Return to Somalia: The war on terror - a new front
Thirteen years ago, the US pulled out of the east African country after the bloody events that inspired 'Black Hawk Down'. Now it is back, supporting warlords in their battle with Islamist militants. Kim Sengupta reports from Merka
Living in the anarchy of Somalia, the sights of violence are nothing new to Halima Ahmed. But a one-year-old baby lying in the street, one leg severed by a mortar shell, is an image of horror that still haunts her.
"I saw him at Yakshik district, someone's little boy," said Mrs Ahmed, 50. "There was nothing I could do. His leg has been cut off, and he died. There were lots of dead bodies, but it is the boy I cannot forget. I keep on seeing him. It is terrible what is happening here, terrible."
Like many among her people, Mrs Ahmed is used to hardship which would shatter many from more comfortable, affluent societies. Her husband was killed in a sporadic shooting last year, and her 85-year-old mother is severely ill and has no access to medicine. But for her and others, the carnage now in the capital, Mogadishu, has tipped this failed state to a particularly barbaric point of no return.
Thirteen years after the US suffered one of its most humiliating military defeats - an ignoble retreat casting a shadow over Washington's foreign policy for a generation - the Americans are back in Somalia.
This is now the latest battleground in US's global, post-9/11 war on terror. Hundreds have been killed and wounded in the worst fighting in the country in 15 years as American-backed warlords engage Islamist militias in fierce house-to-house fighting in the capital.
There is little food or water. Those not trapped by the pulverising shelling are desperately trying to get out of the city, by foot, with younger men carrying the elderly and the infirm; by carts; or, for the precious few who can afford it, on battered buses and coaches straining with twice the load they were meant to carry.
The dead lie on the streets with people often afraid to move the bodies for fear of snipers. The wounded, some dug from under rubble, are taken to hospital by Mogadishu's unofficial ambulance service, wheelbarrows.
But the hospitals themselves are scenes of chaos with patients huddled in filthy corridors. An acute shortage of medicine and trained staff is exacerbated by Kalashnikov-waving militia fighters commandeering supplies and demanding priority treatment.
A temporary ceasefire between the two warring factions ended at the weekend with renewed artillery, mortar and rocket-propelled grenades pounding through the city. Many of the rounds were fired indiscriminately into civilian areas, claiming more lives and causing further destruction.
The Keysane Hospital, the main treatment centre during the present conflict, was itself hit by mortar rounds. Four people, including a two-year-old boy and a 14-year-old girl, were among those killed. At another hospital, the Medina, Sheikh Doon Salad Elmi shrugs his shoulders wearily. "We are finding it very hard to cope with the huge number of wounded. There are more than 100 of them at the hospital. A 24-year-old boy who had a bullet lodged in his brain just died in front of me. I could do nothing to save him."
Out in the pot-holed streets, rival militia fighters roar along on their gun-mounted "technicals", Somalia's infamous four-wheel-drive war wagons, the pickups churning up billowing clouds of dust, trading fire from machine guns and rocket-propelled-grenade launchers. They seldom hit each other, but civilians are often shot.
But most of the destruction inflicted in the latest bout of fighting has been through the use of heavy artillery and mortars in an urban landscape of condensed and crumbling housing. "I saw five bodies lying near the road to the airport," said Mohammed Lamane. "They were there for days, and people fear to be attacked when collecting them."
Isa Mohammed Gul, 60, fled from his home with his family of 14 after nights of pulverising bombardment. "I said to my wife that if we stay for one more night, surely we will die," he said. "So we just ran away the next day, leaving everything behind. We had no other choice." Mr Gul's sister has been killed and he is now frantically trying to find her children and get them out of the city.
Others, especially the elderly and the infirm, are not able to escape, stuck in their houses, often injured, often cut off from other members of their extended family by the shifting frontline.
Khalida Bassem, 30, said: "They are just firing the shells in every direction. The wounded are not getting any treatment, and some are in their seventies and eighties. Some have been taken in by neighbours; we have taken some, but others cannot go anywhere."
As darkness fell yesterday there was little sign of an end to the fighting. Ali Nur, a warlord's militia commander, said: "I cannot say there is calm because both groups are preparing for war." He was visiting wounded fellow fighters at the Medina Hospital. "Islamic forces have barricaded the road and fighting can start again any time."
The Islamist militias are under the nominal control of a committee of sharia courts. Its chairman, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a man who cultivates a scholastic demeanour, claimed CIA officials had been into the city to liaise with their client warlords. "The warlords have no powers to enforce a ceasefire without American approval because they are under a contract," he said.
In 1993, the US sent in a massively armed task force, the overwhelmingly dominant member of a United Nations mission to Somalia, to smash the warlords. The end to the operation, with an American helicopter shot down, is recalled in celluloid in the endless showings of the film Black Hawk Down.
By the time Operation Restore Hope ended, between 6,000 and 10,000 Somalis had died. The shock of the reversal, one of the most embarrassing episodes in the recent history of the world's only superpower, paralysed the administration of President Bill Clinton for years and was a major factor in Washington's unwillingness to intervene in the Bosnia conflict.
Now the US is backing the same warlords who humiliated them the last time. Among the beneficiaries of Washington's new policy is Hussein Mohammed Aidid, the son of Mohammed Farah Aidid, on whom the Americans had once placed a bounty of $1m (£535,000). Aidid died 10 years ago.
