Shattered Somalia

Mogadishu is ground zero for the failed state of Somalia, a place where pirates and terrorists rule. Yet to the north, the breakaway region of Somaliland is stable and at peace. What happened?

This story appears in the Septebmer 2009 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Every afternoon Mohammed goes to the lighthouse.

It is not an obvious refuge. Built nearly a century ago, the Italian lighthouse has been in disuse for years. Its spiral staircase is in a state of mid-collapse. Its hollowed-out rooms smell of sea rot and urine. Young men sit cross-legged in the rubble, chewing qat—a plant whose leaves contain a stimulant—and playing a dice game called ladufor hours. Some huddle in a corner and smoke hashish. They seem like ghosts in a city left for dead. But the lighthouse is quiet and it is safe—if anyplace in Mogadishu can be considered safe.

Mohammed, 18, comes for the view. From the top floor he sees the ruins of his neighborhood in the once illustrious Hamarweyne district. He can see the remains of the former American Embassy, the posh al Uruba Hotel, the Shangaani district, once teeming with gold merchants and perfume emporiums—all now blasted away. A lone goat stands in the middle of the main road, while the centuries-old houses alongside it slowly crumble, occasionally burying alive the squatters who inhabit them. Mohammed can also see, just below the lighthouse, the small crescent of sand where he and a few other guys sometimes improvise a game of soccer and the naked children clinging to chunks of discarded Styrofoam as they bob on the waves. He can take in this daily paradox of joy and destruction if he wishes. But he prefers to gaze farther out, at the unspooling carpet of tranquillity that is the Indian Ocean. "I spend my time looking at the sea," he says, "because I know that my food comes from there."

Mohammed is a fisherman. Every morning at five he pushes out into the water with his nets in a small boat. Whatever Mohammed catches, he hauls by wheelbarrow to the market. On mornings when the wind is not too hazardous, his catch fetches two or even three dollars—which means that he, his parents, and his two younger siblings will have enough to eat that day. A mortar blast incapacitated his father years ago, and his family has depended on Mohammed's income since he was 14. He cannot afford the ten-dollar monthly cost to attend school. And anyway, all his former schoolmates have disappeared. Most have joined the Islamic extremist militia called al Shabaab, which in Somalia's latest chapter of misery is locked in a ferocious power struggle with the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), a shaky alliance backed by the United Nations. For young males like Mohammed, al Shabaab is a tempting exit strategy from powerlessness. Then again, many of his former playmates are now dead.

Mohammed has grown up in a country that has collapsed. He had just been born when Somalia's last president, a cultish dictator named Mohamed Siad Barre, was overthrown and the country descended into decades of sustained anarchy. He is one of an entire generation without the slightest clue of what a stable republic looks like. They are learned in other things, however. "M16s, mortars, grenades, bazookas—I can tell each one apart as soon as I hear it," he says.

Somalia's northern coastline, overlooking the approaches to and from the Gulf of Aden into the Indian Ocean, is a base for pirates preying on sea traffic between Europe and the East. When I visited the country last year, Somali pirates were attacking scores of ships off its coast. Yet I found the country's interior to be, if possible, even more volatile. Since then, fierce clashes between insurgents and government troops have accelerated even further as Ethiopian forces, which had invaded Somalia late in 2006 to oust a short-lived Islamic government and prop up the TFG, pulled out in January 2009. The chaos has invited a fresh flow of foreign fighters to Somalia, which has become a haven for terrorists who see themselves engaged in a global jihad. The Fund for Peace has ranked Somalia number one on its index of failed states for the past two years. That distinction understates the pathos of Somalia. Failure—to deliver security, sustenance, services, or hope—has, for 18 years now, been the house that Somalis call home.

And they are leaving their home in droves. The lucky ones migrate outside the conflict zone—on harrowing journeys to refugee camps in Kenya or Yemen, or to Somaliland, the breakaway republic that once formed Somalia's northern swath. Those less fortunate—more than a million of them—have ended up in camps for internally displaced persons. But many choose to remain in Mogadishu, a city that looks, at first glance, like most of its kind in Africa. A crazed tangle of battered automobiles, mule-drawn carts, and untended goats rules the pocked streets. The markets teem with brilliant mangoes and bananas and junk merchandise from the West. Women in Muslim head scarves pass by, as do boys kicking soccer balls and men with cheekfuls of qat.

