"He has learned to button his shirt using only his left hand, to roll his sleeve with his teeth, to balance on his right foot in the shower. He cannot forgive, though he is desperate to forget. But at night his dreams betray him.
This is how it happened, Abdulle told the Guardian. He was a prisoner in an insurgents' house in Mogadishu, lying on his side, one hand chained to his ankles. He was 17, with fluff on his cheeks and unspeakable fear in his heart. Three other young men were with him – Jalylani, Ali, Abduqadir.
A guard, from the Islamist group al-Shabaab, which is trying to overthrow the Somali government, gripped his shoulder. 'Ismael Khalif Abdulle, come with me.'
A convoy of rebel battlewagons cleared the way through the battered streets. Reaching Masalah, an old military barracks, he saw his mother through the car window and shouted to her. The guard slapped his face. 'Today is not the day to call your mother,' he said.
Ordered to witness the punishment of the "spies and bandits" or face lashes themselves, the entire neighbourhood had assembled. Also watching were some of the Shabaab's top leaders – Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, the Somali-Swede Fuad Shangole, and Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki, the American who recruits and finances foreign fighters.
In the middle of the stony parade ground were about 20 militiamen in green fatigues. Their faces were masked. They were wearing surgical gloves. On the ground was a single plastic mattress.
Abdulle says he was made to lie down. His left hand was tied to his right ankle with a thick rope, leaving the other limbs free for what was to come. Rubber surgical tubing bit into his right biceps – a tourniquet. One rebel grabbed his hand, another his forearm. They pulled in opposite directions as a piece of plastic was laid over his wrist.
"Please make it quick," he pleaded.
A heavily built man drew a large wooden-handled knife normally used to slaughter camels. The knife descended.
Though their horror was far from over, Abdulle and the three other young men "cross amputated" – a process of cutting off a hand and foot from opposite sides of the body – by the Shabaab on 26 June 2009, eventually escaped from their Islamist captors, and managed to cross to the government-controlled side of the city. Abdulle recently managed to flee Somalia, and reach a safehouse in Nairobi, Kenya, where he gave this interview.
His story offers a rare insight into how the Shabaab is using its extreme interpretation of Islam to establish order through fear – and to find recruits.
Abdulle was born in 1992, a year after the last effective government fell, and warlords took over the country. As far as it is possible to have a normal upbringing amid the anarchy, he did. Once Shabaab forces took full control of the Bakara market area where he lived, in early 2009, security immediately improved – but at a huge cost to personal and social freedoms.
Photo: Ismael Khalif Abdulle who was cross amputated by the Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab Photograph Sven Torfinn for the Guardian.