After Two Decades Of War, Somalia Still Struggling

Many Americans know Somalia as a lawless country controlled by warlords. Somalia has seen two decades of civil war, and the militant group Al-Shabab continues to fight government forces. NPR's Frank Langfitt, recently returned from Somalia, sheds light on what some call "the most-failed state."

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

When you think of Somalia, the only images that may come to mind are pirates off the coast or the 1993 gun battle with American soldiers, as told in the book and movie "Black Hawk Down." The country on the East Coast of Africa has struggled through two decades of civil war. There's been no functioning government, effectively no laws since 1991. In just the past few days, Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, has seen sporadic fighting that killed dozens.

NPR's foreign correspondent, Frank Langfitt, recently spent four days reporting from Mogadishu. He produced a series of stories for MORNING EDITION. And he joins us now from his base in Nairobi to share what he saw, and give us a window into life in a city of sheer anarchy.

Frank, thank you for joining us.

FRANK LANGFITT: Hi, there. How are you doing?

LUDDEN: Good. So many people may have no idea what Mogadishu even looks like. Can you first describe what you saw?

LANGFITT: Yeah. I mean, there are parts of the city, large parts, that look like one of those post-apocalyptic, sort of post-nuclear areas where all the buildings are just completely bombed out, and there's no one living there. And you can go to block after block - in fact, when we were going up to the front lines with African Union soldiers, we were going to people's home that had long been abandoned. We went through hotels that looked at over the beaches, which are beautiful beaches. But the hotels have been empty for ages. And you couldn't even see where the guest rooms would be. So part of it is very eerie. But, you know, war ebbs and flows.

And there are other parts of the city with - when there's not shooting, people are out and about, lots of people, dozens, hundreds of people. They're selling fruit. They're chatting, sitting on chairs, drinking tea. So it's a very strange place.

LUDDEN: Can you give us a brief history of, you know, how did we end up here? How did Somalia get to this situation?

LANGFITT: Well, you're right. It goes back to the - it really began in 1991. The dictator of the country, Mohamed Siad Barre, was overthrown. Warlords just tore up the country. The U.S. tried to step in along with other foreign powers, and that's how we ended up with the Black Hawk down incident.

The most recent conflict has really come out, 2006. A group called the Union of Islamic Courts took control, brought some stability of the country. But the U.S. and other neighbors in East Africa became pretty nervous, worried about Islamic terrorism. And there was an Ethiopian invasion backed by the U.S. And this kind of ignited a big backlash by a group that we're going to talk a lot about, al-Shabab. And this is a militant Islamic group that's now bearing down on the U.S.-backed government there in Mogadishu and really trying to drive them into the ocean.

LUDDEN: And so, al-Shabab, what do they want?

LANGFITT: Well, they're divided, and that's kind of the big question. There are some to be really Somali nationalists. They want an Islamic state. They want Shariah Law. But they really just want to have power in Somalia. There are others who are more like global jihadists. They want to attack neighboring countries. And so the question is which - you know, can there be some negotiations with parts of al-Shabab, or are they really going to be a threat to the neighbors and, ultimately, perhaps Western countries?

LUDDEN: Well, in fact, this conflict has been spilling over into neighboring countries there, such as Kenya, where you live now. Let's listen to a short clip from one of your reports that was when you went into a neighborhood of Nairobi.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

LANGFITT: I'm chatting with the imam in a restaurant across from his moderate mosque in Eastleigh. It's empty this afternoon, and seems a safe place to talk. Some workers arrive to begin setting up the kitchen for dinner. Then I asked this: Should Americans be worried about al-Shabab?

(Soundbite of pounding)

LANGFITT: A worker slams a kitchen utensil in anger. He comes over to our table, scowling...

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: ...and orders us to leave.

To give you a sense of al-Shabab's influence here, when I just asked a question, the imam slapped me on the arm because the restaurant where we were talking was actually al-Shabab-controlled, and they just ran us out. So we're back now over at the mosque, where it seems a little bit safer. But that's a pretty good example of kind of the divisions in the Eastleigh.

LUDDEN: So, Frank, did that moderate imam you were with, did he not realize that restaurant was run by al-Shabab?

LANGFITT: Oh, he did. But we were there during Ramadan and everyone was fasting in the middle of the day. So when we walked in, there was absolutely nobody there, and it seemed safe.

LUDDEN: I see.

LANGFITT: He also probably thought I was smarter than to ask that question out loud. And, of course, I wasn't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: You know - so we, at NPR, have reported on, you know, Somali-Americans in Minnesota, in particular, being recruited, apparently - allegedly recruited by al-Shabab to go fight in Somalia. And I understand that some Kenyans - some Somalis in Kenya there have the same concern.

LANGFITT: There is, especially in this neighborhood we're talking about, Eastleigh. It's heavily Somali. They call it Little Mogadishu. And some of the madrassas there have a lot of influence from al-Shabab. Teachers will offer money and cell phones to recruit students, with the idea of eventually sending them to Mogadishu.

