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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 April 2007, 11:07 GMT 12:07 UK
Somalia's 'total nightmare'
Adam Mynott
By Adam Mynott
BBC News, Somalia

The Somali capital Mogadishu has this week seen some of its worst fighting for 16 years. A fragile transitional government there has been trying to destroy groups of fighters left over from the so-called Islamic Courts group which was in control of much of the country last year.

Abdi Shakur is a retired sea-captain.

A 'technical' being driven by a Hawiye clan soldier
Abdi Shakur and his brothers paid 10,000 for a 'technical', a pick-up truck with a heavy machine gun mounted on the back

He spent his working life on merchant vessels steaming to and from the Somali port of Bossasso and is now enjoying what he described to me as half retirement.

He was helping us with translating while we were working in northern Somalia.

"Come and visit my family," he said and we drove to his house on the outskirts of the port town.

It was a few weeks back and the full fury of the fighting in the capital Mogadishu had not started, but already the threat of conflict breaking out was undeniable.

Abdi Shakur feared that once fighting began in Mogadishu it would quickly spread.

"There will be shooting here in Bossasso, and I am worried about my family," he said, "but I can protect myself - I have guns - every Somali who can afford it has guns, and last year my family bought a technical."

Abdi Shakur and his brothers paid 10,000 - a vast fortune in Somalia - for a "technical", a pick-up truck with a heavy machine gun mounted on the back.

Why on earth would Abdi Shakur and his family need a machine gun on wheels?

"You can't be too careful in Somalia," he told me.

And this is what life is like for Somalis who have lived for 16 years in a land run by warlords.

Intense fighting

I spoke to Abdi Shakur on the phone the other day.

Map of Somalia

The family technical had still not been used in anger but he said he was increasingly worried about his cousins in Mogadishu.

The capital has been devastated in the past two weeks by intense fighting.

Ethiopian forces in support of the transitional government, rooted out militia loyal to the Union of Islamic Courts at the turn of the year.

In the past fortnight they have unleashed a devastating artillery and rocket barrage on obdurate remnants of Islamic Court fighters in the capital.

The Islamists are fighting alongside members of a powerful Somali clan, the Hawiye, who are enemies of those controlling the transitional government.

Mass migration

It is a complicated and bloody struggle.

In the past few days more than 300 have been killed and since the turn of the year 2,000 have died, most of them civilians caught in crossfire.

Many thousands have been injured.

The appalling violence has led to one of the largest mass migrations in recent times.

Somali residents of Mogadishu pile their belongings onto a cargo truck
An increasing number of people continue to flee the volatile capital

Hundreds of thousands of people who were living in Mogadishu have grabbed what few possessions they could carry and headed for places of safety.

Some have moved to the outskirts of the capital away from the fighting.

Others have gone out into the Somali hinterland.

They have travelled into an environment that cannot sustain them, into villages dotted along dusty roads in the scrubby, scruffy bush of southern and central Somalia, into communities which were hit in the past year, first by drought and then by flooding.

There is little stored food, goat and cattle herds are only just recovering and the capacity to feed and care for thousands of displaced people does not exist.

And in the past few days the annual rains have started.

At the best of times Somalia poses huge problems for aid agencies.

Now it is, as one aid worker put it to me, "a total nightmare".

Fighting, poor infrastructure and flooded muddy roads are impeding the movement of food and medical supplies and the transitional government has been accused of deliberately blocking some aid because they feared it might end up in the hands of their enemies.

Cholera is now seeping through the displaced thousands, picking off the young and the weak.

In the rain and misery, hundreds have died.

'Islamist threat'

Just a few months ago, Mogadishu and much of Somalia were enjoying their most stable period for 16 years.

Under the brief control of the Islamic Courts Union, the grip of the warlords was loosened and some of the basic expectations of an organised life were being restored.

Schools were opening, police were being trained, roadblocks were removed and litter was even collected from the streets.

Many Somalis were unhappy with the more extreme rules of the Islamic Courts: closing down the cinemas, banning music and insisting women wear veils.

But the Islamists were able to spread their power steadily through more of Somalia and this alarmed the government in neighbouring Ethiopia who have long feared a radical Islamic group in control of the country.

It worried the Americans too, who feared the Islamic Courts were harbouring al-Qaeda elements.

So with tacit American approval and with other international governments looking on, Ethiopia sent troops into Somalia to support the weak transitional government.

Ethiopia is now trapped.

It wants to get out of Somalia, but cannot go until what it calls the "Islamist threat" is eliminated.

But every moment Ethiopian troops spend in Somalia stirs up more resentment and their presence acts as a compelling recruiting sergeant for insurgents, who say they will die trying to rid their country of the Ethiopian invaders.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 28 April, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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