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Terror Attacks Continue to Traumatize Somalis

The city's once congested roads are empty of people and cars. As many as 1.7 million residents have fled nearly daily fighting in Mogadishu since early 2007.

In recent years, the rise of the militant al-Shabab group in Somalia, an al-Qaida ally fighting to implement its ultraconservative version of Islam in the Horn of Africa, has been accompanied by suicide and roadside bombings that have horrified Somalis, even those long accustomed to violence.

In the Somali capita of Mogadishu, the threat of terrorism has not only altered the city's landscape in some areas, it has changed how the few Somalis still remaining in Mogadishu think and behave.

Just a few years ago, streets in the capital were so congested at times, drivers used to have to bully their way forward - car horns blaring - through heaving crowds of people, vehicles, and animals.

As battered and crumbling as much of Mogadishu was after nearly 20 years of constant war, at least the city's two-million inhabitants gave the capital a sense of lively and cheerful chaos.

These days, drivers no longer have to worry about hitting pedestrians or animals on busy streets. The roads are virtually empty. Drivers now honk their horns to alert others that an armored vehicle, belonging to African Union peacekeepers, is approaching them. The honking prompts drivers and pedestrians to quickly move away from the rumbling vehicle to avoid becoming victims of a possible roadside bomb.

In August 2008, an improvised explosive device intended for a passing A.U. convoy, killed 21 women picking up rubbish on Maka al-Mukarama Road - a major thoroughfare that is guarded by African Union peacekeepers and considered one of the few safe zones left in the capital.

Mogadishu today stands in stark contrast to what the capital was like before the al-Shabab-led insurgency intensified against the U.N.-backed Transitional Federal Government and its international backers in 2008 and 2009.

Maka al-Mukarama extends from the junction at Kilometer Four - so named because it is located four kilometers into the city from the international airport. Once one of the busiest intersections in Mogadishu, Kilometer Four is now marked by rows of concrete barriers that keep people and cars far away from a group of peacekeepers based nearby. A Soviet-era tank sits ominously at the intersection, ready to fire at a moment's notice.

Since 2008, thousands have been killed and nearly one-million others driven out of the city amid an escalating war between militant Islamists and the African Union peacekeeping force known as AMISOM.

A total of 5,300 peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi are defending a small area, mostly in the southern part of the capital, trying to prevent al-Shabab from toppling the government and seizing the entire city. Al-Shabab has been trying to demoralize AMISOM through repeated attacks, including two separate suicide attacks on its bases last year that killed and wounded nearly two dozen African Union troops.

Those attacks have led to dramatic changes near AMISOM checkpoints and bases. Barriers that used to be nothing more than tree trunks or branches stretched across the road are now made of concrete and steel.

Security checks along al-Mukarama Road are reminiscent of checks conducted in cities like Baghdad and Kabul. AU troops, with rifles at the ready, watch behind concrete barriers and sandbags as government troops hand-search each car passing through.

In a sign that suicide bombings have become a constant threat, especially to the government, Somalia's first metal detector has been installed in Villa Somalia.

On December 3, a suicide bomber detonated his vest during a graduation ceremony for medical students being held at Shamo Hotel, near Kilometer Four. Three government ministers, nine students, two journalists, and a doctor were killed in the blast. Scores more were wounded.

Somalia has a long history of observing a moderate form of Islam, and suicide bombings were unheard of here before 2006.
A leading civil society leader in Mogadishu, Abdullahi Mohamed Shirwa, says while militants are making progress in spreading their ideology among poor young men in Somalia, the vast majority of ordinary Somalis are deeply against a religious doctrine that strives to control people through fear, violence and intimidation.

"People are fed up and even sometimes, they are resisting the insurgents. But they have intelligence networks among the people. Can you imagine your friend or your cousin or your boy has [been] recruited secretly and he is ready to explode your home? It is a terrible thing that affect badly the public's psychology," said Shirwa. "They are very scared about coming [to] meetings, seminars, workshops, especially if the event takes place in hotels. They say, 'No, we do not want to come together because we do not know what will happen. Maybe my friend is an enemy.' So, it has actually created a very bad atmosphere. People, they are afraid to the maximum."

Mogadishu residents have rarely feared anything before, least of all war. But bravery means little, they say, when there is no one left to trust.