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Years of War, Anarchy Take Their Toll on Somali People - 2004-02-17

It has been almost a decade since the United States pulled its troops out of the Horn of Africa country of Somalia. The disastrous U.N. intervention to help starving Somalis and capture the country's main warlord in the capital, Mogadishu, left the city in the hands of warring clan militias. The subsequent years of anarchy and fighting have taken an appalling toll on the Somali people and society.

A beat-up pickup truck, teetering over with people and goods, tries desperately to weave through Mogadishu's main Barakaat market. But there is little room to maneuver.

The narrow dirt roads that wind through the marketplace are choked with people, animals and make-shift stalls. No one seems to notice the stench of uncollected garbage that is piled several-meters high on every street.

At a fruit stand in Barakaat, 52-year-old Mohamed Mohamud Afrah swats at a swarm of flies to keep them from landing on his bananas. He has been selling bananas here for the past 10 years. He says it is a job that is beneath anything he thought he would ever do to earn a living.

"That is the lowest rank," he said. "Before, I was one of the best lawyers in Somalia. I defended in front of the courts. Now, no place to defend, no courts."

Mr. Afrah, who has a law degree from a university in Italy, earns less than two dollars a day. The money is hardly enough to buy food for himself, his wife and their eight children. He has nothing left over to pay for other necessities such as school fees and health care.

The plight of Mr. Afrah is shared by millions of educated and uneducated Somalis alike, forced to suffer the same chaotic aftermath of the fall of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.

Vicious clan fighting, some of it captured on this old recording, erupted shortly after the fall of the Barre government and violence has engulfed the nation ever since. During that time, more than a million people are believed to have died from war, hunger, and disease.

Tens of thousands of others, including teachers and doctors, fled, seeking refuge outside the country. The loss of trained professionals caused Somalia's education and health care systems to falter.

By late 1995, following the withdrawal of the United States and the United Nations because of the violence, the country had in effect collapsed.

Because no one has been able to form a central government, individual regions have fallen under the control of more than two dozen clan and sub-clan leaders, who maintain large private militias. It is estimated that in Mogadishu there are more than 30,000 gunmen, working for various warlords.

A 20-year-old man, who identifies himself only as Mohamed, says many jobless young men like him consider militia work the only option in a society that offers poor people few opportunities for education and employment.

A recent nationwide survey, conducted by the World Bank and the U.N. Development Program, shows that Mogadishu, with barely a quarter of its young adult population able to read and write, has one of the highest urban unemployment rates in the world.

Mohamed says he is trying his best not to join a militia, even though he is being pressured by his friends who have joined. He says he would much rather do something that can help his parents and his country, but having had little education, he acknowledges that he does not know what else he can do to earn money.

Such pessimism alarms Jabril Ibrahim Abdulla, co-director of the Mogadishu-based Center for Research and Dialogue. In conjunction with the United Nations, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other organizations, Mr. Abdulla has been working for the past four years, trying to develop strategies that can help Somalia end its current state of anarchy and eventually re-join the international community.

Right now, he says, the center is primarily focused on strategies for disarming the militias, whose numbers are still growing.

"We happen to have 200- to 250,000 militia [members] who have no future or don't see a future," he explained. "Therefore, their only future is the gun and when you have such an enormous number of them, the majority of them under the age of 20, you really have a serious crisis. Not having a highly qualified, skilled individuals to rebuild Somalia is a challenge.

"We have teachers who have not taught for 10 years," continued Mr. Abdulla. "How can you rebuild Somalia knowing that you have very aging technocrats, very aging educators. You can have a government but then, the question you need to ask is, who the hell is going to run this government?"

For now, it is only the warlords who are in charge.

Mogadishu's once-bustling seaport and airport remain closed because no clan has been able to gain control over them. International travelers and foreign cargo arrive by plane on dirt landing strips controlled by separate sub-clans, where militiamen collect user fees. Travelers also have to pay fees to various militias manning checkpoints on the roads connecting the capital to southern and central Somalia.

Back at Barakaat market, shopkeepers are busy unloading a large shipment of pasta from the United Arab Emirates. Thanks to an agreement by Dubai to retain commercial ties with Mogadishu, there does not appear to be a shortage of food and other basic necessities in the city.

But 50-year-old shopkeeper Ahmed Sheik Hussein says to him, it is not a matter of what you can buy, but how you are able to get the money to buy the goods. Mr. Hussein says before the civil war began, he was a proud secondary-school teacher. Now, he does manual labor in the market. He asks, what did I do to deserve this fate.