THE CANADIAN CONNECTION
Mogadishu: The Canadian Connection
Many Somalis who fled their ravaged country for Canada are going home
Oct. 21, 2006
The Toronto Star
MOGADISHU— Flying low over the turquoise Indian Ocean and gently chiselled coast of Somalia, it's hard to imagine the fighting that had to take place to reduce the city below to its crumbled ruins.
The Italian architecture left by the country's former colonial rulers that frames the sandy beachfront is now just a concrete shell of its former grandeur. The recently opened airport is no more than a runway and a roof over rows of plastic chairs.
For 15 years, anarchy ruled these streets.
Now, a regime known as the Union of Islamic Courts has taken over and introduced public executions, dress codes for women and censorship of the media. But the UIC has brought something else to a city where there are as many guns as people and whose image is ingrained in the Western consciousness as the site of Black Hawk Down.
Roadblocks once controlled by rival warlords have been dismantled, people are emerging from their homes to walk the streets and children play among the rocks of what was once a hotel on the city's stunning coastline. The port has opened, and a commercial airline now brings home planeloads of Somalis who have not seen their country for more than a decade.
Many of those flights have included Canadian passengers, who once came west as refugees but are now flocking back to their homeland.
Some have joined the Islamists and say they are the country's only hope for peace. Others are part of the UN-backed transitional federal government (TFG), which is trying to wrestle control back from the UIC. According to the TFG, the Islamists' rule mirrors the Taliban's, and its members have ties to Al Qaeda.
A former Toronto grocer is one of the Islamist leaders. A former Ottawa bureaucrat is the transitional government's minister of information. Another holds the position of tourism and environment, a grandiose portfolio in a troubled region, but indicative of the government's aspirations.
Even the transitional government president, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, often jokes publicly that he is an honorary Canadian. While he doesn't hold citizenship, his wife, children and grandchildren all do, and only recently moved back to the region after living in Kitchener. His staff and advisers are also predominantly Canadian.
The debate that is slowly garnering international attention is how to bring lasting peace here, and how Somalia figures into a world now cognizant of the global nature of terrorism.
"There's a bright future if things go on like this," says Abdullahi Afrah, the former Toronto grocer who is now a senior leader with the UIC.
"We can say people will be saved, resources may come back, international relations may improve, construction may happen, people's trust in each other may be renewed," says Afrah, better known as Asparo.
"Many, many things were happening before. People were running around doing whatever they wanted to do. Law and order may now be restored. Somali people are talented people, if they get some sort of environment where they can work on their own."
Of course, security in Mogadishu is a relative term, and most foreigners travel with a convoy of armed guards, while "technicals," a rather benign term referring to jeeps outfitted with machine guns and militia, continue to roam the streets.
This year, more than 600 Somalis and foreign citizens have been killed, their deaths attributed to the UIC, rival government militia, or simply the random violence in a city with crushing poverty. The murders included a nun who was shot last month, reportedly in retaliation for remarks made by Pope Benedict XVI concerning Islam, and the unsolved July shooting of Swedish photojournalist Martin Adler.
And although the UIC is not an official government, it operates as one. At the recently opened airport, "visas" are issued for $50 U.S., and last month it sent a warning to foreign journalists and humanitarian workers, stating that for those who travel here without permission, "penalty will be swift."
But there's no denying that since taking Mogadishu, the Islamic courts have done what all others failed to do in the years that reduced the city to rubble. Now, the Islamists are moving outside the city, conquering much of southern Somalia, taking over key ports, and making their way north along the border with Kenya.
In many regions of the country, the Islamists are popular because they bring stability. But the goodwill may soon end as protests outside of Mogadishu over the strict Islamic rule grow.
Before the Islamists took control, it wasn't uncommon for women to bare their heads, or for men to drink beer, and a large segment of the population smoked the leafy narcotic called khat. No more.
Some wonder just how much that security will cost. This week, a war of words raged between the UIC and the transitional government, with President Yusuf telling an international gathering in Nairobi that the Islamic militants were led by the "black flag of the Taliban."
