Normalcy has finally returned to the sleepy town of El Baraf, following the collapse of the seven-year-rule by Al-Shabaab militants.
The Somali National Army (SNA) backed by African Union forces late last month seized the town, situated 26km south of Jalalaqsi in a push aimed at recovering lost territory and expanding government control and influence in the horn of Africa country.
In fact, for more than 10 years, the town had remained closed to the outside world, as Al Shabaab reinforced its stranglehold, imposing illegal tax and engaging in other draconian acts that violated rights and freedoms of many of residents.
Col. Serge Mpawenayo, one of the commanders of the Burundi forces serving under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) who led the takeover operation, details the misery in which the residents were forced to live in.
“The residents were very unhappy because they were forced to pay illegal taxes to Al-Shabaab. Others who did not pay were even forced to give up their children or constantly be terrorized by Al-Shabaab militants,” explains Col. Mpawenayo.
As a result, many residents were forced to flee the town after it became apparent that Al Shabaab militants were not ready to compromise on their autocratic rule that infringed on basic rights.
However, residents say, since the arrival of SNA and AMISOM troops the situation is changing for the better. They can now go out and eke a living without fear of losing their earnings to Al Shabaab.
“The situation is getting better and it is different from before. We can now go out and earn our daily bread,” says Abdulkadir Yusuf Ali, thanking AMISOM and SNA for their intervention.
Unlike before, El-Baraf is now bustling with activity. Traders are back on the streets selling foodstuffs and other merchandize, and, in the open spaces, farmers are busy herding their livestock.
Elsewhere in the town, ecstatic children can be seen running to greet AMISOM forces, a clear testimony that a good relationship is beginning to thrive between the soldiers and local residents since the town’s liberation.
“The district is 100 percent peaceful except a few attacks that happen on the outskirts of town,” observes Ahmed Hai Mohamed, who witnessed Al Shabaab authoritarian rule.
Col. Ali Dhere, a Commander in the Somali National Army (SNA), paints a gory picture of what life used be in the town under the control of the Al-Shabaab.
“Here is where they (Al Shabaab militants) used to hang people. They would tie this cloth around the neck of the victim and then suddenly remove the table he is standing on, leaving the victim to hang. The victim would then die a painful death,” says Col Dhere showing the building that was used by Al Shabaab as its main office in El-Baraf.
The senior SNA soldier also shows the rooms where prisoners were held and tortured for trumped-up charges ranging from failure to pay tax to being Federal Government informants.
Ironically, the building Al Shabaab militants used to torture their victims used to be a hospital built by the local people. However, after the terrorists took over the town medical services offered at the facility were stopped.
“The local people raised money and built this place but unfortunately it was turned into a torture chamber,” Col. Ali says.