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Battle for Mogadishu: When Will It End?

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Battle for Mogadishu: When Will It End?

Posted by Colin Thomas-Jensen on May 12, 2009

My friend Michael Kleinman over at’s Humanitarian Relief blog has a regular feature called The Worst Place in the World, and Sri Lanka has topped the list three weeks running.  The news from Mogadishu this morning suggests that Somalia may top the list this week. Once again, armed groups battling for control of the city have opted for indiscriminate shelling of civilian neighborhoods as their preferred war tactic. This is from IRIN:

At least 27,500 people fled their homes between 7 and 11 May, according to Ali Sheikh Yassin, deputy chairman of the Mogadishu-based Elman Human Rights Organisation (EHRO).

With no let-up in the fighting, more families were fleeing, he said.

"Last night [11 May] saw some of the heaviest shelling in both the north and south of the city," Yassin said, adding that he feared the city could soon be empty.

The displacement has been fuelled by indiscriminate shelling.

The situation in the Sri Lankan “safe zone” is truly appalling, and newspaper columnists, pressure groups, and activists have justifiably been urging for a ceasefire.  Yet for the past two and a half years, civilians in Mogadishu have been subjected to constant shelling by all parties to the conflict.  Thousands are dead, hundreds of thousands more have been driven from their homes. And reports from the ground suggest that things may actually be getting worse. Again, from IRIN, quoting local journalist Hassan Mahamud:

Yassin said Mogadishu had not witnessed “anything like this even when the Ethiopians were here; they are fighting right in the middle of the civilians. Today [12 May], there are families on every street looking for shelter, taking advantage of a lull in the fighting.

There are no quick fixes in Somalia. Unlike in Sri Lanka, where the international community has considerable leverage with the government (leverage it ought to be making much better use of), the Somali transitional government and the Islamist and clan-based militias waging this dirty war in Mogadishu are less susceptible to external pressure. Yet the deplorable situation in Mogadishu right now is fuelled by something that the international community does have a hand in ending: impunity. Our recent report on Somalia calls for a U.N. Commission of Inquiry to investigate and document war crimes and crimes against humanity, a recommendation shared by Human Rights Watch.  While Somalis themselves must ultimately decide how best to hold Somali perpetrators to account for war crimes, we can begin to end the culture of impunity and focus attention on non-Somalis responsible for crimes against humanity (notably Ethiopian forces) by launching an impartial investigation to learn who bears the most responsibility.

Somalia right now is the worst place in the world. As Somali civilians cling to survival on the streets of Mogadishu, they need to know that there are people out there fighting on their behalf. A commission of inquiry is a modest but critical starting point.

Update: And if you disagree that Somalia is the worst place in the world right now, add the worst drought in ten years on top of the situation I described above. This is from Reuters:

"We’re now facing a drought in Somalia that is worse than people have seen for at least a decade," Mark Bowden, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for the country facing its fourth straight year of drought, told a news briefing in Geneva.

"Roughly 45 percent of the (Somali) population is suffering from moderate malnutrition."

In parts of central and southern Somalia, 24 percent of children under five suffer from acute malnutrition, he told the briefing.

Bowden, speaking later to Reuters, said that rate amounted to some children living in "near-famine conditions."

He said that while Somalis were not currently dying of starvation, as seen there in the early 1990s, their cattle were dying from a lack of water. "We’ve got more people across the board suffering and a loss of livelihoods," he said.