dotted with old neem trees, thick-leaved Indian lilacs, whose carpets of shade formed a natural place for locals to meet and sit and chat. But the neems are mostly gone now, reduced to angry jagged stumps by soldiers foraging for firewood on which to cook.

In a small clearing on the far side of the first block we traverse, Mugarura stops and indicates a long thin pit full of ashes. The lingering smell, and unburned coils of steel mesh, show that a heap of tyres have been burned here. Richard tells Ngethe to be sure to film everything. He says the fire pit is rare evidence of a crude but effective enemy propaganda trick. AMISOM’s reputation has been damaged of late by allegations that they have accidentally killed civilians with their artillery barrages in and around the Bakara Market. Grainy mobile-phone footage of the aftermath of these attacks – a raging fire, choking black smoke, dead bodies lying about – has even appeared on al-Shabaab-controlled websites. AMISOM, while acknowledging that such ‘mistakes’ were sometimes made early on in the campaign, insist that they now never shell residential areas, and accuse al-Shabaab of faking the images, by setting fires such as this one, and dragging the bodies of people killed elsewhere into camera shot. It is a reminder that in this war, the virtual battlefield is as important as the physical one.

We emerge on to a wider patch of open ground which we are ordered to dash across to foil snipers, and then at last we arrive at the line of control. In two weeks, Mugarura’s men have constructed a parapet with sandbags and Hesco containers that looks as though it has been here for months: nine feet high in places, complete with fire steps and built-in sniper points. We make our way along the line behind their colonel, who is clearly a regular and popular visitor. The soldiers are happy to be photographed. Several of them have slung belts of machinegun bullets across their chests, and strike moody martial poses with their weapons. One soldier mans a heavy machinegun from the comfort of a requisitioned armchair, the upholstery of which is incongruously covered in bright orange flowers. He studiedly ignores his mates laughing at him as I point and shoot my camera, and I am struck once again by a surreal film set feeling. Some of the men, in their aviator sunglasses and decorated helmets, look so astonishingly like extras in a Vietnam war movie that I think they must consciously be emulating Hollywood. Yet there is no doubt what generation they actually belong to when one of them nods and grins and says in a near flawless American accent, ‘How ya doin’, man? Are you on Facebook? I’ll catch you later on YouTube.’

The troops are thickly spread, with most of them up on the fire step with weapons trained and ready to shoot. Mugarura explains that dhuhr, the noon prayer, is almost over, and that although al-Shabaab’s main sorties tend to be at night, they are also reliably aggressive after each of their five daily prayers. As if on cue, an AMISOM rifle starts firing rapidly a little way down to our left. The troops in our section all swing their weapons in the same direction, and the air suddenly explodes with gunfire. We crouch and wait. The shooting only lasts for a minute, and when it has died down we make our way along to the source.

The rifleman who started it is bristling like a pointer dog through his tiny gun slit. Mugarura scuttles forward and confers with him, their voices low. He peers briefly through the hole and then signals for me to crawl up and take his place.

‘Green door, straight ahead,’ he breathes. ‘You want to look? Be quick.’

I inch my head into position and immediately locate a green, lean-to cellar door. It is scarily close: 50 yards at the most.

‘He saw the door moving,’ Mugarura murmurs, leaning back comfortably on some rubble. ‘He has been watching it for hours. The enemy are dug into the basements all along this sector. We can hear them calling out to us at night, “Amisom! Amisom!” They sometimes throw grenades over our parapet. That is our biggest problem here, but if you keep a good eye out you can get them first.’

The colonel grins and pats the helmet of the rifleman, who smiles crookedly but doesn’t take his eye, or his weapon, off the door to his front. Mugarura says his snipers picked off two al-Shabaab fighters the night before. The night before that, however, a new arrival from Kampala failed to keep in cover while negotiating his way to a field toilet and was peremptorily shot through the head. The soldiers here are engaged in a giant game of whack-a-mole; the only difference is that, in this game, the moles can hit back.

As we loop back to our start point, the colonel leads us to the sandbagged rooftop of a three-storey building from where the medium-rise tower blocks and radio masts of the Bakara Market are just visible on the horizon about a mile ahead. The gently rising foreground is dominated by a badly damaged, ochre-tiled minaret. This is the famous Red Mosque, the burial place of an important Sufi saint, which Mugarura describes as his ‘personal’ objective, a place he hopes to overrun before summer’s end. Richard persuades Mugarura to do a short interview to camera with the Red Mosque in the background. Halfway through, however, there is a thunderous bang as a small-calibre mortar round drops in, barely a hundred yards away up the street. We turn and watch the corner of a building crumble slowly to the ground.

‘That was close,’ says Richard. ‘In fact, I’d say we’ve been spotted. In fact: Move!’

We all run from the roof into better cover – all except the colonel, who walks at his usual dignified pace. We are back in Vietnam again: the scene in Apocalypse Now where the Stetson-wearing Lt-Col Bill Kilgore announces, while under heavy fire: ‘If I say it’s safe to surf this beach, captain, then it’s safe to surf this beach!’ For Colonel Mugarura, being mortared has become routine: an everyday event on this extraordinary, nightmarish front line.