VII. A Case Study in Laws of War Violations: The MarchApril Offensives
From March 29 through April 1, 2007, Ethiopian forces launched their first major offensive in the city. The aim of the offensive was apparently to capture Mogadishus Stadium and several surrounding neighborhoods considered insurgency strongholds, and to control the main strategic roads leading from the former Ministry of Defense and from Villa Somalia to the Stadium (see Map 2).
Following negotiations with Hawiye clan elders, a brief ceasefire was declared on April 2. However, within days the Ethiopian military and the TFG launched a second major offensive, this time mainly in north Mogadishu, around Fagah junction, the Pasta Factory, and the Livestock Market.
From March 29 through April 1, and then again from April 18 through 26, Ethiopian forces used intense barrages of rockets, artillery, and mortar shells on areas of Mogadishu perceived to be insurgency strongholds, then used tanks and infantry to capture key strategic locations. Although TFG forces supported the military campaign in a number of important ways, it was Ethiopian troops who led the operation.
The devastating loss of civilian life and property in the neighborhoods fought over by the Ethiopian forces and the insurgency in March and April reflected an unwillingness by both sides to abide by the laws of war to minimize harm to the civilian population.
In the early hours of Thursday, March 29, the Ethiopian military launched twin attacks, almost simultaneously, in an attempt to take the Stadium, which was in insurgent controlled territory (a building near the Stadium used to be one of the headquarters of the ICU). The military offensive started between 4:30 and 5:30 a.m. The Ethiopian forces were based in a number of different buildings or compounds around Mogadishu, including the former Ministry of Defense, Villa Somalia, the Custodial Corps headquarters, Digfer Hospital, and other sites.
Many eyewitnesses described March 29 as the start of the big fight. For the next four days, constant mortar shelling and rocket barrages were reported in the neighborhoods of Bar Ubah, Al-Baraka, Shirkole, Towfiq, Hamar Bile, Suq Baad, and Hamar Jadid. Villa Somalia and the Ministry of Defense were the launching sites for most of the Ethiopian bombardment.269
The first ground attack was launched from the former Ministry of Defense, located just off Industrial Road. The Ethiopian military sent tanks and troops north along Industrial Road and reached the Charcoal Market just north of the Stadium with little resistance. A second attack was almost immediately launched from Villa Somalia along Wardhigley Road towards the Stadium.
Several eyewitnesses described what happened next. One man told Human Rights Watch, The Ethiopians moved into Charcoal Market and then were ambushed. There was heavy fighting. I saw two tanks, two Urals [a large military truck for transporting personnel and logistics], one transporting soldiers and the other one carrying logistics. The Ethiopians were attacked and they had to move into the Stadium.270
Another eyewitness said, The fighting started early in the morning. The TFG and Ethiopians were trying to capture the areas and control the main streets. They came with tanks and armored cars. They met resistance from local militias and big fighting started.271
The fighting soon spread to new areas around the Stadium, continuing for four days and nights as the Ethiopian forces tried to capture and control the Stadium and nearby strategic junctions: Ali Kamin, Ifka Halane, and Florence junctions, as well as Hamar Bile and Towfiq neighborhoods272 A 37-year-old woman who lived near Ali Kamin junction said, In Ali Kamin, weapons were being fired from the area towards the Ethiopians in Hamar Bile. Those who were involved in this fighting lived in the area. I was not counting the number of rockets that came in as a reply but the area was receiving more shells than fired.273
Some of the areas most devastated by the bombardments were among the most densely populated areas in the capital. A journalist who toured the affected areas as the first bout of fighting declined on April 2 described what he saw:
A retired soldier who lived opposite the Stadium told Human Rights Watch,
Other residents corroborated that the heaviest bombardment was often at night, when the insurgency also launched mortar shells. A displaced woman who lived in the Ministry of Defense compound said, The Ethiopians dug trenches in and around the compound. They were firing madfa and were receiving madfa too. Launching shells from the Ministry of Defense continued day and nightmidnight, morning, and during the daytime. Midnight was always the heaviest.276
The first round of fighting, which started in the early hours of March 29, eased for several days when the temporary ceasefire agreement between Ethiopian military commanders and Hawiye elders came into effect on April 2. The purpose of the ceasefire was to collect bodies from the streets and free those trapped in the battle zones, but both sides used the interim period to rearm and reorganize.
