Tifow has lived in what used to be Mogadishu Secondary School for the last 10 years. He endured what, to many, is a harrowing tale of anguish and one experienced by few.
In the very first few months of the war, thugs broke into his store and shot him, severely injuring his leg. Without any proper medication, Tifow sought help at a traditional medicine man who amputated his leg.
Halima, his wife, a mother of seven, was killed in 2003 as she walked to the store to buy her husband a painkiller.With his wife dead and him a cripple, Tifow was left a devastated man.
“I was terribly distressed by the double tragedy that has struck my family. The death of my wife and the loss of my leg have deprived my little ones a chance at parental love,” Tifow says.
Without a central government or any other organization to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of Siad Barre’s regime in 1991, many died directly as a result of the war. Many more died for lack of basic needs such as food and medicine.
Like many of his neighbors, he and seven of his children are herded in a little room with two creaky beds and three mats. There are no sofas, cookers, dining sets, heaters, coolers, TVs, fridges and other items taken for granted in many parts of the world.
Fatuma, born a few weeks before her mother’s death and now 4 years old, is sitting a couple of feet away sucking at her thumb. She is scantly dressed and has no shoes on her feet. She was born under the bullet and has never known peace.
Thousands of children like Fatuma never make it to five. According to UNICEF, Somalia has the world’s highest infant and maternal mortality rate. The under five-mortality rate is 225 per 1,000 children. The causes of these deaths are preventable diseases like diarrhea, measles and cholera.
One of Fatuma’s older brother’s, Khalif, is forlornly sitting at the other end of the mat. He is just 14 but looks a little older than that. He has one shirt and a Somali Sarong. He and his other siblings have not seen much of the world outside of their home much less going to school.
Aid organizations are concerned that illiteracy levels in the country are appalling. UNICEF says on its website that “net primary school enrolment is estimated at 13% for boys and only 7% for girls”. These generations of non-school goers have in turn ensured a constant supply of young fighters for the warlords.
For all these years, Tifow’s and countless other families have been deprived a chance at normal life by ruthless warlords who tore the country apart, fragmented it into little fiefdoms without law and order.
However, things do not look any better today. There are all indications that long-time foes- Ethiopia and Eritrea have found a new battleground in Somalia. In a tersely worded press release the United Nations warned three weeks ago that Somalia’s “neighbors” should stop meddling with its internal affairs.
Now, the UN did not say who these neighbors are but close observers have pointed that this was a subtle admission that Ethiopia and Eritrea are now involved in the Somali crisis.
The stand off between the two countries is getting worse by the day. On 10th august, 2006, the BBC reported that an Ethiopian army general defected to Eritrea. Brigadier General Kemal Geltu did not defect alone; he left with a colonel of 150 soldiers.
This is perhaps one of the strongest indicators of build up to war between these two countries. It is a war, which if it happens will put Tifow, his family and many others in Somalia in a harms way.
Following the surge of the UIC to less than 60 miles from Baidoa, the already fragile Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) finds itself even weaker. Abdullahi Abdinoor, a Kenyan scholar of Somali origin who has conducted research in Somalia and just completed his PhD dissertation on education and the collapsed state in Somalia, says that while Ethiopia has never hidden its involvement in Somalia there is now a clear indication of Eritrean hand behind the force of Islamic courts.
"I have heard that Eritrea is sending weapons to Mogadishu. The Eritrean president (Isaias Afewerke) has said that Eritrea will support the people of Somalia." Many have inferred that the use of the term “people” means support for the Union of Islamic courts, which is viewed as immensely popular among the residents of Mogadishu and other major towns in Somalia.
There is no clear reason why the government in Asmara would be involved in the Somali conflict, Abdinoor says, adding that it could be just an opportunity for Eritrea to "antagonize" its long-time foe Ethiopia.
However, Eritrean involvement in the turmoil in Somalia is still a surprise to many. "Eritrea is new in Somali politics. Ethiopia is the well-known actor in the Somalia scene," Abdinoor says.
Ethiopian complaints in the 1990’s included Eritrea channeling weapons and warriors to rebel groups, OLF and ONLF, through some Somali factions, including the USC splinter group led by Hussein Mohamed Farah Aideed, whose militia controlled Bay and Bakol regions, which border Ethiopia.
Ethiopia on its part is not hiding its role in supporting the newly installed government of Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi, now working from Baidoa after failing to set base in the capital Mogadishu due to security reasons.
Abdinoor says that many political observers have viewed the intermittent involvement of Ethiopia in Somalia as suspect. “Ethiopia is not in Somalia for humanitarian reasons. They were cut off from the sea after the independence of Eritrea. They would like to have influence in Somalia as a way of gaining access to the Somali coastline”, Abdinoor says.
