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Familiar Scenes of Violence Arise in Mogadishu

A wounded Somali man travels to a local hospital in Mogadishu on October 17.
AFP/Getty Images
A wounded Somali man travels to a local hospital in Mogadishu on October 17.
Somalis carry their belongings on donkey carts as they leave their neighborhoods in an effort to flee from fighting in Mogadishu, Somalia, on Nov. 10.
Mustafa Abdi / AFP/Getty Images
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AFP/Getty Images
Somalis carry their belongings on donkey carts as they leave their neighborhoods in an effort to flee from fighting in Mogadishu, Somalia, on Nov. 10.
Somali women carry some of their belongings on their heads as they leave the village of Wargedow, 30 kilometers west of Somalia's capital Mogadishu, on Nov. 5.
Abdurashid Abdulle Abikar / AFP/Getty Images
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AFP/Getty Images
Somali women carry some of their belongings on their heads as they leave the village of Wargedow, 30 kilometers west of Somalia's capital Mogadishu, on Nov. 5.

Last week, a painfully familiar scene unfolded in Mogadishu, Somalia. Somalis triumphantly dragged the body of a dead Ethiopian soldier in the street.

The scene recalled what has become known as the Blackhawk Down incident of 1993, when the bodies of dead U.S. troops met the same fate.

The circumstances of last week's scene are significantly different, but the outcome so far appears just as wretched. Somalia again has become almost too torn to save the living, or respect the dead.

Mogadishu Clears Out

Giuseppe Angelini is one of the heads of the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid arm. He and a colleague are just back to Nairobi from Mogadishu, a city so divided and violent that fewer and fewer people are willing to risk their lives to report the story.

The story that he and other humanitarian aid groups tell resists hard facts and figures — because in Somalia, the situation is as fluid as running water. But from where the crow flies, the city is emptying out.

"We saw in Mogadishu still yesterday people organized in mini buses trying to leave the city," Angelini says. "Difficult to identify them in most cases, who they are. Of the people we talked to, there was no single person we talked to who had not a personal story to tell."

International aid groups estimate that since the beginning of the year two-thirds of Mogadishu's population has cleared out of the city — including about 90,000 people a little over a week ago and an additional 45,000 last weekend.

This is because the fight for control of Somalia's capital is now fully inflamed.

The combined forces of the country's transitional government and Ethiopian troops are in a shoot out with remnants of the Islamist movement that once controlled the city. Those loyal to the Islamic Courts Union, as it was known, are believed to have killed an Ethiopian soldier last week and dragged his body in the street.

Caught in the Crossfire

The violence that has followed has left bodies strewn on lonely thoroughfares and townspeople scrambling to avoid the crossfire. But so many get caught.

The European Commission's Aadrian Sullivan brought back the pictures to prove it. But he tells the story better than the pictures do.

"Here we have a young boy. He's four years old. Just a moment. He was playing with four other friends. A landmine went off. Four of them died. He's the only survivor. All the flesh on the leg has been blown away. He's damaged his eye. But he's going to survive. Such is the situation there," Sullivan says.

All the people heading out of town are squeezing in with family or klan members in other communities, and are at the mercy of international aid groups.

Graham Davidson directs operations for Worldvision in Somalia. His organization is not represented in Mogadishu — they are in central and southern Somalia. But apparently Mogadishu is coming to them ... by the busload.

"Many of the people that have arrived from the current fighting in Mogadishu are currently staying with relatives ... relatives who already have issues with lack of food, water and sanitation — and compounds the issues we're dealing with," Davidson says. "Also, there are many people perhaps heading toward the Kenyan border."

This border has been closed for months, while the transitional government and Ethiopian forces concentrate on winning Mogadishu at any cost. Graham says the Islamic Courts Union, or ICU, may be making gains elsewhere.

"The fact is there are small pockets of the ICU that are popping up from place to place," he says.

Angelini of the European Commission calls what he saw over the weekend "The Last Episode of a Long Story." But if that is so, then Somalia may be a story without an ending. Just a long fade to black.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Gwen Thompkins hosts Music Inside Out on WWNO in New Orleans.