She didn’t know much about me, only that I was eager to hear her story. She tells me her name is Sadiya, and that her family hails from the village of Buurane in the Middle Shabelle province, a region synonymous with militancy and where the rules of engagement are often non-existent.
When I offer a smile in the direction of three young children sitting on an old rug. she says, “These are my son’s children. They were left with me after he was murdered.”
Sadiya tells me how her 18-year-old son Sharmarke and his friends were cutting onions on the porch of her home, on the day they were approached by coalition troops from Burundi serving under the UN-backed African Union Mission in Somalia, commonly referred to as AMISOM. The troops ordered the young men to go inside for reasons Sadiya doesn’t know.
AMISON soldiers routinely patrol the village of Buurane and its surrounding areas – often implementing curfews and detaining civilians under the mere pretext of suspicion. Many are often held under arbitrary detention for weeks – sometimes even longer.
On this occasion, however, the AMISOM troops departed without incident. Sadiya’s son and his friends went back to their chores, before starting a card game.
Moments later, a massive blast punctured the air, and a cloud of thick black smoke billowed into the night sky. A roadside bomb had struck a nearby AMISOM convoy.
Not long after that, AMISOM troops returned to her home. She remembers spotting one peering through the window seconds before they opened fire. Screams and falling glass engulfed the tiny home. Her son was cut down by a hail of bullets, piercing his heart and spine, and striking his friend sitting directly behind him.
The friend died instantly, but her son clung to life, screaming for his mother to stop the bleeding while mouthing the words to the Shahada (the Islamic declaration of faith).
The AMISOM troops barged into the home and pointed their weapons at Sadiya and her dying son, she says. Sadiya pleaded with the soldiers to allow her to tend to her son’s wounds, but to no avail. Her son bled to death in front of her eyes.
As Sadiya tells me this, she slumps to her knees, and sobs uncontrollably.
“It’s one thing to watch your child be shot in front of you. It’s another to watch them bleed out while begging for your help,” she says.
Sadiya’s account is consistent with testimonies of other eyewitnesses to mass killings carried out by AMISOM troops. A scathing report by Human Rights Watch revealed how AMISOM troops targeted wedding-goers near the Somali port town of Merka in 2015, killing six men, and denying medical care to the lone survivor, who later died of his wounds.
Sadiya said the soldiers remained in her home for two hours after her son bled out, leaving only when Somali Government troops arrived to retrieve the lifeless bodies of her son and his friend. Murdered at 18 years of age, Sharmarke would never get to see the arrival of his third child.
Moreover, in the weeks and months that followed, Sadiya endured relentless threats and intimidation from AMISOM troops, who would repeatedly show up at her home and order her to leave, she claims, often threatening to burn down her home if she continued to refuse their demands.
Sadiya says the AMISOM troops told her that they were carrying out military operations in the area and she needed to vacate the home, but this was an order given only to her, and nobody else in the village. The same troops that brutally murdered her son were now forcefully displacing her from the only home she’s ever known.
Many of her neighbors advised Sadiya to heed the warnings and not risk losing the three young grandchildren, but she refused to leave and instead pleaded her case to local authorities located several kilometers away in the district of Mahaadey.
But she was turned away.
Coincidentally, the district of Mahaadey is home to a large-scale African Union military base that hosts foreign troops from Burundi. Sadiya believes her cries for help fell on deaf ears because coalition forces in Somalia wield immense influence over the local authorities, which explains why Somali officials often turn a blind eye to atrocities carried out by coalition forces from the African Union.
Deployed to Somalia in 2007 under the auspice of the United Nations Security Council, the AMISOM consists of thousands of foreign troops from nearly a dozen states in Africa, fighting under the rubric of the global ‘war on terror’, but without meaningful oversight or transparency.
Sadiya then made her way to the city of Jowhar, the provincial capital of the Middle Shabelle province and seat of power for Somalia’s semi-autonomous Hirshabelle state, turning up at the headquarters of the-then regional vice president, Ali Gudlaawe.
Again, she was turned away by Somali troops.
When the threats became too much to bear, Sadiya made the decision to flee Buurane. During the night, her brother-in-law put Sadiya and her three grandchildren in a vehicle and sent them to the capital Mogadishu, where they remain to this day.
Two years have passed since the brutal murder of her son Sharmarke and his friend Abukar, but Sadiya is yet to receive any answers, let alone accountability from the UN-backed African Union Mission in Somalia.
After meeting Sadiya, I made my way to the notorious Suuqa-Hoolaha neighborhood in the Huriwa district of Mogadishu, which is known to be an al-Shabaab stronghold. This isn’t an area that journalists often venture to.
There, I met Ibrahim, the father of Abukar, who was shot and killed in Sadiya’s home. Ibrahim fled the village of Buurane with his two remaining daughters immediately after his son’s murder. The trek to Mogadishu on foot took him and his children seven days. He’s never returned home since. Ibrahim wants justice for his family but knows that the prospects for accountability are slim.
Prosecuting African Union soldiers for atrocities in Somalia is nearly impossible, as the Somali Government has no jurisdiction over the multi-national coalition troops on their soil, which are funded by the European Union and supervised by the US and UK.
They are rarely if ever, held accountable for the rampant war crimes and human rights abuses they are alleged to have committed.
The Case of Mohamed Hassan
During my investigation into war crimes by AMISOM troops in Somalia, the most perplexing case was the murder of Mohamed Hassan, a local university student from Mogadishu. He offers a typical example of how broken promises, deception, and impunity make the death of a loved one at the hands of coalition forces even much more unbearable.
I arrived at the Tarabunka junction in Mogadishu, and stood in front of a mechanic shop, waiting for the go-ahead. A young woman dressed in all black wearing a Niqab (face veil) approached and told me to follow her.
I eventually found myself at the home of a prominent tribal chief – an older gentleman with a bright orange beard dyed in traditional coloring. I sat down at the table. What followed was the traditional Somali custom of drinking tea and getting acquainted with one another.
As we spoke, the tribal chief was eager to tell me about the ordeal of his family members who had been killed by AMISOM forces. When I began the interview, I couldn’t help but notice the armed gunmen in military attire standing a few meters away. The tribal chief told me not to worry; they were his people (clansmen).
He told me how his nephew, Mohamed Hassan, who he had raised from birth, was murdered by AMISOM forces in Mogadishu. “Mohamed was walking down a road in the Hodan district of Mogadishu, when he was struck by an AMISOM convoy, driving at full speed on 3 July 2014,” he said.