Somali gunman's tale shows violent cycle

Prevalence of new weapons, chaos of clan wars gave rise to banditry as

Anywhere else, this young man would be considered an unusual menace: He plays with guns, uses drugs, lives by extortion, and has little respect for authority unless it comes in the form of a bigger weapon.

But in Somalia, Malaay is a professional bandit and the No. 2 in his gang. When asked about his job description, he smiles proudly and answers: "Chief of Checkpoint." Malaay withdrew from an Islamic school and first took up the gun six years ago, when he was just 12 years old.

"All I know is the gun," he says. "Even if I had finished Koranic school, I still need money. Education is useless when you must find your bread."

A picture of Malaay's violent lifestyle may feed the stereotype that many Somalis are ruthless marauders. But a deeper look at his motivations and values also illustrates how nearly a decade of clan war has broken down traditional safety nets in Somalia.

Thanks in part to the prevalence of modern weapons, the centuries-old nomadic ideals of family, and of establishing balance between war and peace, have deeply eroded. Now paramount is the need to eke out a living, using the gun as a tool.

Skinny even by Somali standards, Malaay has yet to start shaving and could be taken for a young teen.

But the language Malaay speaks is one of a gangland lifestyle that spurns parents for the close-knit "family" of the gang. Parents trying to retrieve children are often sent away empty-handed and at gunpoint.

"We are all equal, with the same idea of life," he says of his 18-member gang during a interview through an interpreter. "We are not ashamed to be called moryan [bandits]."

That is not the view of Malaay's two older brothers, who work as armed escorts for businessmen. They get a regular salary, and often fight off robbers like their brother. But even their example has been spurned. "We had a misunderstanding," says Malaay, looking down.

For Malaay, life as a bandit boils down to sheer need. "This is not good for me," he admits. "It would be very easy for me to put my gun down, if I had the money to cover myself. I don't like being a bandit."

Malaay "works" only every other day, in shifts. He shares his gun - an AK-47 assault rifle bought for $120 in Mogadishu's thriving weapons market - with another gang member. He takes public transportation to his checkpoint, and forces a tithe out of those who pass by.

"Everybody pays the money," he says. Refusal can result in the gang stealing a car.

Malaay expresses some regret about what he does: "If we could get better jobs, we would." Still, there are moments of pride. "You know the checkpoint on the road out to the Balidogle airport?" he asks with a grin. "That's us!"

Sometimes the gang members deploy their four rocket-propelled grenades for a big job, such as looting a warehouse.

Malaay has had many close calls. During an attempted hijacking of a United Nations food convoy, for example, his gang was fired upon by a large antiaircraft gun. Malaay escaped the bullets, but got caught in a grenade blast that scarred his legs.

KEEPING him in this line of work are tough economic realities. A 1998 UN report notes the problem: "State collapse and endemic conflict have shattered communal safety nets.... Young men with no access to education gravitate toward the militias...."

For Malaay, a good shift "depends on how much you grab." In one day with the gun he may collect 200,000 Somali shillings, or $25.

But costs are high. One of the top priorities for many gunmen is to ensure a daily supply of khat. A leaf that is a mild stimulant, khat is widely chewed here.

"Khat is the biggest expense of the day, and takes priority over everything" - including his separated wife and baby son, for whom he feels responsible. When he has the money, he tries to give them 50,000 shillings a day. But khat alone costs 20,000 for a half bundle.

He shops once a week for things "like shampoo," he says, and pays 50,000 shillings a month for a rented room.

And then there are business expenses: A clip of bullets runs to nearly a day's "pay." During heavy fighting, clips empty in minutes.

Malaay says he feels trapped in Somalia's cycle of violence and need. "I hope in the future that I will leave my bad habits on the ground, and be a very good man - one of the legitimate people who work hard," he says.

"But now I'm not studying anything, except for the gun that I'm holding."

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