Most residents of Mogadishu and observers anticipated that the conflict was far from over.277 Tens of thousands of civilians used the lull to move to other areas or flee the city.
Although the ceasefire was in effect as of April 2, exchanges of fire, mortar shelling, and armed clashes continued in certain parts of the city, particularly in frontline areas and Fagah neighborhood, where the insurgents continued to fight TFG forces.278 The insurgency dug trenches on many of the smaller streets in the Hamar Jadid, African Village, Ramadan Hotel, and Ali Kamin areas and in neighborhoods around the Stadium to block Ethiopian tank and vehicle access.279
On April 18 the insurgents carried out their second suicide attack in Mogadishua truck bomb at an Ethiopian base in the former Custodial Corps headquarters.280 The city was on course for another wave of bloodshed and destruction.
By April 20 intensive Ethiopian bombardment of Mogadishu started anew. Eyewitnesses described the Ethiopian mortar, rocket, and artillery attacks as even heavier than in the first round of fighting in March. In the first period of fighting for control of the Stadium the Ethiopian military had been mainly launching rockets from Villa Somalia, the former Ministry of Defense, and the Custodial Corps headquarters, but after capturing the Stadium the Ethiopian military occupied several buildings in and around the Stadium and deployed artillery and BM-21 multiple-rocket-launchers in two new locations in the city: the former Mohamoud Ahmed Ali High School and the former headquarters of Somali Police Transportation.
For at least seven days the Ethiopian forces sent almost non-stop rocket fire from their bases into the Towfiq, Hamar Jadid, Bar Ubah, Hararyale, Suq Baad, Jamhuriya, and Huriwa neighborhoods. A 44-year-old man living near the Livestock Market, in Huriwa district, described the intensity of the incoming rocket barrages in this period:
The relentless shelling and rocket barrages continued alongside sporadic armed clashes on the ground in Fagah and Jamhuriya areas. In the last three days of the fighting, between April 23 and 26, Ethiopian military ground operations escalated as both sides battled for control of the Pasta Factory. Insurgents launched their third suicide truck bomb on an Ethiopian military base in Afgoi on April 24.284 The shelling and rocket barrages, and the battle at the frontlines, intensified. Some witnesses described the level of rocket barrages as twice more than previous days.285
Capturing the Pasta Factory was strategically important for the Ethiopian and TFG forces because it is located on a strategic junction linking two main roads: Industrial Road and Balad Road. It was also close to the insurgent stronghold in Huriwa district. The TFG militias joined the ground attack in the last few days of the fighting, deploying from Fagah area alongside the Ethiopian army. While the shelling and rocket barrages continued, sites like the Ramadan Hotel changed hands several times but neither side gained significant territory.286 On April 25 reports began to emerge that the Ethiopian and TFG were cornering many of the insurgents. The following day the TFG announced victory.287 Hundreds of civilians were dead, several thousand were wounded, and at least one-third and possibly more of the population of Mogadishu had fled.288
The deployment of insurgent forces in densely populated neighborhoods around the Stadium, the Pasta Factory, and the Livestock Market, and Ethiopian military offensives that relied on intense rocket, mortar, and artillery bombardments resulted in the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of civilians and injuries to thousands more. The Ethiopian forces violated international humanitarian law by failing to take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians, to verify that targets were military objectives, to use means and methods of warfare that would avoid incidental loss of civilian life, and to cancel attacks when it became clear they were causing disproportionate civilian casualties compared to the expected military gain. These indiscriminate attacks, if committed intentionally or recklessly, were war crimes.
