Six years ago, when the group of the first Ugandan soldiers arrived at Mogadishu International Airport, they were welcomed by unrelenting mortar and sniper fire. The future was uncertain for Battle Group One under the commander of Col. Peter Elwelu, now, Brigadier and Third Division commander.
In a strange land, on unfamiliar terrain and facing a harsh reception from the insurgents, the mission looked impossible. Nearly two decades earlier, forces loyal to the former warlord, Gen. Farah Aideed, had downed a helicopter carrying American soldiers, in a battlefield hit that came to be named Black Hawk Down. The helicopter was an American Black Hawk and a movie has since been produced about it.
The Americans were forced to withdraw after pictures of dead American troops being dragged on the streets in Bakara Market went viral. It was hard to imagine that a poor country like Uganda would deploy its troops in Mogadishu, where the world superpower was humiliated and withdrew its 35,000 troops. After America’s withdrawal in 1993, Somalia degenerated into chaos and had become a dysfunctional state.
Since then, every government that came to power was dogged by threats of external influence by militant organisations (al Shabaab, Hizbul Islam, al-Qaeda) that wanted to use Somalia’s unpoliced territories as a training ground for terrorists.
No longer most dangerous place
In fact, Somalia was declared the most dangerous place in the world to live in by the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon in January after assuming office. Mr Ban was indeed right because attacks against Ugandan and Burundian forces intensified following the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces in January 2009 and Amisom which had given priority to the security of key installations in the capital, namely at the airport, seaport, presidential palace and later the strategic Kilometre 4 (KM4) junction, increasingly became a target of extremist attacks.
A double suicide bombing in February of the same year left 11 dead and 15 injured. Another in September killed 17, including Deputy Force Commander, Burundi’s Brig. General Juvenal Niyoyunguruza. In May 2009, the extremists had launched an offensive to retake Mogadishu, pushing Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government forces back into Amisom-protected areas.
The commanding officer of the Ugandan contingent then, Brig. Michael Ondoga, who commanded Ugandan forces in 2010 before he returned last year, remembers: “there were days they were fighting to push us into the sea,”
Al Shabaab was controlling more than 70 per cent of Mogadishu and Amisom was in charge of only State House, Aden Adde International Airport, seaport and the strategic KM4 junction, which connects the above three key government installations.
Unlike many other terrorist groups, al Shabaab combined both symmetrical and asymmetrical warfare tactics. It controlled territory and fought behind a conventional frontline. But at times, it would also use roadside bombs, car bombs and suicide bombers. Most terrorist groups use asymmetrical tactics in order to take the opponent by surprise.
The UPDF, whose training and war doctrine is generally based on fighting in open lands, had to work hard to adapt to the new challenge of urban combat. Suicide bomb or sniper fire attacks against Ugandans were frequent. On top of the threats from al Shabaab, the mission was also constrained by a restrictive interpretation of the rules of engagement which meant Amisom could only fire when fired upon or in defence of the transitional government established by Somalia’s decade-long peace process.
Change of mandate
Due to this restrictive mandate, Amisom forces could hardly advance towards al Shabaab positions. It was until after the mandate was changed to allow the Ugandans and Burundians carry out pre-emptive strikes that tense and fierce battles were fought and al Shabaab started losing ground to Amisom.
The amendment of the mandate came with extra deployment of 2,000 troops that enabled Amisom start a systematic advance across the city. The UPDF spokesperson, and the former Amisom publicist, Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda, says they opened up seven frontlines at Immigration, Shakara, Telebunka, Sigale and Parliament. This action, he says, helped in effectively securing the key Makka Al Mukarama Road which is a main supply route and also links the Presidential Palace to KM4 junction and Mogadishu airport.
Further east, he says Urubah Hotel in Shangani District, Bondere, Fish barre and Juba Hotel in Abdul Aziz District were also secured. Burundian forces controlled the Amisom bases in Hodan, Dharkenley, and Wadajir districts.
In late August 2010, as the Islamic holy month of Ramadan got underway, the al Shabaab launched what they called the “terminal offensive”, declaring they would drive Amisom out of Somalia and wipe out the TFG presence.
But Amisom beat back these attacks though suffered heavy casualties. Many Burundians were killed in Hoshi.
Pte. Jack Ojok was in Bondere at the time under Lt. Col. Mbusi Lukwago, who commanded one of the UPDF battalions in el-Hindi, talks about the night al Shabaab attacked them and they had to withdraw.
“I think they had rightly estimated our strength and after pushing them hard during the day, they withdrew but came back at night. They were outnumbering us. We fought for hours but they overpowered us,” he said.
After this battle, the al Shabaab carried the dead Ugandans, dragged the bodies on the streets and published the pictures.