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Somalia’s Endless Hell

MOGADISHU -- Somalia’s internal conflict is propelled by a combustible mix of religion, politics, and clan rivalry. Civilians are killed daily in Mogadishu, there are roadside bombs and mortar attacks, and politicians and journalists are targeted. Making matters worse, the country has suffered this year from both floods and drought.

This combination of insecurity and natural disasters has displaced huge numbers of people and caused suffering on a scale painful to behold. According to the most recent United Nations figures, 400,000 people, or roughly one-third of Mogadishu’s population, have fled the city.

Yet Somalia still rarely gets into the headlines. This partly reflects the near impossibility of gathering news. Few foreign journalists venture in – it is too difficult and too dangerous for them to work inside the country – and local reporters are harassed by the authorities. And, even when there is news, the world’s capacity to absorb bad and sad stories from yet another hellish place is limited.

Since last December, Somalia has been in a de facto state of civil war. The secular government, supported by the UN, the European Union, and the United States, with military reinforcements from Ethiopia, has been fighting insurgents from the Union of Islamic Courts, a group accused of harboring al-Qaeda terrorists whose leaders are supported by Eritrea.

The lawlessness and absence of security makes finding a political solution almost impossible. When local elders and delegates wanted to assemble in Mogadishu for a reconciliation conference, security conditions forced them to postpone the conference for several months (though when they did meet, in big numbers and for a long time, they achieved no breakthrough).

A plane with the UN envoy for human rights was denied landing rights in Baidoa (seat of the Somali parliament) not long ago, and pilots sometimes refuse to fly foreigners to Mogadishu, because it is too dangerous. The same lack of security applies to delivering aid: on a recent visit to North Somalia to assess humanitarian needs, a team from the International Rescue Committee of which I was a part spent more time, effort, and funds on security issues than on inspecting wells and evaluating the need for latrines, although the lack of water and sanitation is acute.

On a 25 mile stretch of road between the southern cities of Kismayo and Jilib, there are at least 35 checkpoints manned by armed men who take $50 to $200 from passing travelers. Offshore, piracy seriously disrupts aid being brought in by ships.

One incident in southern Somalia vividly demonstrated how insecurity can hamper humanitarian work. While our assessment team was in the town of Marare, a banal scene of two friends in their twenties having breakfast turned into a major drama when one of the boys mishandled his Kalashnikov and accidentally killed his friend.

The boys were from the same clan, but, alas, from different sub-clans. The customary procedure is that the victim’s family gets to kill someone from the perpetrator’s sub-clan. The elders of the two sub-clans spent four days negotiating a less bloody solution, and the agreed price of 100 camels – worth $7,000 – was paid as compensation. But during those four days, work at the local hospital (run by an international non-governmental organization) was impeded, as all staff from the perpetrator’s sub-clan stayed away from their jobs, lest they be targeted for a revenge killing.

The dilemma that the accident presented is not easy for a foreigner to understand. But the way the elders steered clear of a violent resolution is an admirable example of good governance.

If only such practices were used to tackle the vast majority of the problems that overwhelm Somalia. In this quintessential “failed state,” this sort of elders’ wisdom may be the only option to start dealing with the quagmire created by the lawlessness that has gripped the country since the departure of the dictator Said Barre in 1991.

Ignoring the situation in Somalia and not trying to reestablish law and order is not an option. The two main factions fighting in Mogadishu are backed, respectively, by Ethiopia and Eritrea. Because those nations - among the poorest in Africa - have an unresolved border dispute that led to a 1998-2000 war in which tens of thousand died on both sides and hostilities in the area continue, their involvement, by proxy, in the Somali civil war may have grave implications for the entire Horn of Africa.