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By Andrew Cockburn

A civilian army of entrepreneurs and expatriates offers hope in this East African nation, bloodied by warring clans.

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Somalia appears to be the very definition of what we call a failed state. The last time this desert country possessed anything approaching a "normal" government, with tax collection, social services, and law enforcement, was under a bloody dictator named Siad Barre. After Barre was driven out by a national rebellion early in 1991, political power over most of Somalia fell into the hands of feuding warlords, who, like grand dukes from the European Middle Ages, deployed their private armies to battle for power even as hundreds of thousands of other Somalis were dying of hunger. Outside intervention, often with good intentions, has done little to help—and has usually made things worse.
Draped around the Horn of Africa, its coasts washed by the Indian Ocean to the east and the Gulf of Aden to the north, Somalia is for the most part an arid land with only two permanent rivers, one of which dries up intermittently. The country is largely flat, except for the low but rugged mountain ranges of the north. Some of the salient features of the landscape and its inhabitants were enumerated a century ago by nationalist leader Mohamed Abdullah Hassan, known to his enemies as the Mad Mullah: "I like war, and you do not," he wrote in a threatening note to the British colonial authorities then occupying the northern part of the country (the Italians colonized the south). "The country . . . is no use to you. If you want wood and stone you can get them in plenty. There are also many ant heaps. The sun is very hot."

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Author Andrew Cockburn discusses the clan loyalties that fuel conflict and free enterprise in the midst of fighting.

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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
On April 1, 2002, a coalition of warlords from the Somali Reconciliation and Restoration Council (SRRC) established a fourth Somali government in Baidoa, joining the breakaway regions of Puntland and Somaliland and rejecting the authority of the Transitional National Government in Mogadishu. The group declared the formation of the Southwestern Regional Government, which they said would exercise control over six regions in southern Somalia. However, other SRRC militia chiefs declared the newest government null and void, stating that the move was intended to further divide Somalia into political factions. The international community has yet to recognize any of the regions.

—Mary Jennings
Did You Know?

Related Links
U.S. Agency for International Development
A comprehensive site including Web links to additional background sources, government agencies, and news updates.

United States Committee for Refugees
History and updates on the more than 260,000 Somali refugees who remain in about two dozen countries.

Relief Web
Search by country for a bimonthly information report, country profile, and other Web links on this site offered by the UN Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs.

Latest news on Somalia issues with related Web links.


Ahmed, Ali Jimale, ed. The Invention of Somalia. Red Sea Press, 1995.

Cassanelli, Lee V. The Shaping of Somali Society. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.

Frushone, Joel. Welcome Home to Nothing: Refugees Repatriate to a Forgotten Somaliland. Immigration and Refugee Services of America, 2001.

Lewis, Ioan M. Blood and Bone. The Call of Kinship In Somali Society. Red Sea Press, 1994.

United Nations Development Programme. Human Development Report 2001: Somalia. United Nations Development Programme, 2001.


NGS Resources
Caputo, Robert. "Tragedy Stalks the Horn of Africa," National Geographic (August 1993), 88-121.

Jordan, Robert Paul. "Somalia's Hour of Need," National Geographic (June 1981), 748-775.


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