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."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Somali gunman's tale shows violent cycle
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today