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Monday, June 28, 1999 Published at 13:51 GMT 14:51 UK

World: Africa

Eyewitness: Rule by the gun in Mogadishu

The city bears the scars of years of civil war

By BBC East Africa Correspondent Cathy Jenkins in Mogadishu

It is not wise to get road rage in Mogadishu. If you do, you are likely to find yourself venting your anger against six armed men. Every time a four-wheel drive stops in a Mogadishu street, militiamen clutching ancient AK47s spill out from the back and take up guard.

No one who is anyone travels without at least four gunmen. If you happen to be one of Mogadishu's powerful warlords, your convoy of trucks and technicals - vehicles mounted with big guns - will tear along the potholed roads, leaving everyone else to jump out of the way.

[ image: Architecture tells of the city's Arabic and Italian colonial past]
Architecture tells of the city's Arabic and Italian colonial past
A visit to Mogadishu will make you seriously question your sense of reality. This was once a beautiful place; with its low buildings a blend of Italian and Arabic architecture, and the sea at its front door.

Even now, hotel guests dine on the finest fresh lobster and crab you could hope to taste.

Legacy of war

But you eat in a city which has cracked under the weight of nine years of civil war. Its buildings are blasted and mortared. Scrub bush grows out of broken roofs and empty windows, and the sand of the desert which has crept back into town piles up against walls and on street corners.

Rubbish lines the roads, and shredded plastic bags hang from every twig.

A quick tour will take you past the building that was once a technical college, the ruin that was the university.

Rival warlords have controlled the country since civil war broke out in 1991. There is no central government, no civic institutions - and no taxes to pay.

Freewheeling commerce

At one end of Mogadishu society, businesspeople do more than justice to the Somali reputation for commercial acumen. In the most freewheeling market in the world, they buy gold from the Middle East, trade everything from electronics to weapons, and annoy neighbouring countries by sending cheaper, duty-free items across the border.

At the other end of the spectrum, thousands of Somalis - displaced by the fighting - crowd into camps across the city. They live in shelters patched together from rubbish, and eke out whatever living they can by doing menial jobs.

Foreigners stay out

[ image: US soldiers left after a humiliating intervention]
US soldiers left after a humiliating intervention
But it is ultimately a forgotten city. International aid agencies, concerned about the still real threat of kidnapping, support a few projects through a network of local staff.

The international community, in the main, stays clear. The United States intervened, disastrously, in 1992 to try and stop the war - the following year, TV viewers around the world saw the body of a US pilot being dragged through the streets. After that, the term Crossing the Mogadishu Line was coined. No one wants to cross it again.

Barman turns gunman

For young men, the job prospects in Mogadishu are not good. There is, of course, the option of becoming a militiaman for the warlord of your clan or sub-clan, or of acting as a security guard for a private individual.

Abdi is 38 years old and falls into the latter category. Most of the time he is a barman. But whenever his employer needs an extra man in the back of his vehicle, Abdi takes up his gun, because it pays more.

When he introduces himself, Abdi tells you that his nickname is Hodor. Most Somalis have a nickname - its part of tradition, and the nickname is often used more than the real name. Hodor means Talent, but its not clear whether Abdi has any real gift for using the gun.

He bought his weapon two-and-a-half years ago, but has not yet had to use it. He says he hopes he won't have to, but if he does, he will have to draw on what he learnt during army training more than 20 years ago.

For most of the time that Abdi is my guard, he sits amiably in the back of the van, his gun pointed casually out of a side window, and his jaw in constant motion as he chews Khat, the narcotic leaf which to Somalis is as indispensable as the air they breathe.

'Wasted years'

Feisel Ahmed Abdullahi, on the other hand, used his gun only too often in his years as a militiaman, but he had to retire at an early age. Four years ago, his left hand was blown off.

Ironically, after being wounded twice by bullets - once fighting the Americans in Mogadishu - the incident which ended his career was an accident. Feisel finished secondary school as the civil war was about to begin. Instead of going on to further study, he suddenly found himself driving a technical and taking part in battles up and down the country.

Now his condition has mellowed him, and he talks of his wasted years.


He says that none of the warlords will take on the mantle of president of Somalia as long as they continue to fight. And he regrets the way that young militiamen terrorise the community, as they all too often do when they set up their own checkpoints and demand money from passing vehicles.

Feisel Ahmed Abdullahi has no choice but to be philosophical. There is not much future for an injured ex-fighter. But hundreds of young men are still becoming militiamen. They see it as glamorous, and it gives them a sense of identity. And for many of the young men riding with their guns through the streets of Mogadishu, there is no other way to live.

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