Guns Finally Silent In Somalia's Capital

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 17, 2006

MOGADISHU, Somalia, June 16 -- The thugs manning the roadblocks are gone. The warlords are on the run. And the guns in a city long regarded as among the world's most heavily armed have fallen silent. Most, in fact, have disappeared from view.

Since Islamic militias took control of this city last week, U.S. and other Western officials have worried that Mogadishu's new leaders will impose a severe, Taliban-style government and harbor terrorists. But after 15 years of deadly chaos, residents interviewed here expressed nothing short of jubilation that somebody has made their city safe and that, for now, the daily crackle of gunfire is finally gone.

"Our ears are resting now," said Diiriye Jimcaale, 45, who has been unemployed since the onset of inter-clan warfare forced him to close his small clothing shop in 1991. "Now we hear nothing."

Anxiety remains, both about the militias' ability to maintain order and about the possibility that extremist elements within the movement will go too far in imposing Islamic rule. Residents speak of a wave of cinema closings in the first days after the militias took control of the city June 5. Rumors have circulated that public showings of the televised World Cup soccer tournament would be banned.

But on this Friday night in Mogadishu, sounds of the match between the Netherlands and Ivory Coast floated through the city. The streets bustled with activity. The city's largest market, near the site where two U.S. helicopters crashed in 1993, as depicted in the movie "Black Hawk Down," hummed with business.

Cabdriver Yusuf Ali Muhammed, 39, felt so safe that he left his longtime bodyguard at home, saving himself $5 in security fees, he said. Wielding an AK-47 assault rifle, as his guard did each night as they drove through the city, is now prohibited. Yet even without it, Muhammed said, he could now go anywhere in the city at any time. Before, he used to stick to the few neighborhoods he knew best.

"This is my mobile," Muhammed said, smiling as he held up a glowing Nokia handset. "If I'm called, straight I go -- without a gun."

Mogadishu, the oceanside Somali capital with a population of more than 1 million, remains an impoverished, devastated city of cracked pavements and ruined buildings. After the fall of the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, the city's warlords began fighting one another, creating a humanitarian disaster. With U.N. authority, the United States and other countries intervened militarily in 1992, but continuing violence led them to abandon it to its anarchy three years later.

Somalia became one of the world's most profoundly failed states, without a central government, public schools, a police force, a national army or laws.

Warlords set up roadblocks throughout the city to exact tolls. Murders, robberies, rapes and kidnappings became endemic. Every family of consequence and every major business armed its own militia, which traveled through the city flanked by pickup trucks mounted with antiaircraft guns. Pirates on speedboats hounded ships near the city's ports.

Out of this chaos grew the Islamic courts that now rule Mogadishu. They started as neighborhood tribunals that doled out often-harsh punishments but began to calm the city's notoriously rampant crime.

As a semblance of order took hold, residents said, the courts grew in popularity and political clout, even among moderate Muslims wary of strict Islamic law.

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