A hopeless pilgrimage to a grave lost in the sand

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I was last in Mogadishu in 1992, towards the end of March, the hottest time of year, when famine was taking a slow and deadly hold. I had not visited sub-Saharan Africa before - and never seen a person dying of hunger.

Well-fed, curious and unable to help, I stepped out of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) house every morning among the skeletal figures thronging the sandy backstreets.

One day I came upon a ragged group who had evidently trekked a long way. Aden, a friendly, well-educated man who had become my interpreter, explained they had fled from their village in the south-west after an attack by the forces of Siad Barre, toppled from power early the previous year. Newly arrived in the capital, the villagers found themselves caught in a vicious struggle between two warlords, Mohamed Farah Aideed and the self-declared president, Ali Mahdi.

We accompanied them to the school compound where they were living. There I met a good-looking young couple, Sugow Ali Hassan and his wife, Nunay, with their three surviving children. One child had died on the long march from their village, another had perished soon after arrival in Mogadishu. I took their picture as they crouched by the recently dug graves. They were desperately thin and I doubted the baby at Nunay's breast would survive long.

My return to the place where this starving family had politely posed was a hopeless pilgrimage. I should have known nothing would remain of the sandy graves or the wooden stakes that marked them. Some 350,000 Somalis died in the 1992 famine which, despite the valiant efforts of aid agencies, was effectively brought under control only at the year's end with the arrival of a United States-led task force to help to escort relief convoys.

Needless to say, I do not know whether the family is alive or dead. But the other day I bumped into Aden. Sickness and old age have taken many of his relatives but he seems in good spirits and now works for Reuters news agency.

After three-and-a-half years of full-scale civil war, there is precious little that works in Mogadishu: no electricity; no running water; no sanitation; no rubbish disposal. Rotting waste is piled high up by the roadsides and everywhere there are rusting carcasses of cars.

However, although the ICRC has left, with all the other aid agencies, there are no longer any hungry people outside the house where I stayed. A nearby stall sells pasta, soft drinks, shampoo, soap, toy guns. Bakaraha market is bustling and there is plenty of food for sale. It is still possible to buy a Kalashnikov, though the price has risen from $50 (£32) to $300.

A ceasefire continues to hold between the forces of Aideed, in nominal control of the south of the city, and Ali Mahdi, who has the northern districts. However, violent disputes within Aideed's sub-clan have been on the increase, banditry is widespread and few venture abroad without an armed escort.

A foreigner is no longer as safe. My "minder", Omar insists we need three security guards riding in the pick-up. Alongside two rifle-wielding former students there is the one-legged Mohammed with whom he shares an indefatigable passion for the chewing of qat, the stimulant on which many Somali males are high by early afternoon. Despite Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, Omar chews, smokes and drinks.

Hundreds of local United Nations employees are losing salaries with the departure of the peace-keepers, as are Omar and his colleagues, who have been helping foreign journalists.

But most believe the worst is over and that Somalis just want to get on with their lives.