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And they are leaving their home in droves. The lucky ones migrate outside the conflict zone—on harrowing journeys to refugee camps in Kenya or Yemen, or to Somaliland, the breakaway republic that once formed Somalia's northern swath. Those less fortunate—more than a million of them—have ended up in camps for internally displaced persons. But many choose to remain in Mogadishu, a city that looks, at first glance, like most of its kind in Africa. A crazed tangle of battered automobiles, mule-drawn carts, and untended goats rules the pocked streets. The markets teem with brilliant mangoes and bananas and junk merchandise from the West. Women in Muslim head scarves pass by, as do boys kicking soccer balls and men with cheekfuls of qat.

Yet amid the exoskeletons of banks and cathedrals and luxury hotels overlooking a glimmering coastline that once buzzed with pleasure boats, an awful truth dawns. Mogadishu was never like other African cities. Mogadishu was a spectacular city. Even in its disfigurement, the beauty is still there—above all, in ghostly Hamarweyne, where photographer Pascal Maitre and I stand in the empty boulevard and squint out at the sea until a call to prayer from a nearby mosque reminds us it is almost five in the afternoon, after which all outside activity ceases. Anyone on the streets of Mogadishu by evening is inviting misadventure.

Just before leaving, we go to the lighthouse, where we meet Mohammed. He sees us, two gaalo, or infidels, and our guards, and at first we hear his footsteps as he retreats somewhere into the shadows. Later he emerges and grows talkative. "We don't want to flee our own country," he tells me. "I don't want to be a refugee. We're ready to die here."

This land is bred for trouble. Its nearly 250,000 square miles are, for the most part, deadly dry. Somalia's inhabitants have engaged in a constant competition for its scarce resources—water and pasturage—since antiquity. According to the great Somali ethnographer, I. M. Lewis, Somalia's occupants "form one of the largest single ethnic blocks in Africa." By tradition they are herders of goats and camels and cattle who share the same Islamic faith and the Somali language, and until the colonial era in the late 19th century they continuously occupied much of the Horn of Africa—including what is today Djibouti, northeastern Kenya, and the eastern portion of Ethiopia. In the Somali psyche, fierce nationalism coexists with equally fierce pastoral individualism. It is not their way to look to government for solutions.

What held Somalia together—and sometimes drove it apart—was its elaborate clan system. The five principal clan families, Darod, Dir, Isaaq (sometimes considered a Dir subclan), Hawiye, and Rahanweyn, have long dominated particular expanses of territory. Within these clans are various subclans and sub-subclans—some cohabiting peacefully and even intermarrying, others sporadically hostile. "You've always had a conflict-prone nomadic society in Somalia, going back to precolonial times," says Andre LeSage of the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. "There was tribal raiding of livestock, but it happened between organized young groups under the authority of a clan elder. They'd say, 'Now is the time this can be done,' and some were killed in pitched battles. But women's and children's lives were generally spared, and villages weren't razed. We shouldn't overly idealize that period. Female genital mutilation was prevalent, and obviously society lacked the benefits of modern health care. But it wasn't anarchy at all. It was highly regulated."

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