Yet amid the exoskeletons of banks and cathedrals and luxury hotels overlooking a glimmering coastline that once buzzed with pleasure boats, an awful truth dawns. Mogadishu was never like other African cities. Mogadishu was a spectacular city. Even in its disfigurement, the beauty is still there—above all, in ghostly Hamarweyne, where photographer Pascal Maitre and I stand in the empty boulevard and squint out at the sea until a call to prayer from a nearby mosque reminds us it is almost five in the afternoon, after which all outside activity ceases. Anyone on the streets of Mogadishu by evening is inviting misadventure.

Just before leaving, we go to the lighthouse, where we meet Mohammed. He sees us, twogaalo, or infidels, and our guards, and at first we hear his footsteps as he retreats somewhere into the shadows. Later he emerges and grows talkative. "We don't want to flee our own country," he tells me. "I don't want to be a refugee. We're ready to die here."

This land is bred for trouble. Its nearly 250,000 square miles are, for the most part, deadly dry. Somalia's inhabitants have engaged in a constant competition for its scarce resources—water and pasturage—since antiquity. According to the great Somali ethnographer, I. M. Lewis, Somalia's occupants "form one of the largest single ethnic blocks in Africa." By tradition they are herders of goats and camels and cattle who share the same Islamic faith and the Somali language, and until the colonial era in the late 19th century they continuously occupied much of the Horn of Africa—including what is today Djibouti, northeastern Kenya, and the eastern portion of Ethiopia. In the Somali psyche, fierce nationalism coexists with equally fierce pastoral individualism. It is not their way to look to government for solutions.

What held Somalia together—and sometimes drove it apart—was its elaborate clan system. The five principal clan families, Darod, Dir, Isaaq (sometimes considered a Dir subclan), Hawiye, and Rahanweyn, have long dominated particular expanses of territory. Within these clans are various subclans and sub-subclans—some cohabiting peacefully and even intermarrying, others sporadically hostile. "You've always had a conflict-prone nomadic society in Somalia, going back to precolonial times," says Andre LeSage of the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. "There was tribal raiding of livestock, but it happened between organized young groups under the authority of a clan elder. They'd say, 'Now is the time this can be done,' and some were killed in pitched battles. But women's and children's lives were generally spared, and villages weren't razed. We shouldn't overly idealize that period. Female genital mutilation was prevalent, and obviously society lacked the benefits of modern health care. But it wasn't anarchy at all. It was highly regulated."

The clan-based checks and balances began to crumble with the arrival of the Europeans. The British in Somaliland ruled with a lighter hand than did the Italians in the south. Though Mogadishu, under Italian rule, became a city of cosmopolitan amenities, the Italians politicized Somali clan hierarchy by rewarding loyal elders, punishing the less loyal, and controlling commerce. Local mechanisms for conflict resolution were badly damaged.

In 1960 the colonial powers departed, and a dreamy nationalism seized the Somali people. With visions of a unified country, Somaliland and Somalia confederated. But nationalism was soon thwarted by clan divisions that had been aggravated during colonial rule. The knotty hostilities left a power void. Into it stepped the dictator General Mohamed Siad Barre in 1969. Barre (a member of the Darod clan) ruled with clever brutality, and many Somalis today speak nostalgically of the stability of his reign. Publicly he outlawed clans, promoting socialism over tribalism and stripping elders of judicial authority. But behind the scenes he practiced a divide-and-rule politics that only worsened clan tensions. Meanwhile, Barre alternately courted the U.S.S.R. and the U.S., with huge stockpiles of weapons as Somalia's principal harvest. An imprudent war with Ethiopia weakened his position. In 1991 militias of the Hawiye clan chased Barre out of Mogadishu. The Somali people, weary of occupiers and strongmen, awaited the next iteration of government.

Eighteen years later, they are still waiting.

