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5.20.2010 Inside the World's Worst Hellhole: Somalia, the Perfect Failed State

By Clemens Höges

Dealers in the Somali capital Mogadishu are now selling cartridges for Kalashnikovs at 37 cents apiece. The price has dropped by almost half in recent weeks, probably because there is already a lot of ammunition in the city. Mukhtar Ainashe knows this. He steps on the gas and the large SUV he is driving shoots off.

Ainashe is an intellectual. He reads American philosophers like Thoreau and Emerson, he studied in Norway and, until recently, he made a good living working for the World Bank in Washington. He has a wife and two young children in the United States, and he has a passion for expensive watches. In fact, Ainashe is completely out of place in Africa's dirtiest war.

He drives the vehicle furiously across the unforgiving terrain, a former road now pockmarked with grenade craters. The SUV skids through the gravel and bounces along over rocks, its axles making cracking noises, past the ruins of bullet-riddled houses, which shimmer in the sun like the bleached bones of dead animals in the desert.

No Way to Stop

A "technical" -- a pickup truck typical of Somalia, with a machine gun mounted on the truck bed -- is visible in the rear-view mirror, also bouncing up and down on the rough road. It's manned by government fighters -- Ainashe's bodyguards. The driver of the technical can barely manage to keep up, driving as close to the rear bumper of the SUV as possible. Nevertheless, Ainashe cannot afford to slow down -- it would only make him a target for the Islamists' machine guns. Anyone who stops on this road dies.

The SUV circles "Kilometer 4," the notorious, often contested central roundabout where so many people have died. Then it passes the ruins of the parliament building, where the Islamists shoot at anything that moves. Finally, Ainashe reaches a driveway at the base of a hill.

Machine gun nests between battered walls protect the entrance. Ainashe maneuvers the SUV through a narrow alleyway, through checkpoints, around tank barricades, passing guards along the way. When he finally reaches the gate to the fortress at the top of the hill, he hears the guns of the president's forces, which kill people every day. Their task is to protect the five buildings inside the wall. Their enemies are less than a kilometer away, and they can be seen running and shooting.

"Welcome to Villa Somalia," says Ainashe.

The Perfect Hell

The fortress dates from the days of Italian colonial rule. Ainashe is one of the most trusted associates of Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the master of Villa Somalia and the world's most unlikely head of state. More than a year ago, his old enemies made him the country's president, and now his old friends are dispatching fighters to the vicinity of his fortress every day in an effort to kill him.

He is an Islamist and a Sharia scholar, but now he is fighting for his life, alongside Somalis from the West like Ainashe. His goal is to unite a country that he can only see through the observation slit of a tank. It wasn't very long ago that American intelligence agents tried to kill him in an air strike. But now Washington deploys reconnaissance drones from its warships every night, and sometimes it sends him tons of ammunition to keep him alive. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says that Sheikh Sharif is the "greatest hope" for Somalia, and for the "global community."

Almost 20 years of civil war have created the perfect hell. No country has failed more thoroughly than Somalia, so much so that it has become a warning sign for countries like Afghanistan, Yemen and Sudan. Worst of all, this hell has no gates that can be barricaded shut from the outside. Somali pirates attack Western ships while Somalia's Islamists are cooperating with al-Qaida and training terrorists. And if their troops capture Villa Somalia and Sheikh Sharif dies, global terror will have gained yet another safe haven.

A Tool of Allah

Sheikh Sharif looks like a boy in his best suit who has taken a seat in his father's big wing chair. He is sitting in his peach-yellow study, facing 1980s-style cut-glass tables. Sheikh Sharif has a soft, sensual face and has a pair of metal-rimmed glasses perched on his nose. He is 45, but he looks younger.

Ainashe believes in this man. He says that this president isn't just fighting for himself, because, as a devout Muslim, he sees himself as merely a tool. If Allah had other plans, He would either banish him or kill him.

Sheikh Sharif brought Ainashe to Somalia last summer. Ainashe's superiors in Washington thought he had lost his mind. So did his wife. Nevertheless, the banker is now here and, as a member of the president's staff, is building a government for a country that doesn't exist. Because he wants to serve Somalia, he says, now that he sees an opportunity to do so. That's why he no longer goes jet-skiing on the Potomac, but instead listens to machine-gun fire and laughs off the mortar shell that hurled a chunk of concrete onto his bed. (He wasn't in it at the time, fortunately.) He is now 40, and he has achieved everything a Somali granted political asylum could achieve in Norway and then in the United States. Now, he believes, it's time to fight.

An official straightens the national flag while Sheikh Sharif speaks quietly, not uttering a single superfluous word. His face is completely neutral, as always, and his body remains immobile down to his fingertips -- even when another round of shots is fired outside the curtained windows. He says his country has more than enough men who like to cause a commotion.

