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Civilian casualties mount in Mogadishu

Islamist Shabab militants step up attacks, and daily life becomes a deadly obstacle course for many Somalis.

October 22, 2010|By Ahmed Mooge and Patrick Gallagher, Los Angeles Times

Reporting Mogadishu, Somalia, and Beirut — When Mohamed Ali Dahir, a 21-year-old business administration student, used to board the bus to school, he wasn't worried about being prepared for an exam or arriving late to a lecture. Instead, he braced himself for gunfire or other violence that might erupt while he was traveling the streets of Mogadishu.

Even though his bus is clearly marked as school transportation, he said, there were times when even "the government soldiers open fire at us as we return from our schools or college."

Life in the Somali capital has become even more treacherous for people like Dahir. The fragile transitional federal government, backed by 7,100 African Union troops, has been struggling to stave off the Islamist Shabab militia, which has taken over most of the country.

The government controls only a few streets in Mogadishu, and although the African Union troops are scheduled to be bolstered soon by 900 reinforcements, many say the increase is not enough for a desperate government battling for survival in its own capital.

September was particularly deadly for Somalis. The Shabab conducted a "black Ramadan" campaign, carrying out a series of large-scale offensives during the Islamic holy month. Its attacks included an airport suicide bombing and a hotel raid that left at least 32 civilians and lawmakers dead. Nationwide, more than 350 people have been reported killed in recent weeks.

The goal of the Shabab, which means "the Youth," is to topple the government and establish a system based on Sharia, or Islamic law, similar to the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The absence of a strong central government in Somalia for almost 20 years has allowed the Shabab to fill the power vacuum by asserting its authority through violence.

Many Somalis are forced to stay home or within the confines of their neighborhood because they fear being caught in a crossfire as government soldiers battle the militia.

For Dahir, one of the difficulties of attending class is that the Somali Institute of Management and Administration Development, where he studies, is in a neighborhood controlled by the Shabab. On more than one occasion, his school bus was commandeered by militants and then fired on by government and African Union forces.

Just riding the bus became so complicated and dangerous that he put his education on hold until he can get to class without risking his life. He made his decision after a mine exploded in heavy traffic in late August and killed 15 civilians, including a woman at his school.

The likelihood of his returning to the classroom any time soon appears slim. Fighting in the city has become increasingly bloody, and civilians continue to die while attempting everyday tasks. Even a simple walk to work can turn into a harrowing struggle to survive.

"Really, the problem I have is the daily fighting and shelling," said Batula Somali, an 18-year-old housekeeper who lives with her family. "More people die in the market because of the bitter shelling every day."

Amadi Farajela Shegow, a father of eight, was caught in a random attack that left him without use of his legs and unable to work. He said he was on a bus heading to the city's Baraka market when Shabab fighters opened fire with heavy weapons, killing five and injuring several.

"I was rushed to hospital, but unfortunately I lost feelings in part of my abdomen and back," he said. "The doctors informed me that they could not do anything for me and suggested [I] go abroad for treatment."

Paralyzed from the waist down and with no prospect of being able to travel, he can only hope that the few remaining aid agencies continue to provide assistance.

In the West, people rely on radio traffic reports to avoid commuter snarls and formulate a quick back route. Daily radio reports in Somalia help listeners dodge shootouts, roadside bombs and kidnappings to navigate roads in the war zone.

But on Sept. 18, the Shabab attacked and took over HornAfrik, the country's best-known radio station, and seized its equipment. Another station, GBC, was captured the same day by another Islamist militia in what appeared to be a coordinated operation to put an end to broadcasts of trouble spots in the capital.

Many people have fled the city.

Amino Asad, a 40-year-old single mother, now lives in a cottage with her three young children in Elasha Biyaha, a town outside Mogadishu in the Afgooye corridor. According to estimates by the United Nations, Afgooye has the heaviest concentration of internally displaced people in the world.

International aid agencies have been banned by Islamist groups that control the area, preventing delivery of supplies, meaning that Asad and her children escaped Mogadishu's violence only to face more challenges.

"Here, we have peace, but we do not have good life," Asad said. "We do not get food, medicine, the basic things for human life."

Special correspondents Mooge reported from Mogadishu and Gallagher from Beirut. Special correspondent Meris Lutz in Beirut contributed to this report.

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