Buurane, Somalia – Drones, Americans, French, South Africans, Fijians, Burundians and private security contractors are all on the march deep in the sand-covered shrub lands of southern Somalia alongside the Somali national army. They are on the hunt for al-Shabab fighters. This is an offensive like no other, military officials say.
The unarmed drones fitted with high-tech cameras – part of a secret security project hidden from the public and even the soldiers on this mission – beam pictures back to a makeshift base between the farming town of Jowhar, the provincial headquarter of Middle Shabelle province, and the strategic town of Fidow which is in the hands of rebel fighters and the next target of the offensive.
Al Jazeera and the soldiers set off from Jowhar at the crack of dawn in a convoy of dozens of armoured personnel carriers, water and petrol tankers and lorries laden with ammunitions and long-life food rations to last for several days.
The Americans and French, travelling in separate armoured vehicles, are leading the offensive. Their role is mainly surveillance and when they obtain data – of enemy positions and potential ambush spots – they alert a select group of senior African Union commanders.
Al Jazeera is warned that al-shabab fighters are digging trenches to put up a fierce resistance.
But the drone is not fault-free and has to be collected several times after it crash-lands in no man’s land.
Bombs and booby traps
It is a life-and-death offensive and every step can mean the end of a soldier’s life. Roadside bombs and booby traps are a reality. So the soldiers are not in a hurry to set foot in unchartered territory. The convoy sets up a temporary camp in Buurane more than 40km from Fiidow.
The Somali soldiers in their unarmoured ‘technicals’ – pick-up trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns – are in a jovial mood, shirts half-buttoned, sandals at their feet and puffing on cigarettes while the rest of the soldiers in the convoy who, unlike the Somalis have been supplied with bulletproof vests, appear nervous; sweating excessively some busy themselves with cleaning their AK-47s while others take comfort in eating dry ration biscuits.
As the clock strikes 1pm local time the convoy sets off for a final push on their main target – Fidow.
Soldiers on foot lead this leg of the offensive with hand-held explosives detectors in one hand and AK-47s in the other.
After more than four hours of trekking without the firing of a single bullet or sighting of rebel fighters or seeing any trenches, the troops enter Fidow.
Our aim is to clean the region of al-Shabab. Our other aim is to re-open the roads so that the Somali people can resume trade and move freely.
Eerie silence greets the hundreds of tired soldiers as the town is deserted. No sign of life. Shops and homes are all padlocked. The last of the rebel fighters left the town an hour earlier.
The soldiers are thankful there were no firefights.
“We are very happy. The operation is going really well,” Mohamud Qaafow, the Somali military general leading the national army’s march to Fidow, told Al Jazeera, surrounded by soldiers who could not stop smiling after capturing the town.
“Our aim is to clean the region of al-Shabab. Our other aim is to re-open the roads so that the Somali people can resume trade and move freely,” Qaafow said.
As government and African Union troops were busy making their way to Fidow, al-Shabab fighters were mounting an attack on the Somali National Intelligence Centre in the heart of the capital, Mogadishu.
The attack, the latest in a string of complex assaults to hit the city this year, left more than 12 people dead.
Back in the newly captured Fidow, al-Shabab fighters may not be in charge but fear of them still hangs over the handful of residents who dared to venture back.
Halima Ali returned from a night in the forest where she had sought refuge. She returned alone, her children still hiding in the bush.
The less than dozen businessmen who returned are also too fearful to speak and rightly so. They say they have been warned by the rebel group not to speak or work with the government. Earlier this year, government troops captured the town only for al-Shabab to recapture it after bloody fighting that lasted for several hours.
The fighting for Fidow also left scores dead, and the rebels showed no mercy to the residents and businessmen who had worked with the government.
The main challenge facing the government in the newly captured towns is not just providing security but earning the trust of the locals. Some residents in these towns accuse Mogadishu’s hastily assembled national army of incompetence and heavy handedness.
They are also worried the rebel fighters could return, something the government area chief denies will happen.
“Anywhere the government soldiers capture will remain in our hands. We will not abandon areas we have liberated,” Ali Abdullahi Middle Shabelle, a local governor, told Al Jazeera.
“The soldiers will continue moving forward until they finish al-Shabab everywhere in the country,” Abdullahi said.
But the muted welcome has surprised many of the soldiers, especially the Somali contingent.
“We will never treat them as bad as al-Shabab. We will respect their human rights. They are our Somali brothers. It is shocking that they don’t trust us,” a Somali government soldier in the town centre, who did not want to be named, told Al Jazeera.
The objective of this offensive is not just military gains, government officials say. Southern Somalia is experiencing severe drought with thousands in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.
A food convoy for the newly captured towns and villages in the Middle Shabelle has already been prepared and is awaiting security escort in the town of Jowhar. But most residents have long deserted the towns. And the Somali government accuses the al-Qaeda-linked rebel group of blocking food aid to people.
Despite recent successes in capturing new territories from the rebels, Somalia’s weak government acknowledges the huge task it faces in delivering food aid to all its citizens.
“Somalia is six hundred and thirty seven square kilometres. The government cannot afford to a have a policeman or a military man … everywhere. Whatever capacity this government has today, it cannot cover all the needs,” President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud told Al Jazeera in an exclusive interview from the capital Mogadishu.
Meanwhile, before the government starts delivering aid, it will have to convince the thousands who fled the newly captured towns to return, something they have not fully achieved so far.
Hamza Mohamed was part of an Al Jazeera team embedded with the African Union Mission in Somalia.
Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa