Aid comes with the barrel of a gun

MOGADISHU looks from the air like a city which once tried to get out of Africa, but was brought to a halt at the water's edge, where its buildings, battered and roofless, gave up the struggle.

This is one country where there is no need to show a passport, no customs to negotiate, no forms to fill. Even anarchy has its up-side. And even anarchy has its rules. We climb into the truck that will drive us to the city, but we have no armed guard as we head towards the airport gates, passing groups of young men, easy with their weapons. It is a bit like walking in your underwear through a room full of men in suits.

Once through the gates, we can collect our guards. These employees of our hosts, Save the Children Fund, belong to a different clan from that in charge of the airport: they cannot set foot inside. They lean against the back of the vehicle and lay their guns across their legs, barrels pointing to the road.

We turn into a main street, a sand road between stalls made of corrugated iron, of sacking, of grass. The street is crowded, hectic with packed buses and trucks. Technicals - the roving killing machines of the local teenagers, vehicles mounted with machine guns, anti-tank guns, anti-aircraft guns - are parked at intervals along the street.

Stalls are offering car parts, grapefruit, tomatoes. Goat legs hang from the roofs. Suddenly we are staring through the windscreen down the barrel of a gun several inches wide. A dozen youngsters hang on to it. The truck carrying the gun swerves past.

We hear of how, last week, one Technical rider, 10 or 12 years old, managed to get through a traffic jam in a Mogadishu street by shooting dead the driver of a taxi in his way.

We arrive at the Save the Children house; even a newcomer can sense an unusual degree of tension among the women based here. A Somali woman, a tea-seller, was shot dead in the street outside this morning.

As we talk, there are occasional bursts of gunfire in the streets. One relief nurse gets a walkie-talkie message to go to the gate to talk to two Somalis. She walks out on to the veranda. Her disappearance is followed immediately by two gunshots. None of the women flinches, or turns her head. I look at the cigarettes and lighter, left neatly on the table by the nurse. Will she return? Eventually, she does.

I hear of how recent fighting in a Mogadishu suburb rendered the Save the Children centre inaccessible to its workers. In the suburban centre's therapeutic section, 400 children at high risk of dying were being fed four times a day. One Somali superviser hired a 'bush taxi' at his expense, and drove food supplies through the fighting.

Three days ago, travelling with a colleague bringing medicines, he was stopped and told if he did not turn back he would be killed. No one has got through since, though a few mothers have turned up at other centres with babies.

I learn more of the ways the workers survive here; of the necessary negotiations before travel or the bringing in of new people; the ways predictability is cajoled out of chaos.

This place no longer exists as a country. But people work, heal, survive, as well as fight. One day, the Somali people will have to reinvent Somalia.

(Photograph omitted)

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