"We are even more important for the world than for Somalia," he says. "You have to help me -- for your own good." In 1991, rebels overthrew the former occupant of Villa Somalia, the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. But then the country's clans began tearing each other apart.

Part 2: A Senseless Civil War

The warlords were powerful enough to drive out foreign troops serving under the United Nations, including Americans and Germans. But none of them was strong enough to kill the others. Their militias devastated the country and the capital Mogadishu, and the clans embarked on an indiscriminate and senseless civil war.

In 2003, one of the clans kidnapped a 12-year-old boy from Mogadishu to extract a ransom from the parents -- probably for weapons, something that wasn't unusual at the time. But the boy's religion teacher was Sheikh Sharif. "We mobilized the city," he says. "We found out who the kidnappers were. We forced them to release the boy."

Because kidnapping is a violation of Islamic Sharia law, Sheikh Sharif took advantage of the resulting momentum to establish an Islamic court. A court needs helpers, and Sheikh Sharif found them, in the form of young men with guns. Sharia courts soon began popping up everywhere, in the villages and cities. "People had had enough of the killing," he says.

More and more men joined his courts, and then they joined forces to form the Islamic Courts Union. The young helpers called themselves al-Shabab, or "The Youth."

Brutal Punishments

By June 2006, Sheikh Sharif's alliance was strong enough. Within a few weeks, his al-Shabab militias had captured Mogadishu and the south. Suddenly the quiet religion teacher controlled the most important part of Somalia. Some say that other Islamists were in fact running the country through him, and that he was only a figurehead. But these details aren't important, because his rule didn't last long.

An Islamic form of calm and order settled over the country. Sheikh Sharif's courts stopped pirates and kidnappers, meting out brutal punishments. Most importantly, however, al-Qaida fighters, who had been hunted by the Americans since Sept. 11, 2001, came to the new Somalia. US diplomats say that they urged Sheikh Sharif to drive out the terrorists. But that would probably have broken apart his union.

Sheikh Sharif did nothing, which was his biggest mistake. On one occasion, he even traveled through the desert with three al-Qaida members. The Americans were observing them and had already planned an air strike when officials halted the operation, apparently because influential people in Washington wanted to protect Sheikh Sharif.

But only six months after his victory, the army of neighboring Ethiopia, supported and encouraged by Washington, captured Mogadishu. It was one of the biggest mistakes in recent American foreign policy.

Al-Shabab immediately began waging a guerilla war against the Ethiopians. An old associate of Sheikh Sharif established the terrorist organization Hizbul-Islam, which generally fights on the side of al-Shabab today, but sometimes against them. Sheikh Sharif himself fled in the direction of Kenya.

Fragile Alliance

In 2008, the United Nations organized peace talks in Djibouti. They were long talks with tough negotiations, "the most stressful days of my life," even worse than the Ethiopian attack, says Sheikh Sharif, with a blank expression on his face. The Ethiopians eventually withdrew, leaving behind a weak transitional government protected by African Union troops. In early 2009, this government had to join forces with a fragile alliance made up of clans and Islamists that Sheikh Sharif had managed to gather on his side.

This explains why the government now has 39 cabinet members, including a tourism minister, and 550 members of parliament -- even though there is no parliament and Sheikh Sharif's fighters control no more than six of Mogadishu's 16 districts. And even in those districts, al-Shabab would kill or kidnap tourists immediately. But everyone had to be given a piece of the power. It was the price for Villa Somalia.

The reason why Sheikh Sharif is now holed up in Mohamed Siad Barre's old villa is perhaps precisely because he devises his strategies so quietly, carefully and blandly -- because Muslims in the country must see him as an Islamist, because Americans and UN officials can see him as a pragmatist and because his own people believe that he could become a modern, Muslim democrat.

But his old friends were suspicious of Sheikh Sharif from the start. Al-Shabab and Hizbul-Islam began fighting on the day their former leader arrived in Mogadishu last year. Without the soldiers from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which comprises about 5,000 troops, most of them from Uganda, Villa Somalia would have fallen right away. The AMISOM mandate has to be renewed periodically.

'Operation Inshallah'

Sheikh Sharif is now planning an offensive, something he has been doing for some time. Some cynics in Villa Somalia mockingly refer to it as "Operation Inshallah," because it will only begin when Allah wants it to. Although the president commands close to 9,000 of his own troops, he can only depend on a few units. Many soldiers desert, because there are no officers and no safe barracks, and there is often no pay. Some sell their weapons to the enemy, while others mow each other down in battles between clans.