Mohammed was an infant when the civil war between rival militias swallowed up the Hamarweyne district in 1991. "Four months of fighting, right here in our neighborhood," he remembers his parents telling him. "We couldn't get any food. Everyone was so scared." One day a mortar obliterated his neighbors' house and killed the people inside. Some of the shrapnel flew into the home of Mohammed's family, penetrating the neck and rib cage of his father, a policeman under Barre. The family hitched a ride with neighbors northward to Hargeysa in Somaliland, where they stayed for three months. They returned to Mogadishu to find Hamarweyne gutted and gaping holes in their roof.

"We had to start from scratch," Mohammed remembers. The mortar wounds had left his father disoriented and unable to hold a job. Mohammed took to the streets to polish the shoes of strangers, but his mother insisted he quit working and start attending school. Relying on money from an aunt who lived in Saudi Arabia, they got by. During the rainy season, water poured through the roof and flooded their house.

A few years ago, Mohammed's best friend was killed by a mortar while walking along the street. Mohammed couldn't sit in the classroom without thinking of the boy. He quit and became the fisherman he is today, sometimes hauling his daily catch to the sprawling Bakaara market, though the neighborhood there is in the hands of al Shabaab militia. He remembers showing up at the market one day and finding ten people lying motionless in the street. He remembers trying to sleep that night and instead seeing the faces of the dead.

Asked to recall memories of when life was good, Mohammed stares out toward the sea. His smile is not of the youthful kind. "I don't remember any," he says.

Two weeks before my arrival, Mohammed's father woke up in the morning with his usual headache, a lingering result of his injury. He had volunteered to join a group, mostly women, to clean up the rubbish along Maka al Mukarama Road—the main thoroughfare from the Mogadishu airport—in exchange for food. He arrived an hour late, just in time to hear the explosion. Lying along the road were his co-volunteers—cut to pieces by a roadside bomb, their faces seared beyond recognition. A child stood, glassy-eyed, over the bodies. Forty-four women were taken to the hospital. Half of them were dead.

The violence has a psychic hold on the city, yet is strangely elusive to visitors. The damage is near but not so near until, in a fearsome rush, it claims you. And thus, it is possible to wake up at six in the morning to concussive blasts, as I do on my fourth morning in Mogadishu—to walk downstairs and out into the shaded patio of our fortified hotel and discover the innkeeper rocking serenely in his swing as he sips his Yemeni coffee, the beans for which he keeps hidden in his bedroom. As I take my seat, he asks if I enjoyed the kingfish we were served the night before. We talk about his children who have emigrated to North Carolina and Georgia. About the power and intelligence of Siad Barre. ("There isn't another, and there won't be another!") About Barack Obama, the excellent pasta he remembers eating in the Italian city of Bergamo, his side business in Dubai—and yes, a bit about the early morning blasts, which turn out to have been mortars launched by insurgents at TFG troops (and which instead killed several innocent civilians), followed by a prolonged exchange of gunfire in the city center. The violence comes up in conversation only glancingly, as a detached happenstance, thoroughly surreal.

Except it's all too real. Later that morning, we visit Medina Hospital, as we have every day since our arrival, in a macabre ritual. Two days ago we visited the women recovering from the roadside bomb on Maka al Mukarama Road—badly burned, several missing limbs, and many visibly pregnant. The new explosion near our hotel has added another 18 victims and sent the hospital into critical mass. The floors and walls are streaked with blood. Disfigured patients lie on stretchers in the hallways and on the porch. Clusters of family members stand nearby—all of them worried, surely, but no one sheds a tear.

While bullets fly and bodies fall, government officials assure us, without the slightest abashment, that everything is under control. "Yes, the tide is turning. The people hate al Shabaab because of what they've done," says Abdifitah Ibrahim Shaaweey, deputy governor for security affairs of the region around Mogadishu, a baby-faced fellow who tours the city with a massive convoy and whose predecessor, his father, was killed in the conflict two years ago. "Of course there are many places where the government has opposition," the commander of Somalia's national army, Yusuf Dhumal, puts it tactfully. He then adds, "But in many parts of the country, there's support for the government," citing several regions of the country—including the semiautonomous northeastern region of Puntland, where pirates flourish. Yet control is slipping away. We drive that afternoon through one of the "controlled" districts to find that its main road has just been blocked off, after a policeman was shot dead there.

