African Union troops are trying to bring stability to war-ravaged Somalia. They are locked in battle with al-Shabab, Islamist militants who claim ties with al-Qaida. Here, militiamen in Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, ride in a "technical" — a pickup truck outfitted with weapons. This militia supports the African Union and local government troops.
African Union troops are trying to bring stability to war-ravaged Somalia. They are locked in battle with al-Shabab, Islamist militants who claim ties with al-Qaida. Here, militiamen in Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, ride in a "technical" — a pickup truck outfitted with weapons. This militia supports the African Union and local government troops. Frank Langfitt/NPR
First of four parts
A pockmarked building, formerly Mogadishu's traffic police headquarters, is now one of the many front lines in the battle between Islamist militants and African peacekeeping forces in Somalia.
The ragged structure, with its bloodstained hallways, is used now by peacekeepers to defend Mogadishu's port. The troops, mainly soldiers from Uganda, take up position and scan the city's broken skyline, trading sniper fire with the militants.
Much of Mogadishu is in ruins after two decades of civil war.
Much of Mogadishu is in ruins after two decades of civil war. Frank Langfitt/NPR
In many ways, this is also a front line in the wider battle against radical Islam. In recent weeks, insurgents have bombarded the Somali capital, trying to destroy the weak U. S.-backed government in Mogadishu.
The militants, known as al-Shabab, want to create a strict Muslim state. About 7,000 peacekeeping troops from the African Union are trying to stop them.
Some members of al-Shabab want to take their battle beyond Mogadishu and attack American allies in East Africa. In July, the group claimed responsibility for two bombings in Uganda, killing more than 70. Last month, al-Shabab shelled Somalia's parliament building and launched other attacks.
The group, which says it has links to al-Qaida, also has recruited Somali-Americans to fight in Mogadishu. U.S. officials are concerned that some trained fighters could be sent back to attack the United States.
A Vicious Insurgency In The City
The African Union mission is the latest attempt to bring stability to Somalia, a country plagued for two decades by civil war.
In addition to the port, African Union troops control Mogadishu's airport and key roads on a stretch of land along the Indian Ocean. Otherwise, the troops are mostly surrounded by al-Shabab.
A weak, U.N.-backed transitional government has spent three years trying to establish rule with little success. African Union troops provide the government protection.
Ugandan army Capt. Robert Businge says the fight is difficult.
Al-Shabab has spent years digging tunnels under neighborhoods in Mogadishu, so its fighters can move from house to house unseen. They also have tunneled under roads, creating traps that swallow African Union tanks.
"These are terrorists. And fighting terrorists, and fighting in built-up areas, is not as easy as fighting in the jungle and in isolated places. You find you have civilians," he says.
Businge says he despises al-Shabab, which means "the youth" in Arabic. Offering an example of the group's brutality, he pulls out his cell phone and displays a video from an al-Shabab website that depicts an execution.
"They slaughtered him," Businge says. "That is their way of instilling fear among the population."
More Peacekeeping Troops Needed
Al-Shabab has been on a rampage in recent weeks. It attacked the airport and bombed a hotel in a government-controlled neighborhood. More than 30 people died, including four lawmakers.
But African Union forces insist they are gaining ground by setting up a series of new forward bases in recent months.
To move throughout the city, troops wend their way through neighborhoods of abandoned homes. The African Union soldiers knock through the walls of the houses and courtyards. Then they slip through, hidden from enemy snipers.
"You move from building to building. You're fighting from street to street," explains Maj. Barigye Ba-Hoku, the African Union spokesman. "But sometimes you cannot expose yourself during your movement on the streets. So what do you do? Break into a wall of an adjacent building, go into the next building, check it out, hold it, consolidate it."
But Ba-Hoku says there aren't enough soldiers to hold areas once the army takes them. The African Union is asking Western powers to fund another 12,000 troops.
Ba-Hoku says they need even more.
"If we got 20,000, then we would have the whole of the country, and possibly would relieve the worries of so many people in the world about this place being a growing hub for international terror networks," he says.
African Union soldiers also are making efforts to win over ordinary Somalis. They have set up hospitals that treat thousands of patients a month. They also have tried to support the government’s fledgling army.
But it hasn't been easy. Somali soldiers often go unpaid and retreat from positions with no notice. The Somali government is holed up in a few city blocks, where it takes mortar fire a couple of times a week.
An African Union tank and its crew watches over a key intersection in Mogadishu. About 7,000 AU troops — mostly from Uganda — are currently deployed in Somalia.
An African Union tank and its crew watches over a key intersection in Mogadishu. About 7,000 AU troops — mostly from Uganda — are currently deployed in Somalia. Frank Langfitt/NPR
Somali Civilians, Caught In The Middle
Maryan Hassan, a street vendor in Hamarweyne, a government-controlled neighborhood, says she doesn't see African Union troops as her defenders. Hassan says she resents them for firing mortars into neighborhoods and killing ordinary people.
"The African Union troops in Mogadishu, when the fighting starts, they shell where the civilians live, because al-Shabab is firing from there," she says.
After al-Shabab attacked the parliament building last month, Hassan and other witnesses say the African Union troops retaliated by shelling Bakara, Somalia's main market and an al-Shabab stronghold. Members of a local family were killed in their home.
Hassan says when she sees African Union troops, she flees.
"When I always see them moving around in their big tanks and huge vehicles, I ask myself: Will Shabab target them and will I be hurt in the crossfire?" she says. "So then I run away from where they are. I don't like them at all."
But Hassan says she hates al-Shabab.
Hassan, who wears a black hijab and a bright pink scarf, sells women's toiletries — including lipstick and face cream — from a wooden cart.
Africa Union peacekeepers race through the bombed-out city at up to 60 miles an hour to avoid attack by Islamist insurgents.
Africa Union peacekeepers race through the bombed-out city at up to 60 miles an hour to avoid attack by Islamist insurgents. Frank Langfitt/NPR
The group opposes women using makeup, let alone those doing business. Hassan knows if al-Shabab takes over, she'll be unemployed.
Still, she says, she would prefer the group come to power if only to end the carnage.
"If al-Shabab takes over, it will be safer. Yes, there will be problems. But it won't be like when the African Union is shelling civilians," she says.
Col. Michael Ondoga, a top African union commander, says people like Maryan Hassan are mistaken. He says many groups in Mogadishu, including clan militias, fire mortars.
"We don't hit civilians with mortars; they are not meant for civilians," he insists. "The Bakara market is out of bounds. We don't fire on the Bakara market. Wherever there are civilians, we cannot fire."
But just a couple of hours later, a group of foreign reporters stumble into an African Union mortar position in a Mogadishu neighborhood.
There is a piece of wood with several numbers written on it: mortar settings for striking a target about a mile away. The target, it reads, is Bakara market.