Somalis yearn for the return of Islamic Courts rulers

1192.jpg‘If the Islamic Courts came back, not just this area but the whole of Somalia will be safer’The ruins of the old sugar factory in Marere, in the southern interior of Somalia, tower over the wooden shacks and brick huts which shelter the 2,000 or so people still living here. This used to be the second-largest sugar factory in the world, employing more than 20,000 people. Now, its rusting steel frame, chimneys and pipes sunk deep into the tall grass provide a painful echo of the wreck which Somalia has become.

 

Everything worth anything has gone, the scrap metal systematically torn off and shipped to India or old equipment taken by scavengers to be sold off at the market in nearby Jilib.

 

“Maybe one day someone will rebuild it,” said Abdirizak Hassan Moalim, squinting into the sun. The 21-year-old has been living in a village near the sugar factory for two months after fleeing the violence in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu. “It needs to be safe here first though,” he added. “There was a chance under the Courts, but now, I don’t know.” Six months after the fall of Somalia’s Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), insecurity has returned to the country.

 

In this rural district in the south, where in the past 12 months floods have followed drought, the rule of the gun is back. The government has failed to take control, leaving Marere and the surrounding areas in limbo.

 

The UIC controlled Marere and the neighbouring district of Jilib for just three months at the end of last year. After Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, fell to the government and its Ethiopian allies at the end of December, the Courts melted away.

 

Local people, from teen-agers to elders, now talk of the brief period of rule by the Islamic Courts in wistful tones. For the first time in a generation, there was a level of security in the district that few had believed was possible. The various clan-based militias which terrorised the region, setting up checkpoints and settling disputes with guns, buried their arms.

 

Before the Courts’ arrival, there had been nine roadblocks along the route from Marere to Kismaayo, a port town roughly 100 miles away. Controlled by individual militia groups, they demanded money from everyone who passed. Under the Courts, the roadblocks disappeared.

 

The effect was immediate. The price of food in Marere fell as traders travelling from Kismaayo no longer had to factor in the cost of roadblocks. The cost of travelling between Marere and Kismaayo also fell – from 100,000 shillings to just 30,000. One commodity increased in price: cigarettes. The Courts banned smoking, along with the chewing of khat, a mild narcotic popular throughout Somalia. The price of a packet of cigarettes rose from 6,000 shillings to 20,000. But strict conservative policies like this began to erode much of the UIC’s popular support in Mogadishu.

 

With the demise of the Courts, the militias have dug up their weapons and the checkpoints and insecurity have returned. A vehicle belonging to Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF) was shot at two weeks ago. MSF, which runs a hospital and feeding centre in Marere, was forced to evacuate its small team of expatriate staff.

 

“If the Islamic Courts came back, not just this area but the whole of Somalia will be safer,” said Mohammed Abdullahi Gure, chairman of Marere elders’ committee. “People used to fear the Islamic Courts. The government does not have the holy Koran so they do not fear them.” The UIC’s presence in Marere district was limited, but effective, Mr Gure said. A commander was appointed, based in the village of Gududey. He had just one technical – the souped-up 4x4s armed with machine guns – and a handful of soldiers, but few were prepared to risk committing a crime.

 

“There wasn’t a militia man who would move with guns,” said Mr Gure. “They feared because they were told the Islamic Courts forces would have the Holy Koran as their guide.” Without the sharia law which the UIC imposed, Mr Gure and his committee of elders are unable to keep the peace. There is no system of justice in Marere. The men who shot at MSF were forced to write a letter apologising for their actions but they continue to live freely in the community.

 

The weak transitional government is now entering its sixth month based in Mogadishu but it is still struggling to assert its authority, reliant on the support of Ethiopian troops. In an Ethiopian-led offensive in April, up to 400,000 people fled the capital as the government attempted to pacify an insurgency.

 

Mr Moalim lived in one of the areas deemed by the government to be home to remnants of the Islamic Courts’ military wing, Al Shabbab. After two Ethiopian shells hit his home, he moved to GSB camp. “It is just not safe enough any more,” he said.

 

As one of the few Somalis in this district to have received an education – he grew up in Kenya – Mr Moalim has found work as an English teacher, helping MSF’s Somali staff master the basics. “I hope I can save enough to go to college. I would like to be a lab technician. My dream would be to return to Mogadishu and be safe there.”

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