Somalia's ongoing malaise can be bewildering to outsiders. "We go into these war-torn countries trying not to be pessimists," says Ken Menk­haus, a Horn of Africa specialist at Davidson College in North Carolina. "But in Somalia we have to recognize that the cynics—those who dismiss peace initiatives as doomed to fail—have turned out to be right for almost 20 years."

Skepticism about Somalia's prospects was tempered briefly in early 2009 when the Ethiopian withdrawal offered hope that the insurgency would fade. A power-sharing accord produced a new version of the TFG, now a broad-based government led by moderate Islam­ists, which has strong international support. But the new government has struggled to maintain control, as both al Shabaab and another hard-line Islamist insurgency, Hizbul Islam, have taken over much of central and southern Somalia. By June forces loyal to the fragile government held only seven of Mogadishu's 18 districts. The latest fighting has killed more than 200 people and displaced tens of thousands more.

Why is the violence so intractable? A clarifying paradigm can be found immediately to the north, in Somaliland. No visual distinction marks the Somalilander from the Somali. But the naked eye detects plenty of differences between the two regions. Somaliland's capital city of Hargeysa is an almighty wreck of sledgehammered streets, ungoverned traffic, litter, and refugee camps, but there are two things there that you will not find in Mogadishu. The first is a construction boom—of hotels, restaurants, business centers. The second are the currency-exchange booths everywhere on the streets, where women sit alongside yard-high stacks of Somaliland shil­lings, unaccompanied by security of any sort.

What one almost never sees in Hargeysa is violence. The last time the weapons of Somali­land came out was in 1996, a few years after the fabled peace conference in the town of Borama. Barre had been deposed, and opposing warlords engaged in a civil war to the south, threatening the stability of the north. At Borama a group of elders came together to reconcile clan conflicts at what one participant calls "the Guinness rec­ord kind of conference—months of talking and finally agreeing on a charter to set up a government. And while we were having this conference, out in the countryside, everyone came and put their guns under a tree."

Because the fledgling democracy has relegated much authority to elders and sheikhs, peace has largely endured. (A startling exception occurred last October when a string of suicide bombs—apparently arranged by al Shabaab—went off in Hargeysa, leaving dozens dead.) Somaliland has benefited from greater clan homogeneity and a port at Berbera that does not suffer the piracy afflicting the Somali coast.

True prosperity, however, has not followed; Somaliland is hardly on track to be the next Dubai. The commercial thoroughfare connecting neighboring Ethiopia to Hargeysa and to the port at Berbera is largely untrafficked, with roadside goats and camels more in abundance than cars. The Somaliland city of Burco is a bustling aggregate of low-slung market stalls, its ethos deeply in the sway of Islam. The highway linking Hargeysa and Burco to the vast Sanaag region's administrative capital of Ceerigaabo simply disappears a couple hundred miles shy of its destination—requiring an eight-hour trek the rest of the way through roadless desert, with only the occasional oasis shanty or camel herdsman to rely on for navigation. And the once impressive canopy of acacia trees beyond the northern peaks of the Sanaag region has been badly plundered (as have forests throughout Somalia). The lumber is burned to charcoal, bagged in burlap sacks, and then barged out to Persian Gulf countries. "They're just poor people making money to feed their families," acknowledges Ceerigaabo's mayor. "But it's a bad mistake. I wish the international organizations could help by bringing in some other means of livelihood."

This sentiment is universally expressed throughout Somaliland, which no government has recognized as a sovereign nation. In Somalia it may feel as if the world has abandoned the country, but from Somaliland's perspective, its southern neighbor has stolen the world's attention. "This is the question I ask when I go to Europe and the U.S.," says Somaliland's president, Daahir Rayaale Kaahin. "Why does Somaliland, with all its success, not receive support from the international community, while Somalia receives all this aid and yet never makes any success? Nobody answers me." President Rayaale's request has begun to receive sympathy from some outside nations, but generally the wish seems to be that Somaliland stand united with—and thereby help rescue—Somalia.

President Rayaale believes this is a misguided approach. "Leave aside this dream of a Greater Somalia," he says. "Let us just be a good neighbor, a functioning state near them. Let them sit like we have sat, under the trees."

