(Nairobi) – The Islamist armed group Al-Shabab burned numerous homes in raids on villages in Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region in late May 2017, Human Rights Watch said today based on witness accounts and satellite imagery analysis. Al-Shabab fighters abducted civilians, stole livestock, and committed arson in attacks that caused more than 15,000 people to flee their homes.
Starting on May 21, Al-Shabab forces raided villages in the Merka and Afgooye districts of Lower Shabelle. The region has long been the site of violence involving clan militias, federal government forces, Al-Shabab, and African Union forces, in ever-shifting alliances that have had dire consequences for civilians.
“There is no justification for Al-Shabab abducting civilians and burning down their homes,” said Laetitia Bader, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Al-Shabab is responsible for causing mass flight, but the government needs to address communal tensions and hold those most responsible for abuses to account.”
Human Rights Watch spoke to 25 people in person in Mogadishu and by phone who fled from the two districts to Mogadishu and to Lower Shabelle, as well as to local elders and area experts, and analyzed satellite imagery of 30 villages from the Merka district.
Inter-clan conflict, primarily between the Habar Gidir and Biyomaal clans, has increased in Lower Shabelle since 2013. Both clans have fought with and against Somali government forces and Al-Shabab. Throughout this violence, civilians have been repeatedly targeted in retaliatory attacks.
Since September 2016, tensions and fighting between Al-Shabab and a militia linked to the Biyomaal clan have escalated. In mid-May, fighting intensified around the Biyomaal stronghold in Afgooye district known as KM-50 and was followed by Al-Shabab raids. Al-Shabab attacked villages after several months of calling on their residents to leave their homes, Human Rights Watch said.
“Abdi,” whose real name as with others interviewed is not being used for his protection, told Human Rights Watch that he fled his village, Ceel Waregow: “Al-Shabab accused us of being murtads [infidels] and accused us of joining the government. Some of our elders have talked to Al-Shabab and told them that those without guns should be spared. Initially they used to tax us, take livestock and money, but now they are burning our homes.”
The United Nations reported that Al-Shabab abducted approximately 70 people, including women and children, from KM-50 village during fighting between May 21 and 23. Residents told Human Rights Watch that Al-Shabab stole large numbers of cows, goats and camels – critical for survival in the face of ongoing drought. Local elders said that hundreds of livestock were stolen, many died, and only a fraction have been returned to the community.
Human Rights Watch analyzed satellite imagery showing changes over time recorded between May 8 and July 12, 2017, and found evidence of widespread building destruction in 18 of 32 villages assessed in Merka district. Damage in all cases was consistent with arson attacks that resulted in the probable destruction of several hundred residential and community buildings. Because of partial cloud cover in available satellite imagery, it was not possible to assess the change in many locations in the area and it is possible that the total number of affected villages from the recent attacks is larger than the 18 locations currently identified.
An open source data collection site reported fighting between Al-Shabab and Biyomaal clan militia and government forces in two of the 18 villages in which Human Rights Watch identified property destruction. The UN found that about 100 houses were torched at the height of the attacks in the Merka district and that homes were also burned down in the village of Muuri and KM-50 in the Afgooye district on May 23.
According to the UN, 15,240 people were displaced at the height of the raids from May 21 to 24. A woman from Bullo Mudey, whose father was killed and home burned in an attack said: “How can you stay in a place where there are constant attacks and where children are burned in the houses?”
Many people are displaced within the Lower Shabelle region, with others moving toward the outskirts of the capital, Mogadishu. Those who fled the fighting said they were living in precarious settings where they received little, if any, assistance, lacked shelter, and faced serious health risks.
The international laws of war, which bind all parties to the conflict in Somalia, including Al-Shabab, prohibit attacks directed against civilians and civilian property. The forced transfer or removal of civilians, unless for legitimate military reasons, is a war crime. It is unlawful to take into custody civilians who pose no immediate security threat. Pillage – the forcible taking of private property for non-military use – also violates the laws of war. People who commit serious violations of the laws of war deliberately or recklessly are responsible for war crimes.
“Those who commit war crimes in Somalia should eventually be brought to justice,” Bader said. “However, the government and its backers need to immediately assist the people who escaped the violence.”