Outlaw country


INSIDE STORY: Killing and looting are a part of daily life in Mogadishu and the president’s writ hardly runs beyond his front gate. But, reports Mark Huband, he plans to use money to buy the bandits’ guns.

The Guardian, 5 September 1992


THE BANDITS arrive at the crossroads at around midday or at dusk. The policemen disappear. People run along the hot pavement to the gates, which are slammed all along the street. The bandits stride across the street with bazookas on their shoulders. They force people out of their cars at gunpoint. Sometimes they blow the people up with bazookas, because there’s nobody to stop them. There’s always shooting. It’s normal these days. They shoot. And then they take away the cars. Usually there’s a gun battle as they drive away, the screech of brakes, people running.

From where I’m sitting now, on a hot rooftop, I can see it. There are three old men who have dyed their beards with henna sitting under a flame tree in a garden. They’re fumbling with rosaries, while other people are running in through the gate to their garden. Outside on the street people in uniform are shooting at people without uniforms. A Land Rover with rice has been apprehended at the crossroads where the two policemen were standing only a few minutes ago. A boy leads a blind man across the street which has become the battlefield. Another boy with a bazooka on his shoulder pushes them both to the side. A bandit – they’re the ones without uniforms – takes the wheel of the Land Rover and drives off with a roar. Somebody will eat tonight. Somebody else will go hungry.

CAMEL meat hangs from hooks in a market along the roadside. Among the stalls, in the shadows of the whitewashed walls, silent children wander with faces as stretched and lean as the meat. They are hungry. There is food. They have no money. They don’t eat. So they die, too old to receive the relief organisations’ rations of high-protein food given to all under-fives.

Before the war, sharks used to linger around the slaughterhouse effluent pipe on the edge of northern Mogadishu where the camels were killed. The beach was too dangerous for swimming. With the war it has become safer. There’s no electricity to pump the organs of the dead animals out into the sea. So the sharks have gone elsewhere to feed and children can swim in the clear blue water.

But the vile stench and the rotting bones and hides haven’t stopped the herdsmen bringing their camels for slaughter. They arrive in the evening. Herds of camels trot over the sand dunes to the courtyard surrounded by roofless sheds. The killing happens at dusk. By morning the heaps of shining camel guts slither under the weight of buzzing flies and seabirds, which flock to peck at the skulls and ribs that are strewn across the blood-blackened concrete.

The sight of the camel herds trotting towards death on their great padded feet, past the dome-shaped hovels of twigs and plastic sheets under which the starving and the sick are dying, makes looking at Somalia like looking at a country through a kaleidoscope. Everything relates negatively to everything else. Daily life propelled by repulsion.

North Mogadishu, where the streets are sometimes difficult to identify because they are only rubble, is where Somalia’s interim government is in power. It claims control of a few square miles of the city, which has been carved-up by the clans. The interim government is forming alliances with at least four other clans so that it’s influence can be extended to other parts of the country. But it claims its real power is in north Mogadishu

The street was blocked on the way to an interview with President Ali Mahdi Mohamed. A gang of bandits had blocked it a few hundred yards from the President’s office. The presidential army, wearing smartly pressed uniforms imported two months ago from Germany, was guarding the nearby gate to the office. The bandits set-up metal spikes on the road. Drivers turned away, knowing that if they approached the bandits their cars would be stolen. The presidential guards waited for the bandits to go away. They weren’t going to fight. Ali Mahdi’s authority appears to stretch only as far as his front gate.

President Ali Mahdi has an office at the top of a building called Khaidijo, so-called because it used to house the wife of the deposed dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre. It has a spiral staircase painted salmon pink. His office has a small globe, which stands beside his desk. His smile and the less than opulent size of the globe give him a modesty that is often dangerous if you want to remain a leader.

With the road nearby blocked by bandits, the extent of the President’s domain was unclear. It needs explanation. All Mahdi’s domain stretches back 300 years to the time of Hirap, who was a member of the Hawiye clan, Somalia’s largest. Hirap’s children founded two Hawiye sub-clans, the Habargadir and the Abgal. Within the Hawiye there are two other sub-clans, the Mursade and the Hawardie. But the Abgal say they are the oldest and the most numerous, comprising around 35 per cent of the Hawiye clan.

