The Sheikh who would have fought Shabaab at Westgate
When you meet him in the mosque, Sheikh Mohamed looks like he cannot hurt a fly.
He wears the demeanour of a shy, polite and courteous man of faith who religiously delivers his sermon at a mosque in Afmadow in southern Somalia every day.
As Afmadow’s Chief Kadhi, he is highly regarded in the small town of 15,000 people from where the extremist Al-Shabaab militants were ejected by the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) under the African Union Mission in Somalia last year.
But immediately after the sermon, Sheikh Mohamed switches to his Somalia National Army (SNA) jungle uniform. He packs a rifle and a sword, ready for war.
He then joins other SNA colleagues and KDF in patrols to ensure Al-Shabaab do not attack. It’s not a battle for the faint hearted: this week alone, the militants killed two Somali MPs in Mogadishu and threatened to assassinate all legislators of the internationally backed government.
“All of them are targets of the mujahideen fighters and they will be killed, one by one,” Al-Shabaab spokesman Abdulaziz Abu Musab told AFP on Tuesday.
In an interview with Lifestyle in Afmadow, Sheikh Mohamed says the atrocities committed by Al-Shabaab forced him to take up the gun.
“I’m in it because I hate Al-Shabaab,” he says categorically. “I carry a gun to make our children sleep.”
He says that Al-Shabaab militants once captured him but he escaped before they could execute him.
He had been dragged out of a camp for the internally displaced in 2007 in the same town he now preaches to and fights for.
“Al-Shabaab took my wealth. They took me to prison where I was detained for 22 days. They wanted to kill me but I escaped and decided to arm myself. I decided I would rather die than join them,” Sheikh Mohamed told Lifestyle.
He says that he sneaked out of his holding shack as his captors slept.
“If somebody takes your wealth and denies you peace, then he is an enemy,” he says.
For his ordeal, he decided he would fight back every way he knew how.
“That is when I decided I should both give sermons in mosques and arm myself and fight for my rights. Every Friday, I have to give advice to the people,” he says.
Unlike what Al-Shabaab teaches, the 50-year-old Chief Kadhi is adamant that no religion allows the killing of innocent people. He is also cognisant of the fact that what affects Somalia also affects the region and that “if I had been in Kenya, I would still have armed myself and fought Al-Shabaab”.
The cleric says that if he had been in Nairobi when terrorists attacked the Westgate shopping mall last September, he would have removed his religious clothes and stormed the mall.
“I wouldn’t just have sat as the terrorists caused mayhem and killed innocent Kenyans,” he says.
As a result of the co-operation between KDF and SNA, Al-Shabaab was kicked out of Afmadow and driven about 50 kilometres away.
Sheikh Mohamed is thankful to KDF for helping flush out the militants who had caused mayhem by harassing locals, collecting huge taxes and implementing strict shariah law.
“Our friends are KDF and not even the other forces. They have salvaged the country from Al-Shabaab. We are working together. KDF is helping us a lot,” he says. “We will not forget what KDF has done. They have sacrificed their lives and left their homes to die for us. We thank the government of Kenya for deploying them.”
When not in the mosque or ensuring security, Sheikh Mohamed usually listens to cases brought before him of people arrested for various offences.
Joining forces with the sheikh are other fighters, including women. Although a minority, it is difficult to tell apart the uniformed military women in Somalia from the men.
“I am enjoying my work in the battle field. We have to fight until the enemy, who is Al-Shabaab, is defeated,” Ms Fariha Abdullahi Omar says.
Ms Omar, a mother of 10 — nine of whom live in Kenya — joined the war at Tartar about three years ago.
“I was living with my children when Al-Shabaab attacked us, claiming that I was selling goods to Kenyan soldiers and that I was a spy. They attacked my house, forcing me to run away and join the SNA.” she says.
Not realising that she was now armed, the Shabaab attacked her house once more but she took cover and sprayed them with bullets, leaving a number injured. It is then that she reported to KDF and SNA and has since been fighting from the frontline, leading the liberation of a number of towns from the militants.
“We will fight till we get peace in our country. I want to be a soldier forever,” she told Lifestyle.
Ms Omar was promoted by the Somalia government to head a unit of women soldiers after she arrested two suicide bombers at Kismayu Airport.
“I was allocated a vehicle and involved in de-mining activities,” she said.
The Lifestyle team found her keeping vigil at the Jubaland presidential palace, searching women visitors to counter any security threats.
Also with Ms Omar was Ms Nimo Ibrahim Hassan who started training with SNA at Elwak before moving with them as KDF kicked out Al-Shabaab from Buruhacha, Godef, Fafadun, Gerille and later Kismayu.
“Some of my colleagues died during the war but I am happy I was able to get here (Kismayu),” Ms Hassan says.
She is a mother of one and is married to a soldier who she met during military training.
Another woman soldier, Ms Fatur Abdikadir, says she joined SNA to end the suffering of women in the hands of the terrorists.
“I chose the gun because Al-Shabaab was harassing and terrorising us. They made us slaves and forcefully made women their wives. That is why I decided to fight them,” she says.
Married to an SNA soldier, Ms Abdikadir says being a soldier has made her unable to live a normal life with her husband.
“I have no time for family life because of insecurity. We rarely have time to plan for our family. It’s so stressful,” she says.
Ms Abdikadir adds that she is happy with her role as a soldier in the combat unit and that she will serve until the country is fully liberated.
“I assure you that when it comes to combat, I am better than some male soldiers,” she says.
Afmadow District Commissioner Musa Maalim Aden is also in the forefront in the fight against Al-Shabaab and calls for the liberation of more areas from the militants.
As a result of peace in Afmadow, four schools have re-opened and have admitted more than 800 students. Business is also booming. A number of NGOs that had fled the area have expressed interest to return. An American NGO also wants to assist in the rehabilitation of Afmadow airstrip which has re-opened after a five-year closure, but is in bad shape.
The Kenyan soldiers also provide medical care to residents. A hospital in the town works with KDF personnel in conducting regular visits to attend to patients.
Captain Thomas Mureithi of KDF says: “We work with them in the provision of preventive healthcare. We are, however, faced with a lot of challenges as the hospital does not have water, laboratories and drugs. Sometimes we (KDF/Amisom) have to chip in and provide the supplies.”