Guns Finally Silent In Somalia's Capital
Islamic Militias Impose a Welcome Calm

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.

"When you are really sick, you'll try any kind of medicine," Ali Hussein Maalin, 56, a Somali businessman, said in an interview in Nairobi. "We have been sick for 15 years."

The courts expanded into Islamic militias strong enough to challenge the city's secular warlords, which had enjoyed the financial backing of the CIA, according to widely circulating reports.

The United States has neither confirmed nor denied these accounts but has acknowledged supporting the warlords as part of an effort to capture terrorists suspected in a string of attacks in East Africa, including the bombings of two U.S. embassies in 1998.

A series of clashes this year between the Islamic militias and the warlords left more than 300 people dead. But the militias have expanded their control to nearly all of southern Somalia.

So far, the militias have not moved into the town of Baidoa, where Somalia's transitional government is based. The government was created by a U.N.-backed conference in Nairobi and has little authority in Somalia.

Leaders of the Islamic militias have said repeatedly that they intend to negotiate with the government so that it can eventually move into Mogadishu and reunite the country. They have also said they will disarm their own forces, turn over any terrorists and not resort to extremist Islam.

"The only thing we would concentrate on is to bring peace and stability to this region," Abdulkadir Ali Omar, the second-in-command of the Islamic militias, told reporters here.

Within Mogadishu, the militias have already largely succeeded in their stated goal, though the toll remains high from the long years of violence.

The sidewalks of the city are a jumble of rusting shacks. Wandering goats graze on heaping piles of garbage. Wide boulevards are cracked and nearly treeless, the best timber having been cleared for firewood years before.

Moderates among supporters of the Islamic militias acknowledge a rising extremism within the country. More women than before cover their faces rather than just their hair. Strict Islamic justice is popular. City leaders warn that without massive and rapid rebuilding, anti-Western forces such as al-Qaeda are certain to expand their appeal.

After midday prayers Friday, several thousand demonstrators gathered in the city center to protest the national government's decision this week to invite foreign peacekeepers to Somalia. The move has been widely condemned here as an opportunity for Ethiopia, Somalia's historic enemy, to meddle in its affairs.

"We don't need foreign troops!" the demonstrators chanted, pumping their fists.

Several placards, handwritten in English, captured the mixture of political feelings coursing through Mogadishu.

"America Open Your Ears And Eyes," read one. Another exhorted, in broken syntax: "Democracy Go To The Hell."

Yet in interviews, Mogadishu residents expressed far more anger at the secular warlords than at the United States. Many said the foreign power they feared most was Ethiopia.

There was also palpable unease about the plans of the Islamic militias, which are by all accounts a fractured group split between moderates and extremists. The militias, the residents said, attempted to shut down a company that dubbed Indian movies in Somali, apparently because they regarded the films as too risque. Others recalled occasional moments of thuggish behavior by militia members.

One youth, Faisal Yacquub Ali, 17, took a break from watching the World Cup match to declare himself "fully against" the Islamic militias because he feared they would eventually turn against movies and soccer matches on television.

Yet Jimcaale, who after 15 years was considering opening another clothing store, was less certain of the future. As the sounds of the soccer match drifted from a nearby cinema into a hotel cafe nearby, he said, "I see now the cinema is still open."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company