Thursday, 29 October 2009

Somali road trip to Islamist heartland

The BBC's Mohamed Dore reports on a rare road trip out of Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, into territory run by Islamist militants.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The first thing I notice when I head out of Mogadishu is the number of roadblocks.

Most of war-ravaged central and southern Somalia is now controlled by al-Shabab, an Islamist group which the US believes has links to al-Qaeda.

The chewing of khat leaves, a popular pastime, is banned by al-Shabab
Yet their fighters are not completely in control; I see roadblocks run by three different groups as I head to Agfoye, a town 29km (18 miles) north-west of Mogadishu.

Despite intense and bloody battles, the government is still in charge of parts of the capital and they run the first checkpoint where passengers have to pay them money to carry desperately needed goods in and out of the city.

Then just a little further along I come across the first checkpoint manned by al-Shabab, the very secretive but well-organised militia at the centre of the conflict in Somalia.

They do not collect money but they check goods and search people.

Not far from this checkpoint is another run by al-Shabab's supposed allies, Hizbul-Islam.

Earlier this month, the two groups fell out over the southern port of Kismayo - and Hizbul-Islam was driven out of the city.

Men who have fringes have their heads shaved by al-Shabab members

But this appears to be an isolated incident and Hizbul-Islam fighters still control this stretch of road up to Agfoye district.

It includes Elesha Biyaha, an area occupied by the largest proportion of Mogadishu's huge number of displaced people.

Hizbul-Islam militias also check and search people, and do not demand money from passengers.

Mobile phones searched

Heading beyond Agfoye in the direction of the coastal town of Merka, there are more checkpoints.

It is clear this area is in the firm control of al-Shabab.

At Laanta Buur, I am surprised to see that people can travel safely without fear of being ambushed.

While travelling on this road, I see al-Shabab militias patrolling along the roads to secure peace in the area.

I am told they were chasing groups suspected of committing acts of banditry.

But they also enforce strict Islamic codes.

At Laanta Buur checkpoint, al-Shabab militia members search men one at a time, while leaving women in the cars.

Men and women are not allowed to sit together when using public transport.

The militia also search mobile phones, to make sure there is no indecent audio or video-like songs recorded on them, as music is banned by the group.

Men who have fringes have their heads shaved by al-Shabab members.

People in the districts of Shalanbood, Golweyn and Buula Mareer tell me they are not allowed to chew the mild stimulant khat, or smoke cigarettes in public.

Businesses are forbidden from being open during prayers, and I am told this happens in all areas controlled by al-Shabab.

Business booming

Some regions of the Lower Shabelle Province are very arid, hot and humid and there is little sign of life.

The only armed men I see are those from al-Shabab ordering people to close their businesses and go to the mosques at prayer time

In other areas cattle and goats are grazing on fresh grass and there is rain water.

Many of the hundreds of thousands of people who have fled the brutal battles between forces loyal to the government and Islamist militias in Mogadishu have now settled in Buula Mareer.

Here business is booming, and the area seems safe.

The town has grown dramatically in recent years as the conflict has intensified.

The area is awash with business people who come from surrounding villages to buy and sell produce.

Aid agencies estimate that half the population needs food assistance
This season farmers are harvesting sesame, corn and watermelons, and I see many lorries unloading these products in warehouses.

Aid agencies say some four million people in Somalia - or about half the population - need food aid.

But in this part of the country people are getting ready for the second cultivation period this year.

I do not hear a single gunshot in Buula Mareer, nor do I see armed men roaming out and about in the streets, like I would do in Mogadishu.

The only armed men I see are those from al-Shabab ordering people to close their businesses and go to the mosques at prayer time.

Peace and security appears to prevail in the Lower Shabelle region.

However, many believe that it is peaceful only for those who are accepted by al-Shabab.

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