Millions have fled their homes in terror; a raped 13-year-old has been stoned to death for 'adultery'; aid workers have been murdered by Islamist militias. While the world's attention is on the pirates off its coast, the failed African state is being ripped apart by violence.
Zam Zam Abdi fled Mogadishu after being threatened with death by the hardline Islamist militia - the Shabab. The message from the armed group once allied to the Union of Islamic Courts, the coalition that briefly seized power in 2006, was simple: if she continued working for her women's rights organisation in the Somali capital, she would be killed. The warning was posted on her office gates. But it is what happened to a friend and colleague, working for another organisation, that persuaded her to escape. He was shot dead and the same note left on his body.
'Most of us had to leave,' she said. 'We had emails and phone calls telling us to stop working. They used an expression famous in Somalia: Falka aad ku jirtid maka baxeeysa. May ama haa? It means - "Stop what you are doing or we will act. Yes or no?" Then someone spoke on the radio - a local leader called Sheikh Mahmoud - delivering the same warning.'
Zam Zam, 28, separates the chaos and violence that has pervaded her country since the overthrow of President Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 into 'ordinary Mogadishu' and 'not ordinary'. 'Ordinary', in Zam Zam's definition, describes her country's persistent clan warfare, even the heavy fighting in the city that drove her to leave before with her daughter when Ethiopian troops - supporting the internationally recognised government - shelled her neighbourhood in 2006 to drive the Islamic Courts out after six months in power.
In the ordinary violence and chaos, Zam Zam and her colleagues could still work, negotiating with the clan warlords. In common with the UN, Zam Zam believes that what is happening now is something else. Something terrible, exceeding perhaps even the bloodsoaked chaotic days of the early 1990s when Somalia was last plunged into anarchy.
It is Mogadishu that symbolises what is happening. A large proportion of its population - already jobless, hungry and surviving on aid - has fled the fighting in the city between the Shabab and the forces of the country's weak and rapidly imploding government, backed by its Ethiopian allies. The streets are stalked by assassins, kidnappers and suicide bombers. And the Shabab is threatening to overrun the country's south and centre.
If what is happening is a disaster, it is a disaster hardly noticed by the world. Yet it has not only been human rights workers who have been attacked. Government officials, politicians and journalists, anyone who does not fit in with the Shabab's world view, have been threatened and killed, mostly for being tainted by Western ideas. 'When the leadership of the Islamic Courts fled in 2006, the Shabab became more independent,' said Zam Zam.
For humanitarian workers, problems were exacerbated when one of the Shabab's leaders, accused also of being a leader of al-Qaeda, was killed in a US air strike in late spring in the town of Dusa Mareeb. 'When the US hit Shabab hideouts they started seeing us as being spies of the West. If people were kidnapped they would ask to see our laptops before releasing us to see what information we held on them.'
While the world has focused on the rampant piracy problem afflicting the Gulf of Aden, which saw yet another tanker held for ransom last week, the seizing of ships is only a symptom of a much more terrifying malaise.
What it points to is the wholesale failure of a state and the international community's abandonment of the Somalia problem except where it affects its interests - in terms of shipping trade and the 'war on terror' for the West and on a more local scale for the regional interests of Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Last week, however, the African Union Commission's chairman, Jean Ping, reiterated what many are convinced of: that the piracy problem is inseparable from Somalia's caustic political and security problems. 'Piracy is an extension on the sea of the problem you are facing on the land ... [it] is an important aspect of all the disorder you already have in Somali territory,' he said.
Somalia is not so much a failed state as one that is atomising. Forty-three per cent of the country is in dire need of humanitarian assistance, about 3.2 million people at the last count. There are 1.3 million internally displaced, 100,000 of them fleeing the fighting in Mogadishu alone since the beginning of September. Inflation is running at 1,600 per cent. One in six children in southern and central Somalia is acutely malnourished.
Dozens of aid workers, most of them locals, have been murdered this year, largely by members of the Shabab. According to the Shabab, even locals who take money from the UN are therefore in the pay of foreign interests and enemies to be killed.
