Dispatch from Somalia: War, but a Glimmer of Hope

TIME's Africa correspondent writes from the front lines in war-ravaged Somalia, where an African Union offensive against al-Shabab is offering a tenuous glimpse of progress

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Handout via Reuters

AMISOM commander Lieut. General Andrew Gutti, left, and Brigadier Paul Lokech, commander of the Ugandan contingent serving with the African Union operation, clap their hands as Ugandan soldiers sing a patriotic song in Afgoye, Somalia, on June 5, 2012

We drive west out of Mogadishu, Somalia, in a convoy of three African Union armored personnel carriers, mounted with three heavy machine guns. No building seems untouched by bullet holes; many have collapsed, thorn trees growing through their ruins, their stone guts spilling out into the street. On all sides, in the rubble and on open patches of ground, are domed brushwood-and-rag shelters in which 200,000 refugees have lived since fleeing to the city during last year’s famine.

One yellow wedding-cake villa leans crazily backward, its back wall crumpled underneath it, a radio mast on its roof pointing off to the side. “Al-Shabab destroyed it,” says Ugandan army Colonel Paddy Ankunda. “It belonged to a supporter of the government.” A few minutes later we reach a checkpoint manned by a militia allied to that government, known as the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). A minibus approaches and, sensing the militiamen will want a bribe to let him pass, the driver makes to keep going. A militiaman opens fire with his AK-47 and shoots a female passenger in the leg. After a brief delay, the minibus is allowed to take the woman to a hospital. “Terrible,” says Ankunda, looking on. “They just know how to shoot, that’s all. They don’t know they’re supposed to protect people.”

(PHOTOS: Somalia’s Catastrophic Famine)

If this were anywhere else, our trip would be a tour of a failed state and a humanitarian disaster. But in Somalia, what we’re seeing is progress. A few months ago, our drive would have been impossible: the west of the city was plagued with guerrilla attacks by fighters from the al-Qaeda-allied al-Shabab. Our destination, Afgoye, a town 30 km southwest of the city, was unreachable even two weeks ago: formerly an al-Shabab stronghold, Ugandan and Burundian troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) fought their way into the town in pitched battles at the end of May, killing 60 al-Shabab fighters. Their advance has been matched by gains by Ethiopian troops farther west, around the city of Baidoa, and to the south, where Kenyan troops are gradually advancing north. Military success has been followed by economic and political revival in Mogadishu. Good rain means that while hundreds of thousands of Somalis are still malnourished and depend on food aid, a cataclysm on the same scale as last year, in which 150,000 people died, will not be repeated.

Expatriate Somalis are fueling a building boom that has seen real estate prices triple in nine months. The streets — if not yet entirely peaceful — are full of stalls and traffic. Even the beach is crowded on weekends. Meanwhile Somali clan elders must choose members of a new National Constituent Assembly by June 20, which must in turn adopt a new constitution by July 2 and a new parliament by July 15. The new parliament will then elect a new President who will form his government by Aug. 20, the day the TFG will be abolished. Though many of the old warlords are still in Mogadishu and are expected to feature in the new parliament and government, so far they appear cowed by AMISOM’s vow to be as intolerant of a return to clan violence as it is of Islamist jihad.

(MORE: How America Settles Down Somalia and, by Extension, the Piracy Problem)

After 20 years of civil war that brought epic destruction, intermittent famine and enough lawlessness to fuel a 21st century surge in piracy, a fully fledged revival in Somalia will take decades. Fundamental to that will be something that cannot be built, bought, donated or won by fighting: a rejection of the all-too-commonly held view that the best way to achieve goals is with a gun. But there are still valuable lessons to draw from the progress so far. An African force is doing far better at fixing an African problem than countless Western interventions, armed or otherwise. (Though at huge sacrifice: more than a thousand AMISOM troops have been killed.) With AMISOM and Somalia’s political change entirely paid for by the West, it presents a far more successful and cheaper model of the war (in terms of lives and money saved) than, say, Afghanistan or Iraq. Finally, even after being a byword for catastrophe for more than a generation, no country in Africa deserves, as has happened to so many in the past, to be written off. Even in Somalia, it turns out, hope didn’t die.

VIDEO: How a Drought Became a Famine in Somalia