A UIC leader said the allegations were "beneath contempt."
The question everyone here seems to be asking: What now?
Think Mogadishu, and most recall images from the fall of 1993 when two American Black Hawk helicopters were shot down by rocket-propelled grenades and the bodies of dead American soldiers dragged through the streets by frenzied crowds.
It was a disastrous end of an American mission to capture warlord Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed that was supposed to take no more than an hour.
When former Star reporter Paul Watson's Pulitzer-Prize winning photograph of one of those dead soldiers reached the U.S., then-president Bill Clinton decided to pull troops from Somalia. It was the start of what some call the West's ostrichlike approach to the country.
Oct. 3, 1993, however, is remembered here both as a day of pride and sorrow, when a small African city conquered a superpower but at the cost of hundreds of lives.
Despite the 13 years that have passed, the emotions are still raw along the narrow, congested street where the first Black Hawk went down. A garbage-covered cactus grows over what is supposed to be a remnant of the helicopter, and a woman referred to as "Black Hawk down lady" charges a fee to see another piece inside her home.
When the Star viewed the site, a crowd gathered seemingly from nowhere, jeering "American, American," in one of the few outward displays of hostility.
Canada has its own dirty history in Somalia. During a peacekeeping mission in 1993, members of the Canadian Airborne Regiment were charged with torturing and then beating to death a 16-year-old Somali shepherd named Shidane Arone. A videotape later surfaced showing members of the unit making racial slurs and taking part in a sickening hazing ritual. The regiment was disbanded in disgrace.
Although still recalled as a national shame in Canada, few here seem to remember the Somali teenager's death or the Canadian involvement.
Instead, to most here, Canada, and Toronto in particular, is known as the safe place where refuge was granted 15 years ago when the government was overthrown. Although the statistics vary, most believe more than 100,000 Somalis live in Toronto and Ottawa, making Canada host to the largest diaspora of Somalis outside Africa. Now that the country appears to be on the cusp of change, many have returned.
Asparo, the Canadian senior member of the Islamists, holds much power here. What he left behind was a modest life at Weston Rd. and Keele St., working at a variety of jobs, including a position he says he once held as a security supervisor for Toronto's Catholic school board.
He left Somalia in 1986 on a scholarship for his master's degree in crop sciences at Texas State University and then two years later came to Canada as a refugee. Soon after, he acquired his citizenship.
Before he left Toronto in 1997, Asparo says he owned a halal food store at Dundas and Bloor Sts. and ran a local branch of a wire transfer network known as the Al-Bakarat. Without any banks in Somalia, Al-Bakarat was the only channel of money for the diaspora, and by 2001, it operated in 40 countries around the world.
Al-Bakarat banks were shut down after 9/11, due to allegations that the wire transfer service was funnelling money from the diaspora into the coffers of African terrorist organizations.
Somalis largely dismiss the restrictions as counterterrorism rhetoric — a perception only bolstered now by the fact that five years after Al-Bakarat went out of business, there haven't been any successful prosecutions linking the financial institution to terrorism.
When Asparo came back to Mogadishu, he says, it was a chaotic, violent city, and no one walked the streets without a weapon. But believing Somalia would one day have peace, he says he decided to stay.
"Somalis have something in their hearts that they're attached to their country, even though they're better off elsewhere. He has a nice car, a good life, (abroad) but he needs to get back to see his broken home."
When word got out this summer that Asparo was a senior member of the UIC, many in Toronto's Somali community said they were shocked, not remembering him as particularly devout or political.
Asparo has little explanation for how he became one of the Islamist leaders.
"This is something that just happened," he says, with a slight shoulder shrug. "When things happen, someone's lucky to be moved up. It's not something I was looking for. It's not something I even enjoy doing but it's something I have to do. I'm 54 years old and did a lot of things previously, so this was the time I was thinking I would relax."
