Somalis Adapt Warily, Pragmatically to New Order in Capital

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 5, 2007

MOGADISHU, Somalia, Jan. 4 -- Among the first things Mohamed Abtidon did when the Islamic Courts movement came to town in June was to buy a fancy cellphone, a slim $360 Motorola. Streets once ruled by thieving, bribing warlords finally felt safe, he said, and he walked around chatting with abandon.

Since the Islamic movement was swept from power last week, men draped with AK-47s have appeared once again along the sandy lanes in his neighborhood, and with them a feeling of menace, to which Abtidon has adapted almost instinctively. He put the fancy phone away and is now using an old battered one that he keeps shoved deep in his pocket.

"I switched back to the one I used when the warlords were here," he said. "And I put it on vibrate, because I don't want to let them know I have a phone."

Mogadishu is a consummately unpredictable city, a place where trust in the future is gauged by the ups and downs of the local gun market. In the past 15 years, it has experienced the fall of a dictator, brutal civil war, the rise of a coalition of warlords and the warlords' overthrow by the Islamic Courts movement. Last week, all was undone again when the Islamic fighters were run out by Ethiopian troops backing a fragile, secular government that is now racing to establish itself before the old thuggish militias return.

For ordinary Somalis caught in the flux, day-to-day life has been driven less by ideological allegiance than sheer pragmatism and constant recalibrations.

"However things are going, we just adapt to it," said Mohamed Dere, who works for a telecommunications company in the city and is also an artist. "The reality is we need peace only, however we get it. With the Islamic Courts, the practical side was they gave us peace, so that was the wager."

Like many Somalis, he protected himself with a gun when the warlords were in power, stowed it away when the Islamic Courts took over and brought it out again when the new government pushed the Islamic side out. And like many, he was uncomfortable with the social restrictions the Islamic leaders imposed. For example, they had frowned upon, though did not police, secular music and dancing. But Dere said he feels far more oppressed at the moment by insecurity.

"We are hostages right now," he said. "We have no freedom."

In one way, people here said, Mogadishu was liberated by the Islamic Courts movement, which managed to rid the city of the militias and roadblocks that had functioned like a hundred Berlin Walls. Movement was so restricted that some residents had not seen friends and relatives in years, and children living only minutes from the crashing Indian Ocean had never laid eyes on the turquoise water.

So when the Islamic movement took power in June, Bile Dirie, 36, packed up his family in a Land Cruiser on a few glorious Fridays, drove the entire length of the city's coast and swam in the ocean. He moved out of his apartment in the Baraka neighborhood of Mogadishu, the only place he had felt safe under the warlords' rule, and followed his fancy to a more expansive area called Medina, where he got a bigger house for less money.

When the Courts movement was pushed out last week, however, he feared the return of the warlords' militias and went back to his old neighborhood, an area that appears to have been disassembled and reassembled dozens of times, with its stick-and-tarp markets and loosely hinged doors, spirals of barbed wire and tangled nests of phone lines. Only herds of goats seem to roam Mogadishu freely these days, wandering the sandy streets past trees and rusted hulls of tanks.

"I don't drive around now," Dirie said, sitting in his office. "The militias are still shy, but that's fading."

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