As hit and run attacks, sporadic shootings and suicide bombings by the al-Shabaab militant group continue to plague Mogadishu, life must go on for the capital's residents who have developed a culture of suspicion as they wonder who among them could be an al-Shabaab sympathizer or potential attacker.
Residents told Somalia Report that they grow anxious when they see an unknown person carrying backpacks or bags, fearing a bomb might be inside.
Although al-Shabaab was forced from the capital in August of last year, the group has conducted regular attacks in the city on military installation, the presidential compound, markets, intersections, the National Theatre, hotels and Sufi run mosques. Sufi is a moderate Islamist group of Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama (ASWJ) which has joined the Transitional Federal Government's (TFG) fight against al-Shabaab.
“The more explosions and assassinations in this city, the more we harbor suspicions amongst us as a community,” Ahmed Omar, a Sufi worshiper who runs a small business in Bakara Market, told Somalia Report.
Al-Shabaab female suicide-bombers have now made everyone - men and women - potential attackers in the eyes of residents. The deepening distrust has brought new concerns to the residents who have had to adopt a high level of vigilance.
It has made people less trusting, feeling more insecure and difficult for them to rattle on the war between al-Shabaab and the Somali government. “If you see a person with a hand bag or hand luggage then you should be very afraid because you cannot know what is inside the bag,” said a laborer, Abdisalaan Mohamed
Several residents who returned from al-Shabaab controlled areas of Elasha Biyaha for Wadajir and Dharkinley districts were ordered to register at the police stations by local militias loyal to commissioners of those two districts.
“The police want to know the number of your family members. It is compulsory for you to tell the police the figure of your family so as to resettle in these districts,” Fartun Ali told Somalia Report.
According to Ali Hassan, a junior official for the administration of Wadajir district in Mogadishu, there should be no doubt that the militants would use females to launch more suicide bombings.
“Women can be used particularly in the places that are difficult to penetrate. Even some squad within al-Shabaab men pretend to be women by wearing female attire like veils and burqa just in order to hunt down our forces,” said Hassan.
It is not unusual to see TFG soldiers turn their guns on the usual suspects like students with backpacks and veiled women. In the areas controlled by the al-Qaeda linked al-Shabaab group, women were required to wear veils whenever they appeared in public or they would be lashed with small sticks, however in today's Mogadishu, the veils breed suspicion.
Traditional Somalia culture is slowly giving in to the burgeoning suspicion within communities. The habitual acts of sharing political views at tea time, offering free rides to pedestrians, embracing one another by kissing cheeks and the back of hands when greeting and welcoming strangers into homes for a meal, are no longer the norm in Mogadishu. These precious acts are fast eroding in the face of conflict for a more cynical but necessary culture of suspicion and mistrust.
“We would have liked to help carry another's luggage without checking and did so once but that was then. We have no confidence in our siblings let alone others. Now I always worry when i travel with passengers in my own taxi or public buses because I do not know what is in their bags,” a taxi driver Mohamed Yusuf told Somalia Report.
During the day, folks can be seen in restaurants enjoying seafood or drinking tea in cafeterias, the favorite Somali treat, but most of them do not dare express condemnation about the ongoing violence for fear of being targeted. Both the government and al-Shabaab have infiltrators in the public and you need to keep your mouth shut to stay alive. “We are really agonizing over this and you cannot identify al-Shabaab because their infiltrators dress in civilian clothes,” said an elder Hassan Abukar.
Some Somali women choose to wear niqab or burqa, a full-length garment that may cover their faces for religious reasons and do not like to leave their homes without it but they cannot afford the daily risks that instability and distrust exposes them to. Many of them are either forced or requested to take off their veils in public places.
Unmarried Somali girls are wont to wear veils without staunch belief in a specific ideology but preferably to cover their faces. Oftentimes veiled women are not able to get free rides from local car owners and taxi drivers inside Mogadishu due to the growing suspicion in the community according to Qadro Ahmed.
“I was wearing a burqa when I asked someone who was driving his own car to offer me a free ride but he looked at me sternly, refused and turned away from me,” said the resident.
Qadro told us about an event she witnessed while she was travelling by bus with other passengers. A woman boarded the bus carrying a bulging black nylon bag. She picked a phone call and in response to the caller referred to her bag saying, "No, I haven't blasted the goods yet but I am about to."
The panic stricken passengers including Qadro fled in fear and alighted from the bus. When it did not explode as expected, they confronted the bewildered woman who laughed and told them she was planning on 'selling' some clothes she had in the bag.
She had reason to laugh. The word 'blast' means 'sell' within enterprising circles and residents of Mogadishu. This previously innocent street slang had adopted a new and dangerous meaning in this particular situation. This humorous but sad moment provides insight into the traumatised state of Somalis who have been exposed to generations of violence.
“It is a bad habit when people use the word 'blast' instead of 'sell' in public places. It has to be stopped due the current situation in the country," demanded Ahmed. In the current context, his adamant demand may well be justified.
Endless battles and covert warfare tactics are fast depriving Mogadishu residents of much more than meets the eye. Long known traditions and habits have suffered the brunt of warfare as a new language, attitude and culture of suspicion and fear continues to flourish in Mogadishu.