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AU force wins hearts and minds in the battle of Mogadishu

Tuesday June 21 2011

By HENRY OWUOR in Mogadishu [email protected]

Standing on the roof of what used to be the Defence Ministry of Somalia’s government but is now used as a base by the Burundi contingent of the Amisom peacekeeping force, the horizon looks very nice.

The area is dotted with satellite dishes and a massive communication tower of a mobile telephone firm known as Hormuud.

This is where the Bakara market is located. Also in this area are the city’s main stadium and the former cigarette factory. From a distance, it looks very prosperous.

The district, known as Hodun, is the last major stronghold of al-Shabaab militants in the city.

On the front line in Mogadishu, where we spent the better part of the day, the Amisom force is conducting “suppressive firing” to keep the insurgents on their toes.

Buildings close to the front line have been vacated by civilians. The area has lots of deep trenches dug by the militants who have also blocked streets with shipping containers. There are also tunnels that run right under the road.

Travel on the roads near insurgent areas is strictly by South African-made Casper armoured cars, two soldiers atop with guns at the ready. Inside, each passenger wears a bullet-proof vest and helmet, all weighing 14 kilogrammes. Many are soaked in sweat.

The speed of the armoured vehicle keeps changing. As the driver passes hostile areas, the speed is increased.

Anyone standing on the road is met by massive hooting, indicating he or she jump off to safety or risk being swept off by the furious convoy.

Since the peace-keeping force arrived in 2007, the advance has been slow but the gains made in the last few months have been major.

“At this moment, we believe the city’s main stadium is the headquarters of al-Shabaab,’’ says Captain Prosper Hakizima, spokesman of the Burundi force.

The target of the peace-keeping force that fights alongside the transitional government’s army is to capture major landmarks from which they monitor other key areas.

The big prize would be the Bakara market but the question is how to take it without causing too much damage to what is among the most prosperous parts of the city.

At this moment, both the Burundians and their Ugandan counterparts are approaching Bakara from two different fronts, the aim being to meet at the heart of the market.

Amisom’s secret weapon has been the residents of the areas it occupies whom it wins over with free medical care, and water and food supplies.

One such area is located at the former Siad Barre University. At the hospital run by peacekeepers, close to 1,000 patients are treated every week.

But, the patients carry no cards as being spotted with such an item would mean instant execution by al-Shabaab militants.

The patient simply says his or her name and it is checked. Even al-Shabaab fighters get treatment at Amisom hospitals so long as they arrive without guns.

In Mogadishu, it is not unusual to see small children carrying guns. Schools no longer operate in the city except a few that mainly teach Sharia law.

Benefit from services

Once any locality is captured by Amisom, civilians return to rebuild their houses and benefit from services offered by the soldiers.

These civilians are checked by local elders who work closely with Amisom and the transitional government’s army.

The civilians serve as a buffer zone between Amisom and the insurgents.

“The situation changes every day. Last year, Amisom estimated that it needed 20,000 troops and sent a report to the UN. The UN mandate allowed only 12,000 soldiers,” says Captain Hakizima.

Lacking the fighting force that it believes can do the job, Amisom now trains Somali government soldiers at bases in Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya.

Some of the native soldiers are able to hold their own as a group of visiting journalists witnessed during the tour conducted by Amisom on Monday.

The result of the fighting in the capital and other parts of Somalia is that the country now has two million displaced persons who need water and food.

Food and water

The Ugandan and Burundi peacekeepers share the little food and water they have with the communities that live next to their camps.

The bad news is that humanitarian agencies cannot operate in the areas controlled by al-Shabaab, leaving needy civilians at the mercy of insurgents who force them to dig trenches and provide other forms of hard labour.

At the moment, the Somali government and Amisom control eight districts of the city while five are being fought over. Al-Shabaab controls only three districts.