But if we ask the Somalis to sit under the trees, will they leave their weapons there?

The terrorist sells soft drinks and ice from his market stall in southern Mogadishu. He is 22, tall, and bony, with beautiful eyes and a sweet smile. He offered a furtive wave as we drove past. We met the next day, after he had spent the evening with his lieutenants, praying together and fashioning explosives.

The young man is an emir for al Shabaab—originally the youth militia for the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), an alliance of sharia courts that united to take control of southern Somalia during the summer and fall of 2006. The ICU's creeping radicalization and expressed desire for a Somali caliphate was what prompted Ethiopia (with U.S. backing) to invade Somalia, defeat the ICU, and bring the TFG to power later that year. The ICU's brief reign was largely peaceful, but its offspring—the al Shabaab militia—has shown a far greater appetite for violence and reportedly has links to al Qaeda.

At one time, this young emir had 120 mujahideen under his control. "Now I have about 60 or 70," he said when we spoke last year. "The others have left the country. Or they're in paradise." In a quiet, almost ephemeral voice, he explained that al Shabaab's aim was "to reclaim the country and establish an Islamic state. Until our last daughter is no longer alive, we'll continue fighting. We don't want democracy. If they leave us to our dignity, we can rule Somalia."

He discussed his rigorous training and how a top al Shabaab leader, Aden Hashi Ayro—later killed by an American air strike for his ties to al Qaeda—personally taught him how to construct land mines. When I asked him where al Shabaab was getting its supply of munitions, he said that much had been purchased across the border, from Kenya. But, he added, "we've received some support in the past from Eritrea, with their big guns and ammunition, and now they're ready to support us further. But there's no way to get the weapons to us overland." The solution, he explained, was for them to capture the southern coastal town of Kismaayo, an area of heavy conflict between the government and the extremists. "If we get it," he said, "then we'll have our own port. And we can receive what we need from there."

Less than an hour after he left, our fixer received a call. Kismaayo had just fallen to al Shabaab. The extremists would soon have their fill of weapons.

We will pay you $150. Members of al Shabaab approached Mohammed and offered the young fisherman an advance payment in American cash if he would join their organization. Every month, they told him, you will be paid that same amount for your services. Mohammed did not say yes. But he also did not say no.

Mohammed brought up the matter with his family. For years they had been subsisting on fish and corn. A salary like that could make a big difference. In a place gone to hell, al Shabaab is the best employer in town and offers direction amid daily uncertainty. For weeks the family debated the pros and cons. Mohammed himself was in anguish. Most of his friends who had joined al Shabaab had been deported, arrested, or killed. And this fact, more than any moral epiphany, is what ultimately carried the day. As Mohammed's father would tell me, "When you join, you cannot leave. His colleagues who had joined—they never came back to their families. So it's better that he work at the sea and catch fish."

The father's eyes are watery as he recounts this. "Mohammed is taking care of us," he says quietly. "It affects me psychologically that our child must have this responsibility."

Food is power in Somalia. Militia groups have routinely descended on the arable lands of central Somalia during harvest and claimed the crops for themselves. Pirates on the Indian Ocean have waylaid dozens of foreign vessels bearing food aid. Food prices were high here even before last year's worldwide spike, thanks to drought, militia roadblocks, and a devalued currency. The result is that millions now depend on food aid. The fresh fighting is pushing the country toward an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.

The violence displaces people from their homes, which causes an upsurge in crowds at the feeding centers in Mogadishu. Lines form before the gates open at noon. The hungry stand with their bowls, chatting with each other, dignified as Somalis always seem to be. Behind the gates, workers funded by Western and UN donors stir large vats of millet and vegetables. None of them are foreigners, but because they are funded by Western agencies, they do not wear their official tunics around town for fear of being kidnapped or killed.

As the gates slide open, a woman files in, sees me, and whispers something to an aid worker: "Tell him we're praying for the gaalo because they're feeding us. The jihadists don't feed us anymore. They're killing us."

