Eerie silence in empty Mogadishu
By Mark Doyle
The streets north of the ruins of the Old Parliament in Mogadishu stretch out like alleyways bulldozed through a rubble dump.
Parts of some of the buildings are still standing – a wall here, a section of collapsed roof there.
But the overall impression in this part of the Somali capital is one of massive destruction. I did not see a single house there without shell damage or bullet holes.
However, the really frightening part of it was the lack of people.
After covering several wars, I have come to be wary of empty places.
If, in a war zone, you turn a corner and see no shops open and no people going about their business – beware.
It usually means that some military activity has recently taken place there – so the people have fled – or that the people fear an imminent attack.
And the local people almost always know best.
As I drove through parts of Mogadishu on a patrol with Ugandan soldiers of the African Union (AU) peacekeeping force, there was an eerie lack of human beings.
We don’t have enough troops of our own to ensure security, so… we still need the Ethiopians for now
Abdi Haji Gobdon
Blasted buildings aside, this ghostly absence of people was a sure sign that this place is going through a period of terrible violence.
The United Nations estimates that in the past year at least half of the population of Mogadishu – or over half a million people – have fled the fighting between the Ethiopian-backed transitional government and its Islamist and clan-based opponents.
Some of the physical destruction I saw in Mogadishu was a result of earlier wars in the 1990s. War in one form or another has been a near-constant fact of Somali life for decades.
But the relatively short conflict that has raged here since Ethiopia intervened to expel the Islamists in late 2006 has depopulated Mogadishu even more.
The government says that is due to the unpredictable hit and run attacks of the insurgents.
Others say it is due to the more predictable Ethiopian tactic of inflicting heavy reprisals against suspected sympathisers of the insurgents.
We don’t have enough troops of our own to ensure security, so yes, we still need the Ethiopians for now
The day I visited Mogadishu there appeared to be mercifully little military activity in the areas I was able to see.
This allowed the government spokesman, Abdi Haji Gobdon, to make an ambitious claim: “Attacks and violence are very rare now. You see, here we are at Villa Somalia [site of the presidency], the highest point in the town, and we can hear no shooting.”
The last bit was true.
And I was very pleased it was true, partly because it meant that my hosts for the day – the United Nations aid mission to Somalia and the small AU force – felt able to drive BBC cameraman Phil Davies and I around a little.
But our tour was still strictly limited to the central districts of the capital – around the sea port, the “K4″ roundabout area, Villa Somalia, Medina hospital, and, as noted at the start of this report, a quick foray into the area beyond the Old Parliament.
With the AU patrol, we skirted past the edge of the Bakara market district, which was once the beating heart of Mogadishu’s historic trading role on the shores of the Indian Ocean.
“Can we go inside the market?” I asked, more out of journalistic duty than hope of a positive reply.
“It is not advisable,” replied Major Ba-Hoku Baruigye of the Ugandan army, with eloquent understatement.
The Ugandan contingent in Mogadishu is the lonely vanguard of an AU force which is supposed to number 8,000 soldiers but still has less than a quarter of that total.
Major Baruigye’s advice was wise. Bakara market – a sprawling district rather than a building – sells everything from hi-fis to AK47s and has become one of the strategic points in the war.
Two weeks before I visited, the Ethiopian foreign minister paid a call to Villa Somalia.
He was welcomed there by the government, but the anti-government forces had a message too. They sent a volley of mortar rounds into the presidential complex.
The Ethiopian army replied by attacking its perceived opponents in Bakara market. The death toll from the Ethiopian attack, according to usually reliable sources, was over 20.
It would be an absolute miracle, given the high-density nature of the market area, if some of those victims had not been entirely innocent people.
The Ethiopians deny targeting civilians.
But over and again, during several recent trips I have made to Somalia, people from all walks of life employed the word “indiscriminate” when describing the Ethiopian military response to the insurgency.
When your neighbour’s house is on fire, you don’t just wait for other neighbours to help
Major Ba-Hoku Baruigye
Of course, the roadside bombs of the insurgents can be indiscriminate too (albeit targeted at government soldiers or the Ethiopian forces).
On the days before and after my one-day trip to the Somali capital there were explosions which killed several soldiers and civilians.
The Ethiopians can also argue that they are supporting an internationally-recognised government that many western and African diplomats also see as the basis of Somalia’s last, best chance at some sort of stability.
And Addis Ababa says it will pull out its troops if someone else provides security.
That “someone else” is currently supposed to be the African Union peacekeeping force or, possibly, at some point in the future, the UN.
Meanwhile the Somali opposition insists that what it calls the Ethiopian “occupying forces” have to go immediately.
“Tensions are still high and we don’t have enough troops of our own to ensure security, so… we still need the Ethiopians for now,” said government spokesman Abdi Haji Gobdon
“But what we are all waiting for is a UN force.”
Major Baruigye made a similar point from another perspective.
On patrol inside his South-African made Mamba armoured personnel carrier, the articulate Ugandan officer raised his voice – partly to counter the din of the engines, but also, I felt, out of moral anger.
“When your neighbour’s house is on fire, you don’t just wait for other neighbours to help. You throw on a bucket of water to help put out the fire. That is what every member of the international community that has a stake in Somalia should be doing.”
The recently-appointed United Nations envoy to Somalia, Ahmedou Ould Abdallah, has been busy making contacts with the government and the mainly Eritrean-based opposition coalition.
The proxy war being fought in Somalia’s power vacuum by sworn enemies Ethiopia and Eritrea is a further complication in any negotiations.
The Somali belligerents have not officially had direct talks yet, but this is what Mr Ould Abdallah is working towards.
If and when this meeting takes place, the Ethiopian presence will be top of the agenda.
But so, too, will be the possibility of some other force replacing them.
Danger of inaction
The international community has tried and failed to put out the fires in Somalia before.
The Americans even tried once, in the early 1990s.
But that ended in a US rout in 1993 when two of their helicopters were shot out of the skies. The battle which ensued left thousands of Somalis and 18 US soldiers dead.
The conflict was immortalised – mainly from an American point of view, of course – in the Hollywood film Black Hawk Down.
These days the Americans keep their distance, but clearly still see Somalia as strategically important.
They have warships off Somalia’s coast and occasionally send in cruise missiles at what they say are al-Qaeda bases connected to the Islamists.
No-one thinks that any international peacekeeping effort in Somalia – a beefed-up AU force, or maybe even a UN one – will be easy.
Some say that given the historic mistrust between Somali clans, any such effort is doomed to failure – and that there are too many unknowns to make action effective.
But what the world does know is that when it turns its back on humanitarian and political crises there can sometimes be consequences.
Like the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
And, some would say, like 9/11.