Inside Somalia: With the African Union forces

Editor's note: Somalia defines the term failed state. This GlobalPost series includes accounts of being under fire in Mogadishu, an investigation into the Al Shabaab rebels, a look at Somalia's revered poetry and an analysis of when Somalia will improve.

MOGADISHU, Somalia — The soldiers insist that you get used to the crack of bullets and the mortars landing nearby. It gets to be normal, they say.

“You can be standing here one minute and then, boom, you’re dead. That’s just how it is,” said one Ugandan officer. “If you think about it too much you’ll run mad.”

In that case it’s surprising there’s anyone sane left in Mogadishu, a city that has been at the heart of a 21-year war and stands as a blasted monument to the decades of destruction.

In 1988 clan-based militias launched a rebellion against the general-turned-dictator Mohamed Siyad Barre. When he was chased out of Mogadishu in 1991 the clans turned on one another in a battle for economic control and political power.

The years that followed have been a violent dance as clans and sub-clans split and reform, collaborate and fight as circumstances shift.

The current fighting is, once again, in-fighting.

The allied Islamist insurgents of Al Shabaab, a group that has declared its allegiance to Al Qaeda and Hizb Al Islam, are battling for power against their former ally Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, president of the Transitional Federal Government.

Ahmed has the political and financial support of the United States and the United Nations and, more significantly, the military support of 5,300 Ugandan and Burundian soldiers who make up the African Union peacekeeping mission here, known as AMISOM.

Over the years the reason for the conflict has changed but the killing has remained the same.

Hundreds of thousands have died, more than half a million Somalis are in refugee camps, half the remaining population of 7 million survives on food aid, tens of thousands are forced to flee their homes every month. The humanitarian impact is staggering.

The battered seaside city bears witness to the meticulous destruction. Bombed-out buildings, collapsed houses and rubble-strewn streets are the result of round upon round of fighting.

And still it goes on. On three out of five evenings recently spent in Mogadishu thudding mortars and staccato machine-gun fire ripped open the quiet of the night. When fighting is heaviest the worst of it is at K4, which is short for the traffic circle four kilometers from the port.

K4 marks the frontline between the few square miles of the city that AMISOM controls and the rest, where Al Shabaab holds sway. The junction links the airport to the seaport and Villa Somalia, the hilltop presidential compound.

“K4 is very strategic. For anyone to control Mogadishu they have to control K4,” said Capt. Kenneth Wabwire, commander of the Ugandan detachment.

As we crouched sweating on the roof of the bombed-out former Egyptian Embassy, bullets smacked into concrete walls and piles of sandbags.

“Since morning we have been under attack from sniper fire,” Wabwire told GlobalPost as the crack of gunfire rang out again.

A dozen or so Ugandan soldiers crouched low, occasionally peering over the sandbag wall at the white-washed buildings, less than a mile away from where insurgents were taking potshots.

The Ugandan position overlooks the K4 roundabout, its centerpiece a 20-foot tall bullet-scarred and statue-less plinth. Young boys sit in its shade while next to them cows root through plastic bags and rubbish.

The kids pay no attention to the barrel of a T55 tank that sticks through the wall of an abandoned cinema next to the roundabout. Pharmacies, travel agents, airline offices, money transfer agencies and restaurants surround the busy traffic island; battered cars and minibus taxis bump along the broken road.

To the other side the Ugandans peer out across Bakara Market, a sprawling business district and Al Shabaab stronghold made up of low-lying shacks and high-rise buildings.

K4 is attacked pretty much everyday. And at night the attacks intensify. The commander says that his soldiers ignore rifle fire only responding when mortars target their compound.

When that happens the reply is devastating: At ground level half a dozen 82 millimeter and 60 millimeter mortars are arranged, distance and direction set for different parts of Bakara Market. One incoming mortar elicits a deadly volley of outgoing fire.

“If possible we respond, if we have identified their position, but it is difficult to locate them … [even though] these people are not far,” explained Wabwire as he squatted on a metal case of ammunition.

The peacekeepers are criticized for their indiscriminate bombardment of civilian districts but AMISOM spokesman Maj. Ba-Hoku Barigye says the troops show restraint, under the circumstances.

A mortar that landed at an outpatient clinic last month killing five people, including one peacekeeper, was fired from the roof of a nearby hospital. “You see what we are dealing with,” he said.

There were few signs of restraint Feb. 5 as AMISOM fought off an assault on K4 and other detachments by Al Shabaab fighters keen to upset the government’s anniversary celebrations.

The peacekeepers have also been targeted with roadside bombs and suicide attacks, techniques that Western intelligence sources say are taught by foreign jihadis who have joined the ranks of Al Shabaab in recent years.

The most deadly attack was in September last year. Suicide bombers killed 17 peacekeepers inside the AMISOM base, including the mission’s Burundian deputy commander. Twenty seconds earlier another suicide attack struck a compound used by U.S. contractor DynCorp, also inside the base.

“The remaining skeletons of the buildings are still regarded as Force Headquarters,” said Barigye gesturing toward the two-story building that, five months on, still has gaping holes blasted through its walls.

The bombers used armored Land Cruisers, stolen from a U.N. office in Baidoa, to charge over tire-cutters and through two separate checkpoints penetrating into the heart of the AMISOM base before detonating their explosives.

Four other armored Land Cruisers, white with U.N. insignia, were stolen at the same time. AMISOM officers expect more attacks. And in February last year a suicide bomber blew himself up at an Amisom checkpoint killing 12 Burundian peacekeepers.

With only 5,300 of a mandated 8,000-strong force and with scarcely enough vehicles to move its own troops around, the fact that AMISOM has stayed this long is impressive. During the five days GlobalPost spent in Mogadishu at least two peacekeepers were killed. More than 70 have
died since the mission began.

GlobalPost caught up with the president of Somalia, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, late last year in Chicago:

The previous peacekeeping mission pulled out of Mogadishu in March 1995. It had 28,000 peacekeepers at its peak and stayed for less than three years. The joint U.S. and U.N. mission was rolled back after the infamous "Black Hawk Down" episode in 1993 when 18 U.S. soldiers were killed in street battles after a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter was shot down in Mogadishu.

For now a deadly stalemate is in place with Al Shabaab unable to defeat AMISOM which, with its peacekeeping mandate, is not allowed to launch offensives. That must be done by government forces which have so far proven incapable of the job.

Speaking at the end of January, President Ahmed promised that this year his troops would take Mogadishu.

But in the meantime the mortars continue to fall, the machine-gun fire rattles out and the civilian death toll climbs steadily upward leaving the African Union's peacekeeping soliders from Uganda and Burundi at the heart of Somalia's continuing maelstrom, with little peace to keep.

Inside Somalia: The series

Life in hell: under fire in Mogadishu

Al Shabaab: a glimpse into the Islamic extremist group

A nation of poets: poetry is a political tool as powerful as the gun

Opinion: When will Somalia improve?