I was interviewing a moderate imam in his home actually last week. And he told me that he had a nephew who lived in Minnesota, has been recruited. He's now in Mogadishu. Nobody knows - nobody in the family knows where he actually is and everybody is really frantic.

LUDDEN: Now are these Somali refugees there or a merchant class that lived in Kenya already? Do you know?

LANGFITT: They're kind of - oh, they're Somali refugees. Most of them have fled all the fighting over the last 20 years. They're very involved in business. They're actually quite successful businesspeople generally in Kenya. And they set up a huge kind of Somali town in one of the neighborhoods outside the center of the city.

LUDDEN: Now you mentioned that the United States is supporting this fragile government that's struggling to hang on - and here's something many Americans may be unaware of - as you've reported this week, the U.S. is paying to train Somali soldiers to try and regain power from al-Shabab. Tell us about what's happening.

LANGFITT: Well, that's very interesting. Now what they're actually doing is they're paying the salaries of many Somali soldiers, about 100 bucks a month. And United States has a real stake, at least the United States government feels it has a stake in stability in Somalia. The other thing is that they've been quietly giving money for other things as well. When I was driving around the city, we were in (unintelligible) armored personnel carriers with the African Union troops. Well, those are all paid for by the U.S. government.

And there's a kind of a shift here. You know, if you go back to the '90s Black Hawk Down, the concern in - from - in Somalia was about humanitarian worries and starving people. Now, the U.S. is more concerned about national security. They don't want al-Shabab to take over, have more training camps, make it become kind of the next Afghanistan. There's also concern about recruiting people from Minnesota, other, you know, Somali-Americans. The fear is they might then be sent back to the U.S. to attack.

LUDDEN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. We're speaking with NPR's Frank Langfitt, just back from a reporting trip to Mogadishu, Somalia.

You mentioned Afghanistan. Frank, you know, it does feel like America has done this before, arming - sending arms and training fighters, and it didn't really work out so well on some level in Afghanistan. Is there a concern about, you know, unintended consequences of doing training and sending arms to Somalians?

LANGFITT: Well, I think that, frankly, Mogadishu couldn't get much worse than it really is. I mean, when you're in there, its extraordinarily violent. The number of weapons is mindboggling. And I think that what they're doing now is they're just paying those salaries. The European Union is trying to do some training of soldiers.

But really, I think that American policy in Somalia is in flux. And it's going to be very interesting to see in the next year if there's some hard decisions made about exactly how much support theyre going to give to that government, whether they will pull support from the government that's pinned down there in Mogadishu or what ultimately they're going to do.

LUDDEN: And what can you tell us about this government that the U.S. supports that has a control of, I think you described it as just a few blocks in Mogadishu?

LANGFITT: Well, they're not very popular unfortunately. They dont provide hardly any services. They're seen as a bit ineffectual and corrupt. And part of the problem also is that the security situation continues to get worse. If you ask ordinary people in Mogadishu, they think it's getting a lot worse. So they don't have a lot of faith in this regime.

But the problem in a place like Mogadishu is there are not many good choices if you're looking for stability. And so, right now, they're being propped up by these African Union troops, about 7,000 of them. And I think most people figure that if the African Union were to pull out or something - that's probably not going to happen - but if they were, the government would probably fall really in a matter of hours.

LUDDEN: Hmm. What was - you went around with some African Union peacekeepers. What was - what did you experience there on their frontlines?

LANGFITT: It was remarkable. I mean, we would go into these abandoned buildings and climb up - you know, they were so blown out that sometimes you had to be up on a ladder to get up to the rooftops, in sniper positions. And you'd be up there with them trading sniper fire with al-Shabab at some distance. You had to move very carefully. You had to crouch down a lot.

There were times where we went from house to house. And sometimes you'd come to a street and they would just tell you you've got to run because there are a lot of snipers. And I think that while we were there, there wasn't a lot of heavy fighting, but it's a very unpredictable place. And so you have to move very quickly. You have to be very careful.

The other thing is that for these Ugandans, I think they're a little fish out of water. They're trained in jungle fighting and they find themselves isolated in these buildings and largely abandoned city. And they're really kind of on the frontlines of this battle with Islamic extremism.

LUDDEN: And someone told you they'd like 12,000 more African Union peacekeepers there. Any sense of how likely that is?

LANGFITT: Well, they would like it. Uganda is willing to send them, but it has to be funded by the United States and by other Western governments. And there's no time right now that that money is going to be coming soon. The other question is, even if you had all those troops, you have a such a big political problem in Mogadishu even if you could - even if they could run al-Shabab out of Mogadishu, the question is who could really run the country? Who could even run that city? It's so ungovernable.

LUDDEN: Hmm. All right. Frank, thank you so much and take care on your next visit.

LANGFITT: Thank you. Take care.

LUDDEN: Frank Langfitt is an NPR foreign correspondent based in Nairobi. He recently reported a four-part series for NPR's MORNING EDITION. And you can find a link to that at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY and Ira Flatow will be here as the talk turns to the Nobel Prize in physics for a honeycomb-like carbon structure called graphene. What is that good for? Find out.

I'm Jennifer Ludden. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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