Somalia turmoil spills into South Africa

Gretchen Wilson Dec 8, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: On Wednesday the United Nations voted to send peacekeepers to Somalia. Looks like they were a day or two late. Fighting broke out today in the southern part of the country. It’s unclear who launched the attacks — Islamic milititants who control the region or Ethiopian troops.

But one thing is for sure. When violence in Africa reaches a boiling point, refugees often head south. There are an 5 million refugees in South Africa. About 7,000 of them are from Somalia. They’ve set up shops in townships. Competing with local business. And that’s brought the violence back. From Cape Town, South Africa, Gretchen Wilson reports.

GRETCHEN WILSON: On a busy sidewalk, Abdi Agakonbo sits at a table selling candy, cigarettes and cold drinks. He fled the violence in his home of Somalia last year. As I’m interviewing this slight 35-year-old, a customer comes up and demands a cheaper price for a can of Coke.

CUSTOMER: The price on there . . . You must charge the people that price on that my friend.

ABDI AGAKONBO: This price is not your price. This is mine, firstly, ne? Where I can get the money?

CUSTOMER: No man, you are scum. I’m telling you scum!

AGAKONBO: Stupid man! Stupid. It’s a difficult life.

Like thousands of others here, Agakonbo hoped for a new life in a wealthier African nation. Instead, he’s found violence. Community leaders say 40 Somalis were killed around Cape Town between July and September. Police don’t know how many Somali immigrants have died, but confirm a spike in crimes that appear to be cold-blooded murder.

Mohamed Omar says the hostility rivals the violence back home.

MOHAMED OMAR: I run away from Somalia. I have a wife and one child, a daughter. They died in the fighting in Mogadishu. That’s why I’m running to the South Africa; when I come to the South Africa, I see that problem in here.

In June, he was working in a shop in the Phillipi neighborhood when four men came in with guns and knives.

OMAR: They kill Abdul Aziz. They shot him. They come to the storeroom. At that time, I was hiding myself in the fridge. So they come to the fridge, they see me. They put a gun at my head. They fired for me for the gun, but it was my luck, it misfired. That thing was the worst thing I have ever seen.

IRAD ABDULLAH MOHAMUD: We don’t know exactly why these people are killing us.

Irad Abdullah Mohamud is a shopkeeper who fled Mogadishu in 1999. Like most Somalis here, he lives hand-to-mouth by reselling basic goods at a miniscule profit. Some say the violence has targeted Somalis because they’re undercutting more established shopkeepers in poor neighborhoods. But Mohamud dismisses this claim.

MOHAMUD: Why shouldn’t they kill the Nigerians, Cameroonians. There are so many other communities who are also trading inside the townships, especially. So we believe that we have become a target. We are very much worried about that, that some of us they are trying to force out of Cape Town. So that’s why we believe it’s like ethnic cleansing.

Somali immigrants suggest they might be easy targets in South Africa because of their language or tight-knit community. Mohamud says it may be because they’re Muslim.

MOHAMUD: They always say you look alike, and you’ve got the same names: Mohamed, Mohammud, Ali, Jamal, this, that.

Whatever the reason, attacks are on the rise around the country. In a neighboring province last month, four Somalis were robbed and then set on fire by local South Africans. A few weeks later, the same neighborhood looted all Somali businesses. Stories like this are spreading among the immigrant community, creating a sweeping sense of insecurity.

MOHAMUD: We are helpless. We don’t have any help from any government — South African government, the Somali government, from the South African community. We are in the middle of nowhere, really.

Some Somali business owners are meeting with locals to mediate the violence. But traders say they remain anxious whether anyone will intervene.

In Cape Town, South Africa, I’m Gretchen Wilson for Marketplace.

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