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To listen to the UN security officer's briefing in Nairobi prior to visiting Somalia, you would think Mogadishu was Armageddon on steroids. Each and every Somali would be extremely hostile, he warned, snipers around the presidential compound of Villa Somalia would pick me off if I stepped out on to a balcony and down at the seaport it would be raining bombs and mortars. The weather was harsh, the mosquitoes unbearable and the African Express flight was relatively secure only because the terrorist group al-Shabaab (literally, "The Youth") used it so were unlikely to blow it up. He shook his head at this latest lamb heading off to the slaughter. "You'll be lucky to remain safe," he said. At least the swimming in the Indian Ocean was sensational, I ventured. "Good luck," he shot back. "You will be welcomed by sharks."


Flagging support: Somali women wearing the country's national flag during a ceremony marking President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed's first year in office (AFP/Getty Images)

From the manicured lawns of Nairobi, Somalia is indeed a dark and fearful place. For two decades the country has known little but war. As a result of this relentless fighting, the statistics are surreally ghastly. An estimated 3.2 million Somalis, or 42 per cent of the population, require humanitarian assistance. There are 1.2 million internally displaced people fleeing from the conflict. While acute malnutrition among the under-fives stands at 20 per cent, one in 22 children is severely malnourished and at a nine times greater risk of premature death than properly nourished children. Life expectancy, depending on who you believe, ranges from 47 to the mid-50s. GDP per capita stands at an estimated $600 — most statistics are estimated in Somalia — placing the country 224th out of 228 countries. The seaport, the country's main commercial link to the outside, generates $11m a year. In 2002, urban unemployment was 65 per cent. "It can be assumed that the situation in Mogadishu has deteriorated since then," says a UNDP report.

Conflict has a changing face in Somalia. What has been constant since 1991, when the military dictator General Mohammed Siad Barre was deposed by warring clans after 21 years at the helm, is bloodshed and instability. Clan warfare evolved into warlordism — epitomised by the anarchic savagery of "Black Hawk Down" in October 1993 — which in turn metamorphosed into religiously-inspired conflict. This was only brought to an end when the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) captured Mogadishu in 2006, ushering in what some Somalis call "the six months of paradise". The US-supported Ethiopian invasion in late 2006 quickly defeated the ICU, but it also had the unintended consequence of uniting Somalis of all political and religious hues against their old enemy. Fresh instability followed the subsequent Ethiopian departure.

Today the conflict pits the fledgling transitional federal government (TFG) of onetime ICU leader President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, supported by the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom), against al-Shabaab, an unsavoury alliance of local Islamists, foreign al-Qaeda and the great unwashed, brainwashed and unemployed.

The fighting in Somalia can no longer be dismissed as an obscure domestic struggle in an unimportant country of no wider relevance to the world. The crackle of machinegun fire in Mogadishu, the regular thwump of mortars, the ground-shaking shelling by Amisom tanks and the sporadic suicide attacks by delusional youths represent the frontline in the international fight against al-Qaeda. "The instability in Somalia is a threat not only to its neighbours but more widely," says Robert Macaire, the British High Commissioner in Nairobi. "The terrorist threat is very real. We're concerned about the risk of extremists travelling to Somalia and returning to the UK to conduct attacks." The Somali diaspora has also been well represented in terrorist attacks in the country.

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