Along the city's main street, named 21 October for the day Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre seized power in 1969 in a military coup, little shacks now line its edges, selling everything from cellphones to skinned goat carcasses baking in the 40C noonday heat.
Bursts of bougainvillea hang over what remains of the city's buildings, and their floral splendour combined with the vibrant abayas worn by the women provide flashes of colour in an otherwise dull, crumbling city.
Driving this street was once a gamble. Carjackings and shootings were part of the daily routine, and drivers only stood a chance if they had speed and a carload of artillery themselves. But since Somalis now require written permission from the Islamic courts to carry weapons in public and there's a disarmament campaign underway, the road has sprung to life.
Turn on to Ballad Rd. and down a sandy alley, and this is where the leader of the Union of Islamic Council lives.
Children scatter, then peer around corners curiously as the convoy of cars drives past. One young boy smiles and waves, his other hand inexplicably cradling a dusty blender.
The gates open to reveal a modest home where laundry hangs in the courtyard and teenagers lounge in the heat on mattresses, occasionally swatting flies.
If the fight against terrorism were as straightforward as George W. Bush's portrayal of good verses evil, then the man with the henna-dyed beard who sits uncomfortably in the heat of his home is what the U.S. president would call one of the "evildoers."
Sheikh Hassan Aweys, listed by both the United Nations and the U.S. State Department as a "supporter of terrorism," has invited the Star into his home, and begins the interview with the words: "Ask me anything."
But many of the questions are answered with questions themselves.
When queried about his past association with Osama bin Laden he asks: "If I met Osama bin Laden, did I make a mistake?"
The U.S. administration believes so, and alleges Aweys befriended the Al Qaeda leader in the early 1990s when bin Laden was living in Sudan. With a wave of the hand and an explanation of "Western propaganda," Aweys dismisses his name's inclusion on the U.S. terrorism list.
"If you want to create an Islamic state, America doesn't want that, so they say it's Al Qaeda or use the terrorist word. We don't care what they say, we don't have any link with Al Qaeda. No one wants to give us a chance. Take a look around yourself and see what we've done."
Recalling Somalia's bloody past, Aweys says he takes pride in what the courts have managed to do. "We are the winners," he says, sitting back and flashing a smile that slices through his red- and grey-flecked beard and moustache.
At 71, and on this day recovering from a bout of the flu, Aweys no longer commands the presence that once gave him a fierce reputation and nickname of the Old Fox. His long military career is famous in Somalia, but Aweys only acquired international recognition in the 1990s as the former leader of the now banned and largely defunct Al Itihaad al Islamiya (AIAI).
Although the AIAI was formed to regain territory from Ethiopia, Western intelligence agencies believe the group later aligned with Al Qaeda and helped facilitate the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
Aweys is now credited with the military campaign that led to the UIC's takeover of Mogadishu, but he remained in the background until his June appointment as leader of the shura. This religious council is arguably the engine the drives the UIC and is a combination of 14 clan-directed religious courts.
In theory, this is where all governing decisions are made and the executive branch — headed by former high school teacher Sheikh Sharif Ahmed — is then left to implement those decisions.
Ahmed spends most of his days at the heavily guarded headquarters of the UIC in the city's Harua neighbourhood, past the area known as Factory Road, where truckloads of coal blacken the street, houses and the clothes of all its inhabitants, and not far from the Coca-Cola factory that boasts its own private militia.
The headquarters consist of a series of white stucco buildings with concrete walkways embedded with chipped pottery — opulent grounds by the standards of this city. During an interview with the Star, Ahmed sits behind a long wood table, his translator at his side and men sitting on cushioned benches eagerly straining to hear him. Ornate red and gold curtains billow in the breeze as he speaks, and above, tinsel and inflated Fanta and Pepsi beach balls sway from the ceiling.
Ahmed, like Aweys, answers each question with a smile first — a knowing one that seems to say he anticipated what would be asked.
"We're very sorry to say we don't know very much about the Taliban, so cannot say if we're like them or dislike them. We just know we've changed the way it is here."
Concerning allegations that there's a division within the UIC?
