According to this 72-page report, "Harsh War, Harsh Peace: Abuses by al-Shabaab, the Transitional Federal Government, and AMISOM in Somalia," finds that al-Shabaab forces have brought greater stability to many areas in southern Somalia, but at a high cost for the local population – especially women. Victims and witnesses described to HRW those harsh punishments including amputations and floggings, which are meted out regularly and without due process. People accused of being traitors or government sympathizers – often on flimsy pretexts – face execution or assassination. Al-Shabaab fighters had threatened some of those interviewed with death simply because they lived in government-controlled areas of Mogadishu.
Several women told Human Rights Watch that they had been beaten, flogged, or jailed by al-Shabaab for selling tea to support their families because the work brought them into contact with men. In other cases, women were beaten for failing to wear the precise type of abaya – a bulky head-to-toe garment – prescribed by local edicts. Women often fail to wear the abaya not out of defiance but because their families simply cannot afford them.
“He was raising his hand back and counting, ‘One, two, three, four, five .... ’" one woman told Human Rights Watch, describing the beating she got when she ran out of her house after her toddler without an abaya. “It felt so painful that if I had a gun I would have killed that man."
Al-Shabaab has subjected young men and boys to abuses that include forced military recruitment and strict social control. Human Rights Watch interviewed one young man who saw his uncle murdered by al-Shabaab fighters because he refused to reveal the whereabouts of another nephew, a 15-year-old, who had deserted their ranks after being wounded in combat. Beatings or public humiliations are commonly meted out to men for a broad range of offenses such as failing to go to mosque, having long hair, or wearing clothes that al-Shabaab considers Western.
In Mogadishu, the transitional government and the 5,300-member African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) are squared off against a powerful opposition dominated by al-Shabaab.
Opposition fighters regularly fire mortar rounds indiscriminately into populated neighborhoods controlled by the transitional government. They frequently fire from residential areas in apparent hope of attracting retaliatory attacks that will damage the image of the transitional government and AU forces. All too often these forces oblige, responding to indiscriminate attacks in kind.
Al-Shabaab and other opposition fighters threaten and kill civilians they see as sympathetic to the transitional government. Al-Shabaab has also carried out devastating suicide attacks against civilians, including one at a university graduation ceremony in Mogadishu that killed at least 22 people in December 2009.
The intervention of outside powers in Somalia has often proved counterproductive to restoring security. The strong backing for the transitional government by the US, the EU, the AU, and the UN Political Office for Somalia has led these actors to quickly condemn serious abuses by al-Shabaab, but effectively turn a blind eye to abuses by transitional government and AU forces.
The US government has sent mortars to transitional government forces in Mogadishu even though no party to the fighting has used the weapons in accordance with the laws of war.
Eritrea, in an effort to undermine the regional interests of its political foe, Ethiopia, has helped al-Shabaab procure weapons. Human Rights Watch urgently calls on foreign actors to re-evaluate their policies toward Somalia and help end the impunity that fuels the worst abuses.
Somalia has been plagued by armed conflict since the collapse of its last functioning government in 1991. But the situation dramatically worsened in late 2006, when Ethiopian military forces intervened to smash a coalition of Sharia (Islamic law) courts that had taken control of Mogadishu.
The fighting devastated Mogadishu, drove hundreds of thousands of Somalis from their homes, and spawned a massive humanitarian crisis that continues to worsen. Ethiopian forces withdrew by the beginning of 2009, but the violence continues unabated.