The assault on the city was well choreographed -- and, as it turned out, overkill. A field commander told me, "The opposition was not what we expected." When I asked why that was, a faint smile overtook his lips, and he said, "Maybe they knew they were up against a better force." The truth, however, is more complicated. Al-Shabab had no intention of defending Kismayo.
* * *
Mogadishu is famous for its destroyed infrastructure. By contrast, Kismayo, home to about 180,000 people, is striking for its lack of infrastructure. Locals will tell you this is because Kismayo, a medieval fishing settlement that evolved into a spur of the Swahili-coast livestock trade during the colonial era, has changed hands so often. In the 1890s, the sultan of Muscat ceded Kismayo to Britain, which in turn gave it to Italy. After Somalia won its independence in 1960, Kismayo's business elite turned its port into a regional trade hub, but when the civil war began in 1991, the city was flung between warlords. U.S. Marines occupied it, with little effect. It was fought over for more than a decade by local militias, the Transitional Federal Government, the Ethiopians, Ras Kamboni, and al-Shabab's predecessor, the Islamic Courts Union, which shifted its base from Mogadishu to Kismayo in 2006. Al-Shabab, the extremist wing of the Islamic Courts Union, took full control of the city in late 2009.
The day after arriving at the airport camp, we piled into an armored personnel carrier in a military convoy. At the front of the line of vehicles was a SUV containing a machine that jams radio frequencies used to detonate improvised explosive devices. The KDF soldiers wore body armor and helmets. Riding heedlessly alongside us in a "technical" -- the battlewagon of choice in Somalia, a stripped-down pickup truck mounted with a Russian-made DShK anti-aircraft gun -- was their Ras Kamboni escort. The only thing the gunner had on for protection was a pair of earphones.
We passed by an open-air dump where garbage smoldered, by encampments of domed huts made from tree branches and cloth, and then into Kismayo's dirt streets, which are lined with one-story stucco buildings. Al-Shabab insignias were still prominent on walls, a reminder of the suffering inflicted. When al-Shabab came into southern Somalia, it helped decimate what had been the country's breadbasket by taxing and harassing farmers and pastoralists, and it then forced out aid agencies that were trying to feed the population. Kismayo's nameless main road, the only paved one, runs through Liberty Square, where a toppled monumental column erected after independence now lies on the ground in blocks. Under al-Shabab, Liberty Square became a stage for public floggings, dismemberments, and executions. When its police wanted to bury people up to their necks and then stone them to death, as they did to a young woman accused of adultery in 2008, they used the softer ground of the nearby soccer stadium.
At the Kismayo port, freighters from India, Pakistan, and Syria were docked, unloading shipments of fruit juice, chewing gum, milk, and sugar. Al-Shabab derived most of its revenue from taxing the goods that went in and out of it. No great fans of al-Shabab, the merchants nonetheless allowed it to rule Kismayo because it was good for business -- al-Shabab simplified the bribery system and did away with competing militia roadblocks set up to extort trade. Now the KDF occupies the port's warehouses and inspects every ship.
A delegation of merchants and community leaders met us in one of the warehouses. One by one, they came before us to list their grievances. "We ask for things from the central government, but they don't give us anything," one man complained. "The world is doing nothing for us."
A port administrator I met, Abduli, said that though al-Shabab was good for business in certain ways, it wasn't worth the toll the group exacted on Kismayo. "In the port, in the market, Shabab always, 'Give money, give money, give money.' Shabab tax hundred dollars per shipment!" he said. "Shabab kill everyone. Kill mothers, kill babies, kill everything." When I asked whether he was affiliated with a particular militia or other group, Abduli admitted he was a member of Ras Kamboni. But, he said, "Now clan is over. Tribe, over."
"What comes next?" I asked.
"Is come tourism!" he said. "Is come tourism to Kismayo. Kismayo beautiful. Every culture, black and white, come. I want life, you know? I want the government. I want the administration. Shabab attacking is problem only."
Al-Shabab is still attacking. The week before we arrived, gunmen shot up the home of a local security official. Three days later, grenades were thrown into a crowd. The victims were brought to Kismayo General Hospital. They lay in beds in the hospital's courtyard, under a tree, surrounded by refuse. I spoke with a woman whose head and leg were bandaged. A grenade hit her near the temple, she told me, and then landed in the lap of a man sitting near her. It killed him, but she somehow survived. "I was very lucky," she said. An even worse wound was caused by a bullet to her leg, which didn't come from the attackers. After the grenades were thrown, Ras Kamboni troops present at the scene shot indiscriminately into the crowd and the air. Two other casualties I met at the hospital were uninjured by the explosions but were shot afterward by the militiamen.
After returning from the hospital, I walked out to the wire at the new airport camp. A line of small bunkers with machine gun nests faced an expanse of sand and shrubs. I spoke to a pair of Kenyan soldiers who were playing checkers with soda bottle caps. I asked what they thought of their counterparts in Ras Kamboni and the Somali National Army. Their feelings were mixed, they said. All the Somalis were ill-equipped, badly trained, and badly paid (if paid at all), but some were more disciplined than others and some knew how to fight al-Shabab.
"In guerrilla warfare you don't need training," one of the soldiers told me. "You just need to know how to shoot and duck."