Somali journalist Abdisalam Guled witnessed the rise of the Union of Islamic Courts and the US-backed invasion by Ethiopian troops. He spoke to Simon Assaf.
‘The US claims that Somalia is the “third front” in the “war on terror”. It supported the Ethiopian invasion in December 2006, saying that it was saving ordinary people from a form of “Taliban rule” by the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), which had transformed the country into a “haven for Al Qaida”.
This is a distortion of the truth. The rise of the UIC is rooted in the chaos that befell our nation since the collapse of the central state in 1991. It has nothing to do with terrorism.
There was no government in Somalia for many years, especially in the south central area of the country. These were years of tragedy where our nation was turned into rubble.
Somalia was under the control of over 20 rival warlords and their militias. They engaged in banditry, kidnapping, ransom, looting and extortion.
The warlords carved up the capital Mogadishu between them and placed checkpoints on every main street. Many tens of thousands of people suffered or died at their hands.
After years without a government ordinary people began to say, “Because there is no police and no justice, let us establish something we can trust.”
So they set up an informal justice system based on the principles of Islamic sharia law. One or two people would have the responsibility of policing a neighbourhood and would attempt to hold the warlords and their militias to account.
This demand for fairness and justice rose everywhere and many neighbourhoods appealed for similar courts to be established in their areas. The UIC emerged out of this grassroots movement.
It galvanised those who lived in fear of the warlords and peeled away their support inside the clans. As the UIC gained influence it was able to appeal to the general dissatisfaction.
The warlords began to fear the UIC’s influence and attacked the courts, claiming they were a Somali version of the Taliban. The warlords formed themselves into an “alliance against terrorism” who were fighting against an “Al Qaida plot” to take over the country. Then they turned to the US for weapons and aid.
In June 2006 this struggle between the UIC and the warlords turned into a popular uprising that drove the militias out of the capital. Other regions staged similar rebellions.
At first those involved in the UIC had no idea that they would be pushed into power. It was not their original intention to become the government. They where taken by surprise by the popular insurrection that swept away the warlords.
The six months that they were in control of south central Somalia were a period of peace. The roadblocks had gone, the kidnappings and killings had stopped. The UIC restored property to people who had been robbed. It reopened the port and the international airport.
This period is painted as one of “Taliban rule” where music shops were burnt down and cinemas closed. But this was not my experience.
There are many in Somalia driven by anger against the West, the US and Ethiopia, but the UIC kept them in check.
To my knowledge there was one case where an owner of a camera shop was threatened by religious fundamentalists – but this was resolved by the UIC and the shop remained open.
After the warlords were driven out they reorganised themselves in the north with the support of the US and Ethiopia.
They appealed to the “international community”, saying that Somalia was being overrun by Islamists. They claimed that they were part of the fight against the “war on terror”.
These warlords rallied to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) that then controlled hardly any territory, claiming that they were the legitimate power in the country. They planned their revenge on the people from their base in the north.
Their opportunity came in December 2006 when Ethiopian troops, supported by US warplanes, warships and special forces, invaded Somalia.
At first the Somalis attempted to resist, but they were overwhelmed and the UIC had no choice but to abandon the capital.
This left Mogadishu open to the warlords and militias who returned with the Ethiopian troops.
They began kidnapping citizens and holding them to ransom.
These militias set themselves up in the main prison where they tortured and killed those who could not afford to pay a ransom. Others were sold on to the US as “Al Qaida operatives”.
Meanwhile Ethiopian troops established themselves in high buildings where their snipers spread terror among the people.
As Somalia had been through years of war, many people were not gun shy. Within weeks of the capital falling to the invaders a popular resistance began to emerge.
There were many attacks on Ethiopian troops. But following mass repression, the TFG claimed that this resistance was ebbing away.
However the old rivalries among the warlords in the TFG began to re-emerge.
The president Abdullahi Yusuf sacked prime minister Ali Mohammed Gedi, while ministers complained that important decisions were taken by backroom advisors and that they only “operated on licence”.
The TFG was not fit to lead the nation and had no plan of how to rule.
By November the growing unrest exploded into a mass uprising in Mogadishu. The Ethiopians were at first taken aback by the scale of the rebellion.
Then they responded with utmost brutality. They pounded the capital with thousands of artillery shells. Over 4,000 people were killed.
I was in the capital at the time and was witness to the indiscriminate murder that followed.
People had fled the bombardment, but others, mainly elderly men, remained behind to protect their family homes.
Many of these men were dragged out of their homes and executed in the streets. We discovered over 146 bodies in three days in Mogadishu. Hundreds of others were killed in similar ways.
Tens of thousands fled the capital, making the humanitarian crisis worse than in the troubled Darfur region of Sudan.
According to the United Nations, only 60,000 of the estimated 1.5 million Somali refugees are receiving any form of aid.
The resistance has now re-established itself outside the capital. The Union of Islamic Courts is only a small part of this new national movement.
Those who are resisting the occupation are the people who were at the heart of the popular uprising against the warlord regime.
Ethiopia cannot afford to occupy Somalia, so it is trying to get African Union troops to take over. This is proving very difficult, because they have no mandate.
But the Ethiopian occupation is in deep crisis. It has created a very high level of popular hatred, which is translating into widespread support for the resistance.
This resistance will eventually end the occupation, but I believe our country will pay a high price before then.’
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