The Towfiq, Hamar Jadid, Bar Ubah, and Suq Baad neighborhoods and areas around Ramadan Hotel, Jamhuriya neighborhood, and Ali Kamin junction were particularly severely hit, partly because these areas were insurgent strongholds and were frequently used by the insurgency to launch attacks. But in some instances, residents told Human Rights Watch that their neighborhoods were hit when there was no insurgent presence whatsoever. Further investigations are required to determine whether Ethiopian commanders intentionally directed rockets or artillery at populated areas where it was known that the insurgency was not presentand thus deliberately targeted civilians.
Human Rights Watch received scores of eyewitness accounts of Ethiopian army shelling and rocket barrages that resulted in numerous civilian casualties. Entire families were killed when Ethiopian rockets, mortars, or artillery hit their homes. A woman who lived near Ali Kamin junction said the rocket attacks on her area started on March 29 at around 2 a.m. and continued until 7 a.m., killing many civilians. She knew some of the victims in one home that was believed to have been hit by a BM-21 rocket:
Another woman living near Ali Kamin had a similar description of the events on March 29:
A 50-year-old man living in Gubta neighborhood told Human Rights Watch, There were no confrontations in Gubta; it was only destroyed by shelling. There was no [insurgent] firing from Gubta, but they were firing from the edge of Gubta, near the cigarette and matches factory, towards Villa Somalia.291
A woman from Gubta told Human Rights Watch that her neighbor, Hawa Mohammed Osman, and her four children under 10 years of age were all killed when a rocket hit their house on March 31.292 She said, Whenever there was fighting between the Stadium and the Ministry of Defense they shelled our area. Most of the shells came from the Ministry of Defense.293
As described above, the insurgents often used mobile tactics that unlawfully placed civilians at additional risk: bringing mortars in bags or wheelbarrows to a location in a populated area, launching several mortar rounds indiscriminately in the direction of Villa Somalia, the Ministry of Defense or other Ethiopian targets, and then leaving the area. The Ethiopian return fire was frequently aimed at general areas and was certain to hit civilians and civilian objects rather than military targets, in some cases because the insurgents were already gone. A woman said, The Ethiopians used to fire back at wherever they received fire fromthey would respond within minutes and sometimes keep firing shells for a few hours.294
An elderly man from Towfiq told Human Rights Watch,
A medical staff member at Al-Hayat Hospital, which was located on the frontline in Hamar Bile, near Ali Kamin junction, told Human Rights Watch that on March 30, one of the heaviest days of the fighting in that neighborhood, he estimated that between seven and 32 rounds of BM-21 rockets and other shells struck in the area per hour.296 Al-Hayat Hospital itself was hit by at least one BM-21 rocket, and some of the staff were wounded (for further detail on the attacks on Al-Hayat, see Chapter VI, Patterns of Abuse by Parties to the Conflict in Mogadishu, above). An eyewitness said, I was in a ground floor room when a rocket making a whistling sound hit the car park in the building, spreading shrapnel. One of the shrapnel hit [me] in the leg while other shrapnel wounded [others]. The rocket came from the direction of Florence junction.297
Six people were killed in another incident outside Al-Hayat Hospital that same day. One witness told Human Rights Watch that all victims were killed by a BM rocket. A woman living in Hamar Bile said,
A resident described the destruction of Towfiq mosque, which killed at least 10 people:
Like other civilian objects that can become military objectives if used by a warring party for military purposes, hospitals and mosques can lose their immunity from attack, but they should never be fired upon unless the attacker is able to target a military objective and the collateral loss of civilians and property would not exceed the expected military gain. Towfiq Mosque was very near to the Stadium, but it was not a military objectiveit was being used by families for shelter because it was thought to be secure.
Ultimately, no area was truly secure. Civilians were killed and wounded by rockets, shells, and during firefights in their homes, on the streets, and in shops. While the deaths of civilians in combat situations does not necessarily mean that the laws of war were violated, the general disregard for the safety of the civilian population shown by both the insurgency and the Ethiopian forces raises legitimate concerns in every incident where there were civilian casualties.
