Taking Barawe: the fog of war

Poor communication and misleading information make covering Africa’s remote areas even more difficult.

The minute African Union and Somali forces announced they were on a final push to take the city of Barawe – one of al-Shabab’s last strongholds – it was obvious headline news. 

The AU and Somali troops begun their advance on the port in Lower Shabelle September in “operation Indian Ocean”, which aimed to cut al-Shabab’s supply routes. They easily captured many towns and villages along the way, but faced heavy resistance in others. 

Al Jazeera was covering the battle to take Barawe, an assignment which began with a 220km journey that would take us roughly 10 hours over two days to reach a Ugandan position overlooking the town.

Still five hours away from that position on Sunday morning, the calls started coming in fast. “Barawe has been taken,” we were told. The news was out. Our team despaired. 

We were on a very rough assignment. Its sole purpose was to capture the takeover – and then we heared it had already happened. Panic, frustration, anger – that’s how I can describe the mood at that moment. 

By 6am GMT the reports were already being broadcast by some networks. Others were calling their journalists to seek clarification.

The phone network where were were was unreliable – we could not get through to sources as fast as we wanted. Our AMISOM minder, Deo Akiki, tried to assure us that the troops were still on the edge of the town, and had not taken it. At that moment, with all the news coming our way,  it was hard to believe.

Reports came in that it was actually the Somali government forces who had taken Barawe. News agencies quoted the governor of Lower Shabelle, Abdikadir Mohammed Nor, on the subject. 

But we’re still far from the frontline, and receiving little information. It’s midday by the time we get to a rear defence position 6km from Barawe. 

We have a few minutes before we move on but we manage to find Somalia’s chief of defence forces, Abdirizak Elmi, who makes it clear that they had still not taken the town. And so, we steered clear of the reports they had.

When we got to the frontline, Dick Olum, the brigadier general who was leading the Ugandan forces, tells Al Jazeera on air that they had not yet entered the city. 

Still, the news of Barawe’s takeover was not going away.

An hour later, the African Union’s civilian wing issues a statement congratulating the troops for taking Barawe. it later transpires that the statement was embargoed and was not supposed to be released.

Adding to the confusion were some small incursions by Somalian militias and teams of Ugandan special forces soldiers.

AMISOM and Somalia national forces officially took Barawe early on Monday, September 6 with their tanks, heavy weapons and a new administration. 

Covering a developing story from remote areas of Africa can be difficult – communications are poor and information is sometimes misleading.

But for all the problems, if we had not made the trip we’d have also reported that Barawe was under AMISOM control ahead of time. 

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