Published: September 2009


War torn Somalia

Shattered Somalia

Mogadishu is ground zero for the failed state of Somalia, a place where pirates and terrorists rule. Yet to the north, the breakaway region of Somaliland is stable and at peace. What happened?

By Robert Draper
Photograph by Pascal Maitre

Every afternoon Mohammed goes to the lighthouse.

It is not an obvious refuge. Built nearly a century ago, the Italian lighthouse has been in disuse for years. Its spiral staircase is in a state of mid-collapse. Its hollowed-out rooms smell of sea rot and urine. Young men sit cross-legged in the rubble, chewing qat—a plant whose leaves contain a stimulant—and playing a dice game called ladu for hours. Some huddle in a corner and smoke hashish. They seem like ghosts in a city left for dead. But the lighthouse is quiet and it is safe—if anyplace in Mogadishu can be considered safe.

Mohammed, 18, comes for the view. From the top floor he sees the ruins of his neighborhood in the once illustrious Hamarweyne district. He can see the remains of the former American Embassy, the posh al Uruba Hotel, the Shangaani district, once teeming with gold merchants and perfume emporiums—all now blasted away. A lone goat stands in the middle of the main road, while the centuries-old houses alongside it slowly crumble, occasionally burying alive the squatters who inhabit them. Mohammed can also see, just below the lighthouse, the small crescent of sand where he and a few other guys sometimes improvise a game of soccer and the naked children clinging to chunks of discarded Styrofoam as they bob on the waves. He can take in this daily paradox of joy and destruction if he wishes. But he prefers to gaze farther out, at the unspooling carpet of tranquillity that is the Indian Ocean. "I spend my time looking at the sea," he says, "because I know that my food comes from there."

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