The pair had escaped from Mogadishu, the Somali capital. One of them was a 19-year-old who, as a boy, was accused of stealing a piece of bread. He lifted the dangling sleeve of his shirt to reveal the punishment dealt out by his accusers, a group of al-Shabab fighters: His hand had been cut off. Not only that, but one foot had been cut away, too.
Sitting next to him was a baby-faced 21-year-old. He was a lowly laborer who was accused of being a senior government spy. He was told that he had “spoken too much,” so a militant henchman sliced away part of his tongue. Today he struggles to speak. To shield another wound, on his neck, he wears a dirty bandage which hasn’t been changed for the past week because his family cannot afford medical treatment. Without such help, his father told me, he is unlikely to live for more than two months. (The names of the two men are being withheld to prevent reprisals against them.)
Sadly, these types of atrocities are typical of al-Shabab. It is the reality faced by those unlucky enough to live in the lawless areas of
Somalia that they control. Somalia has been without a functioning central government since 1991.
Worryingly, the Somali insurgents formally merged with al-Qaida this month.
World leaders pledge help
On Thursday, international leaders, including the U.K.’s Prime Minister David Cameron, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, met in London to try to address the multiple problems faced by Somalia, arguably the planet’s most anarchic state.
Cameron warned that Somalia's al-Qaida linked militant group al-Shabab could export terrorism to Europe and the United States, with dozens of British and American citizens traveling to Somalia to train and fight with the Islamists.
Piracy, kidnappings, extremism, foreign infiltration and hunger. It is difficult to know where to start. Which of these many problems should take priority?
Biggest threat? Foreign fighters
I asked the Mayor of Mogadishu, Mohamed Ahmed Noor, a popular and optimistic man who returned to his native land after spending many years running an internet café in north London.
“It’s the foreign fighters” he said.
According to estimates, there are as many as 200 foreign nationals fighting with al-Shabab in Somalia. One former insurgent, currently in hiding, recently told me that he was certain that Americans had traveled to Somalia to fight with the militants, and that he personally knew of “six or seven” British fighters in the Mogadishu area who specialize in high explosives.
At the London conference, the leaders praised some signs of progress – pirate attacks are down and al-Shabab has been mostly driven out to Mogadishu by the African Union peacekeeping mission. The leaders pledged new funding to support political and military measures to fight al-Shabab militants. They agreed to a seven-point plan vowing more aid, and help fighting terrorism and piracy.
The people of Somalia, such as the two men I met in Kenya, are hopeful that the plan brings success and peace.