From: Biniam Tekle (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: Mon Dec 22 2008 - 08:41:38 EST
Somalis' Choice: Join Islamists or Flee
U.S.-Backed Invasion Failed to Thwart Takeover
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 22, 2008; A01
DADAAB, Kenya -- By the time Mohamed Abdi Ibrahim decided to leave Somalia,
life in the southern city of Kismaayo had become, as he put it with
consummate understatement, "complicated."
Young men there had long shouldered AK-47 assault rifles and joined clan
militias. But as an Islamist militia known as al-Shabab took control this
year, it had become a place where boys were paid $50 to throw bombs, soccer
fields served as militia training camps, and Islamist leaders walked into
classrooms to take names of potential recruits.
Ibrahim and two friends fled several months ago, just after the Shabab began
beating people not attending Friday prayers and just before the group
publicly stoned to death a 13-year-old girl it had convicted of adultery.
The options for young men like them, it seemed, had narrowed to two: sign up
"For us, it was not good to join," said Ibrahim, a lanky 22-year-old who
fled to this overflowing refugee camp across the Kenyan border. "Because if
we join one side, the other side will hunt us and kill us."
The scenario now unfolding in Somalia is the one a U.S.-backed Ethiopian
invasion nearly two years ago had been intended to thwart: a takeover by
At the time, Ethiopian forces ousted a relatively diverse Islamic movement
that had briefly gained control of the capital, Mogadishu. In its place,
they installed a transitional government headed by a warlord who allowed the
United States to launch counterterrorism operations in the moderate Muslim
But the policy backfired, inspiring a relentless insurgency of clan militias
and Islamist fighters that has left Somalia's first central government since
1991 near collapse. On Sunday night, advisers and supporters of President
Abdullahi Yusuf -- who has been accused of obstructing a possible political
compromise to help end the insurgency -- said that he would resign Monday,
although as with everything in Somalia, the situation remained fluid.
The two-year insurgency has energized the most radical Islamist faction, the
Shabab -- "youth" in Arabic -- which the United States has designated a
Rallying young men with anti-Ethiopian rhetoric and a promised ticket to
paradise, the group advanced this year across much of southern Somalia,
including the capital, Mogadishu. Analysts predict the Shabab will extend
its control after the Ethiopians withdraw, which they have promised to do
The United States and the United Nations are now supporting a political
settlement that shifts power from Yusuf and his circle to an opposition
coalition that includes some of the Islamist leaders cast as extremists two
years ago, as well as clan leaders who had been excluded by Yusuf's
government. Backers of the Djibouti agreement hope that the Ethiopian
withdrawal, along with the political deal, will rob the Shabab of its cause.
But the situation on the ground -- and in swelling refugee camps such as
this one -- suggests that the group is only gaining strength.
"Young people, our age mates, were joining [the Shabab] every day," Ibrahim
said. "They would tell them to fight for your religion, fight for your land,
and they'd also give them money -- they were difficult to resist."
It was morning in Dadaab, and Ibrahim was standing with his two friends,
Mohamed Shuep, 25, and Hussein Hassan Adan, 16, in a huge, sweaty crowd --
the same sort of exhausted, frustrated crowd that gathers every day at the
barbed-wire perimeter of the camp.
Their growing number is a testament to what Somalia has become: a place from
which to escape.
Out of a population of about 9 million, more than 1 million people have fled
their homes, preferring drought-stricken regions of the country to the
crossfire of militias battling for control of Mogadishu and other areas.
Attacks on aid workers -- most likely carried out by the Shabab, who equate
them with foreign interference -- have made humanitarian assistance almost
impossible to deliver.
Hundreds of thousands more people have abandoned the country altogether. At
least 20,000 have taken their chances this year aboard rickety boats bound
for Yemen, and many more have traveled on foot or in stifling smugglers'
trucks that bring about 5,000 people to this camp each month.
Built in 1991 to accommodate 90,000 people fleeing Somalia's last civil war,
Dadaab is now a sprawl of more than 220,000 refugees -- a desert limbo land
of rounded stick huts and overburdened water taps emblematic of more than a
decade of failed governments and peace initiatives.
Ibrahim and his friends arrived a few months back.
Like many young men, they left extended families behind and began their
journeys alone, walking and hitchhiking toward Kenya. They became friends in
the Somali border town of Dobley, where they worked in a restaurant and
shared scraps of food and the shelter of a tree at night. Pooling their
money, they eventually paid their way onto a smuggler's truck crowded with
people and goats.
It took four nights and one shakedown by bandits to reach Dadaab.
It took about four months of waiting for the three young men to reach a
pre-pre-registration area, where they were standing on a recent day, hands
pressed on each other's shoulders.
"Sit! Sit!" an overwhelmed U.N. worker yelled at the crowd through a
megaphone. "The first family size to be registered will be family size 4,
Mostly, people here wait. They wait to be registered, for food, for their
leaders to stop fighting so they can go home. A bus that comes and goes from
here has the word "wait" painted on its side like an omen.
There is a straw-roofed shelter inside the camp where men have passed years
waiting -- playing cards, arguing over politics, and following the rise,
fall and rise again of the Islamists on the BBC.
"There is no hope for Somalia," said Abdi Ahmed Mohamed, who was 23 when he
arrived here in 1991 during the civil war. "All the people who could do
something for their country are here as refugees. Pretty soon, they're going
to be fighting over empty land."
About 10 a.m., Ibrahim, who said he wants to be a doctor; Shuep, who wants
to be an engineer; and Adan, who doesn't know what he wants yet, jostled
their way forward in the pounding sun. They walked beyond a fence and joined
another long line of young men leading to a single desk under a sheet-metal
"We have no relatives here," Ibrahim explained to the registration worker,
Austin Amalemba, who handed him an appointment slip for the next day. "Our
only relationship is we are friends. We want to be considered as one
Amalemba said the request is common these days.
"Most are young men, and they decide to group together as a family," he
There was also the family of Mohamed Mahamoud, Said Mohamed and Harat
Ismail, three unrelated young men who fled Kismaayo in September.
"We have feared for our life there," said Mohamed, 26. "There is no freedom
for young men there because of the Shabab. Even prayer is not optional. They
make you cut your hair, and you can't wear tennis shoes. I used to have a
very interesting haircut, but they made me change it. Most young people,
they hate the Shabab."
Nearby was 20-year-old Mohamed Ibrahim Mohamed. He had fled Mogadishu, where
government forces were battling the Shabab. The situation is so violently
polarized in the capital that women selling tea to one side or the other
Mohamed's father was killed in front of him when the first Islamist movement
took over two years ago; he had worked in the previous government and was
considered an enemy.
More recently, Mohamed's best friend, Abdugadir, was shot in front of him.
His crime: "He greeted a government soldier, and when the government
soldiers departed, the Shabab came and shot him in the head," Mohamed said.
Mohamed estimated that about 80 percent of his friends had relented and
joined the Shabab, some because they were "seduced" by religious ideology,
he said, and others because they felt they had no other choice.
The rest attempted to survive by banding together in small groups, he said.
When the Shabab took over southern Mogadishu, they fled to the northern part
of the city. When it took over the north, they fled south again.
And so it went until Mohamed heard, a few months ago, that the Shabab was
coming after him. "That was when I decided to leave," he said.
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