Monday, 9 January 2012

SOMALIA: The sinkhole of the world

Sinkholes for the most part capture surface drainage from running or standing water.

There are countries in the world such as Iran, Yemen, Mexico, Nigeria, Sudan and others where people really don’t want to visit because they are very dangerous places to be in. But the worst of them is Somalia. Even putting a foot into that country is like stepping into quicksand. You may never be seen again. It is a sinkhole in which even the United States armed forces fear to walk into.

It is a country located in the Horn of Africa. It lies in the eastern-most part of Africa. It is bordered by Djibouti to the northwest, Kenya to the southwest, the Gulf of Aden with Yemen to the north, the Indian Ocean to the east, and Ethiopia to the west. It has the longest coastline on the continent, and its terrain consists mainly of plateaus, plains and highlands.

The year, 1991 was a time of great change for Somalia. The Barre administration was ousted that year by a coalition of clan-based opposition groups, backed by Ethiopia's then-ruling Derg regime and Libya. Following a meeting of the Somali National Movement and northern clans' elders, the northern former British portion of the country declared its independence as Somaliland in May 1991. Although de facto independent and relatively stable compared to the tumultuous south, it has not been recognized by any foreign government.

Since the outbreak of the Somali Civil War in 1991 there has been no central government control over most of the country's territory. The basis of most of the conflicts is clan allegiances and competition for resources between the warring clans. But terrorism in Somalia has raised its ugly head and the terrorists are primarily Shabab militants who claim that raping women is their right in a holy war.

Harakat al-Shabaab means ‘The Youth’ and is a militant Islamic group of terrorists in Somalia. Al-Shabaab's troop strength as of May 2011 is estimated at 14,426 militants.

Al-Shabaab is said to have many foreigners within its ranks, particularly at its leadership. Fighters from the Persian Gulf and international jihadists were called to join the holy war against the Somali government and its Ethiopian allies. Though Somali Islamists did not originally use suicide bombing tactics, the foreign elements of Al-Shabaab are blamed for several suicide bombings.

Formally a predominantly nationalist organization, Al Shabaab has repositioned itself as a militant Islamist group that also attracts a large cadre of Western devotees. The outfit's foreign recruitment strategy has been active in the United States, where members have attempted to recruit from the local Muslim community.

Somalia has been steadily worn down by decades of conflict and chaos, its cities in ruins and its people starving. Just this year, tens of thousands have died from famine, with countless others cut down in relentless combat. Now Somalis face yet another widespread terror: an alarming increase in rapes and sexual abuse of women and girls.

Consider the following incident in a young girl's life in Somalia.

The girl’s voice dropped to a hush as she remembered the bright, sunny afternoon when she stepped out of her hut and saw her best friend buried in the sand, up to her neck. Her friend had made the mistake of refusing to marry a Shabab commander. Now she was about to get her head bashed in, rock by rock.

“You’re next,” the Shabab warned the girl, a frail 17-year-old who was living with her brother in a squalid refugee camp. Several months later, the men came back. Five militants burst into her hut, pinned her down and gang-raped her. They claimed to be on a jihad, or holy war, and any resistance was considered a crime against Islam, punishable by death, the same death her friend had been subjected to.

The Shabab militant group, which presents itself as a morally righteous rebel force and the defender of pure Islam, is seizing women and girls as spoils of war, gang-raping and abusing them as part of its reign of terror in southern Somalia, according to victims, aid workers and United Nations officials.

Short of cash and losing ground, the militants are also forcing families to hand over girls for arranged marriages that often last no more than a few weeks and are essentially sexual slavery, a cheap way to bolster their ranks’ flagging morale. The Shabab, who are fighting Somalia’s transitional government and imposing a harsh version of Islam in the areas they control, can no longer pay their several thousand fighters the way they used to. Much as they seize crops and livestock, giving their militants what they call “temporary wives” is how the Shabab keep many young men fighting for them. There’s no cleric, no ceremony, nothing, Shabab fighters had even paired up with thin little girls as young as 12, who are left torn and incontinent afterward. If a girl refuses, she’s killed by stones or bullets.

But it is not just the Shabab. In the past few months, aid workers and victims say, there has been a free-for-all of armed men preying upon women and girls displaced by Somalia’s famine, who often trek hundreds of miles searching for food and end up in crowded, lawless refugee camps where Islamist militants, rogue militiamen and even government soldiers rape, rob and kill with impunity. For the Shabab, forced marriage is another aspect they are using to control the population.

More Somali women are being raped right now than at any time in recent memory. In some areas, they say, women are being used as chits at roadblocks, surrendered to the gunmen staffing the barrier in the road so that a group of desperate refugees can pass.

Somalia is a deeply traditional place, where 98 percent of girls are subject to genital cutting, according to United Nations figures. Most girls are illiterate and relegated to their homes. When they venture out, it is usually to work, trudging through the rubble-strewn alleyways wrapped head to toe in thick black cloth, often lugging something on their back, the equatorial sun burning down on them.

It is often single women, with children in tow, who set off on the dangerous odyssey to refugee camps.

One 18-year-old who asked to go by Ms. Nur, her common last name, was married off at 10. She was a nomad and says that to this day she has never used a phone or seen a television. She spoke of being raped by two Shabab fighters at a displaced-persons camp in October. She said the men did not bother saying much when they entered her hut. They just pointed their guns at her chest and uttered two words: stay silent. Being in a refugee camp is no means of being protected by these rapists.

It is time for the United Nations to step in more forcefully and get some of its members to offer military assistance to the legitimate government of Somalia. If the militants aren’t removed from Somalia, then the country will continue slipping deeper into the sinkhole it has already found itself in.

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