City Life: Mogadishu: Mobiles mean business amid the ruins

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DRIVING WILDLY across the once impassable "Green Line" in the heart of Mogadishu, where abandoned shops, offices and banks are mortar- bombed beyond recognition, Mohammed whips out his mobile phone to announce successful safe passage - "we are across".

The extraordinary event is not just in the ease of crossing a battlefront that inspired a US-led international military intervention in Somalia in 1991, but in the even greater ease with which this progress can now be conveyed.

Until recently more likely to be carrying a gun, Mohammed is now one of many young men here armed with a mobile phone. He brandishes it with a familiar, reckless confidence and puts it to constant use - chatting endlessly about security, business, family affairs, and what time lunch will be ready. At one point he furiously waves down the "security convoy" needed in certain parts of the city - the usual bunch of wild-looking youths with red head-bands and dark glasses, riding atop four-wheel-drives mounted with anti- aircraft guns - and shouts at Ahmed the security chief: "Put your phone back on!"

His tiny state-of-the-art Japanese phone underlines the apocalyptic condition of the ruined capital. It is a new asset in a country that has to all intents and purposes been written off as hopeless by the international community.

"It gives us a voice. It improves business, helps security, and gives much-needed news to relatives outside the country," says the communications tycoon Abdullahi Hussein Kahie. He says a call on the telephone reduces "the frustration" of extreme isolation - no commercial flights, no national news, no government, and a fragmenting state.

His company, Barakaat, means "great things" and, from 1997, has led the boom in Somalia's telecommunications business. Not only is the telephone "very positive for development", says Mr Kahie, but talking is what everybody wants to do in an oral culture where the language was not written down until 1972.

Since establishing land lines and mobiles and a fully computerised system in 1997, Barakaat has signed up 5,700 customers. Only a tiny elite can rent a mobile, but, passed generously around, one telephone is subjected to more democracy than the country itself has ever enjoyed. "The average bill is about $500 (pounds 315) a month - all international, because local calls are free," says Abdirahman Ali Said, head of accounts. The Somali tragedy produced a huge diaspora with only a recent trickle back to the homeland. But businessmen who initially fled have started coming back in earnest.

The new business boom is directly related to improved security. Though Mogadishu is still hostage to outbursts of violence, people are tired of the battling warlords, who reduced the capital to ruin and precipitated a popular exodus. "Warlords? They need us," says one telecom director, dismissively. Since August last year, former arch enemies Ali Mahdi Mohamed and Hussein Aideed have managed to establish a tenuous joint North-South administration, opening up passage round the city.

"We have made progress, and now we need the equipment the UN took when it withdrew - the computers, the cranes, the radios, and the generators," says the faction leader Hussein Aideed, in south Mogadishu, referring to the international pull-out in March 1995. With the intervention - known locally as "the invasion" - the blasted city was temporarily plastered with communication systems, generators and computers. But little, apart from endless rolls of razor wire, was left behind.

Without a government for nine years, Somalia now struggles to get anyone to pay attention to it. With only Libya, Sudan and Egypt attempting permanent diplomatic missions in Mogadishu - and Egypt operates out of a hotel - Somalia's international identity has become almost theoretical. "We bought the international code," says Mr Kahie - "then we had to make special agreements with each different country."

The communications boom in Mogadishu has attracted the attention of international aid organisations, now operating at great cost in absentia in neighbouring Nairobi. Expatriate staff make rare, quick visits to the capital because of the real threat of kidnapping, but nurse a guilty conscience. "We have proposed a sort of backing project for mobile phones," said one UN aid worker, making nonsense of the notion that aid should help people to get back on their feet. This is one thing Somalis have successfully seized, and should not be used to help to get aid back on its feet.

Lucy Hannan