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Reporter's Notebook: Mogadishu

  • Michael Onyiego

The infamous Bakara Market seen from a Burundian position in Mogadishu. Al-Shabab launches most of its mortars from the heavily populated Bakara. AMISOM forces have moved closer to the neighborhood since September and hope to capture it with the arrival o

The infamous Bakara Market seen from a Burundian position in Mogadishu. Al-Shabab launches most of its mortars from the heavily populated Bakara. AMISOM forces have moved closer to the neighborhood since September and hope to capture it with the arrival o

After repelling the Ramadan offensive launched by al Qaida-linked force al-Shabab, AMISOM forces in Mogadishu have been able to exploit rifts within the insurgent group and gain ground throughout the city. AMISOM officials believe that with an additional 20,000 troops it can recapture most of southern Somalia.

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A flight from Nairobi takes just more than an hour, but Mogadishu is really a world away. On arrival at the oceanside airport, off to the side of the runway visitors see a rusty Russian cargo plane that was shot down in 2008; its left wing dangling precariously from its body.

The AMISOM base is a surprisingly safe haven sitting on the fringe of the world's most dangerous city. Not long ago, mortars would regularly land within the compound, but since the end of Ramadan, soldiers are able to walk without the protection of flak-jackets and helmets, and the mood is relatively relaxed.

In the city is an entirely different reality. Travel for the AMISOM force is only possible with Armored Personnel Carriers.

Traveling with an AU convoy through the streets, bustling centers of activity appeared that were reminiscent of any market in Africa. In other parts of the city, along the front lines of fighting, huge abandoned hotels line the streets, providing neither relaxation nor shelter.

The convoy's first stop was the former Hotel Uruba, overlooking the Indian Ocean, where an Ugandan detachment is based. Visible through the building's shattered walls is the Old Port of Mogadishu. The Ancient Islamic fort guarding the harbor is pockmarked from years of shelling. Just below in a small bay, fisherman can be seen bringing in their catch, often fillets of the sharks that patrol the Somali coast.

At Uruba, Lieutenant Colonel Francis Chemonges explained how Mogadishu's once highly developed cityscape is providing problems today.

"This place is a built-up place that needs so many soldiers," said Chemonges. "Taking over just one building means a lot. It takes a lot of effort and needs a lot of manpower to occupy, of course. The whole of Mogadishu needs over 16,000 soldiers or 20,000. Something like that."

The AMISOM force numbers around 8,000, but has managed to take new parts of the city in recent months. Because of AMISOM's recent advances, VOA was able to visit areas not seen by journalists since the city was overrun by insurgent forces years ago.

The city is quieter than it has been in quite a while, but fighting continues as AMISOM troops work to maintain their recent advances.

AMISOM soldiers exchanged fire with Shabab snipers just a block or two away. Along the streets, some civilians could be seen running for shelter or perhaps a better vantage point to observe the action.

After a day's ride around the city it is apparent AMISOM controls significantly more than a few blocks, as has been reported. But such revelations do not hide the fact that many areas are still completely off-limits for the international troops.

The Bakara Market is the most famous and significant of these. Bakara is the commercial hub of Mogadishu, and is controlled completely by al-Shabab. The group uses positions among civilians to launch mortars at AMISOM forces.

Without any presence in the neighborhood, AMISOM troops are forced to simply launch mortars straight back. This shelling has killed many civilians, and brought AMISOM heavy criticism.

The commander in the El-Hindi neighborhood, one of the newest position's taken by AMISOM soldiers, Major David Matua repeated what has become a mantra for the force - with more troops, they could take the city. But he also explained that advancing from El-Hindi meant closing in on Bakara.

"We began about 300 meters away from here, but now we are down in the valley, where the enemy is holed up, to remove him bit by bit until he gets out of the valley," said Matua. "Then, we hope, that will be the way to Bakara."

The multi-national force does more than fight. The only hospital operating in Mogadishu is in the AMISOM base, where Ugandan and Burundian soldiers often see hundreds of Mogadishu's residents in a given day.

Force Medical Officer Dr. James Kiyengo explains the expanding area of AMISOM control has strained the capacity of the medical unit.

"The bigger crisis that is recent is that, as the area of operation widens and the area of responsibility for the UN and African Union widens, then the civilians that are in that area are also increasing," said Dr. Kiyengo. "So that means that even the medical services are getting loaded a little more because there are more civilians in the secure areas."

As evidenced by the fighting in Mogadishu's streets, AMISOM soldiers have the will to challenge Shabab forces. What remains to be seen is whether or not the extra 20,000 troops pledged by Uganda will receive funding from the African Union or the international community.