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Page last updated at 06:08 GMT, Thursday, 17 September 2009 07:08 UK
Somalia's song for peace

By Mike Thomson
Today programme

Somali refugee mother who left her six other children in Mogadishu
One-and-a-half million Somalis have fled their homes in the last two years

The first thing that hit me on landing near the town of Belet Weyne in Central Somalia, was the lack of any obvious signs of statehood.

There were no immigration or customs officials, no arrivals lounge or baggage hall and no requests from anybody to see my passport.

All I could see were battered looking pick-up trucks filled with sinister-looking figures bristling with all kinds of weaponry.

Wherever you go in Somalia you are never far from men with guns.

The trick is to make sure that they are pointing them the right way, that is, for your protection.

Fail to do this and you could quickly find yourself joining the 18,000 people killed here during the last two years.

There is little water or food. Most have nothing and are desparate
Achmed Abdul-ar-hee Mohammed

This is a country that has lacked an effective national government since 1991 and is still largely in the hands of warlords, militia groups, bandits and pirates.

Somalia's transitional national government controls little of the land and might not have survived at all if it had not been for the help of five thousand African Union peacekeepers plus the support of various militia groups.

A Satellite picture of The Horn of Africa
Somalia, in the Horn of Africa, is one of the most lawless areas on earth

Security is so tenuous that travel by road is kept to a minimum. It is much safer by air. As a result my visit, arranged with help from the United Nations' World Food Programme, consisted of frequent bumpy hops in tiny planes.

When we did take to four wheels, a five-car convoy protected by 30 gun-toting guards was considered necessary.

Such protection is not, however, an option for most of those who live here. In the last two years alone one-and-a-half million people have been forced to flee their homes. Nearly 300,000 of them have abandoned the Somali capital Mogadishu in the past four months alone, due to on-going violence.

Escaping the violence

Everywhere I went I found people who had fled the horrors of shelling and fighting in the capital. Many had been forced to leave most of their possessions behind. Others told me that they had crammed all they owned into a car boot, only to be robbed at numerous roadblocks by militia gangs and bandits. Some were also raped.

I spoke to one woman near Dhuusamereeb who told me she had to leave her six children behind with relatives. She only had the money to bring out a sickly orphaned baby who, she told me, would have died if left in the city without medical help.

Around 5,000 African Union soldiers, known by the acronym, AMISOM, are the only vestiges of foreign protection left in the city.

A 15,000-strong UN peacekeeping force pulled out of the country in 1995 following disastrous clashes with local warlords.

However, they only control the presidential palace, harbours and airports. Anarchy rules in most other parts of the capital.

Shebaab fighter standing guard over a crowd in a Mogadishu
Fighters from Islamist group Al-Shebab control much of Somalia

Various extremist Islamic militia groups, such as Hisbul Islami and al-Shebab, fight running battles with AU and government forces.

Al-Shebab, which is the more hard-line of the two, is thought to have links with al-Qaeda. Many of those I talked to accused the organisation of killing and kidnapping civilians for no given reason and conducting roadside executions.

The Ethiopian Army restored some order when it invaded in late 2006. But, after struggling to subdue militia attacks, its forces withdrew at the beginning of this year.

Uncertain future

It is not entirely clear to outsiders what the fighting is really about. Groups like al-Shebab say they are dedicated to establishing sharia law in Somalia.

Drought hit lands in central Somalia
Somalis have to cope with a drought that has decimated food production

Yet the country's new president, Sharif Ahmed, has committed his transitional national government (TNG) to achieving the same objective, though he is thought to have a more moderate idea of what that should amount to.

When it comes to the hundreds of pirates who prey on foreign shipping passing through Somali waters, the objective is clearly money. That, though, is not something most other Somalis have much of after nearly two decades of bloody conflict.

In these credit-crunch days many in the developed world may feel like turning their backs on Somalia. Not just because its long-running problems seem so hard to resolve but also because there are more than enough crises much closer to home.

Yet, ever since the attacks of 11 September 2001, politicians have been wary of arguments like that. Some are now warning that Somalia may hold even more threats to the west than Afghanistan, should extremist Islamic groups be allowed to flourish in this anarchic and largely lawless state.

For the moment, at least, there is little hope on offer for the people of Somalia. Half the population are now in need of humanitarian aid. Many have been forced to flee their homes only to arrive in areas hit by drought.

A government soldier on patrol in the streets of Somalia"s war-torn capital demonstrates to Somali children how to use a Kalashnikov rifle
Warfare and violence have become everyday occurrences in Somalia

Many of those I spoke to in a dusty and scorched camp near the town of Abudwaq, close to the Ethiopian border, said they had survived bombs and bullets in Mogadishu only to face starvation there.

Aid agencies do what they can to help but few international staff are willing, or allowed, to work in what the UN describes as the world's most dangerous country.

Nearly 300,000 other Somalis have fled over the Kenyan border to camps at Dadaab, which is now home to more refugees than anywhere else on earth.

Some have been there since 1992.

Unable to work or move elsewhere in Kenya, frustration is growing. One man, who has been in Dadaab since 1992, told me that most young Somalis who have grown up in the camp are now either drug addicts, in jail or fighting in Somalia.

At the camp for displaced people near Abudwaq, I saw an elderly woman singing by her tent as dust swirled around her. I asked what she was singing about. She told me that she was calling on all Somalia's militia men to lay down their guns and help rebuild this shattered country.

"We prey to God that they will listen to me song for peace but we have no power to make them. We dare not even talk to them. We can only hope that, one day, the fighting will stop."

Audio slideshow: Somalia's refugees
Thursday, 17 September 2009, 06:08 GMT |  Today
Inside the world's most dangerous country
Wednesday, 16 September 2009, 06:06 GMT |  Africa


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