The Battle For The Soul Of Somalia Continues

Somalia. The name has come to mean piracy, anarchy, failed state. For 20 years, the African nation has endured famine, civil war and vicious power battles. NPR's Frank Langfitt recently spent several days in Somalia's embattled capital with African Union forces and joins Guest host Rebecca Roberts to talk about the situation there.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts in for Liane Hansen.

Somalia, the name has come to mean piracy, anarchy, failed state. For 20 years, the African nation has endured famine, civil war, and vicious power battles.

The Islamist group al-Shabab is trying to take complete control of the country and drive out a weak U.S.-backed government. Some worry that under radical Muslim rule, Somalia could become a breeding ground for terrorism. The task of trying to prevent this falls to some 7,000 African Union troops, stationed in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. But they're not always a welcome sight.

Unidentified Woman: (Through Translator) 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? So then, I run away from where they are. I dont like them at all.

ROBERTS: That's from an upcoming NPR series of reports from Frank Langfitt. He recently spent four days traveling with those troops and joins us now from Nairobi, Kenya. Hey, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT: Hi, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: Mogadishu just sounds like a pretty scary place. What is it like there for Somalis?

LANGFITT: It's very scary for Somali citizens. One of the things that - when I was talking to them, you'd start a conversation and they'd say, well, I've moved three or four times in the last two or three years. And the reason is because they're always getting shelled and their neighbors', you know, houses are getting blown up. There's a lot of sniper fire. Citizens just can be out and about and they end up getting hit by snipers.

So it's an extremely difficult and unpredictable place to live. That said, one of the things thats really striking is when there isnt shooting, which is -there're long stretches when there's no shooting - you look out on the streets and people are out and about. The Somalis are really social people. So theyll be out selling fruits, selling gasoline out of cans, chatting. You know, like they're chatting on the front porch.

And one of the images I remember when I was there is seeing some, you know, militia guy sitting on a plastic chair with an AK-47 on his lap, just kind of lounging around.

ROBERTS: And you were there under the auspices of the African Union. Is that right?

LANGFITT: Yes.

ROBERTS: And so what was it like for you?

LANGFITT: Well, it's the best way to go. I mean, it is really, it is a dangerous place. And with the African Union you are surrounded by an army. We had Flack Jackets, helmets. We were in these armored personnel carriers, machine gunners on top. And you would kind of race through town at about 60 miles an hour, from base to base, trying to see what they're up to.

And to give you a sense though of the danger, even the troops themselves dont go out on foot patrol, for the most part. They stay in the armored personnel carriers or on the base because they're always afraid of snipers or suicide bombers.

ROBERTS: So what were you able to see?

LANGFITT: A lot, actually. They really went out of their way to get us out to the frontlines. We would go to - they have posts in old abandoned hotels, police headquarters, to show us where they were up against Shabab, trading sniper fire and that sort of thing.

And to kind of paint a scene here, I mean, when you go into these abandoned buildings, you climb up many staircases, up ladders, you get up to the sniper positions. And then you find yourself sort of crouching down interviewing the soldiers.

Unidentified Man: You know, these are terrorists?

LANGFITT: And at first, I mean, the sniper fire is really loud. In fact, you can hear some of it right now.

Unidentified Man: It's not as easy as...

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Unidentified Man: ...in the jungle, in isolated place.

LANGFITT: And at first, when you hear it, it makes you jump. I mean, I've never covered combat before. But whats weird is after a while, you kind of get used to it. You just stay down there and you have these kinds of conversations and get a sense of what it's like for these people to really be on the frontline of this battle against, you know, Islamic extremism.

ROBERTS: The Islamist group thats trying to seize control, al-Shabab, how much territory do they actually have? How strong are they?

LANGFITT: Well, they have a lot of territory and thats why this story is getting bigger. They control most of south and central Somalia. They have most of Mogadishu. And theyve kind of pinned up this government and these African Union troops against the Indian Ocean. Now, the African Union, they do control the main roads and roundabouts, which are really important for supply and transport.

In terms of the strength of Shabab, I think that part of it is there's this power vacuum in Somalia and theyve taken advantage of it. I think some of their fighters are good. Some of their fighters aren't so good. African Union says if they could get a lot more troops, they figure they could run them out of the city in a matter of months.

ROBERTS: And what about training Somalis to take over the security?

LANGFITT: Thats a long way to go. I went to Uganda actually to see that the European Union is training about 2,000 Somalis to kind of bolster this national army. But it's really difficult. You know, because of all the chaos in Somalia, most people haven't been to school much, so these guys couldnt really read. They didnt actually have very good firearm skills.

And the trainers, you know, worked with them very hard to try to give them a sense of pride in the country and all that. The hope is that theyll come back and bolster the national army. But there's also a fear that theyll defect, as they have in the past, and not really help the situation back home.

ROBERTS: NPR's Frank Langfitt, his four-part series about Somalia and the Somali Diaspora begins tomorrow on MORNING EDITION. For more on the topic, you can go to our website, NPR.org. Thanks, Frank.

LANGFITT: You're welcome, Rebecca.

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