Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Somalia Kenyan Call for Young and old join hunt for Al Shabaab

By David Ochami

Despite their vast age difference Colonel Mohamed Ibrahim Aden, 57, and Hassan Haji Sheikh,

Hassan Haji Sheikh

22, are in the same army and share a passion: to fight and defeat the Islamist Al Shabaab movement from Gedo.

The colonel, who is on Al Shabaab’s most wanted list, has fought before, including seeing combat in the Ethio-Somalia war of 1977, while the youngster is spoiling for his first piece of action.

Their desire to do battle with a movement that they say is currently to blame for most of the problems in this broken part of the world, where Kenya recently deployed air and land forces, is like making a death wish.

The two soldiers and others are preparing to deploy to Busar, the frontline that Al Shabaab has been trying to recapture from the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) forces, most of whom were recently trained by Kenya Defence Forces (KDF).

Their age differences and whatever lies in between represent the irony of Somalia’s endless war and current efforts to revive a standing army for the TFG.

Hodgepodge formation

Besides Col Mohamed and Hassan, there are other dynamics within the nascent Somalia National Army that raise doubts about where loyalties and discipline lie or if these people can actually

Colonel Mohamed Ibrahim Aden, 57, both soldiers of Somalia National Army that is fighting Al Shabaab militia. Col Mohamed is veteran soldier, while Hassan is a recent recruit. The two say they will fight till the bitter end to weed out Al Shabaab from Somalia. [PHOTOS: GEORGE MULALA/STANDARD]

come together for a common purpose — it’s been agreed that the military must recruit all clans in Gedo to remain stable.

Most of the officers, in olive green fatigues and boots donated by the KDF, can be seen clutching newly minted AK 47. Some of the newly trained officers are evidently too young and have been enlisted in the military. A majority are barely out of their teens, but are preparing for war with men old enough to be their grandfathers.

At face value this hodgepodge formation that includes a few recent defectors from Al Shabaab appears more disciplined and committed than the traditional militia in Somalia. Evidently something more than the mindless struggle appears to boost their high morale, bringing hope that this war may be coming to some kind of end.

The bitter experience of state collapse has brought this disparate people to one fatalistic mission — to fight till they oust Al Shabaab or die trying.

Under an acacia tree near Busar where the recruits returning from training in Isiolo Kenya are preparing to join the frontline, Hassan says: "We are prepared to fight and die for our country and defeat people who are disturbing our people."

Until early this year Hassan was a nomadic camel herder around Burhache. He joined the TFG forces when Al Shabaab was driven out by TFG forces in March and was recruited for training at Kamanga in Isiolo, Kenya, where he came across Col Aden, veteran of Somalia’s many governments beginning with that of the late despot Muhamed Siyaad Barre. Because of his expertise in the army the TFG asked Col Aden to assist the recruitment of local youth for training in Kenya.

Refugee camps

Both allege they are not fighting for money but love for their country.

Despite his confidence the colonel is actually a refugee from his hometown in Bardheere, a town about 100km eastward from the Somalia-Kenya border, which is still in Islamist hands.

"Al Shabaab chased my family from Bardheere when I began recruiting for the TFG. The Al Shabaab announced my name in the mosque as a traitor."

He says he joined the defunct Somalia National Army in 1976 and specialised in communication after initial training. After fighting in Ethiopia he remained in the forces until the collapse of the Barre regime after a bitter civil war, then left in 1991.

He and former soldiers were recalled during the short-lived government of Ali Mahdi Muhamed. He says he was recalled several times but left due to lack of a well-constituted government during the regimes of Abdiqassim Salat Hassan and Abdillahi Yusuf Ahmed.

The current TFG regime of Sheikh Shariff Ahmed recalled him to the presidential guard and deployed him to oversee the initial training of a new army at Manyani in Mombasa.

"As an experienced officer I cannot resign from the military now," he says. "I have been in the army all my life and if I leave now Al Shabaab will kill me."

His interest, he says, is to restore peace and security in Somalia in order to reunite with his family, which he says is scattered in Kenyan and Ethiopian refugee camps.

Ready to die

Separately, the young soldier also proclaims love of my country as the main motive for taking the gun.

"When they came to my village, I was in Class Eight," he says referring to Al Shabaab’s capture of Burhache in 2004.

"They closed all the schools and said only Arabic and Islamic studies will be taught."

Hassan claims the Islamists pillaged his village through ‘unIslamic taxes’. "Our people were looted and forced to pay with camels," he laments and declares that Al Shabaab is an enemy he is prepared to die fighting.

Challenged to disclose if he is afraid of death, Hassan echoes the colonel’s thoughts. "When I have this gun I am not afraid. They (Al Shabaab) have guns like me. Whenever you have a gun you are half dead. Death is the fate of God."

Like Col Aden, Hassan declares he will be in the army all his life.

Born in Mogadishu, he says his main interest in the military is to protect his village and foster peace, then marry. "Even if I am not paid I will eat leaves. The most important thing is peace and a stable government." He says, "This is why I have a gun. This is why I have this uniform. That is why I left my family."

He says despite his deployment to the frontline he wants to marry. "I must get a child," he says, adding that his father has prepared a girl and animals for this purpose.

Promoting tribalism

Hassan accuses the older generation of promoting tribalism responsible for Somalia’s collapse but Col Aden argues most soldiers from the Barre regime are either dead, in exile and the new military needs the remaining ones to guide the new generation of fighters.

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