From farmers to fighters – how a new Somali militia rose up against al Shabaab | world news

Deep in the bush of Buloburde, in the Hiiraan region of central Somalia, a motley regiment gathers around a missile launcher.

Huddled tightly with their ears glued to a small black telephone, they receive intelligence and pass it on to the troops positioning the launcher.

The Ma’awisley militia is made up of farmer-turned-fighters and is on the front line in the battle for stability in Somalia. It is the new weapon of choice in the 16-year effort to eradicate al Shabaab, the terrorist group linked to al-Qaeda.

The Ma’awisley Fighters

This war is a war without a conventional front line. Instead, there are territories across the country where al Shabaab entrench themselves in the community and frequently launch attacks.

Now these communities are rising up against them.

“We are fighting for the good cause, for the people, for this nation and for the faith until Somalia is peaceful,” Ma’awisley commander Ali Shiri says in Bal’ad – another hotspot in only one hour from the capital Mogadishu.

Above all, they protect their families and their farms. The land they have long harvested is now parched by a prolonged drought and stalked by Al Shabaab fighters in search of money and food.

“They disturb the community. We are farmers and they keep coming back to us asking for taxes. That’s what made us fight,” says Ali.

Ma'awisley Militia
The Ma’awisley Militia

‘All-out war against Al Shabaab’ tops president’s agenda

This new thrust is accompanied by a new administration, determined to rid the country of insurgents. In May, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud came to power and weeks later a 30-hour siege of the Hayat Hotel in Mogadishu ended in the deaths of 20 people. In response to the massacre, he declared “all-out war against al Shabaab”.

President Mohamud survived two assassination attempts by al Shabaab and his nephew was killed by the terrorist group in 2015. This is his second term as president and the fight against al Shabaab continues to be at the top of its agenda.

Today, some of the fiercest battles are fought in his home region of Hiraan, where his government regularly recruits farmers to fight, a task made easier by harsh weather conditions.

“We are facing the worst drought here in Hiraan. There has been no rain and now we have an additional problem: war,” said Hiraan Governor and army veteran Ali Jeyte.

He has been fighting alongside the Ma’awisleys for four months and says, “We are their leaders and we have told them what is good for them and they accept it.”

A Somali National Army soldier observes missile fire at Al-Shabaab sites.
A Somali National Army soldier monitors missile strikes at al Shabaab sites

The Ma’awisleys get their name from the brightly colored wraparound skirts they wear to work on their farm. Today, those same skirts are wrapped around military fatigues and adorned with rows of new state-supplied brass balls. On their backs are rusty weapons bought on the black market.

With ground support from the Somali National Army and heavy artillery provided by the African Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS), they are engaged in an all-out offensive in the battle of Hiraan.

“About 300 to 400 militiamen are surrounding al Shabaab at the moment,” said Abdelsalam Mualim Mohamed, the Ma’awisley militia commander in Bulobarde.

Using their intelligence, the commander of the Djiboutian ATMIS force, Colonel Hassan Djama Farah, prepares his men to launch the missiles. The first shot hits close to the target and they fire another.

When the dust has settled, the soldiers stow their weapons in the back of their trucks and the Ma’awisleys blend into the bushes again.

“Bombs are their weapon of choice”, hitting morale and injuring soldiers

The government claims to have killed 200 al Shabaab fighters in the past few days alone and says many have surrendered.

These numbers are difficult to verify in a war characterized by conflicting information on both sides. The government recently tightened laws restricting local reporting on the terror group and suspended some of their social media accounts. Many Somali journalists complain that this is media censorship.

In this ever-changing climate, al Shabaab is constantly changing tactics.

“We train on them, they train on us,” says Brigadier General Keith Katunji. He is the commander of Ugandan troops in ATMIS and has been stationed in Somalia on and off since 2010.

Shabelle River, Somalia
Shabelle River, Somalia, which runs through the Lower Shabelle region, where the commander of Ugandan troops ATMIS is stationed

Its sector is Lower Shabelle, home to Mogadishu and home to nearly half of the country’s population.

“Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) or bombs are Al Shabaab’s weapon of choice. They know we supply our bases by road, so they focus on laying IEDs on the road and it affects us psychologically,” he says.

It is the injuries sustained by these bombs that affect the morale of his soldiers, but they still take on the daily task of painstakingly clearing a main road linking Mogadishu to central Somalia, a critical artery supplying the country with food and fuel.

The Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) find five to six improvised explosive devices on the 150-mile route every day, searching it inch by inch.

Lush farms become drought-ravaged land as food security is destroyed

“The United Nations and the government are trying to provide food so we have to do this kind of operation. We have to go and pacify the area where the food is going to be dumped and give people hope,” explains the brigadier.

Four failed rainy seasons have destroyed food security across the country and forecasts suggest it is unlikely to bring the moisture needed to replenish farmland.

Lower Shabelle is technically the most fertile part of Somalia. But from above, once-lush farms have become drought-ravaged land. Now littered with planted bombs instead of crop fields.

Abdelsalam Mualim Mohamed, a Ma'awisley fighter, in the Hiraan region of Somalia.
Abdelsalam Mualim Mohamed, a Ma’awisley fighter, in Somalia’s Hiraan region

Just under seven million people are at risk of starvation, nearly half of the country’s population.

“A hungry man is an angry man,” added Brigadier Katunji.

This anger is growing among the Ma’awisley who are not just facing drought.

“At harvest time, al Shabaab comes and says we have to pay – these are the challenges we face,” says commander Ali Shiri in Bal’ad, a town in Middle Shabelle where another offensive is underway.

Bal’ad is close to al-Shabaab’s former capital, Basra, and where the terror group is said to hold Sharia courts to settle issues such as land disputes.

For Bal’ad Mayor Qaasim Furdug, this fight is deeply personal. He lost his leg in 2010 in Mogadishu in a battle against al Shabaab and insists the war against them continues.

A fight that rural communities – once terrorized into silence – are now at the forefront.

A Uganda People's Defense Force convoy, part of the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia, outside Mogadishu
A Uganda People’s Defense Force convoy, part of the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia, outside Mogadishu

“Be firm as a free man or die – we face bullets”

“People thought al Shabaab was on the right track, but now they have realized that al Shabaab is the real enemy,” Mayor Furdug said.

“So everyone decided to cultivate as a free man or die. We are facing bullets. We are facing our enemy.”

The mayor is greeted by Ma’awisley fighters as he leaves his office. They take a break before heading back out to confront Al Shabaab.

These battles are breaking out across the country as the government scrambles to reclaim territory – another symptom of Somalia’s increasingly uninhabitable environment.

“We cannot cultivate and as farmers we are ready to defend our land and our people,” says Ma’awisley fighter Abdi Mahmoud Hussein in the town of Bal’ad.

It is estimated that at least half of the seven million drought-affected Somalis live in territory controlled by Al Shabaab, a curse that many believe goes hand in hand.

“There is a lack of rain and wherever al Shabaab goes, drought follows,” Abdi adds.


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