THE HAWIYE took the presidency when Siad Barre fled Mogadishu in a convoy of tanks in January 1991, destroying as much of the country and its people as he and his troops could. Siad Barre is a member of the Darod clan. The Isaq and the Digil Mirifle are the country’s other two clans. All the clans are from the Somali tribe. It is the only country in Africa where everybody is a member of the same tribe.

Within President Ali Mahdi’s Abgal sub-clan there are also sub-sub-clans. The Abgal decided that the presidency would go to the Abgal Harti, of which Ali Mahdi is a member. The chief elder of the Abgal, Imam Hamud, is also a member of the Abgal Hartl, as are key members of the interim government.

President Ali Mahdi’s main job is to plead with the rest of the world to prevent Somalia starving to death. On the streets of north Mogadishu his task is also to try and stop the banditry. When he took power, he had ministers for everything. There was a minister for tourism, but he was moved sideways due to a lack of resources.

Two month’s ago a Russian Antonov aircraft flew 52 billion Somali shillings-worth of bank notes into the airstrip in north Mogadishu. The money was printed by De La Rue in Britain in 1990. It was paid for by Siad Barre, but he never had the chance to spend it. The money was brought-in so that Ali Mahdi could buy weapons off the bandits in order to stop them killing people and stealing cars and food sent by relief agencies.

General Ahmed Jilow, the President’s security chief, launched the operation. Two weeks’ ago it cost 1.4 million Somali shillings (£80) for the government to buy a gun off a bandit. But then the government realised it could reduce this price by bringing down the price of qat. Qat is a narcotic drug Somalis chew all day in order to keep themselves awake all night. Last week the government imported two tonnes of qat from Kenya, where it is grown. The bandits were spending 200,000 shillings a day on qat, so if they were to surrender their guns they would only do so for a big price. Now that the government has flooded the market with qat, the bandits have to spend less on it. So, now they are ready to give up their guns for 1.2 million shillings.

But it is in the government’s interest to keep the qat price down for another reason: “If tomorrow the enemy attacks, we need soldiers. And if the soldiers are to fight … they have to be stimulated. So they need qat. We need them to take qat, or they wouldn’t fight,” said Aweys Haji Yusuf, one of the President’s ministers.

Behind the President’s office is a prison where the government puts murderers, rapists and armed robbers captured in the drivel to promote law and order. The prison smells like a sewer. The cells have no windows. The inmates are all young. “If they are found guilty by the court, they will be hanged. We call it hanging, but actually we shoot them,” said Lt Col Ali Adani Aflauu, vice commandant of the Group Four national security unit.

The prison administrator, Major M A Jama recites a Somali proverb: “If a thief has his hand cut-off, he still has the rest of his arm with which to steal,” he said, suggesting that Islamic sharia law is ineffective, which is why it isn’t applied in Somalia where 90 per cent of people are Muslims.

LT COL AFLAUU has a difficult job. He has to know whether battles in his territory are part of the war or part of the country’s decline into criminality: “We send our men to a conflict in the city. If it’s a criminal shooting, we fight him. If it’s between the clans then we leave it, because the clan elders have to sort it out.”

In a corner of the prison yard he shows us the weapons captured from the bandits – automatic rifles, bazookas, pistols, mortars. By the time he fled after his 21-year tyranny Siad Barre had received £2bn worth of military hardware from the former Soviet Union and the US.

At another prison the inmates are paraded in the yard, their alleged crimes listed by Major Jama: “This man stole from his family at gun-point. This man…held-up passing cars with his rifle. This man was arrested for uttering words against the government and spying…This woman stole a military uniform and was going to sell it to the other side so they could use it to infiltrate our territory.”

General Jilaw says he needs 20 billion shillings to buy the estimated 3,000 weapons in the city. The government keeps its 52 billion shillings in the cellar of a house down a street of dry mud with a deep gulley filled with rubbish along its centre. The house is called The Bank. Armed guards with the German uniforms lounge on settees around the office of the general manager, Ahmed Yusuf. He eventually agrees to show us where the money is. Barred doors are unlocked, we are led along cool passageways to a room where there are more locked steel doors. But he loses his nerve at the last minute: “No, we can’t go in there. Because in there there’s a lot of money,” he says. “You won’t write about the details of where the money is, will you?”

His guards line up to be photographed. Most of the gunmen don’t like to be photographed. One explanation is that when the fortunes of war change, their photographs may identify them with one side or the other. They don’t want that, because when it’s all over they will be brought to account. And they won’t be able to say they fought for Somalia, because there is no Somalia.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited