KISMAYO, SOMALIA — African Union troops and Somali government forces captured the key port city of Kismayo from militant group al-Shabab in October. Since then, the AU and government troops have established a heavy presence in and around the city, and have beefed up security with the aim of preventing further al-Shabab attacks.
Sixteen-year-old Ahmed Ali Olow is locked up in an abandoned, windowless charcoal storage facility that serves as a prison. The prison doesn’t have a door, only a small hole that is blocked by a rusty old freezer, which only the guards can move.
Olow is the latest person arrested by Somali government forces at the port of Kismayo on suspicion of being a member of al-Shabab.
The teenager said he was looking for a job when soldiers took him into custody.
“They have called me while I was looking at one of the ships offloading at the port," he said. "They asked where I was going. I told them I was checking out this ship around here. Actually this was the first time I saw the port."
Al-Shabab has used teenagers like Olow to carry out suicide attacks against government officials, security forces and civilians.
Olow said officials at the port were afraid he was carrying explosives. He said he is not part of al-Shabab and doesn’t know how to use any kind of weapon.
Since al-Shabab was driven out of Kismayo in October, the port itself has been managed by a temporary 12-member committee led by Ahmed Madobe, leader of the Somali militia group Ras Kamboni, which helped liberate Kismayo. The committee collects revenue from port operations, while talks continue to set up a permanent administration to govern the city in both Nairobi and Kismayo.
Kenyan Major Emanuel Okello said that port security officers leave nothing to chance when it comes to safety.
“... so what happens, we have two security checks at the two roadblocks where my men, together with Somali national army, physically search and frisk each and every individual coming to the port, and even check vehicles," said Okello. "People have to come out, open the vehicles' boot, we conduct thorough checks before allowing them into the port, so we make sure anyone who is coming to the port is not armed or has no explosives.”
Thirty-six-year-old Mohamed Muhumad Mohamed has worked at the port for five years. He said that when government forces arrived in the port, people were kept waiting for hours before the search began.
“Everything is about people getting to understand and know each other," he said. "When these guys arrived here, we will be outside the port for about two to three hours before any check-up was done and they were all doing that because of security. After some time they have made security check easy for us, now it takes some few minutes.”
Okello noted that port workers have been cooperative in pointing out new individuals visiting the port, coming to work or as truck drivers.
“There was a time we had al-Shabab operatives, three of them, infiltrate - and it's locals who pointed them out to us," he said. "They told us these people are al-Shabab, so they were arrested and interviewed and taken to police station in town. After thorough investigation I understand they were later released in a condition that their whereabouts must be known.”
For the time being, the teenager, Olow, will remain imprisoned in the abandoned charcoal store while he waits for officials to establish his identity.