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Mohammed is a fisherman. Every morning at five he pushes out into the water with his nets in a small boat. Whatever Mohammed catches, he hauls by wheelbarrow to the market. On mornings when the wind is not too hazardous, his catch fetches two or even three dollars—which means that he, his parents, and his two younger siblings will have enough to eat that day. A mortar blast incapacitated his father years ago, and his family has depended on Mohammed's income since he was 14. He cannot afford the ten-dollar monthly cost to attend school. And anyway, all his former schoolmates have disappeared. Most have joined the Islamic extremist militia called al Shabaab, which in Somalia's latest chapter of misery is locked in a ferocious power struggle with the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), a shaky alliance backed by the United Nations. For young males like Mohammed, al Shabaab is a tempting exit strategy from powerlessness. Then again, many of his former playmates are now dead.

Mohammed has grown up in a country that has collapsed. He had just been born when Somalia's last president, a cultish dictator named Mohamed Siad Barre, was overthrown and the country descended into decades of sustained anarchy. He is one of an entire generation without the slightest clue of what a stable republic looks like. They are learned in other things, however. "M16s, mortars, grenades, bazookas—I can tell each one apart as soon as I hear it," he says.

Somalia's northern coastline, overlooking the approaches to and from the Gulf of Aden into the Indian Ocean, is a base for pirates preying on sea traffic between Europe and the East. When I visited the country last year, Somali pirates were attacking scores of ships off its coast. Yet I found the country's interior to be, if possible, even more volatile. Since then, fierce clashes between insurgents and government troops have accelerated even further as Ethiopian forces, which had invaded Somalia late in 2006 to oust a short-lived Islamic government and prop up the TFG, pulled out in January 2009. The chaos has invited a fresh flow of foreign fighters to Somalia, which has become a haven for terrorists who see themselves engaged in a global jihad. The Fund for Peace has ranked Somalia number one on its index of failed states for the past two years. That distinction understates the pathos of Somalia. Failure—to deliver security, sustenance, services, or hope—has, for 18 years now, been the house that Somalis call home.

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