People accused of being traitors or government sympathizers, “often on flimsy pretexts,” face execution or assassination. Al-Shabaab fighters have threatened many people with death simply because they lived in government-controlled areas of Mogadishu.
“While al-Shabaab has brought stability to some areas long plagued by violence, it has used unrelenting repression and brutality," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The population under al-Shabaab's control is paying a very steep price.”
The insurgents have subjected young men and boys to abuses that include forced military recruitment and strict social control.
“Alongside abuses in al-Shabaab-controlled areas, all sides are responsible for laws-of-war violations that continue unabated in Mogadishu," Gagnon said. “Many Somalis confront indiscriminate warfare, terrifying patterns of repression, and brutal acts of targeted violence on a daily basis.”
The al-Shabaab control most of southern and central Somalia, while forces of the transitional government force, which are backed by African Union troops, hold small parts of Mogadishu.
Women have been banned from engaging in any activity that leads them to mix with men “even small-scale commercial enterprises” that many of them depend upon for a living. Al-Shabaab authorities have arrested, threatened, or flogged countless women for trying to support their families by selling cups of tea or drinks.
Some of al-Shabaab’s leaders have links to al-Qaeda; and the United States, the European Union, and many regional governments have viewed its rise with alarm.
Islamist officials insist women dress in a mainly heavy type of “abaya,” a traditional form of Islamic dress that covers everything but the face, hands, and feet. If they fail to do so are often arrested, publicly flogged, or both.
Two Somali ladies who are refugees in Kenya claimed that the insurgents are taking away the rights of Somalis: “While you’re walking, you’re thinking if you have done something wrong. For example, if you don’t dress [in] what they want.” The other added, “Beside they banned to wear bra.”
In April, al-Shabaab banned the ringing of bells in schools because Christians also sound bells.
Senior al-Shabaab member Sheik Farah Kalar said, “The bell they ring to call students for classes is illegal in Islam. We know that ringing bells is a sign of the Christian churches.” He added, “All schools must stop using the bell to summon students, otherwise they will face punishment."
One of the head teachers told The New American, “We are totally surprised by the ban.... We are actually obeying their orders since we don't have any options,” adding, “This is a totally ridiculous order and this is more than religion.”
Also in the same month, al-Shabaab banned the British Broadcasting Corp. from all areas under the group's control and carried off equipment from the service's offices.
“From today on, all BBC FM stations in areas under the al-Shabaab controls will not be aired and their equipment will be taken over,” said a press release from the group. “BBC is a media network owned by Britain, and is the first media for fulfilling the agendas of Christian colony towards Islamic world and it fights against Islam,” the group said. Al-Shabaab also warned radio stations that carry the BBC broadcasts to cancel their contracts.
The insurgents also warned radio stations not to play music. The only radio stations in Mogadishu to ignore the ban were the government-run station and the UN-controlled station.
“The local radio stations stopped playing any kind of music or songs,” said Mohamed Ibrahim, an official of the National Union of Somali Journalists. “We are using other sounds, such as gunfire, the noise of vehicles and birds to link up our programs and news,” Ibrahim added.
There has also been testimony that the insurgents are harassing the local journalist and even international stringers.
One of the Somali journalists, who didn’t want to be identified because of security concerns, said, “I have two names, one for collecting news and the other one is my real name which I use to send stories. Al-Shabaab doesn’t want to see or be interviewed by any international media except Islamic media,” adding, “I interviewed many foreign fighters, who are mostly senior al-Shabaab. All the rules and regulations made by those foreigners who are calling themselves al-Qaeda are linked to al-Shabaab.”
Under al-Shabaab, there are other offences, such as watching movies and football or playing video games. Dress codes and hairstyles are also imposed.
Many young men described how al-Shabaab militiamen threatened to arrest them for engaging in “idle” activity like playing soccer.
On July 26, al-Shabaab urged residents in areas they control to hand over televisions and satellite dishes before next month, warning that anyone who did not would be considered a spy. Many Somalis believe those orders are not fair and claimed that it has a background of al-Qaeda.
Sheikh Ali Dere, a senior Al-Shabaab member, who spoke on the phone with The New American, refused to comment about the banning of home TV and the satellite, but said, “I am advising my fellow Somalis to come back to their homeland and fight with their enemies. We must fight for our religion.”
The New American interviewed a young Somali man who fled from the harsh rules and the war in terror in his homeland over the past weeks. He illustrated how harsh the penalties for rules infractions can be: “I was watching the opening of the 2010 FiFa World Cup in a secret place because al-Shabaab banned it. When the game started between South Africa and Mexico, I heard some bullets from outside, eventually I sneak over the wall. But I lost my two best friends and the owner of the satellite dish.” Khalid Salat, the 22-year-old victim, also lost his family in the war.
“I lost my mother, my father and my four siblings … while I was in the toilet (far away from home). I don’t want even to imagine what happened.”
Both the insurgent group and the Transitional Federal Government, backed by African Union forces in the war-torn capital of Mogadishu, continue to conduct indiscriminate attacks, killing and wounding numerous civilians.
The insurgents fire mortars indiscriminately and from densely populated areas, using civilians as human shields, and they recruit child soldiers.
The fighting has killed over 21,000 people and displaced at least 1.5 million from their homes in the failed Horn of Africa nation since the start of insurgency in 2007.
Hussein Moulid Bosh is a Kenyan-born Somali freelance journalist, covering stories around East Africa and also the Horn of Africa countries, especially Somalia.