The killing is all around us. But the danger does not come our way until our eighth day in Somalia. We drive out Saturday morning in two SUVs filled with armed guards, bound south for the Italianate coastal town of Marka. The 60-mile stretch of road between the two cities is almost entirely in the control of al Shabaab. (In the following months, al Shabaab will win control of Marka and most cities in south-central Somalia.) Because of this, the one-day trip is the fruit of lengthy negotiations between our fixer and the insurgents. It is understood that once we leave Mogadishu's city limits, our TFG-sanctioned guards will depart our vehicle and be replaced by militia guards. Such precautions cost money, which we are fortunate to have. Two journalists in a car a few miles behind us are not so lucky.

They are youthful freelancers—one from Australia, the other from Canada—and they have just arrived, possessing determination but little experience or money. They have convinced a fixer to take them to an internally displaced persons (IDPs) camp about ten miles outside of Mogadishu, along the same road we are traveling. They have paid for TFG guards, but not for militia security to ferry them the final few miles to the refugee camp. Their gamble proves to be a fateful one.

The highway teems with wandering refugees and with convoys bearing heaps of charcoal from the forests to the south. Thirty minutes into our trip, our fixer says to us, "I've been calling the others. They're not picking up." He phones the journalists' TFG security. Yes, their car made it to the city-limits checkpoint. He phones the IDP camp. They have not arrived. By the time we arrive in Marka, a member of al Shabaab calls with the news. The two freelance journalists have been kidnapped. The ransom will likely be a million dollars each. The presence of the other two gaalo along the same stretch of highway has been duly noted. All bets are off for us.

We spend the evening at a guesthouse in Marka. It is not safe to drive back to Mogadishu the way we came, and it's the only road to the city. A United Nations plane is due to arrive in two days; we could take it back to Nairobi, though our luggage and passports are at the hotel in Mogadishu. In the end we decide on another course. A powerful man in Marka offers to loan us his militia of a dozen heavily armed, young men affiliated with al Shabaab. They will escort us to the city limits, where our TFG unit will bring us back to the hotel and then to the airport. The cost is $500 in cash. The thoroughfare will be the beach along the Indian Ocean.

We wait the next morning for the tides to roll back the waves. Then, just before eleven, we pull out of the guesthouse and trundle through town—our two SUVs plus a flatbed truck loaded down with a dozen young men with M16s, Kalashnikovs, ammo belts, and an immense rotating machine gun bolted to the bed of the truck—while the locals stare at the foreigners with knowing eyes, as word of the kidnappings has spread. We drive through the markets, past a small mountain of tortoise shells, and then nothing is before us but the beach. The waves thrash against the tires. The militia men chatter excitedly amongst themselves, and whenever the truck gets stuck in the sand—which is every one or two miles—they jump out of our car to push. I can't help but think: There is little to prevent these men from keeping our $500 and taking us hostage as well.

The beach gives out without warning a quarter of the way into our trip. A dirt road appears and leads us into the town of Gendershe, once favored as a resort town. Now it is in the hands of Islamic militants. The road narrows as we enter the handsome stone village, and several men appear. They instruct our escorts to turn off the music in our car. Their eyes widen when they see the two gaalo. But a few of the men in the truck know the Islamic elders, and minutes later we are motioned through to the other end of Gendershe, where a checkpoint rail is lifted and we are allowed to pass through.

The beach soon reappears. A couple of small fishing boats are visible, and a few goat herders, and that is all. At about the halfway point, during one of the militia truck's many mechanical failures, all of the passengers step out of their vehicles, and we all stride toward the ocean and gaze out into the horizon. I break out a box of granola bars. We chew and we stare and we take pictures, and it is at precisely this moment that I realize we will be OK.

Back at the hotel we are hugged by the employees. Mohammed the fisherman and his father come to see me a final time. I hand him $20. He gives $15 to his father and keeps the other $5. "Qat and cigarettes," he says with a smile. "That's my night."

The Mogadishu airport is full of passengers—many of them with heavy bags, indicating that this is their goodbye as well. All of them stare at the gaalo, and I wonder if there is a final surprise in store for us.

There is. One by one, they walk up to us. And shake our hands. And tell us, through our fixer, how sorry they are about the other journalists. How grateful they are that we have come. How sad it is that things are this way. How hopeful they are that we can tell the outside world.

As this story goes to press, despite diplomatic efforts, the two journalists are still being held for ransom. And Somalia's people are still waiting for peace.