Somali runners feel safest in years

Despite recent attack in Mogadishu, Somalia's runners are experiencing new freedoms since withdrawal of rebel forces.

Last Modified: 26 Apr 2013 10:49
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In 2011, Mogadishu's Conis stadium was a base for Islamist militants and a work out meant at times running through the streets dodging gun-fire and mortar shells [Reuters]

It has been almost two weeks since Al Shabab rebels killed at least 35 people in a Mogadishu courthouse, forcing the question of whether security in Somalia is improving as rapidly as previously believed.

As politicians, foreign agencies and other usual targets for Al Shabab brace themselves for potential future attacks, at least one of these groups -members of the Somali National Team- said they feel just as safe now as they did two weeks ago.

“The situation has not changed,” said Leila Samo, a runner who recently qualified for the Olympic team.

"I tell people I am an athlete"

Leila Samo, runner who has qualified for Olympic team

Samo said she 'felt shocked, but not scared,' and emphasised that these events are quite normal.

Her coach, Mohammed Adow Nuur, concurred. Nuur said that following the attack, their training was postponed for two days. He explained that it was done so out of mourning - not out of fear the team might be at risk.

The situation they are referring to, one of more freedom to practice sports, is still fragile and limiting-but a welcome relief after having gone underground for a few years during Al Shabab’s control of large parts of the city.

With the withdrawal of rebel forces in August 2011, athletes -especially females- have enjoyed a little more leeway when it comes to their involvement in sports - an activity previously seemed punishable by the rebels. Wearing jerseys are no longer banned, and people are freer to watch televised sports games.

“I tell people I am an athlete,” Samo responded when asked whether she continues to hide her passion.

While it is still too dangerous for athletes to practice in the streets, Conis Stadium-long used as training grounds over the years for revolving occupying forces, including Al Shabab-has become a welcoming place again.

With its dirt track and inner football grounds, the stadium has recently seen more athletes and sporting events.

Fund shortages

With runners exercising more control over their sport, there is hope that current and future Somalia-based athletes will opt to remain in the country or East Africa even after international events.

This would be a stark contrast to only one Olympian from the last three summer games who is currently active in Mogadishu sports; the far majority of the others have either remained behind in Europe or died years later in the dangerous route to the continent.

As security has arguably improved for at least many of these individuals, other facets of their lives have remained unchanged.

       Female runners such as Leila Samo are no longer scared to hide their passion for sport [Teresa Krug/Al Jazeera]

Nuur said coaches they rarely see promised salaries. There is a severe shortage of funds and basic materials, like good running shoes, and weights are unheard of. When asked about nutrition, members laughed.

“No Somali has a balanced diet,” said Abdullahi Barre, another runner.

And not everyone has enjoyed the same degree of this new, relative freedom.

Intimidation is still a problem for some runners, such as Barre. Despite Al Shabab’s weakened control, Barre said he continues to receive cell phone death threats about his running. As a result, unlike Leila, he said he is uncomfortable telling most people that he is an athlete.

Since the shootings last week, Barre, said he has actually been stopped more often by police forces as well, as his young male status profiles him as a possible Al Shabab member.

“Why are you running? Where are you running? Does someone know you?” he relayed questions they often ask him.

It is not unlike the harassment he and his friends have faced for years, but once again Barre has had to tailor his schedule. Now he trains in the afternoons, when there is less of a police presence outside.

“I fear both [Al Shabab and the police],” Barre said.

Still, he said, he is able to train more openly now than in previous years, and doing so is a risk he and others are willing to take.

“We are not worried now, but anything can happen,” Barre said.


Al Jazeera
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