"People say this out of ignorance. Islam is all a marriage," he answers, stressing that the UIC speaks with one voice. "There's no doubt whatsoever. If it wasn't that way, we wouldn't have achieved what we did."
But a week earlier, armed militants and technicals surrounded the port city of Kismayo as the UIC expanded its control of the south. At the helm was Hassan Turki, who, according to the U.S. State Department, has connections to Al Qaeda. And after the takeover, Turki reportedly made a controversial speech that noted "foreign fighters" had come to Somalia to help.
"They are your brothers in Islam," he was quoted telling a demonstration.
Another local report said the elusive Aden Hashi Ayro, who reportedly trained in Afghanistan camps before coming back to Somalia, also spoke to the crowd. His presence, coupled with the latest recording from bin Laden that stated Somalia and Sudan were Al Qaeda's next frontiers, sent an ominous message.
It's not the image the UIC leadership here wants to present.
"Many people might say things out of frustration or out of pressure," Ahmed says. "We don't believe (Turki) said that, though if he did, he did it out of some sort of pressure. We're sure there have not been any foreigners participating."
But it's comments like those made by Turki and the growing ranks of the young militia known as the shabbab that are making many Somalis nervous.
The Islamists were not supposed to be the ones to bring stability to Somalia.
That was in the hands of the transitional federal government, appointed in 2004 after protracted negotiations among rival clans. Many of the country's warlords were given cabinet positions.
The country has been without a government since opposing clans toppled the presidency of Siad Barre 15 years ago and Somalia dissolved into factional fighting among dozens of tribes. The TFG was intended to be country's first step toward a democratically elected government, and Somali Canadians hold an amazing amount of power within its ranks.
But it has been a shaky two years for the TFG, which includes many of the former tribal warlords.
Earlier this year, a faction of those warlords formed their own breakaway organization called the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism. It's widely believed they had substantial American support, since the U.S. was looking at the time to quietly quell the Islamists' movement.
With this Western support, the warlords embarked on a bloody rampage, only emboldening the Islamists to fight back and create the shabbab. This young, ruthless militia eventually sent the warlords running, and their prowess impressed Somalis weary of clan warfare.
"This is a very crucial issue," says Somali Canadian Awad Ahmed Ashareh, a TFG member of parliament.
"The people resented it. They were saying (the warlords) were before us for the last 15 years and then we had no peace, and no hope. We have nothing in this life. Then, the Islamic courts say we have to go against them and they said the Americans are against Islam. They gave this momentum to the courts."
Somali Canadian Ali Jama, the TFG's minister of information, says the warlords, who have since lost their cabinet positions, "fatally undermined" the transitional government, and he credits the Islamists for filling what was then a power vacuum.
"What they're doing is actually nothing short of a miracle because they've opened the port, they've opened the airport, they have stabilized the most anarchic city in the world," he says.
But transitional government members allege that radical members of the group have ties to Al Qaeda, and are now requesting international support. They point to last month's truck bombing in Baidoa — a first for Somalia — as evidence of foreign terrorist tactics.
"If the situation worsens, it will have an impact on regional security and global security," Jama says. "Once it has global dimensions, big powers will come in and spend billions at that time. But now, a very minimum amount of resources are required.
"In the minds of most U.S. politicians about Somalia, they want to avoid anything. But I'm sure there are many senators who are raising their voices against this ostrich-like behaviour. You cannot hide from what is happening. They have their hands full with Iraq and Afghanistan and do not want another case like that.
"Hopefully, it will not become a full-blown disaster," Jama says. "But the international community has to be active and be sure they take the right role."
All eyes are now on Oct. 30, when Islamist and TFG leaders are scheduled to meet in Khartoum, Sudan, for another round of peace talks.
"There does need to be pressure on the Islamists to show up for the talks," says Matt Bryden, a regional analyst and expert on Somalia affairs, and former Canadian member of the International Crisis Group, a non-profit group that monitors world conflicts. "The question is what type of pressure and how effective will it be.