Somalia's supposed rulers, the Transitional Federal Government, cannot get into Mogadishu and has set up headquarters in internal exile, at the provincial town of Baidoa. Its President, Abdullahi Yusuf, has bitterly complained that American support for the warlords is severely undermining his government's chances of gaining power.
But cheering Islamist fighters, their faces covered by jihadist scarves, and technicals displaying quotes from the Koran, have gained the upper hand. Their militias have driven through the positions of the warlords' "Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism" and have taken over almost 90 per cent of the capital. They have captured a strategic junction, K4, giving control of two crucial road links: to the airport and towards the TFG headquarters in Baidoa.
The Islamist fighters have also made the symbolic gain of a hotel in the centre of the city, The Sahafi, a landmark traditionally used by visiting diplomats, politicians and journalists. But the real prize is that they now control the Bakaraaha market, one of the biggest arms bazaars in Africa, giving them access to even more weaponry, which means more civilian casualties.
Ibrahim Hussein Ali, a 33-year-old carpenter, has lost a brother and a cousin to the fighting.
"It is the worst I have ever seen, I would say worse than the last time [in 1993]. My brother was 38 and my cousin 22. They did not belong to any armed groups. They were killed when their homes were shelled. I do not know anything about al-Qa'ida or the Americans. But these people are getting their guns from somewhere."
The growing violence in Somalia has brought increasing comparisons with Afghanistan, another poverty-stricken Third World state used by the United States in its confrontation with resurgent Islam.
Somalia was abandoned by the West after the American withdrawal in much the same way Afghanistan was abandoned at the end of the Russian war. The vacuum in Afghanistan was filled by the emergence of the Taliban, initially seen as an antidote to the lawlessness of the warlords, and the subsequent arrival of Osama bin Laden.
In Somalia, too, the Islamists, supported by Sunni Wahabi groups in the Gulf and some neighbouring states, are now getting a degree of support for bringing a semblance of order the semi-anarchic state.
The methods they use are the brutal punishments meted out through their sharia courts. The son of a man murdered by stab wounds asked to inflict the same number of wounds with a knife on the convicted killer; women are stoned; and thieves have their hands amputated.
The Americans claim this "Talibanisation" has allowed al-Qa'ida to make Somalia their headquarters in the horn of Africa. US officials make little effort in private to disguise their role in Somalia. Questioned about links with the warlords, Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, drew a thinly veiled analogy with Afghanistan.
"There is concern about the presence of foreign terrorists, particularly al-Qa'ida, within Somalia right now. In an environment of instability, as we have seen, al-Qai'da may take root, and we want to make sure al-Qa'ida does not in fact establish a beachhead in Somalia."
A report for the United Nations Security Council has charted the American role in Somalia in what is described as "clandestine third-country involvement". Without explicitly naming the US, it says Washington has provided covert funding "to help organise and structure a military force created to counter the threat posed by the growing fundamentalist movement in central and southern Somalia".
The US has set up the 2,000-strong Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) in neighbouring Djibouti to counter the Islamist threat. Human rights groups say armed gangs paid by Americans have abducted people. Some have turned up at Guantanamo Bay and the US base at Bagram in Afghanistan.
In Mogadishu, warlords are keen to talk about "foreign fighters". One, Muse Sudi Yalahow, said they have come mostly from neighbouring countries - Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Sudan - and further afield, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states. Another commander, Mohammed Qanyare Afrah, shows photographs of Islamist fighters, one a light-skinned man who he insists is non-Somali, and a darker-skinned man who is said to be from Sudan.
The supreme spiritual leader of the Islamic courts, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, is believed to be sympathetic to al-Qa'ida and has allegedly set up madrassas in Mogadishu, where boys and young men are allegedly trained to use weapons and explosives.
His nephew, Aden Hashi Ayro, an Islamist leader, is said to have trained as a terrorist in Afghan-istan and is suspected of being behind a string of bombings and assassinations in the past year.
But the claims of al-Qa'ida presence, and the American method of dealing with it, has led to dissent within the administration and questions from European and African allies. Critics believe the warlords have significantly exaggerated the foreign fighters' scare to ensure the supply of money from Washington does not dry up. The reports of US involvement is said to be, in fact, counter-productive, enabling the Islamists to claim the anti-imperialist mantle.
Michael Zorick, an American diplomat, was moved from his posting in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, the State Department hub for East Africa, to Chad after, it is said, he wrote a critical report about the Somalia policy.
The US embassy in Kenya refused to discuss the reasons for Mr Zorick's transfer, but it is believed the Somali policy is being reviewed for the State Department's head of counter-terrorism, Henry "Hank" Crumpton. Diplomatic sources say the State Department view of this is unlikely to have any impact on what the CIA and the Pentagon want to do.
In Somalia, thousands of refugees have fled Mogadishu for the town of Merka, 40 miles away. They have ended up in the outskirts of the town, on arid land miles from food and water, in makeshift tents made from rags.
The UN's special adviser on displaced people, Dennis McNamara, took a delegation to the town to prepare emergency efforts to cope with the influx.
Hadida Mahmoud, 25, arrived there with three of her children after walking for three days. Her seven-year-old daughter runs away crying at the sight of a group of policemen. "She is scared of men with guns, all the children are scared," said the young mother.
"We have had to leave because if we had stayed in Mogadishu our children would not have survived. My husband is back there looking after the house. I do not know when we will see him again. Here we have peace, but no food. I don't know what we are going to do. We need help."