MARKA, SOMALIA — Since African Union forces took control of the Somali port town of Marka three weeks ago, life is beginning to return to normal. Citizens of the picturesque seaside village, 100 kilometers south of Mogadishu, say they are enjoying more freedom than before, though security remains a challenge.
AMISON in, Al-Shabab out
African Union forces known as AMISOM faced little resistance when they rolled into Marka late last month.
The Al-Shabab Islamist militants, who had controlled the town for four years, had already fled.
Marka residents welcome al-Shabab’s exit, ending the harsh version of Islamic law they had imposed on the town.
Fahia sells cigarettes outside a mosque. Under al-Shabab, she says, she would have been severely punished for selling tobacco. “You would be caned or imprisoned. You would be taken to an open field where they would call people and start caning you 20 to 30, counting every lash out loud,” she explained.
Al-Shabab had used Marka as a base to launch attacks in the region. AMISOM recently seized a large cache of weapons from a house belonging to a militant commander.
AMISOM Commander Liutenant Colonel Silver Muhwezi says al-Shabab has been weakened as a military force. But he says his soldiers have a harder time fighting the small-scale hit-and-run attacks that still take place. “The problem with these guys, I think they have mastered bombs. Bombs: it is the most dangerous weapon - IED’s [we know] what it is, but insurgency, no no no, my soldiers are good at that one,” he said.
AMISOM says there have been at least four grenade attacks targeting soldiers since the militants left Marka.
The town was strategically important for Al-Shabab. Its port served as a major supply route for weapons.
AMISOM officials say senior militant commanders, including foreign fighters, would meet in town to discuss operations. And they had a recruitment center nearby.
But as the military pushed in, al-Shabab fighters began to flee.
Former al-Shabab fighter Fathil Ahmed Ali says he decided to defect as the militants' hold in Marka weakened. “They were using religion to control us. When things started becoming hard for us on the military front, some fighters were fleeing and others were left behind. We didn’t have any medication or food so I decided to come back to my town and work with the government,” Ali explained.
Concerns remain that elements of al-Shabab remain mixed in with the population.
But District Commissioner Ahmed Maalim Abdi says this is not a serious concern. "There’s not much problem here, there’s so much security around. You have a mix of different forces you have military, police. There are some elements, but there’s no big fear," he said.
AMISOM says it is consolidating its forces in Marka before pushing on against al-Shabab fighters.
The next big target in the country is the seaside city of Kismayo in the southern part of the country.