Fahmo Elmi Ali was a 35-year-old woman who was nine months pregnant. When the rocket fire and shelling increased on March 30, she left Al-Hayat Hospital with her husband, and tried to go to SOS Hospital, a maternity and pediatric hospital. According to medical staff at Al-Hayat, Fahom Elmi Ali and her husband left Al-Hayat Hospital at around 2 p.m. on their way to SOS. A few minutes later, a shell landed on them, killing her husband on the spot. She sustained injuries to both her legs. She was taken to the hospital where she gave birth to a stillborn baby. One of her legs was amputated in SOS. She was then transferred to Medina where her second leg was amputated. She died a few days later.300
A 42-year-old mother of seven from Towfiq said her uncle Gududow Abdullahi went to buy food and was hit by a shell on the way, near Al-Arafat Hospital.301
A resident of the Livestock Market neighborhood described the terror of people fleeing under bombardment: I saw people fleeing in groups. I saw terrified relatives pulling their elderly relatives out of the houses. People were fleeing to the open areas near Mogadishu University.302 People fled on foot and on vehicles. Some sought to leave Mogadishu, carrying their belongings such as mattresses and bags. Others were seen trying to move to safer places within the city. Often the fighting and bombardment was so intense that any movement was impossible.
Many civilians lost their lives when trying to flee the fighting. An eyewitness described an incident on April 22 in Hawlwadag:
Human Rights Watch research indicates that the first round of fighting in late-March resulted in most of the civilian casualties, since many civilians were unable to flee until the ceasefire came into effect. However some of the worst physical destruction to civilian areas appears to have occurred during the second period of fighting in late April, which mostly affected Towfiq, Suq Baad, and northern areas of Mogadishu around the Pasta Factory and the Livestock Market. A resident of the area around the Livestock Market who witnessed most of the fighting explained:
Dozens of civilians died in the last days of the April fighting, in the Livestock Market area and other areas that were shelled. On April 23, Abdullahi (not his real name) was with one of his wives in the SOS Hospital area when he learned that his familys home in Towfiq had been hit by a rocket that killed his second wife and seven children:
A 44-year-old resident of the Livestock Market area visited his mortally wounded brother-in-law at the SOS Hospital on the day it was bombarded. He told Human Rights Watch that he saw three rockets strike in front and on either side of the hospital building around 12 noon. He said, Some [patients] were being treated [on] the veranda; some were lying on a mat. I saw seven dead bodiessix men and a womanand around 10 wounded persons. The ages of the dead ranged from 20 and above. But the majority of the wounded were women and children.306
Several residents of the Livestock Market area told Human Rights Watch the shelling and rocket barrages reached their peak in this area on April 25, a day before the offensive ended.
269 Human Rights Watch interviews with dozens of eyewitnesses, Nairobi, Galkayo, Bosaso, Hargeysa, and Mogadishu, AprilMay 2007.
270 Human Rights Watch interviews, Galkayo, May 2, and Nairobi, May 29, 2007.
271 Human Rights Watch interviews, Galkayo, May 12, 2007.
272 For a media description of the fighting see Jonathan Clayton, War-scarred Mogadishu plunges back into the abyss,Times, April 2, 2007, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/africa/article1599965.ece (accessed July 11, 2007).
273 Human Rights Watch interview with 37-year-old displaced man (name withheld), Galkayo, May 1, 2007.
274 The original French description was Du quartier Tawfiq jusqu'à l'usine de spaghettis, dans un large périmètre autour du stade, le pilonnage éthiopien à l'artillerie lourde et aux roquettes Katioucha ne s'est pratiquement pas interrompu, plusieurs jours durant. Dans ces quartiers, tous les bâtiments ont été touchés, y compris l'hôpital Arafat, dont la façade et les communs portent d'immenses trous béants, et où des patients et des médecins ont été blessés par des éclats. A présent, dans cette partie de Mogadisciu, des dizaines de milliers de personnes fuient en longues colonnes humaines. Rémy, Entre deux bombardements, Le Monde.
