Opinion: Somalia slides

NEW YORK — The Somali war widow shuddered as she recounted how Al Shabaab insurgents jailed her for a week and whipped her 185 times, doling out lashes during prayer calls. She received this punishment for selling cups of tea.

Al Shabaab routinely gives women lashes and a night in jail for selling tea or other activities that bring them into public contact with men. This woman got a particularly rigorous beating because she sold tea from an area of Mogadishu, the capital, that is controlled by the Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

“The whip had three strands and cut like a knife,” the woman told me when I met her last fall in the Dadaab refugee camps in northeast Kenya. She said a masked Shabaab member flogged her even as she pleaded with him: “I am not a government sympathizer. I am just a poor mother. ... When people buy tea from my shop I cannot tell who is who."

Stories like this are shockingly routine in Somalia, where the beleaguered, U.S.-backed TFG is pitted against powerful insurgents including Al Shabaab, a radical Islamist group with some ties to Al Qaeda. While Al Shabaab has yet to demonstrate that it could turn Somalia into a terrorist safe-haven or stage attacks abroad, the group’s abuses in vast swaths of the country it has captured since late 2008 are already ample cause for concern.

So far, attempts by the U.S. and other international players to stem Al Shabaab’s rise have been ineffective and have in some cases increased the suffering of ordinary Somalis. The need for international players to chart a new course assumes new urgency as the dysfunctional TFG struggles to mount a new offensive to take over the capital. Recent efforts by the U.S. and the European Union to advise and train TFG troops are little guarantee of success against the more effective rebel forces, or of fewer civilian deaths.

Al Shabaab has grabbed world headlines for several suicide bombings that killed scores of civilians. In interviews with dozens of newly arrived Somali refugees in Kenya, I heard of other horrifying actions that the militant group tries to justify as a strict interpretation of Shariah law — decapitations of people it deems to be spies or apostates, stonings of adulterers, amputations of the limbs of thieves and forced recruitment of young adults and children.

Some young women and girls said they were threatened with death if they didn’t work in Al Shabaab barracks or accept the insurgents’ marriage offers. One young mother broke down repeatedly as she described Al Shabaab kidnapping her 12-year-old son and 14-year-old nephew to deploy as soldiers.

“My son called me. He said, ‘Mom, I was taken by Al Shabaab. Please pray for my release.’ I have not heard from him since,” the mother told me. Like most people we interviewed, she did not want her identity revealed for fear of reprisal against relatives in Somalia. The woman said Al Shabaab killed her brother after he ignored warnings not to search for the boys.

From cellphone ring tones to hairstyles, no detail is too mundane to escape Al Shabaab’s scrutiny. Women are flogged and jailed for failing to wear a particularly bulky form of abaya, an Islamic overgown — a mother described Al Shabaab members throwing her into a shipping container and flogging her for racing out of her home without her abaya in pursuit of her toddler, who had wandered into the street. One man from the southern port city of Kismayo said he saw Al Shabaab patrolmen jail group of teenage boys overnight and shave their heads with a broken bottle for playing Scrabble.

But it is not just Al Shabaab that perpetrates abuses. All sides, including TFG forces and African Union (AMISOM) troops, dispatched on a United Nations mandate to protect the transitional government, are killing civilians and ravaging Mogadishu.

Al Shabaab militiamen routinely fire on TFG and AMISOM forces from civilian neighborhoods. Those forces often respond in kind, launching mortar strikes on the neighborhoods from which Al Shabaab had fired but already fled. Regardless of which side is shelling, civilians often take the hits. One 14-year-old boy told us he came home one day to find his entire family killed by mortar fire.

There is no quick fix for Somalia. But major players including the U.S., the U.N. and the EU should take first steps by promoting measures that would protect civilians. International actors should end unqualified support for TFG and AMISOM troops that breach the laws of war. They should also press for a commission of inquiry to investigate abuses by all sides in Somalia. And they should stop sending mortars and mortar rounds to the TFG and AMISOM until these forces stop using the weapons indiscriminately.

Otherwise, the consequence could be more pointless destruction in a country already devastated by nearly two decades of chaos and violence. And many Somalis may end up viewing foreign actors who unconditionally back the TFG and AMISOM as little better than Al Shabaab.

Letta Tayler is a terrorism and counterterrorism researcher for Human Rights Watch. She is co-author with Chris Albin-Lackey of HRW’s new report “Harsh War, Harsh Peace: Abuses by al-Shabaab, the Transitional Federal Government, and AMISOM in Somalia.”