On the morning of Tuesday May 22, as showers of rain bombarded Mogadishu, African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) and Somali forces loaded and oiled their guns and shared last-minute jokes as they prepared for their bravest and most dangerous mission so far.
The battle of the Afgoye corridor was a decisive one in the campaign known as ‘Operation Free Shabelle.’ Anything could go wrong. “It is a day to make heroes,” Somali National Army Deputy Chief of Staff, Brigadier General Abdi Kareem, alias Dhagabadan, told his forces.
Tall, dark, untroubled-looking Brigadier Paul Lekoch, a veteran of many wars in Uganda, with his trademark walking stick, was contingent commander.
AK-47s, grenades, rocket launchers, mortars, thousands of rounds of ammunition and over 20 tanks were assembled. The number of military vehicles sent to the war front crippled services at the Amisom and United Nations bases.
At the Aden Adde airport, run by SKA Air and Logistics Somalia, whose motto is “Doing difficult jobs in difficult times,” two of SKA’s helicopters stood by to evacuate wounded soldiers — or the dead.
Drones had observed massive positions held by Al Shabaab militants. A day before, on May 21, the Ugandan People’s Defence Force (UPDF) and the Somali forces’ 6th Brigade advanced from Daynille airstrip while the Burundian military and Somalia’s 5th Brigade moved in from the Dharkenley district, attacking the Shabaab fighters on two fronts.
“It is a force that you cannot stop,” Lieut-Col Paddy Ankunda, the force spokesperson, told me as we chatted inside an armoured vehicle on the way to the front. We were in a convoy of four heavily armed vehicles, each with three gunners on the lookout. As the vehicles struggled over the terrain, Amisom forces moved out into the bush to clear roadblocks. Others kept guard along the road behind sand bags. I could hear the distant “pop, pop, pop” of gunfire.
Although three colonels sat beside me, the empty seat that was meant for Force Commander Lt Gen Andrew Guti, who at the last minute had decided not to come, was not comforting.
This was going to be the mother of all battles. Located 31kms from the capital city, Afgoye is a strategic corridor that connects Baidoa, Joha, Kismayu and Mogadishu. Once they were chased away from the capital city, the extremists had regrouped in the Afgoye corridor .
On Tuesday morning, the AU force began its advance and seized part of Tre Disho village, 13kms from the capital.
Along the road, bodies of dead Al Shaabab fighters, military vehicles burnt to shells, and spent cartridges were evidence of the heavy fighting that had taken place just hours before.
I saw empty streets, buildings without roofs, walls sprayed with bullets, markets blackened by smoke from explosives and unattended donkeys.
Except for the soldiers, there was no sign of life at Daynelle Centre, a small town of a dozen or so buildings, which took three months to capture. There was no hurry at Olympic International Express, whose huge sign promised clients the fastest money transfer. The shop was closed.
Meanwhile, the Shabaab were fighting a propaganda war. Hours after the attack, Al Shabaab’s Twitter account @HSMPress tweeted that the militants had killed 27 “crusaders” at Daynelle airstrip. A day later, they said that they had captured and executed a Burundian commander.
That was not what I witnessed.
The Daynelle airstrip, where unidentified planes would fly in, drop arms and ammunition for the Shabaab and take off within minutes, was now under the control of the Amisom forces. In fact, the Burundians had made further advances towards Elasha and also captured the small town of Al Fitr, five kilometres to the north of Mogadishu.
It was from Daynille that the insurgents had launched a terror campaign utilising suicide bombers and car and roadside bombs. One of the most notorious attacks was in early October last year, when an Al Shabaab truck bomb blew up at the Ministry of Education, killing over 100 people, mostly students applying for scholarships.
After the battle for Afgoye, dozens of bodies lay in the streets.
Burundian forces captured two anti-aircraft guns mounted on cars and destroyed one on Tuesday alone.
“They have been routed. They even had no time to collect the bodies of their dead,” Col Isoke remarked as he pointed at a body with its head blown off, a man who had been a senior Shabaab commander.
A Somali soldier wearing a NY balaclava and sunglasses, speaking fluent Kiswahili (he told me was married to a Kenyan) offered to monitor a walkie talkie taken from the slain commander. Amisom troops also captured a recoilless gun, three AK-47 rifles, four magazines and a pistol from his car.
“Ugandan Sheikh Kata and the two Kenyans are now in command. Over, ” a message was passed along to the militants.
As Afgoye was falling to the UPDF and Somali troops, the Shabaab’s Ugandan, Kenyan and foreign fighters were organising the last ditch defences of the town.
“The Somali fighters do surrender at times. But the Kenyans, Ugandans, Tanzanians and other foreigners are extremists who never surrender. We take them out, or they destroy us all,” a corporal on top of the PAC vehicle remarked.
Contingent commander Brigadier Paul Lekoch made thing even tougher for the Shabaab’s “expatriates.”
“Somalis fighting with Al Shabaab still have room to surrender and join the rest in heralding a new peaceful country. Foreigners don’t. They must know that terrorism will not be allowed on this continent,” the veteran soldier thundered
A Swedish militant was recently killed in the area.
On the first night in the captured town, it was eerily quiet. “You could hear even a gun being cocked. We expect the enemy to attack. In the silence, you never know how they will do it,” said Colonel Isoke, barking orders every time any of the vehicles stopped.
Amisom first advanced beyond the capital city limits in late January 2012, when the troops managed to capture Mogadishu University and Barakaat Cemetery. The Al Shabaab had turned the lecture halls in the university into cattle pens.
According to Amisom, the Afgoye battle was the largest swathe of territory to be taken by Amisom in one single battle since its deployment in 2007. The previous largest area captured was Daynille, six kilometres from the capital, captured by Burundian contingents in October last year with significant casualties.
Al Shabaab militants were reported escaping southwards to Marka port after the battle, while others headed to Kismayu.
Amisom says a regrouping of the Shabaab in Marka and Kismayu would present a major challenge for the Kenya Defence Forces camped outside Kismayu.
The fighting for Afgoye has led to fresh calls for the Kenya Defence Forces to join the fighting alongside Amisom, especially because of their aerial firepower.
The signing of a memorandum of understanding that will see the Kenyans join the AU mission is yet to be done. The men responsible for signing the MoU, Foreign Minister Sam Ongeri, his Defence counterpart Yusuf Haji and Chief of General Staff Julius Karangi are said to be out of the country.