MOGADISHU, Oct 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In Somalia’s Raqayle village, life under al Shabaab Islamists can be brutal, with public beheadings, and bizarre - with edicts about wearing socks - but locals feel safer than when the government controlled the area and violently ousted them.
More than 70 villagers fled to nearby Afgoye town in 2014 when a dozen government soldiers and policemen forced them off a 128-acre farm, which was claimed by an exile returning from Britain.
“They were just terrorising us,” said one villager, Hodan, describing how the man from the diaspora sped in with cars full of armed men who smashed in doors with their rifles, looted water pumps and filled a well with sand and debris.
“My sister, who was five months pregnant, was so upset she miscarried,” another villager, Warsame, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, which is about an hour’s drive southeast of Raqayle.
Both women declined to give their real names.
Similar stories can be heard across south-central Somalia, where better security is encouraging wealthy exiles who fled in the 1990s to return home - often igniting fresh land conflicts.
Since 2011, United Nations-backed government forces and African Union troops have pushed the militant group al Shabaab out of major towns and cities.
“The federal government is encouraging diaspora to come back,” Somalia’s information minister Abdirahman Omar Osman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation via email.
“The country needs their skills, knowledge, and expertise.”
Osman said conflict can arise when returnees start rebuilding on land which others have lived on for decades.
“There are special committees dealing with all disputes, and if there are serious cases then courts settle them,” he said.
Resolving tens of thousands of land disputes, some of which date back to the 1970s, is a complex task as the process is unclear, said Kenneth Menkhaus, a political science professor at Davidson College in the United States.
“It’s a mess,” he said, adding that side with the most firepower, money or influential clan connections usually wins.
“Armed settlers claims on land are illegitimate - they are just a form of land grabbing.”
Clans form the bedrock of Somali society and identity, and decisions about most aspects of life are made collectively within them.
“One’s claim to land is anchored pretty strongly to one’s clan,” Menkhaus said by phone. “This is rights by blood.”
In Raqayle, the returning exile belongs to a more powerful clan than the villagers, said Ubdi Omar Wallin, founder of the charity Women in Action Against Malnutrition (WAAMO), which took the land dispute to court.
“(He) didn’t come to the villagers and say: ‘This is my land’,” said Wallin, who has lived in the United States since she was 17, when her family fled that part of Somalia.
“He just did all the paperwork by himself and came up with soldiers to destroy,” she said, referring to the title deeds acquired by the new owner.
WAAMO had been supporting a group of poor widows, including Hodan and Warsame, who were given a three-acre portion of the 128-acre farm by its owner, who lived in the village.
The charity provided the women with irrigation and a daycare centre in 2013, so that they could grow okra, cucumbers and peppers, selling the excess at a local market.
But the land lay idle after the government militia took over, carrying out regular patrols. They allowed the villagers to return home, but they did not feel secure enough to farm.
The court case stalled as the respondent did not attend.
The villagers of Raqayle only picked up their seeds and tools again after al Shabaab recaptured the area in 2015.
Few Somalis have faith in the judicial system, which is plagued by graft, or in the government, where both the president and the prime minister are diaspora returnees.
Menkhaus said the government should set up a land tribunal or a hybrid commission that included traditional authorities and land experts who are regarded as clean.
“That is where al Shabaab has far and away the greatest advantage on this land issue,” he said, as the militants are seen as less corrupt.
The Islamists often bring wrangling parties together to agree on a solution, asking elders to give testimony about the history of disputed plots, the women of Raqayle said.
The villagers now live under Sharia law, which includes decapitation of government collaborators and a fine of bullets and guns for chewing the narcotic shrub khat.
Women were even ordered to wear socks for modesty while washing in the river, until one slipped and got hurt and the edict was revoked, they said.
But, generally, life is peaceful.
“Now, there is no harassment by soldiers,” said Shemsa, one of the widow farmers.
"We don't go to (al Shabaab), and they don't come to us." (Reporting by Amanda Sperber. Editing by Katy Migiro.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)