x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Somali's peacekeepers: underfunded, under attack, but still there

Despite a funding crisis and threats from militants, members of the peacekeeping force in Somalia put on a brave face as they help the government restore order.

MOGADISHU // Major Barigye Ba-Hoku's mobile phone rings for the seventh time this night. He checks the phone number, answers, then listens for a few seconds before hanging up. It was al Shabab, calling in another death threat. Major Barigye, a spokesman for the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia (Amisom), receives a dozen threatening calls from the Islamist extremist group each night. He normally just laughs them off.

"Shabab commanders give kids three dollars a day to call and harass me," he said. "They think that if they intimidate me, we will pack up and leave." Al Shabab, which has ties to al Qa'eda, is fighting to topple Somalia's government and rid Somalia of all foreign troops, including the 5,300 Ugandan and Burundian AU peacekeepers. The insurgents have killed Amisom troops on the battlefield and have struck with suicide bombers; the most deadly was a suicide attack on the peacekeepers' headquarters on September 17 that killed 21, including the deputy commander of the force.

Underfunded and under attack, Amisom has managed to do one thing other peacekeeping missions here have failed to do: survive Mogadishu. "We are still here," Major Barigye said. "The fact we have been able to support the transitional federal government to stay in place against all odds is an achievement." After warlords overthrew Siad Barre, the dictator, in 1991 and began fighting among themselves, the United Nations sent a peacekeeping force to restore order. At the same time, the United States sent troops to help deliver humanitarian aid and hunt warlords. An October 1993 battle in Mogadishu killed 18 US troops and was chronicled in the book and film Black Hawk Down. After Somalis dragged a US soldier's corpse through the streets, US support for the intervention ended and Washington pulled its troops out in early 1994.

The UN peacekeeping mission, suffering heavy casualties and failing to restore peace, turned tail in 1995, leaving rival clans to slaughter each other. In 2006, after the Union of Islamic Courts, an Islamist group, came to power, US-backed Ethiopian troops invaded and overthrew them. The Ethiopian intervention ended two years later after facing stiff resistance from insurgents. The Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers, battle-hardened from civil wars in their own countries, have managed to create a modicum of stability in a small sliver of Mogadishu. Planes can land safely at the airport, ships can dock in the port and the weak transitional government can conduct business at the presidential villa.

Outside a triangle of a few city blocks, the country is either lawless or controlled by al Shabab or other factions. Amisom was supposed to stabilise most of southern Somalia. But nearly three years into its mission, the force is confined to Mogadishu. "We were supposed to come in, extend down south and move north," Major Gen Nathan Mugisha, the Amisom force commander, said in an interview. "Unfortunately, we are still here - Our numbers are limited and therefore our activities have to be limited."

The force was designed for 8,000 troops, but only 5,000 have deployed. The more than US$200 million (Dh734m) in funding international donors promised in April has yet to materialise and troops have not been paid in months. When insurgents are not firing on the peacekeepers, poor diet is killing them. Seven peacekeepers died and 200 became sick from beriberi, thiamine deficiency, in July. The troops move around Mogadishu in South African-made Casspir armoured vehicles with three soldiers manning machine guns on the roof. Forward detachments are located at strategic points in Mogadishu, including K4, a roundabout at a key intersection.

Dozens of troops occupy an abandoned house at K4 with mortars aimed at Bakara market, an al Shabab stronghold a few kilometres away. This position, near the frontlines, frequently comes under sniper fire. "If you want to control Mogadishu, you have to control K4," Capt Benon Asaba said from the K4 detachment. "We are here to ensure these supply routes continue working. When it comes to sniper fire, this is where it comes from mostly. You never know who is who. Al Shabab is not in uniform."

Amisom has been criticised for targeting areas populated by civilians. But civilians are just unfortunately caught in the crossfire, Gen Mugisha said. "These guys - have been taking guns and placing them in civilian-concentrated areas." Although this is not their war, the peacekeepers understand that if they pull out, the government would quickly collapse and Somalia would be overrun by militants who could easily turn the country into a safe haven for terrorists.

"People here need a lot of help," said Lt Esibio Omaria, 37, a Ugandan peacekeeper. "They live in very hard conditions. We give them what we can. We are all Africans. They are our brothers. It is our responsibility to help them have peace." On a recent evening in the mess tent at Amisom headquarters, troops watched Black Hawk Down on television. The film depicts the US base at Mogadishu airport, the same spot as Amisom headquarters. The film also shows US troops coming under heavy fire and suffering casualties on the same Mogadishu streets these soldiers patrol every day.

"We have been here for almost three years," said one Ugandan peacekeeper as he watched the movie. "We are not going anywhere." mbrown@thenational.ae