Bus drivers complain of losing livelihood, as fighting between government troops and al-Shabab make journeys riskier.
It’s ten minutes past 10 AM, and Hussein Mohamed is sitting in the driver’s seat of a half-empty sixteen-seater minibus parked at an almost deserted bus station in Kismayu – Somalia’s third-biggest city.
Two times a day for six days a week over the past five years, Mohamed has driven his minibus between Kismayu and Jilib, a town 114km north of Kismayu, ferrying commuters.
But since late last September, Mohamed has only been able to make the trip once every week.
Kismayu was in the hands of the hardline rebel group al-Shabab until September last year.
Under pressure from the Ras Kamboni brigade – the Somali government’s allied militia group – and Kenyan troops, al-Shabab retreated from the port city. It still, however, controls many of the nearby towns and villages.
Mohamed’s route has been divided between the two fighting groups, with some in the hands of the Kenyan-backed Ras Kamboni and others in al-Shabab’s.
This has made business very risky for Mohamed and has put new financial pressure on him – not just by limiting the amount of trips he can take, but also by forcing him to pay a toll to both sides.
“Before there was only one group controlling the whole of this area, and I only dealt with them,” said Mohamed. “Now there’s al-Shabab, Ras Kamboni and Kenyan troops in this part of the country. For business, it is better and cheaper to deal with just one group.”
Crossing an active frontline
To get from Kismayu to Jilib, Mohamed has to cross an active frontline and at least 10 checkpoints manned by gunmen from the different groups.
“You can drive past a village in the morning, and when coming back in the evening it is in the hands of a different group. If you are unlucky, you can drive into a battle between the groups as they fight for villages.”
Part of the tarmac road from Kismayu to Mogadishu via Jilib has been closed, meaning drivers are forced to take a dirt road that triples their journey time and fuel costs.
“We used to spend two hours, but now we spend a minimum of six hours,” said Mohamed Nuur, a fellow minibus driver who now works two days a week because of the reduced passenger numbers.
“Sometimes we spend a whole day [at the checkpoint]. You don’t know what they want, and they can decide to keep you and your minibus,” Nuur added.
Passengers are also paying for the increased fuel costs and journey time. “Before this war I used to pay $3.50 for the journey to Jilib, but now I pay $7, so I’m forced to travel less often,” said Hassan Bashir, a charcoal trader who used to travel to Jilib three times a week but now travels once every two weeks.
Before the war, at least 300 passengers used to travel this route every day using minibuses. Now, there’s only a trickle of passengers, sometimes not enough to fill one minibus. “People are staying away because no one wants to be caught up in this war,” said Hassan Imran, the ticket seller at the bus station.
Abdinasir Serar, the spokesman for Ras Kamboni, the group that now controls Kismayu, says the road closure is necessary and blames al-Shabab for the problems faced by the people. “We had to close the tarmac road for safety reasons and for the benefit of the whole city. If we open the road al Shabab will use it to attack the city,” said Serar.
“We are still fighting al-Shabab. When we defeat them, we will open the road.”
Al-Shabab, which still controls significant parts of the Juba regions, refutes this claim.
“If they allege that the road was closed to prevent the mujahideen [fighters] from using it, then it is worth mentioning that there are literally hundreds of roads that we can use for the same purpose,” said Sheikh Hudaifa Abdirahman, the al-Shabab governor of Juba region.
“We categorically reject the allegations of the apostate militia and do not take any responsibility whatsoever for the closure of Kismaayo-Jilib road. Full responsibility for the closure of that road must lie with the militia who closed it,” he added.
However, not everyone in Kismayu is unhappy with these developments in this part of the country. Muhidin Hassan, a mechanic at Sheikh Ali garage, is managing to turn a profit off the fact that drivers must now use the dirt road.
“Since the road has been closed, we see many vehicles with problems. Our business is very good. I have recruited two new mechanics to help me with the increased workload.”
Vehicles going to Mogadishu, the Somali capital more than 500km away, also have to use this route.
Before the start of the war, hundreds of personal vehicles made the journey between the two cities using this route every week.
But the number has now declined significantly. Abdi Noor Ali, a lorry driver that carries goods from Kismayu to Mogadishu, said, “This war is not good for anyone. Drivers, passengers and business people: everyone is affected badly. For me, every trip might be my last one because you don’t know what you may find on the road.”
Sitting on top of sacks of potatoes at the back of Ali’s lorry for the journey is 50-year-old Deeqa Ahmed, a struggling grocery seller.
“They [the fighting young men] are dying because they are killing each other, and we will die because their war will stop us from making money to feed our families. War is no good,” Ahmed said, shaking her head.
For minibus driver Mohamed, all he wants is for the fighting to stop so he can go back to his normal routine. “I don’t care who wins or controls this area. All I want is for peace to return so I can go back to making a decent living.”