New soldiers are being trained, in Kenya and Uganda for example, partly with the help of the Americans and the European Union. But no one knows yet whether they will ever arrive in Mogadishu, and whether they will fight on the right side. Meanwhile, Sheikh Sharif's army and the Islamists are still of roughly equal strength. Although AMISOM is protecting Sheikh Sharif, it is not allowed to take back his country for him.

No one can win in this stalemate situation, and the bloodshed will only continue. Doctors and officers estimate that about 1,000 people die each month in the struggle for Mogadishu. Most are civilians, including old men, women and children who become caught up in the fighting among the ruins, or are ripped apart by mortar shells.

Part 3: 'Darfur Is a Paradise Compared to Mogadishu'

A visit to Madina Hospital in Mogadishu reveals what the stalemate really means. It is a beautiful complex of barracks and flat-roofed buildings in a park behind an old gate, where large trees provide shade. The temperature there is 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade. The bandaged wounded lie underneath the trees, because even the hallways are full inside the buildings.

Mohammed Yusuf Hassan, the chief physician, holds a chest X-ray up against the light and searches for the bullet. He is constantly looking for bullets behind ribs. He is a powerfully built man, but when he puts down the X-ray and takes a seat behind his desk, his body seems to collapse. Hassan is 51, but he looks 15 years older and is clearly exhausted. He says that he shouldn't talk about the people who commit the violence. Sheikh Sharif, he says, is none of his business, nor is al-Shabab, and certainly not al-Qaida.

This is the pact without which his hospital would have been reduced to rubble long ago: The hospital is the only neutral location in Mogadishu. Hassan and his eight surgeons operate on civilians and soldiers alike. Bearded members of the al-Shabab militia lie moaning next to dying government militia men. "We don't ask any questions. We don't want to know who we are operating on," says Hassan. Everyone needs him and his hospital, which is why no one attacks it.

'I Can't Be Normal, or Else I Wouldn't Be Here'

He is permitted to talk about the victims. In fact, he can't stop talking about them. "I'm not normal. I can't be normal, or else I wouldn't be here," says Hassan, who studied in Milan. "Everything here is bad. We Somalis are all traumatized. You can die any day. We are like ants that are being stepped on, a forgotten people. Darfur is a paradise compared to Mogadishu. But Darfur is new and we are old. The children have always been dying here, and no one sees it anymore."

And then he talks about bullets in bodies. "In many cases, it would be better to leave the bullet inside," he says. "The body encapsulates it, the person feels nothing and nothing happens. But having a bullet in the body makes a person crazy. He becomes restless. He can't forget the bullet. And then he would rather have us cut up healthy tissue." The problem is the same, he says, with the war in people's heads. Hassan points out that an entire generation has grown up in this war, and that several generations will never get it out of their heads. This too explains why there is no end to the suffering, he says.

Hassan has two operating rooms, one for infected and one for clean patients. Without the separation, many more would die of septicemia. A young man with a shattered leg is writhing in pain on the ramp. They have stuffed a rag into his mouth to keep him from screaming. A 10-year-old boy named Shuaib is lying in the next room. He was shot in the stomach while playing soccer.

On one of the operating tables, doctors cut a bullet out of a man's knee and toss it into a metal bowl. There's probably another bullet below the knee. Hassan operates on these same men, again and again, and eventually many end up dead. "Sometimes I think that we are just repairing guns here, guns that are reused until they break. And that the man we are operating on today could shoot a child tomorrow."

Shortage of Surgeons

After major battles, Hassan and his staff can admit 300 patients at a time. They have enough medication, and even an X-ray machine, thanks to the generosity of the International Red Cross and the Red Crescent. But there is a severe shortage of surgeons. In December, a suicide bomber blew up about 18 medical school graduates in the city, as well as four of Sheikh Sharif's ministers attending a ceremony in honor of doctors trained in Somalia.

If this is a normal day at Madina Hospital, how can a man like Hassan keep his sanity? He is about to amputate the feet of a 23-year-old woman. She manages to say her name before the anesthetic takes effect: Fatma Erden Mursal. The sedative removes her inhibitions about talking to the strangers who have suddenly appeared in the operating room, and she tells them that she was four months' pregnant -- before it happened.

She looks dazed as she stares at the flies on her two thick, yellow bandages. It was a mortar shell that hit her. Perhaps, indirectly, she was also a victim of the bomb that had been used to target the young doctors, because there were not enough physicians to operate on Mursal's feet in time. Then the wound became infected. But others would have died before her. Hassan must make decisions like this every day.

'Worse than Baghdad'

On the other operating table is a 10-month-old baby with a bullet stuck in the upper right section of his skull, directly beneath the bone. No one here knows enough about brain surgery to do anything about it.

"The child has to be taken abroad," says one of two foreigners dressed in green gowns, as they stand outside in the hallway to get some air. He looks up for a moment, shrugs his shoulders helplessly and looks back at the floor. How can a war baby from Mogadishu be taken abroad?

