As the last member of the Kenyan defense force pulled a wooden plank across the patch of dust which marked the Somalian border, Abdi Razaaq Hared, began to speak.
“You will see, it is 100 per cent safe,” he said. “This is a new era for Somalis.”
Described by locals as “Mpaka wa Kifd”, the border of death, the eastern boundary of Kenya has been a flash point of violence since the Somalian civil war in 1991. And Dhobley, several miles into south Somalia, is a tenuous experiment in trying to rebuild some semblance of security in the area.
Only four months ago the town was overrun by members of the Islamist militant group affiliated with Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, which controls most of southern Somalia. Two separate strands of militia loyal to the country’s Transitional Federal Government drove Shabaab out after several heavy battles. Now hundreds of those militia, kitted out in pressed green uniforms, patrol the streets and outskirts of the town, looking for signs of the enemy.
Omar Khalif, a 24-year-old militia man wearing a red head scarf, was part of that force.
“They are the lowest form of existence,” he said of Shabaab. “They are cannibals.”
The fighting took its toll on Dhobley. The hospital was destroyed. Bullet holes pepper store fronts, including the enthusiastically named “Peace Hotel”, while wounded civilians hobble the streets on makeshift crutches. One elderly man exposed his arm. A bone protruded from his skin with a makeshift screw bolted into it.
“It was a gunshot,” he said.
Dhobley is also the last Somalian settlement before those fleeing the effects of famine attempt to make their way into Kenya and onto Dadaab – the largest refugee camp in the world. Hundreds are still stuck here without the resources or energy to make the 60 mile journey into Kenya. There is a small amount of food and water.
“We don’t have the supplies,” said Ali Yussef, the manager of a holding house for displaced people. “We can give only pain killers, no medicine.”
Abdi Nasid Haji travelled for 15 days by donkey cart with her six children to get here. She had already been in Dhobley for several days.
“If I can get somebody to take me (to Dadaab) then I am ready. If nobody can, then I will have to stay.”
Kenyan North Eastern Provincial Commissioner James Seriani recently told a security meeting in Mombassa that the refugee crisis, ambiguous ethnicities and clan identities made it hard to single out militants.
“The Al Shabaab insurgents fight in Somalia but when they are defeated by the TFG soldiers they escape to Kenya as refugees,” he said.
In August, Al Shabaab pulled out of Mogadishu. The understanding among the militias of Dhobley was that Shabaab would try to consolidate their presence in the surrounding countryside not under their control.
However, Abdi Razaaq Hared, a Nairobi-based Somali who fled the country before the outbreak of civil war, had hope when he returned to his homeland. He saw the future of a nation in the ambiguous coalition of forces, some of them only teenagers, that patrolled the streets with AK-47s.
“These are young soldiers ready to die for their country. They are the hope.”
The man who controls that hope personifies the fragmented nature of Somali politics and the danger of speaking too optimistically. Ahmed Mohamed Islam also known as Ahmed Madobe was a senior member of the Islamist administration stripped of power by Ethiopian forces in late 2006.
He was pursued by American troops, wounded during an air strike and then captured by the Ethiopian army where he was imprisoned for two years. Madobe was also an early member of Al Shabaab before turning his back on his former allies to side with the U.N.-backed government.
His gunmen rattle through the area on the back of pickup trucks, wrapped in belts of high calibre bullets.
“We are waiting to fight,” said one of them called Mohamed Mohamed.
In the defense compound on the outskirts of Dhobley, Madobe sat in a thatched hut contemplating the nature of his control.
“Maybe you see me and think ‘this is a new warlord’,” he said. “But I am telling you, I am not a warlord.”
Despite his allegiances on paper, Madobe had a deep distrust of Western involvement in Somalia and saw no place for it in the future of the country.
“We are a victim of political ideas from international organisations who use Somalia as a laboratory for seeing how long society can exist without a Government. We are a lab rat.”
He insisted that any form of peace could not be created in the hotel lobbies of Ethiopia or Nairobi. He said that reconciling the local clans and traditional leaders was the only way to stability.
“Only Somalis can fix Somalia.”
Despite originally being part of Shabaab and its affiliate organisations, Madobe now insists his role is to eliminate it completely.
“I want to be a member of those with the ideology of fighting against Al Shabaab,” he said. “I have no doubt they will disappear.”
But signs of that reality emerging are difficult to see.
The International Crisis Group has warned that the growing factionalism within Somalia’s Islamist movement risk plunging the country even deeper into violence and bloodshed.
“If the foreign jihadis fend off their local challengers, Al-Shabaab’s rapid transformation into a wholly al-Qaeda franchise might become irreversible”, said François Grignon, Crisis Group’s Africa Project Director. “That could cause havoc even well beyond Somalia’s borders.”
The Dhobley hospital, a short drive from the military compound, was a crumbling white-washed relic. Its walls still stood but it was empty. Next to the hospital sat three small huts. Inside were mattresses lining the thatched walls. This was the new hospital. The thin men lying down laden with bandages were the patients.
Next door Ishmael Daout, a 23-year-old shirtless Kenyan emerged from another shack. He arrived in Somalia several months ago with his brother. He wanted to go to medical school but did not get in. He was Dhobley’s doctor.
“And now I am in the Somali forces. That’s how life is,” he said.
Propped up against the outside of the ward was a man lying on a dusty mattress with a bandage around his leg. He was brought in an hour ago after being shot. He was foraging in the outlying bushes when the militia mistook him for the enemy.
“It happens,” Daout said.
Soon an argument broke out among the militia. The cause was not clear – whether they were on edge because of a skirmish at the line of control the previous evening or because we had refused to pay Madobe for his time.
“There is tension,” said Shiek Abdi Raman Jibbrill, a Somali working for a Kenyan NGO. He pulled at our shirts and told us to get back into our truck.
“It is time to go.”
We travelled back to the lone solider who pulled back the plank. We rolled slowly over the no man’s land and into Kenya.
Later, I asked him what happened.
“You know, that place,” he said, “that place is 100 per cent dangerous all the time.”