x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

'Mogadishu is dying. All the people are finished'

The worsening humanitarian situation in the capital of Somalia forces more people to flee, while poverty has left little choice for others but to bear it.

Sheikh Ise Abdi is treated for shrapnel wounds he sustained after an explosion tore through a market in Mogadishu last month.
Sheikh Ise Abdi is treated for shrapnel wounds he sustained after an explosion tore through a market in Mogadishu last month.

MOGADISHU // A bomb ripped through the crowded Bakara market last month killing three people. Sheikh Ise Abdi was one of the lucky ones. Shrapnel tore chunks of flesh out of his arms and legs. The blast knocked him unconscious. But he is alive.

Mr Abdi, 27, had gone to the market that day, as he does most days, to sell soap to feed his two children. Then came the deafening explosion. Then silence. He woke up at Medina hospital, the only public medical facility here in Somalia's war-ravaged capital. With limited resources, the staff at the overcrowded hospital try to save the throngs of maimed war victims that arrive each day. But lately the facility has become more of a morgue than a hospital.

Soon after leaving the hospital, Mr Abdi went back to work in the Bakara market, a notorious place where AK47 rifles and hand grenades are sold alongside tomatoes and used clothing. The market is in the centre of territory controlled by Islamist rebels who are fighting the Somali government and African Union (AU) peacekeepers. Daily fighting around the market and other parts of town routinely kills civilians. Yet Somalis such as Mr Abdi, who do not have the means to flee the city, continue to live in Mogadishu and hope that the next stray bullet or mortar shell will not strike them or their loved ones.

"Some people have fled Mogadishu. Me, I don't have money to leave," Mr Abdi said from an AU clinic where he receives weekly treatment for his wounds. "We have many problems. The problems are that we are poor and we don't have anywhere to go. The problem is the mortars, the bullets, the thieves." Nearly 20 years of fighting have left Mogadishu in ruins. Hundreds of thousands have fled the capital since al Shabab, a hardline Islamist insurgent group, launched a new offensive against the government in May. Those who have stayed provide a glimpse of what life is like in this city under siege.

Crumbling shells of bullet-riddled buildings line nearly every street like some post-apocalyptic wasteland. Their faded façades, at once beautiful and haunting, reveal traces of Italian colonial architecture. Trees and tall grass grow through destroyed roofs. If humanity has no use for this city, nature will gladly reclaim it. The weak government, with the backing of AU troops from Uganda and Burundi, controls only a few city blocks - a small triangular slice of Mogadishu between the airport, seaport and presidential palace. Here there is a modicum of security. Men sip strong tea at street-side cafes. Vendors hawk soft drinks and biscuits. Squatters camp in shells of abandoned buildings.

The chaos is not far off. The crack, crack, crack of machine gunfire and ground-shaking boom of a mortar blast could be heard a few blocks away during a recent AU patrol. Residents are wary of sniper fire and AU troops occupy rooftop positions behind sandbags. Armed Somali government soldiers in uniform patrol the streets while plain-clothed residents also tote guns for protection. Technicals, the uniquely Somali lorries mounted with heavy machine guns, speed by loaded with armed gangs of militiamen.

At the port, one of the few places in Mogadishu safe enough for westerners to walk around without an armed escort, men are hard at work on the few ships that have made it here through the gauntlet of pirate gangs operating off the coast. They unload bags of flour from the UAE and boxes of pasta from Oman. Ahmed Abdula, a port worker and lifelong resident of Mogadishu, offered a bleak description of his city.

"Mogadishu is dying," he said. "All the people are finished." As the fighting continues and more people continue fleeing this beleaguered city, the humanitarian situation grows worse. More than 1.5 million Somalis have fled urban areas such as Mogadishu and are living in squalid camps in rural Somalia, according to the United Nations. Another 500,000 are refugees in other east African countries. "I am shocked by the degree of violence facing the civilian population in central and south Somalia," Walter Kaelin, the UN representative for displaced people, said last month in Nairobi after touring Somali camps. "Indiscriminate attacks and shelling of areas populated by civilians are being perpetrated by all parties to the conflict with total impunity."

Dr Ronald Mukuye knows firsthand the dangers that civilians in Mogadishu face. A doctor with the AU peacekeeping mission, the Ugandan treats 350 patients per day at an outpatient clinic in an abandoned building near the airport. "There are psychological conditions, especially in people who have had shrapnel wounds, gun shots and bomb blast wounds," he said. "We see a lot of those types of cases. Those come in every day, children, women, men, [government] soldiers. There are some cases where there's nothing we can do for them. There's nothing much you can do but watch them die."

The worse cases are referred to the makeshift AU hospital on the peacekeepers' base. There, patients lie on cots in large army tents and fan themselves with woven mats. These patients have lost limbs to roadside bombs or have bullets lodged next to vital organs. Hamdi Bootan has shrapnel embedded in her leg. A mortar hit her house near the Bakara market, killing her nephew and three neighbours. Her husband works as a porter in the market, so the family has chosen to stay instead of joining the exodus out of Mogadishu.

"It is my country and I cannot go any place," said Mrs Bootan, 36. "My house is here in Mogadishu. The war is not good and we are begging God for it to end." One of those who would like to see an end to the war is Mukhtar Ali Mahmoud, 30, a government soldier who was fighting against the insurgents until an improvised explosive device blew off his leg last month. He said he wishes he was back on the battlefield fighting to end the war so that his country can achieve peace.

"I'm fighting for my country and my people," he said, grimacing in pain as doctors dressed his wounds. "Mogadishu is my home. It's where I was born and I don't want to leave. It is not good, but we are still living like that." mbrown@thenational.ae