The two surgeons are Iraqis from Baghdad. The government of Qatar hired them, because of their experience, and sent them here 10 months ago. They haven't left the hospital since, partly because they are constantly in surgery and partly because they don't want to die outside. "It's worse than Baghdad here," says the younger of the two. Without the two Iraqis, Hassan would only have a staff of seven people.

Part 4: The Many Ways to Die in Mogadishu

Death is everywhere in Mogadishu. It can come in the form of an exploding donkey cart, a mortar shell falling silently out of a blue sky or the dry plopping sound of a sniper's bullet, the kind of noise that the victim never hears. Sometimes death comes as it came to the medical students, as a woman in a veil, who was in fact a man with a belt full of TNT. This is al-Qaida's new approach in the country. But death often comes in al-Shabab style, in the form of a teenager desperately clinging to a firing machine gun, a gun that is bigger than he is. A boy like Sherif Abdullah, a 12-year-old who is already an al-Shabab veteran.

He ran away from the militia with another boy several weeks ago, and now he sleeps in a building in front of Villa Somalia which AMISOM uses as a gun emplacement, in a room with other deserters. The buildings shake every few minutes with the force of the explosions. One of the boys is lying on a mattress, sick with malaria. The others are only sick with fear.

One might assume that Sheikh Sharif's military leaders would intend to use the deserters for propaganda purposes, but this isn't likely. They treat the deserters poorly and carelessly, leaving the boys to beg for food or a dollar. They could run away at any time. And boys like Sherif are easy to recognize in al-Shabab units.

'No One Can Hurt Me If I Have a Gun'

He is a typical boy, except that his face is very calm. Only his eyes twitch a little whenever the sound of the AMISOM guns booms through the hallways. This is his story: His teacher had loaded many of his students onto a bus, allegedly for an outing, but the bus took them to an al-Shabab training camp 35 kilometers (22 miles) from Mogadishu. Men there showed him how to jump down from a technical and take position, and how to take apart and reassemble an assault rifle.

They gave him the short version of the Kalashnikov, the one with the folding stock. He would only have stumbled over the larger version. But even the short one was "very heavy," he says. "I always had to be careful not to fall over." The al-Shabab leaders tried to put him somewhere where he wouldn't have to run far. On one occasion, the unit fought against Hizbul-Islam, which he didn't understand, because they were also Muslims. Nevertheless, he did as he was told and shot the Kalashnikov, which hammered relentlessly against his shoulder.

Sometimes he called out for his mother at night, but he insists that he wasn't really afraid. "They told me that no one can hurt me if I have a gun." The gun was strong, and the gun did the fighting. That was the way it was. He says that all he did was carry the gun to places where it was supposed to fight.

Is he a perpetrator or a victim?

Locked in a Basement

Ismail Khalif Abdullah lives next to a forward position of government troops. He is 18, and he knows what will happen if al-Shabab wins everywhere. He is familiar with the Islamists' pressure tactics when it comes to recruiting fighters. Al-Shabab men in his district in Mogadishu wanted to recruit him and his friend. He turned them down. Then they wanted to use a room in his house. He turned them down again. They returned a short time later, bringing several people with them. They shouted that he was a thief and had stolen mobile phones.

They locked him into the basement of a house, where they left him for several days without food or water. He doesn't remember how long it lasted, but he does remember the day in June of last year when they suddenly pulled him out into broad daylight.

They had rounded up people from the neighborhood. Although he felt unwell, he recognized a few faces in the bright sunlight, friends and neighbors. But what good are friends in a war in which there are only the survivors and the dead?

According to the rules of the Koran, he and the other boy would now be punished for stealing, one of the al-Shabab group leaders announced. Four men threw each boy to the ground, and then a man approached Ismail with a large, jagged knife.

'All They Can Do Now Is Shoot Me'

Jagged edges are good, because they can make a knife work like a saw. When the man raised the knife over Ismail's right hand, the boy fainted. He claims that this is maybe one reason why the al-Shabab members starve their victims for a few days. Because he was unconscious, he didn't notice that they also sawed off his left foot. Right hand, left foot -- al-Shabab's standard punishment.

He has difficulty lighting cigarettes, partly because the al-Shabab man made such a poor job of the amputation that his arm stump is now relatively pointed. But fear, says Ismail, is something he no longer feels. "All they can do now is shoot me. I don't care."

Mukhtar Ainashe is standing on a balcony at the Villa Somalia, looking out across the once-enchanting old section of Mogadishu, down to the Indian Ocean. It isn't a safe place to stand. He could be spotted there and shot. It would be a long shot, but doable.

Ainashe ought to be afraid. But perhaps he has already been here too long for that.