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Where Only The Strong And Well-Armed Prosper
Anna Badkhen, Chronicle Staff Writer
After 15 years of anarchy, Somalia is a failed state with no government, no police, no safety for civilians and no aid groups to distribute food
Galkayo, Somalia, April 7, 2006 -- An invisible border splits this town in two. It runs east to west through a maze of narrow, rubble-strewn streets pockmarked with bullets and shrapnel.
No member of the Darood clan dares cross into the southern part of town; no member of the Saad clan ventures north. The price for violating the boundary can be death. Gunmen from the two clans, prowling Galkayo's streets in Soviet-era armored personnel carriers and trucks fitted with antiaircraft guns, are ready to dole it out.
This so-called "green line" dividing Galkayo is emblematic of the internal wars that have devastated Somalia since the regime of dictator Mohamed Siyad Barre collapsed in 1991.
After 15 years of anarchy, Somalia is a failed state, carved into dozens of fiefdoms by competing warlords. It has no police force, no government schools or hospitals; its coastal waters teem with pirates who routinely attack passing ships. Two corners of the 1,000-mile-long country, Somaliland and Puntland, have declared themselves independent.
In the rest of the country, including the capital, Mogadishu, gunmen fight pitched battles over grazing land and spheres of influence, setting up checkpoints on dusty roads that they use to extort money from travelers. Civilians are routinely caught in the crossfire resulting from tit-for-tat killings. U.S. officials and Western analysts are fearful that Somalia has become a haven for international terrorists.
The violence and instability have greatly complicated efforts to bring aid to Somalia, where about 1.5 million of the nation's 9 or so million people are suffering from the worst drought to hit East Africa in decades.
"If the rains don't come within a week or two, there's gonna be a serious catastrophe," said Stephanie Savariaud, a local official with the U.N. World Food Programme, which is trying to distribute food aid to 102,000 Somalis in the south, the region hardest hit by the drought.
Getting food into the country is almost impossible because of regular attacks on ships and at checkpoints, according to aid officials. Two of the World Food Programme's ships carrying food have been hijacked in recent months, Savariaud said.
Across the south of the country, which Savariaud visited recently, roadblocks have increased substantially, "with just kids with guns" manning them, she said.
A failed relief effort by the United Nations during the last major drought, in 1993, was followed by "Operation Restore Hope," the disastrous U.S. military attempt to secure the environment for the delivery of aid. That collapsed when Somali fighters shot two U.S. helicopters out of the sky with rocket-propelled grenades. Eighteen U.S. soldiers were killed, and one body was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. Hundreds of Somalis died and many more were wounded.
When the Clinton administration withdrew U.S. forces several months later, so, too, did most international relief agencies, and few have returned. In Galkayo, a city of some 85,000 people, the only operating international agency is Doctors Without Borders, which operates several hospitals across the country.
"There's not any kind of administration, and very little respect for any humanitarian (organizations), which makes it a very difficult place to work," said Colin McIlreavy, head of the Somalia mission of the French-based agency.
To provide treatment for the town's population, the group had to set up two hospitals: one in the north, Darood territory, and one in the Saad land in the south. Its teams live in heavily protected compounds behind barbed wire and never step outside without armed guards. Periodically, death threats force them temporarily to evacuate from the country.
Last week, the worst fighting between militias in several years erupted in Mogadishu, killing 80 to 140 people, wounding 300, and displacing thousands of families, according to Somali news accounts.
"Most people who are dying are civilians, because bullets are flying everywhere," said Mandela, an emergency room nurse at the south Galkayo hospital, who was in Mogadishu during the fighting. Mandela, like many Somalis, does not have a last name.
Thirteen attempts to form a national government have only led to renewed violence. In the latest, 14th effort, a transitional 275-seat parliament convened last weekend in Baidoa, a western Somali town. The embryonic government -- appointed by a prime minister named by President Abdillahi Yusuf Ahmed, the former leader of Puntland -- consists mainly of warlords and clan leaders.
The parliament, which was formed in exile in Kenya 18 months ago and lives off international handouts, controls virtually nothing in Somalia. Last Saturday, for example, gunmen temporarily surrounded the converted, bombed-out food hangar where the parliament is convening, halting the session for several hours.
In the absence of a united security force and a stable government, Somalia has become home to hundreds of members or sympathizers of al Qaeda, according to State Department reports.
"The threat has been growing slowly over the years," said David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Burkina Faso and Ethiopia. "It is certainly not a replacement for Afghanistan" -- where Osama bin Laden was based and al Qaeda set up training camps during the hard-line Taliban regime -- "but it does pose a problem."
Observers here say there is little support among Somalis for extremist Islamic groups. However, some are turning to conservative Islamic courts, which operate their own militias and have been gaining control of parts of Mogadishu and increasing their influence in the provinces.
"People feel that Islamic courts are creating safety," said Mohammed Abdi, 46, director of the Mudug Development Organization, a Galkayo-based civil rights group funded by Somalis living overseas.
"In areas run by Islamic courts, people can walk with their money in their hands without being afraid of being robbed; they can walk at nighttime without being afraid of being killed," he said.
But the gun culture runs deep in the country where almost all men over 20 years old own their own weapons. The north Galkayo hospital is still treating 14 of the 100 patients who arrived with bullet wounds sustained in a land dispute that erupted into a gunbattle five weeks ago between rival groups within the Darood clan.
One of the injured, Ahmed Hashem, 25, who still has a bullet embedded in his skull, said the battle was "worth every wound."
"We will look for peace in any way we can," he said, sitting on a creaky hospital cot. "But if anyone tries to slight us, we will fight back."
Source: San Francisco Chronicle