Abdirahman Aynte, the editor of Hiiraan Online, the largest Somali website and a commentator for the NPR radio on Somali affairs says he doesn’t doubt the presence of both Ethiopia and Eritrea in Somalia.
He says, “Ethiopia has historically been apprehensive of a strong Somalia and now that the country is stabilizing under the leadership of hardline Islamists, Ethiopia has a real fear of its neighbor.”
As an indicator of Ethiopia’s presence in Somalia, Aynte notes the stalemate between members of the TFG which Ethiopia helped diffuse. “No foreign minister has ever visited Somalia since its decent into chaos and the recent trip of Seyoum Mesfin, the Ethiopian foreign minister to Baidoa two weeks ago shows how Ethiopia is bent on bolstering Yusuf’s government in the face of the increasing power of the Islamists.” Aynte adds.
He further reveals that Ethiopia has troops in at least three different locations in Somalia. “Ethiopia has its troops in Hiiraan, Balaanbale and Gedo regions”. Why else would they have soldiers in Somalia if not to lend support to their henchman”? He asks.
In agreement with Aynte’s claims, the BBC reported on its website that on August 20, 2006, Ethiopian troops had been seen entering Somalia through the border town of Dolow. Armed with armored vehicles the troops were reportedly moving toward the TFG seat in Baidoa.
Aynte also says that Eritrea is deeply involved in the Somali internal affairs. He says that even though Eritrea’s involvement is not as apparent as Ethiopia’s, the mysterious planes that have been landing in Mogadishu could not have come from elsewhere.
“Having fought a bitter war with Ethiopia, Eritrea would be happy to infuriate its arch foe neighbor. After all, Afewerke of Eritrea is not a Muslim and would have no reason to support Islamists if not to counter Ethiopia’s influence in Somalia”. Aynte says.
While many observers have praised the UIC for liberating the country, Aynte is concerned that the union is headed by militant elements who have focused more on territorial gains than social services. It is such services that Tifow and scores of others badly need.
The day it was reported that Ethiopian troops had been seen entering Somalia, the TFG had entered into an agreement with an Eritrean rebel group. Both parties have decried Eritrea’s role in the entire East African region.In their joint statement, they have accused “the Eritrean government of playing the dangerous game of becoming a client government of forces intending to destabilize the region”.
A top former official of Siad Barre’s regime who now lives in Minnesota, USA, and who spoke to Afrika News on condition of anonymity, says that Ethiopia doesn’t respect international law and is known for territorial aggression in the pretext of national security. “This is not the first time Ethiopia has crossed into Somalia as it has been coming and going throughout the nineties”, said the former official.
However, he is quick to note that Ethiopia’s “invasion” of Somalia has acquired a new meaning in the wake of the Islamist’s increasing advance toward the TFG seat. “I can tell you the authorities in Addis Ababa have found a label for their invasion of Somalia-support for their client government in Baidoa and to repulse the UIC”.
The former official nevertheless admits Eritrea could be involved in the Somali affairs but plays down the extent of its purported help and often exaggerated role in Somalia. “Eritrea is a poor country that is not able to deploy thousands of troops, armored trucks and other arsenal as its neighbor is doing. The most it can offer is a logistic help at best and one or two advisors at worst”, he says.
However, it is not lost to many observers that though Eritrea is a poor country, it is credited with a highly elaborate military expertise which saw its small army stand against the larger Ethiopian army for many years.
Many have also considered Eritrea as a transit point for assistance to the UIC coming from Egypt, Iran and Libya, according to claims from the TFG.
The former official says the recent defection of a top Ethiopian general and a coterie of his men to Eritrea points to an internal disintegration within the Ethiopian political set-up. “In order to deflect people’s attention from what is happening, the junta in Addis Ababa has embarked on a campaign to engage its neighbors with a hateful confrontation”, he adds. He, however, says the defection is an indication that Ethiopian campaign is boomeranging negatively on the country.
He says his only hope hinges on the scheduled talks between the UIC and TFG in Khartoum. “If nothing positive comes out of that meeting, then I fear it would be an all out war between Ethiopia and Somalia with Eritrea being on the UIC side.” He says he is concerned if that were to happen it is the common Somali man who would suffer.
There is widespread belief, especially among Mogadishu’s nearly two million inhabitants, that a far reaching war looks inevitable, in which case Ethiopia will be on the top list of those willing to help the TFG whereas Eritrea will lead those determined to assist the UIC.
If the regional forces turn their guns on each other, it is the innocent to suffer, including the already stressed Tifow family, says Engineer Aidarous Ahmed, a professional in Mogadishu city.