your connection to The Boston Globe

Somalis warily adapt to changing capital

Some residents bemoan ouster of Islamic forces

Somali government forces patrolled Mogadishu yesterday. The mood in the city has changed since the Islamic movement was swept from power last week by Ethiopian troops. (Shabelle Media/Reuters)

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- Among the first things Mohamed Abtidon did when the Islamic Courts movement came to this city 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 talking on the phone with abandon.

Since the Islamic movement was swept from power last week, men draped with AK-47s have reappeared along the sandy lanes in his neighborhood, and with them a feeling of menace, to which Abtidon has adapted almost instinctively. He put the 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.

The Somali government says 3,500 fighters are hiding around the capital, raising the specter of an Iraq-style guerrilla war. Diplomats meeting in neighboring Kenya agreed yesterday on a plan to raise a foreign peacekeeping force for Somalia.

Ayman al-Zawahri, the deputy of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, urged the Islamic movement's fighters and other Muslims to attack the troops of Christian-dominated Ethiopia, which he called a "crusader" invasion force.

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 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."

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.

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 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 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 went to Medina, where he got a bigger house for less money.

When the Islamic Courts movement was pushed out last week, however, he feared the return of the warlords' militias and went back to his old neighborhood.

Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi said his priority is disarmament, but the process has gone badly, with certain warlords wondering why they should trust the new government and businessmen wondering who will protect them.

Besides getting rid of the cellphone, Mohamed Abtidon has replaced his gold Rolex with a plastic watch to avoid being mugged.

"When the Courts left, it has become a new life," he said, in a manner more grim than enthusiastic. "Now has come a problem bigger than not being able to watch a film. Now, you could lose your life."

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives