Slow But Steady Steps to Recovery for Somalia’s Capital

Somali traders take advantage of a lul in violence

Surveying Somalia’s war-torn and dangerous capital from his office, the commander of the African Union force here Fred Mugisha is optimistic: “98 percent of Mogadishu is free.”

Assessments are relative. That day a double explosion hit the city: hand grenades were hurled close to UN offices, and another blast killed at least six people near a camp for the thousands displaced by drought and famine.

Regular explosions from the Al-Qaeda linked Shebab’s guerrilla attacks — including suicide bombers and homemade explosives — still rock the city, where some 180,000 people have fled hunger in the hope of finding aid.

Mogadishu, at civil war since 1991, remains one of the world’s most dangerous capitals, and the United Nations has declared famine in the camps for desperate families seeking aid that have sprung up across the city.

But six months after the United Nations declared a state of famine in several regions of southern Somalia, life is gradually returning to normal in Mogadishu, despite still near daily attacks by insurgents.

The Shebab abandoned fixed positions there in August and switched to guerrilla tactics against the Western-backed government and African Union troops protecting it.

“The population is regaining confidence,” added Mugisha, head of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), whose 10,000 soldiers from Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti have battled hard to wrest control of the city from Shehab gunmen.

In central Mogadishu, street vendors offer snacks and fruit juices at busy road intersections, and people chat in the shade of trees. Donkeys pull carts, while zooming Vespa scooters evoke Somalia’s years of Italian colonisation.

Elsewhere in the city, sprawling camps of tightly packed makeshift shelters of plastic sheeting and branches dot the spaces in between the rubble of buildings destroyed by two decades of intense fighting.

“It’s probably safer here,” said Shangabo Isak, a 90-year-old who fled the Baidoa region with her young granddaughter five months ago “because the drought decimated all the livestock.”

“Before we had the war, now there are explosions,” said Khadra Suleyman, a nurse from a World Food Programme feeding centre run by a local aid agency. “But it is less dangerous,” she added.

A few hours later, a homemade bomb exploded close to the centre as people returned to their camp with the food rations they had received, killing six, including two policemen.

Around the same time, insurgents hurled hand grenades towards the UN offices, but no one was hurt in those blasts.

Almost “every day improvised explosive devices are discovered or detonated” in Mogadishu, a UN security source said, while adding that they were pleased that more people were now tipping off security forces before hidden bombs could explode.

Huge challenges remain, with the United Nations appealing for 1.5 billion dollars (1.1 billion euros) for Somalia this year.

“Up to 250,000 people still face famine … and four million (are) in urgent need of basic necessities such as water, food and medicine,” said Russell Geekie, spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

In recent months, famine has eased, Geekie added, but progress has been “slower than hoped.”

“It’s a very difficult place to work. … It is still a dangerous place,” he said.

Outside Mogadishu, the situation is dire: in central and southern Somalia, outside the control of AMISOM forces, the delivery of humanitarian aid is hampered by incessant fighting.

The United Nations has called Somalia, in ruins from multiple rounds of bloody civil war since president Siad Barre was ousted in 1991, the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Hardline Shebab fighters, who have imposed draconian restrictions on international aid agencies operating in the areas they control, are battling Ethiopian troops in the west and Kenyan soldiers in the far south.

Efforts are being made to train government forces in Mogadishu to support international efforts to restore stability to the long troubled region.

But many of the troops are poorly trained and often desert their posts because they are not paid for months at a time, Mugisha said