(Nairobi) – Rival clan militias fighting in Kismayo, Somalia, earlier this month caused an unknown number of civilian casualties in apparently indiscriminate attacks on civilian buildings.
The United Nations reported that at least 31 civilians were killed and 38 more wounded during the fighting on June 7 and 8, 2013, which erupted after weeks of mounting tension over control of the lucrative port. Casualty figures are conflicting because the dead and wounded were taken to different locations across the city, and information regarding the status of the casualties is limited.
“The militias fighting over Kismayo showed little apparent regard for the safety of civilians around them, including at a market and a medical clinic,” said Leslie Lefkow, Africa deputy director. “All warring parties should take precautions to spare the civilian population. The laws of war apply to all armed groups.”
Human Rights Watch spoke to several residents and aid workers in the city who described how attacks killed civilians and damaged civilian buildings.
The bulk of the fighting was concentrated in the village of Dalaada, in the Alanley district of southwest Kismayo, on the road to the airport. At least one civilian was killed when the fighting erupted on June 7. Local residents told Human Rights Watch that Kusa Nurow Hassan, a woman with a disability, was hit by bullets in the head and left arm at the Alanley market where she sold milk. “We collected her teeth on the ground and her left side was smashed,” said a woman who helped collect her body. “It is very painful to remember how she was killed.”
On June 8, fighting broke out at around 8 a.m. and lasted until about 6 p.m. A local source told Human Rights Watch that a Quranic schoolteacher and one of his pupils were hit by stray bullets during fighting in the morning. Witnesses described heavy shelling in Dalaada during the afternoon. Three children, two siblings aged four and five and another seven-year-old girl, were killed when a shell, possibly a mortar round based on witness descriptions, struck near their house in Dalaada. At least five other civilians in the home were wounded in the strike, including another seven-year-old girl and a young woman. Local sources reported that another house in the neighborhood was hit by a shell in the same attack, injuring one woman.
At about 6 p.m. a small private medical clinic called Waamo Hospital, which provides outpatient services in Dalaada, was also hit by weapons fire. One witness believes a mortar round struck the clinic, but photographic evidence is inconclusive. The clinic is clearly signposted. Several sources told Human Rights Watch that the laboratory in the clinic was destroyed and the consultation room partially damaged. No one was injured in the attack, as the rooms struck were empty, but lab equipment was destroyed.
The fighting in Kismayo primarily involved the Ormale and Ras Kamboni clan militia. According to a local source, the Gaaljecel militia is also thought to have participated in the fighting. Human Rights Watch was not able to confirm which militia was responsible for the weapons fire striking the homes and clinic in Dalaada, nor the weaponry used.
“The patchy information about the recent clashes in Kismayo, and their effect on civilians, once again highlights the need for systematic documentation and reporting,” Lefkow said. “The new UN mission in Somalia – UNSOM – should immediately establish its expanded human rights monitoring section.”
International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, obliges all parties to a conflict, including state armed forces and non-state armed groups, to take every feasible precaution to minimize harm to the civilian population. Attacks that target civilians or civilian objects are prohibited, as are attacks that do not discriminate between civilians and military objectives, or are expected to cause civilian harm greater than the anticipated military gain.
While the laws of war do not prohibit fighting in urban areas, the presence of many civilians places greater obligations on all warring parties to take steps to minimize civilian harm.
Kismayo has been tense since May 15, when some local clan leaders proclaimed a new semiautonomous regional state known as “Jubaland,” under the leadership of Ahmed Mohamed Islam, known as “Madobe,” the head of the Ras Kamboni militia. The announcement provoked other clan militia leaders in Kismayo to declare themselves the leaders of Jubaland, including Iftin Hassan Basto. The fighting broke out on June 7, when Ras Kamboni militia allegedly stopped Basto from meeting with a delegation of the federal Somali government from Mogadishu.
“While accurate details on the fighting are unavailable, civilians clearly paid the price,” said Lefkow. “The Somali authorities and all other parties in this conflict need to make civilian protection a priority.”