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Somalis' choice: Join Islamists or flee

The scenario now unfolding in Somalia is the one a U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion nearly two years ago had been intended to thwart: a takeover by radical Islamists.
Image Somalia refugees
Mohamed Abdi Ibrahim, left, and Mohamed Shuep shove through a crowd of other young men who fled Somalia in recent months, and are now attempting to register as refugees in the Dadaab camp, in Kenya.Stephanie Mccrummen / The Washington Post
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

By the time Mohamed Abdi Ibrahim decided to leave Somalia, life in the southern city of Kismaayo had become, as he put it with consummate understatement, "complicated."

Young men there had long shouldered AK-47 assault rifles and joined clan militias. But as an Islamist militia known as al-Shabab took control this year, it had become a place where boys were paid $50 to throw bombs, soccer fields served as militia training camps, and Islamist leaders walked into classrooms to take names of potential recruits.

Ibrahim and two friends fled several months ago, just after the Shabab began beating people not attending Friday prayers and just before the group publicly stoned to death a 13-year-old girl it had convicted of adultery.

The options for young men like them, it seemed, had narrowed to two: sign up or run.

"For us, it was not good to join," said Ibrahim, a lanky 22-year-old who fled to this overflowing refugee camp across the Kenyan border. "Because if we join one side, the other side will hunt us and kill us."

The scenario now unfolding in Somalia is the one a U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion nearly two years ago had been intended to thwart: a takeover by radical Islamists.

At the time, Ethiopian forces ousted a relatively diverse Islamic movement that had briefly gained control of the capital, Mogadishu. In its place, they installed a transitional government headed by a warlord who allowed the United States to launch counterterrorism operations in the moderate Muslim nation.

But the policy backfired, inspiring a relentless insurgency of clan militias and Islamist fighters that has left Somalia's first central government since 1991 near collapse. On Sunday night, advisers and supporters of President Abdullahi Yusuf -- who has been accused of obstructing a possible political compromise to help end the insurgency -- said that he would resign Monday, although as with everything in Somalia, the situation remained fluid.

The two-year insurgency has energized the most radical Islamist faction, the Shabab -- "youth" in Arabic -- which the United States has designated a terrorist organization.

Rallying young men with anti-Ethiopian rhetoric and a promised ticket to paradise, the group advanced this year across much of southern Somalia, including the capital, Mogadishu. Analysts predict the Shabab will extend its control after the Ethiopians withdraw, which they have promised to do within weeks.

The United States and the United Nations are now supporting a political settlement that shifts power from Yusuf and his circle to an opposition coalition that includes some of the Islamist leaders cast as extremists two years ago, as well as clan leaders who had been excluded by Yusuf's government. Backers of the Djibouti agreement hope that the Ethiopian withdrawal, along with the political deal, will rob the Shabab of its cause.

But the situation on the ground -- and in swelling refugee camps such as this one -- suggests that the group is only gaining strength.

"Young people, our age mates, were joining [the Shabab] every day," Ibrahim said. "They would tell them to fight for your religion, fight for your land, and they'd also give them money -- they were difficult to resist."

A place from which to escape
It was morning in Dadaab, and Ibrahim was standing with his two friends, Mohamed Shuep, 25, and Hussein Hassan Adan, 16, in a huge, sweaty crowd -- the same sort of exhausted, frustrated crowd that gathers every day at the barbed-wire perimeter of the camp.

Their growing number is a testament to what Somalia has become: a place from which to escape.

Out of a population of about 9 million, more than 1 million people have fled their homes, preferring drought-stricken regions of the country to the crossfire of militias battling for control of Mogadishu and other areas. Attacks on aid workers -- most likely carried out by the Shabab, who equate them with foreign interference -- have made humanitarian assistance almost impossible to deliver.

Hundreds of thousands more people have abandoned the country altogether. At least 20,000 have taken their chances this year aboard rickety boats bound for Yemen, and many more have traveled on foot or in stifling smugglers' trucks that bring about 5,000 people to this camp each month.

Built in 1991 to accommodate 90,000 people fleeing Somalia's last civil war, Dadaab is now a sprawl of more than 220,000 refugees -- a desert limbo land of rounded stick huts and overburdened water taps emblematic of more than a decade of failed governments and peace initiatives.

Ibrahim and his friends arrived a few months back.

Like many young men, they left extended families behind and began their journeys alone, walking and hitchhiking toward Kenya. They became friends in the Somali border town of Dobley, where they worked in a restaurant and shared scraps of food and the shelter of a tree at night. Pooling their money, they eventually paid their way onto a smuggler's truck crowded with people and goats.

It took four nights and one shakedown by bandits to reach Dadaab.

It took about four months of waiting for the three young men to reach a pre-pre-registration area, where they were standing on a recent day, hands pressed on each other's shoulders.

"Sit! Sit!" an overwhelmed U.N. worker yelled at the crowd through a megaphone. "The first family size to be registered will be family size 4, then 3!"

Mostly, people here wait. They wait to be registered, for food, for their leaders to stop fighting so they can go home. A bus that comes and goes from here has the word "wait" painted on its side like an omen.

'There is no hope for Somalia'
There is a straw-roofed shelter inside the camp where men have passed years waiting -- playing cards, arguing over politics, and following the rise, fall and rise again of the Islamists on the BBC.

"There is no hope for Somalia," said Abdi Ahmed Mohamed, who was 23 when he arrived here in 1991 during the civil war. "All the people who could do something for their country are here as refugees. Pretty soon, they're going to be fighting over empty land."

About 10 a.m., Ibrahim, who said he wants to be a doctor; Shuep, who wants to be an engineer; and Adan, who doesn't know what he wants yet, jostled their way forward in the pounding sun. They walked beyond a fence and joined another long line of young men leading to a single desk under a sheet-metal shed.

"We have no relatives here," Ibrahim explained to the registration worker, Austin Amalemba, who handed him an appointment slip for the next day. "Our only relationship is we are friends. We want to be considered as one family."

Amalemba said the request is common these days.

"Most are young men, and they decide to group together as a family," he said.

There was also the family of Mohamed Mahamoud, Said Mohamed and Harat Ismail, three unrelated young men who fled Kismaayo in September.

"We have feared for our life there," said Mohamed, 26. "There is no freedom for young men there because of the Shabab. Even prayer is not optional. They make you cut your hair, and you can't wear tennis shoes. I used to have a very interesting haircut, but they made me change it. Most young people, they hate the Shabab."

Nearby was 20-year-old Mohamed Ibrahim Mohamed. He had fled Mogadishu, where government forces were battling the Shabab. The situation is so violently polarized in the capital that women selling tea to one side or the other risk execution.

Mohamed's father was killed in front of him when the first Islamist movement took over two years ago; he had worked in the previous government and was considered an enemy.

More recently, Mohamed's best friend, Abdugadir, was shot in front of him. His crime: "He greeted a government soldier, and when the government soldiers departed, the Shabab came and shot him in the head," Mohamed said.

Mohamed estimated that about 80 percent of his friends had relented and joined the Shabab, some because they were "seduced" by religious ideology, he said, and others because they felt they had no other choice.

The rest attempted to survive by banding together in small groups, he said. When the Shabab took over southern Mogadishu, they fled to the northern part of the city. When it took over the north, they fled south again.

And so it went until Mohamed heard, a few months ago, that the Shabab was coming after him. "That was when I decided to leave," he said.

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