275 Human Rights Watch interview (name withheld), Galkayo, May 2, 2007.
276 Human Rights Watch interview with 35-year-old displaced man (name withheld), Galkayo, May 1, 2007.
277 Somalia: End Indiscriminate Attacks in Mogadishu, Human Rights Watch news release, April 7, 2007, http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/04/05/somali15666.htm.
278 Sahal Abdulle, Sporadic clashes in Mogadishu amid truce talks, Reuters, April 13, 2007.
279 Human Rights Watch interviews with various eyewitnesses, Mogadishu and Nairobi, AprilMay 2007. Photographs on file with Human Rights Watch.
280 Suicide bomb and market attack in Mogadishu, Reuters, April 19, 2007, reproduced at http://www.newssafety.com/hotspots/countries/somalia/alertnet/somalia190407.htm (accessed July 9, 2007).
281 Human Rights Watch interview (name withheld), Mogadishu, May 24, 2007.
282 Human Rights Watch interview (name withheld), Galkayo, May 2, 2007.
283 Human Rights Watch interviews with various witnesses (names withheld), Galkayo, Nairobi, and Mogadishu, AprilMay 2007.
285 Human Rights Watch interviews (names and details withheld), May 24, 2007.
286 Ramadan Hotel is owned by Somali businessman Abubakr Omar Aden, who is alleged to be one of the principal financiers of the Islamic Courts. Prominent Somali Businessman Denies Ties to Terrorism, Calls for New Government, Associated Press, February 18, 2007, reproduced in Somaliland Times, http://www.somalilandtimes.net/sl/2006/266/21.shtml (accessed August 2, 2007). For details on the April fighting around the Ramadan Hotel, see Somalia: Heavy fighting rages in capital, BBC Monitoring Newsfile, April 21, 2007, from HornAfrik online.
287 Premier claims Somali victory, BBC News Online.
288 For a description of the second round of fighting from April 18 to 26 see Martin Fletcher, The warlords of death return to steal citys brief taste of peace, Times, April 26, 2007, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/africa/article1706367.ece (accessed July 11, 2007).
289 Human Rights Watch interview (name withheld), Nairobi, April 27, 2007.
290 Human Rights Watch interview (name withheld), Galkayo, May 1, 2007.
291 Human Rights Watch interview with 50-year-old displaced man, Galkayo, May 2, 2007.
292 The victims were Hawa Mahamed Osman, mother, age around 40; Zakaria Abdi Mohamood, 9; Fatuma Abdi Mohamood, 7; Yunus Abdi Mohamood, 5; and Abdirisaq Abdi Mohamood, 3. Human Rights Watch interview with 24-year-old displaced woman (name withheld), Galkayo, May 1, 2007.
293 Human Rights Watch interview with 24-year-old displaced woman (name withheld), Galkayo, May 1, 2007.
294 Human Rights Watch interview (name withheld), Galkayo, May 1, 2007.
295 Human Rights Watch interview with 75-year-old displaced man, Galkayo, May 1, 2007.
296 Human Rights Watch interview with medical staff (name withheld), Mogadishu, May 21, 2007.
297 Human Rights Watch interview with medical staff (name withheld), Mogadishu, May 22, 2007.
298 Human Rights Watch interview (name withheld), Galkayo, May 1, 2007. She was living with her two children in one of the heavily affected areas of the fighting, Hamar Bile.
299 Human Rights Watch interview with 19-year-old displaced woman (name withheld), Galkayo, May 1, 2007.
300 Human Rights Watch interviews, Nairobi and Mogadishu, AprilMay, 2007.
301 Human Rights Watch interview with 42-year-old mother of seven from Towfiq neighborhood, Galkayo, May 1, 2007.
302 Human Rights Watch interview with a Livestock Market resident (name withheld), Mogadishu, May 24, 2007.
303 Human Rights Watch interview with displaced man (name withheld), Galkayo, May 1, 2007.
304 Human Rights Watch interview with displaced man (name withheld), Galkayo, May 1, 2007.
305 Human Rights Watch interview with 65-year-old Abdullahi, Galkayo, May 2, 2007.
306 Human Rights Watch interview (name withheld), Mogadishu, May 24, 2007.