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The 518 kilometer road between the al-Shabaab stronghold of Kismayo (Kismayu) in Lower Jubba region and Bardhere (Bardere, Barardheere) in Gedo region, is unofficially one of the most dangerous roads in Somalia, due to illegal checkpoints, militias, rapists, wild animals, daily accidents, narrow and steep passages, and broken tarmac (from Kismayo to Jilib) that confront travelers at every turn, according to residents and travelers who spoke to Somalia Report.
The drive would normally take ten hours on a standard paved highway, but in Somalia it takes three days during the dry season. During the two rainy seasons - December to February and June to August - much of the road is completely inaccessible or very hazardous and the drive can take up to a week as accidents increase, sometimes blocking the road.
The cost of transiting (bribes) also increases during the rainy season from one million (US $50) to 1.4 million Somali shilling per each large vehicle with passengers per transit, which few can afford. In turn, people cannot transit or get their goods to market. For those that do, they risk their lives.
Checkpoints and Bribes
There are no less than 50 checkpoints manned by gunmen (bandits) between Kismayo and Bardhere, most of which are unauthorized by any government. Their sole aim is not for security, but to bribe or rob anyone passing through their area. At times, these checkpoints are only a few kilometers apart, or less.
Mudey Qasim, a businessman who travels the route often, told Somalia Report about the dangers of the checkpoints.
“There are so many checkpoints that you can't even count them all. Many bad things happen at these checkpoints. For instance, the people are robbed by the bandits. I remember travelling between Afarta Buundo and Saakow and the vehicle we were travelling with reached a checkpoint named 'lama maraay'," explained the businessman.
"We were immediately fired upon for no reason and two of the passengers in our vehicle were injured. The driver stopped immediately and the militia men instructed everyone out of the vehicle. They immediately started frisking the items in the vehicle. They told us to give all the money we were carrying for transport and for other things. They asked the driver to pay them 2 million Somali shillings which is about US$100," said Mudey Qasim.
If they are robbed in one of the checkpoints and have nothing to pay the other checkpoints, drivers told Somalia Report they will explain to the gunmen they were already robbed. In some cases, the bandits sympathise with them and let them pass free of charge if the explanation proves their case.
Robbery is not the only problem encountered by the people who travel the perilous route. Female passengers tend to fare the worst as militiamen have been known to rape and sexual harass women at checkpoints. Male passengers can do nothing to help the females who are often held at gunpoint.
Ismahan jamac, a 25 year old woman, told Somalia Report how she and other three girls were sexually abused at a checkpoint on the road between Bardere and Kismayo.
“We were travelling from Kismayo when we were suddenly stopped on the outskirts of Afarta Buundo by five armed men. They instructed us to give them all the money we had and frisked everybody. They took whatever they got from the pockets of the passengers. After taking everything, they ordered all the men to sit next to the car and cover their eyes with the shirts. One man remained with them as the other four took the three girls and I with them to the other side of the road," she recalled.
"They did everything to us. I can't even talk about it. It was so terrible. It was never our will but we feared the guns pointed at us. They kept us for about an hour after which they released us. When we came back we found the driver and another man had been hit badly in the head and blood was oozing from their foreheads. The bandits told us to go on with our journey. We didn't tell the men from what happened to us because we feared the shame and the rejection we would get back from the society if we inform them of the rape. We reached Saakow where the driver and the other man got a basic treatment for the wounds. We were inform they were beaten up after they tried to ask one of the men to let us go," said Ismahan.
While bandits control many of the checkpoints, travelers also fear al-Shabaab miltiants which control vast swaths of the region despite allied advances on their stronghold of Kismayo.
The presence of al-Shabaab fighters makes the travelling even worse as people are accused of being spies for the Somali and Kenyan governments who are on the march towards the port city. People travelling from Kismayo are always suspected and some have been arrested at the al-Shabaab controlled check points, locals complained to Somalia Report.
Travelling towards Kismayo is even riskier as passengers are frisked repeatedly and often interrogated by Islamist fighters who are tasked with defending the city. Suspected individuals are sometimes even killed after they are accused of having links with the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) forces and the Kenyan Defence Forces (KDF) fighting from Lower Jubba region.
Threats from Lions
As if rape, bribery and militants weren't enough, travelers must also deal with wild animals on the route, particularly lions, who have attacked the passengers stopped along the road or even while transiting in open vehicles.
“There are wild animals on the way. It is very frightening when travelling. Some of the vehicles used are not buses but are cars that have no cover on top. People fear the lions may jump and take away people if the car is moving at a slow speed as have happened many times before. There was even a time when a lion stood in the way and refused to move away as our car approached. It finally ran after some bullets were fired over it. It was very shocking. We all thought it was our end until the man fired at it," Shamso Yarey, a frequent traveller on the way to Kismayo, told Somalia Report.
Crumbling infrastructure is yet an other threat faced by travelers along this route. Some areas of the road are so steep and upaved that the driver has to tell the passenger to exit the vehicle. Then the driver maneuvers the car up or down the steep route. Sometimes the cars flip over, especially when the driver doesn't tell people to get off, passengers told Somalia Report.
Ibrahim Farah, a driver who travels between Kismayo and Bardhere, explained the difficulties in transiting the road.
"The road between the two towns is very risky. It has led to the deaths of many people. The road from Kismayo via Kabsuma, Jamame to Jilibthen Kismayo which most of us use is tarmac although it is broken in many places, and one has to drive with a lot of concentration in order not to cause accidents," he told Somalia Report.
“The way is totally bad from Jilib to Minmindhorow via Afarta Bundo and Saakow. The way is very old and a lot of accidents happen between these towns. These accidents are mostly caused by the roughness of the road, which sometimes makes the driver unable to control the car like when climbing a hill or when going down from a hill. So many people have died because of bad roads," added Ibrahim Farah.