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Somalia's starving driven into violent Mogadishu

What is it like to live in Mogadishu, the most dangerous city on Earth?

By Peter Greste
BBC News, Somalia

Despite reports that the humanitarian crisis in Somalia is easing after 20 years of war, it remains the ultimate failed state - a land of banditry and piracy, where crop failures and a shortage of food force people into the violent city of Mogadishu.

The mayor of Mogadishu insists his city is not the most dangerous place in the world.

In fact, Mohamed Nur reckons it is not as bad as Kabul or even Baghdad.

"Of course it's not as safe as we'd like it to be," he tells me. "But we are making progress."

The rattle, pop and thump of gunfire is so pervasive that locals grimly call it 'Mogadishu music'

Calling it "safe" might be a stretch.

The mayor has a street lighting programme. I know because I see the lights flicker on the only three blocks he has done, as we drive past in an armoured troop carrier.

His council is also collecting rubbish and opening new markets. I will have to take his word for it, though. Our minders from a force of African Union troops earnestly shake their heads when I ask if we can see these initiatives.

What if we follow the mayor for a while? He has his own heavily-armed bodyguards after all.

"Um… no," comes the reply. Still too dangerous.

Somalian government soldier sits outside a bullet-riddled building
A million people are thought to have been killed during 20 years of war

Can we walk the 100m (109 yards) between the ministry of information and the prime minister's office then? Not without flak jackets and an armoured vehicle.

The rattle, pop and thump of gunfire is so pervasive that locals grimly call it "Mogadishu music".

I lose count of the number of times bullets zip past like angry lead hornets.

All that flying metal has chewed away the buildings so that vast districts now look like Stalingrad after its siege in World War II.

Except back then, they had heavy bombs and artillery to help with the work. In Mogadishu they have shredded the city with small arms.

Desperate choice

The Somali government can barely count the dead, never mind run the country.

Credible estimates reckon 20 years of war have cost a million lives. The country is haemorrhaging about 10,000 refugees a month. And how do those who are left manage to survive?

I ask Maryam Ahmed, a forlorn 37-year-old mother of seven, who once dreamed of becoming a teacher.

"We don't survive," she tells me from behind exhausted eyes. "We exist."

A man flees the fighting in Mogadishu with his belongings on a donkey-cart
Somalis live as nomads as they constantly flee fighting

Maryam belongs to an underclass of urban nomads, people who have stripped their lives to a few precious pots and clothes they can sling in a blanket, and run with whenever the frontlines shift.

She lost her husband two years ago.

And I mean lost him. When Maryam and her children fled from the advancing front, he promised to follow with a few more possessions. She has not seen him since.

Now they compete with a million or so others to exist in Mogadishu.

So why do its wretched inhabitants not simply run from this hell on Earth? Paradoxically, they are pouring in.

Rural people struggling with the worst drought in living memory are being forced to make a desperate choice - risk a slow death by starvation in the countryside or, lured by a meal from an aid agency, a quick one amid the violence of the city.

Hundreds of thousands are opting for the city.

Cancerous war

So how did Somalia get into this state?

A force of radical Islamists called al-Shabab is fighting to overthrow what passes for the government.

Map of Somalia

Al-Shabab has close ties to al-Qaeda. It has a ready supply of arms and ammunition. And it has already grabbed half the country.

The lack of any functioning state has allowed piracy to flourish and the politicians - who call themselves "the government" - are fighting to hold on to their half of Mogadishu.

They simply could not survive without 8,000 African Union troops holding the rebels back.

MI5 believes it is only a matter of time before al-Shabab takes its war to the West.

Now, if you believe the African Union, the Somali government and its Western sponsors, things are more or less under control. Al-Shabab is gradually weakening, humanitarian access is opening up, and the government's influence is expanding.

Find out more
Peter Greste with an African Union soldier
Panorama's Land of Anarchy is broadcast on Monday 20 June 2030 BST on BBC One

But the view from Maryam's hovel looks very different.

Al-Shabab can and does operate almost at will across the city. No place is safe.

The only humanitarian aid is one bowl of maize porridge a day for Maryam and the kids, and she is too afraid to say what she really thinks of the government and its politicians.

If there was a force of radical Islamists who had declared an interest in attacking the West, and a humanitarian crisis threatening hundreds of thousands of people anywhere else, there would be benefit rock concerts and emergency talks at the United Nations.

But not here.

This is a slow-burner - a cancer that has quietly grown over two decades, in a place the rest of the world does not seem to care about. Except when Somali pirates prevent them from sailing their ships safely past.

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Country profile: Somalia
20 Jul 11 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Somalia
20 Jul 11 |  Country profiles

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