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The clan-based checks and balances began to crumble with the arrival of the Europeans. The British in Somaliland ruled with a lighter hand than did the Italians in the south. Though Mogadishu, under Italian rule, became a city of cosmopolitan amenities, the Italians politicized Somali clan hierarchy by rewarding loyal elders, punishing the less loyal, and controlling commerce. Local mechanisms for conflict resolution were badly damaged.

In 1960 the colonial powers departed, and a dreamy nationalism seized the Somali people. With visions of a unified country, Somaliland and Somalia confederated. But nationalism was soon thwarted by clan divisions that had been aggravated during colonial rule. The knotty hostilities left a power void. Into it stepped the dictator General Mohamed Siad Barre in 1969. Barre (a member of the Darod clan) ruled with clever brutality, and many Somalis today speak nostalgically of the stability of his reign. Publicly he outlawed clans, promoting socialism over tribalism and stripping elders of judicial authority. But behind the scenes he practiced a divide-and-rule politics that only worsened clan tensions. Meanwhile, Barre alternately courted the U.S.S.R. and the U.S., with huge stockpiles of weapons as Somalia's principal harvest. An imprudent war with Ethiopia weakened his position. In 1991 militias of the Hawiye clan chased Barre out of Mogadishu. The Somali people, weary of occupiers and strongmen, awaited the next iteration of government.

Eighteen years later, they are still waiting.

Mohammed was an infant when the civil war between rival militias swallowed up the Hamarweyne district in 1991. "Four months of fighting, right here in our neighborhood," he remembers his parents telling him. "We couldn't get any food. Everyone was so scared." One day a mortar obliterated his neighbors' house and killed the people inside. Some of the shrapnel flew into the home of Mohammed's family, penetrating the neck and rib cage of his father, a policeman under Barre. The family hitched a ride with neighbors northward to Hargeysa in Somaliland, where they stayed for three months. They returned to Mogadishu to find Hamarweyne gutted and gaping holes in their roof.

"We had to start from scratch," Mohammed remembers. The mortar wounds had left his father disoriented and unable to hold a job. Mohammed took to the streets to polish the shoes of strangers, but his mother insisted he quit working and start attending school. Relying on money from an aunt who lived in Saudi Arabia, they got by. During the rainy season, water poured through the roof and flooded their house.

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