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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Somali fighting spills to Mandera town

Until recently, Habiba Mohammed Hujale thought the sound of gunfire and boom of hand grenade in Mandera would no longer send cold shivers down her spines.

She has been on the line of fire as long as she remembers. But, the renewed fighting along the border is causing Habiba and her family sleepless nights.

Fighting between Al-Shabaab militant groups fighting the weak Transitional Federal Government of Somalia and Ethiopian troops have brought bloody confrontation to her doorsteps at the heart of the town.

"For the last five days, the two have been battling in the town and we are worried and scared. Most of the fire came from across the border, but now they have brought the fire outside my home. We haven’t slept," she told The Standard On Sunday on phone.

"As I talk to you, there are bombshells and spent cartridges around my home. I have never been shaken before like now," she said.

The district hospital has been hit in the incursion on Kenyan soils but no casualties were reported. The battle was sparked by the insurgents attack on a convoy of Somali troops that were returning home after training in Ethiopia.

Volatile powder keg

Mandera is perched at the tip of a triangular intersection of three international borders – the Kenya- Somalia, Kenya-Ethiopia and Somalia-Ethiopia.

The intersections are volatile powder kegs that have contributed to the town’s restive character over the years.

Mandera extends across Somali and Ethiopia. On the side of the border with Ethiopia, the town is called Suftu. The Somalia side is known as Bula-Hawa.

There are no beacons or anything to mark the boundaries between the towns. But it is easy to spot the demarcations by the characters of the residents. The only two storeys building in Mandera Town offers a good view of rows of puny buildings below of similar pattern, low with slanting iron sheet roofs that stretch into the horizon.

In Somalia’s Bulla-Hawa, almost every man carries a firearm. In Ethiopia’s Suftu there is evidence of business activities purred by commercial agriculture. Food from elsewhere in Ethiopia almost feeds the three towns.

On the Kenyan side, walking sticks and umbrellas, donkey carts and honking taxi are the defining features.

"There are risks of living with warring neighbours but bringing their fight here the smell of death has never been closer," Habiba said. The sound of gunfire is so common that locals say a 10-year-old can tell the type of gun.

"The noise we used to hear from across was when militia – and lately Al-Shabaab insurgents who have been in control of Somalia’s side – were testing weapons. But now, they have come to our doorsteps. We are an extended family and we have tolerated each other but I think they are now trying our patience by coming to our town," says nominated Councillors and former Mandera County Council Chairman Abdirahaman Hajji Ismail.

Mandera East MP Mohammed Hussein Qaras Mandera said the fighters have been terrorising residents.

"Why is this happening when Kenya is a sovereign State? Who is there to protect the citizens from the marauding gunmen?" he posed.

Despite the fighting, residents of these three towns have coexisted in a unique symbiotic relationship. Those from Ethiopia and Somalia cross into Kenyan towns for business and to socialise and generally enjoy some moments of peace away from anarchy in their countries.

Volatile border

In return, Bulla-Hawa is the entry point of imports from the ports of Kismayu in Somalia to Kenya. Suftu and Bula-Hawa also supply smuggled petroleum products, second hand vehicles, spare parts, electronics, textiles, satellite dishes and sugar among other products.

There is also cheap labour for menial jobs the locals despise. Goods and especially foodstuff are cheap because they come from Kismayu where no duty is paid.

It is common to find a Kenyan Somali with relatives in Suftu and Bulla-Hawa through intermarriage and or business associations. Somalis who cross into Kenya have to leave weapons behind and return to their country before sunset.

On paper, the Government indefinitely closed the Kenya-Somali border in 2007 after Islamic Courts Union militants toppled the Ethiopian backed Somalia government, but in reality people move freely. Many people on the move can have breakfast in Mandera, lunch in Bulla-Hawa and dinner in Suftu. Guns from the two war hardened neighbours are also easily available on the black market.

When it is calm, Mandera town alleys are clogged with humanity and moneychangers with wads of foreign currencies – Euros, Ethiopian Birr and US dollars – conduct brisk business. In the afternoons, the town people retreats to shaded verandas to chew the mild narcotic shrub (miraa) and watch satellite television as the sip tea and coffee.

But that lifestyle has been put on anxious hold as Al-Shabaab insurgents and Ethiopian soldiers turn the area to a battleground.

Source: The Standard Media

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