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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 February 2005, 20:10 GMT
Somalia - where the gun rules
By Joseph Winter
BBC News, Mogadishu

"Somalia is ruled by the gun," I was told by Bashir, a militiaman. And as I was interviewing him, I was reminded just how cheap that has made life in Somalia.

Somali gunmen
Somalia remains awash with guns
One of Bashir's colleagues started causing trouble, presumably because he wanted some money. A row ensued with one of the six armed bodyguards I had to travel with whenever I left the hotel.

A machine gun was soon picked up and I threw myself to the ground, prompted by my natural cowardice backed up by my training on dealing with dangerous situations, as the weapon was wrestled out of the gunman's clutches.

No-one was hurt and we immediately left but in a land awash with guns and no neutral security forces to settle disputes or to take complaints to, a minor row can easily become fatal.

While I was in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, there were three high-profile assassinations of senior officials from various factions, and a former top military officer.

Alert levels

Driving around Mogadishu, I constantly wanted to take out my camera, as there were so many amazing sights - ruined buildings, old telephone posts straining under new wires, and countless examples of how people are managing to get by without a government.

However my guards warned me to be careful - the city is full of roadblocks manned by militias who do not like being photographed.

It turned out there were three levels of danger:

  • Green - take your time, get out of the car and take as many photos as you want

  • Amber - be quick, the driver will slow down to let you take a snap out of the window

  • Red - don't even think about it

Weapons are even used as a way to break up the horrendous traffic jams which partly result from a lack of police.

Whenever our pick-up came to a halt, gunmen would get down from the back and point their weapons at the drivers of the minibus taxis who had stopped in the middle of the road to pick up passengers, causing gridlock further down the line.

Joseph Winter with six armed guards
Mogadishu hotels provide armed bodyguards as a matter of course
The minibus drivers did not seem shocked at the sight of the barrel of an AK-47 sticking through their window, but it did prompt them to speed up the boarding of their passengers.

There are at least three functioning hotels in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, clean and with air-conditioning, and they all lay on security as a matter of course.

My six armed guards mostly looked as though they were in their 20s and so would have grown up with the gun after the height of the civil war in the early 1990s.

Not stealing

The one time my bodyguards did cause a stir was in a refugee camp - a former school.

Facts and figures about life in Somalia

As I was speaking to one of the camp leaders, I noticed a woman, who had presumably fled her home because of fighting between militias, stop and blanche at the sight of six armed men standing in the path between the makeshift tents which have sprung up in the school grounds.

I felt awful but she was soon told that the gunmen had not come to steal her belongings this time and she carried on her way.

Guns have become a part of everyday life in Somalia and changing this is the new government's first - and biggest - task. If it can disarm the militias, running schools and hospitals will be easy.

But despite the preponderance of guns and the shocking sight of refugees living in former ministry buildings, the extent to which life carries on is astonishing.

The latest mobile phones handsets, running water and electricity are all available to those who can afford it.

Coming home

There are regular international flights, albeit on rickety Russian planes to dirt runways well outside the capital.

Minibus taxis in a traffic jam
Without any traffic police, Mogadishu is plagued by jams
On the flight to Mogadishu, I got chatting to two young Somalis who had grown up in Europe.

They were as worried as I was about their native country's reputation for lawlessness.

After more than a decade abroad, they were returning to see their families.

In fact, they had even more reason to be afraid, as someone might try to steal their valuable European passports and hope that a tired immigration officer could not tell one Somali from another, leaving them stranded.

One was so worried that he had left his travel documents in Kenya and was using his Somali papers which are only accepted on that journey.

'Family business'

And the huge number of Somalis living abroad is one sign of hope for the country.

I met another young Somali who spoke perfect English with a Canadian accent.

No guns allowed sign
Signs such as these are not heeded
He was working in a dingy office across a dirt road which had become a swamp after a two-hour downpour of rain from a ruined shell of a building.

He cheerfully told that me swapped life in orderly Canada for this to help out with "the family business".

If he, and many others like him, take their training back home to boost the well developed Somali entrepreneurial spirit, the country should at least be able to make money.

Bashir the militiaman told me he needed his gun to feed his family but that he would prefer to do something else.

If the guns can be removed from the streets and alternative sources of income provided, maybe his next argument could be solved amicably, or even in the courts - the rule of law replacing the rule of war.


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