On the four-mile stretch of paved road between the Kenyan army’s main base and the southern Somali city of Kismayo, a man leading a donkey cart whispered a short warning in the local Somali language as a fleet of Kenyan troops and allied Somali militiamen rolled past.
"Watch out," the man, who gave only his first name, Adan, in the brief encounter, told a McClatchy correspondent. "There might be bombs on the road ahead."
When told of the exchange minutes later, a Kenyan soldier growled. "These people work with al Shabab," said the officer, who never gave his name. "They know where bombs have been planted, but they won’t tell us. Don’t trust them."
In Kenya, the news that its army has captured Kismayo, the longtime stronghold of the al-Qaida-affiliated rebel group al Shabab, had been trumpeted as a resounding victory against a defeated Islamist militant network.
But, on the ground, the truth is much muddier. It’s clear that al Shabab had been weakened, but also that it is far from vanquished and that it is regrouping for a long-term guerrilla insurgency.
When Kenya crossed into Somalia in October 2011, Kismayo was the goal – the financial nerve center for a rebel administration that covered most of southern and central Somalia. Since its capture in late September, however, Kenya has boasted of its conquest but blocked access to the city for foreign reporters.
A visit to Kismayo this week reveals perhaps part of the reason why: Kenyan soldiers rarely venture into the city’s center and remain holed up instead in bases at the seaport and at airstrips north and south of the city. With al Shabab fighters able to melt in and out of civilian life with relative ease, Kenyan soldiers struggle to identify friend from foe.
Outside the city, the war is far from over. Al Shabab still controls much of the countryside, and at night, the pop and thump of firefights rage until dawn. The Kenyan military says al Shabab frequently carries out hit-and-run attacks at night. The fighting seemed especially concentrated toward Anjeel, a village a few miles from Kismayo that was supposedly wrested from al Shabab control.
At the southern airstrip, troops fan out on foot to secure a three-mile radius before incoming aircraft land, leery of unseen enemies in the bush.
“You must have a defensive line around the airport so that we can avoid attacks from all directions,” said Kenyan Maj. Nicholas Adongo.
To the north of the city, a Kenyan commander pointed further north toward the town of Jilib, which al Shabab still holds and from which it often launches attacks, most recently a mortar barrage on Nov. 25.
"We are waiting for commanders to tell us to move forward," said Lt. Col. William Lenterakwai Ole Kamoiro.
In Kismayo, people are slowly returning to their homes, and businesses are reopening. In place of al Shabab, Kenya’s Somali allies, the Ras Kamboni militia under warlord Ahmed Madobe, now rule the city under a form of martial law.
Speaking freely is still dangerous. After seeing a McClatchy correspondent interviewing a civilian without a translator, a Ras Kamboni port supervisor broke up the interview and tried to confiscate the correspondent’s notebook and recorder. A Kenyan military escort asked the correspondent to return to the armored personnel carrier for his own safety.
At a village just south of Kismayo, village chief Hassan Abdi said that, at this point, he and his neighbors were too focused on survival to care much anymore which men with guns were now in charge.
“We work with everyone who controls the city. I worked with al Shabab, and this is no different. We have no choice," he said.