"I don't think demonizing the courts and attacking them is the right approach. It would only radicalize them, and then there would be calls to join an international jihad."
Ahmed has already called for jihad against long-time rival Ethiopia, whose troops are reportedly stationed in Baidoa.
He made the declaration and angrily maintained war with Ethiopia was imminent during a news conference with local reporters. Ahmed was dressed in combat fatigues and brandishing an AK47, an image in stark contrast to the soft-spoken, calm demeanour he presented during the interview with the Star.
Jama says the Islamists' popularity is waning and hopes the TFG will regain credibility by now maintaining a peaceful stance. He says there's room for negotiation once the two parties are on a more equal footing.
"The militant wing of the Islamic courts overplayed their hand and fell into a trap the warlords fell into. When you become overly confident and create too many enemies, finally that will lead to your own demise," he says.
"Ultimately, the government will only survive if it has the support of the people. By waiting and continuing with the dialogue of reconciliation, it will only gain more support, not lose support."
But Jama says not much will be accomplished without the involvement of the international community.
"The wait-and-see approach is not working. If you want to support the government, you have to support it now. Otherwise, there will be no point. It will be too late."
As the evening call to prayers fills the air and the sun sinks below the roof of the Peace Hotel, the clanging of plates and cries from stray cats sensing food is coming signal the end of the daily fast observed during Ramadan.
Foreigners regard the aptly named hotel as an oasis of security, where the electricity always works and the water always runs, and it's not uncommon for owner Bashir Yusuf Osman to treat visitors to a rooftop dinner of locally caught lobster.
On this night, word had reached Farah Muke that a Canadian journalist and photographer were staying at the hotel, and he sought them out, gushing about Toronto like a homesick youth travelling abroad for the first time.
Muke has been back here for the last four months but says he feels his real home is the Etobicoke apartment where he lives for half the year.
"If I see any Canadians here, I have to meet them. I feel I'm Canada's representative. I fly a Canadian flag from my home and people are always asking why I do that, and I say because I like Canada so much," he says.
Ali Sharmarke settles into a chair on the hotel's patio. The cellphone that is never far from his ear is on the table as he pours some decaffeinated coffee.
The former Ottawa resident is one of the city's most well-known Somali Canadians. For the past nine years, he has worked for HornAfrik, the independent radio and television company that he co-founded.
He has seen colleagues jailed and even killed, and was sitting with another Canadian reporter last year when a grenade was tossed into the station's compound. The blast took a chunk of concrete out of a walkway, but the men were not hurt.
Tonight, the effervescent Sharmarke looks tired. "They just closed our station in Kismayo," he says, referring to the UIC. His cellphone rings again and he excuses himself.
Earlier in the day, Ibrahim Hassan Addou, the UIC's foreign affairs minister, told the Star that a free and independent press must be supported. But, he said, there are restrictions.
"Publishing certain articles will incite violence. We have to give certain guidelines to the media."
In fact, there are 13 written rules for local reporters that are open to wide interpretation.
Stories, the decree states, cannot create "conflicts" between the public and the Islamic courts. Rule 13: "The media must not employ the terms which infidels use to refer to Muslims such as `terrorist,' `extremists,' etc."
Sharmarke returns to finish his coffee. He has learned that the station was closed for covering a predominantly female protest against the Islamists' takeover of the port city.
"The problem is it's so arbitrary," he says.
Beyond the hotel gates, the city is quiet, a state most Somalis are still getting used to after years of falling asleep to the sound of gunfire.
But Sharmarke's evening is far from over, and he leaves again, this time to meet a contact before returning to HornAfrik's newsroom. Like other Canadians who have come back, Sharmarke feels he has a vital job in repairing his homeland.
HornAfrik's newsroom displays international awards it has received for doing that job, including the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression plaque awarded to Sharmarke and the station's two Canadian co-founders in 2002. There are also reminders of the importance of the work for the days when it seems few outside the country care about Somalia and its chaos.
One poster taped to a door reads: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."