Mogadishu and other centres have been hit by suicide attacks - merely one aspect of an intensely violent society. There is the religious conflict between the factions of the Islamic Courts allied to the Shabab and those they regard as insufficiently Islamic. Then there are the ever-present clan conflicts, at the centre of which is the rivalry between the Hawiye and the Darod groups. Added to this is the battle between the Transitional Federal government backed by Ethiopia and the Islamic Courts.
These conflicts are underscored by complex, interleaving rivalries even within the Islamist factions which have pitted the Shabab - literally the 'Youth' - against the more moderate Djibouti faction. On top of all this has been the mushrooming of criminal activity, piracy, smuggling and people-trafficking, some of it linked to groups such as the Shabab. Foreign jihadi fighters have also been attracted into the chaos. The consequence has been a disaster.
'The situation is very serious,' said a Mogadishu businessman who spoke to The Observer on Friday asking not to be identified for fear of being targeted by one of the rival groups. 'A lot of the population has fled from the city. Some areas are deserted and it is very difficult and dangerous. There are no jobs. People are only surviving on the food provided at the kitchens of the aid organisations. Others get money sent from their relatives overseas.
'The military loyal to the government are looting. They are taking mobiles from people and committing other crimes. Then there are the different factions of the resistance who call themselves names like the Union of Islamic Courts or Islamic Jihad. Last week the Shabab took two more towns. This is the worst situation since the civil war began,' he added. 'You don't know who will attack or kill you.'
And despite the advances on the battlefield made by the Shabab, he does not believe that the period of calm and order enjoyed in Somalia in 2006 when the Islamic Courts first took over would be replicated if the Islamist groups won once more. 'This time it will be worse,' he said. 'The Courts replaced the clan warlords but had no ideas for the future and were driven back. This time the Islamic groups will fight among themselves. This time we will have Islamic warlords. They will fight and there will be more difficult problems.'
Somalia's tragedy has been a slow, deadly and divisive affair that has ground out over the years since the fall of the socialist state founded by Siad Barre in 1991. Its roots, at least partly, are to be found in his disastrous war to seize the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, an adventure that would lead to eventual defeat for Somalia's forces and the beginning of Ethiopia's long history of interference in Somalia, which saw it arm the warlords who brought Siad Barre down.
Despite the overthrow of his authoritarian regime, the rival clans responsible for his downfall could not agree on a replacement, leading to lawlessness and social collapse. The result was a country that, when confronted with famine, was unable to cope, leading to the deaths of more than a million of its people.
While the rest of the world knows Somalia for the intervention by American and Pakistani troops as part of Operation Restore Hope in 1993, for Somalis the country's story has been told in clan strife and repeated failures - 14 to date - to establish a government whose writ runs throughout the state.
The most recent effort was the establishment of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Djibouti in 2004 whose authority was quickly challenged by the Islamic Courts, which emerged out of the port city of Kismayo and sought to establish a strict interpretation of sharia law before being driven out by Ethiopian troops who intervened on behalf of the TFG.
While the rule of the Islamic Courts was, by most Somali accounts, a period of relative calm, it is what has happened since that has driven Somalia towards a new catastrophe. Despite a peace deal between one of the factions of the Islamic Courts and the TFG, the Courts' former militia, the Shabab, has split apart - with the most militant faction responsible for the most violence, in particular those who look to the leadership of Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a hardline Salafist said to be close to al-Qaeda.
The outcome so many Somalis feared has already come to pass in large areas of south-central Somalia that have fallen under the control of the country's reinvented militant Islamist movement. In recent days its fighters have captured two more towns close to the capital, including Elasha, nine miles south of Mogadishu. In Elasha in recent days rival Islamist groups have already clashed violently.
Elsewhere, the Shabab is already consolidating its victories, including in Marka, capital of the Lower Shabele region. Speaking to a crowd in Marka, Muktar Robow - known as 'Abu Mansur' - a spokesman for the Shabab said the group had come to secure the region against foreigners and criminals.
According to the community-based station Radio Garowe, in the north of the country, he said that the Shabab intended to establish an Islamic court to administer justice, adding: 'We will not allow the citizens to be oppressed again.'
Militarily, it is a situation so bleak for the forces of the TFG and its Ethiopian allies that President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed admitted two weeks ago that Islamists now control most of Somalia, raising the prospect that his government could completely collapse. 'We are only in Mogadishu and Baidoa, where there is daily war,' he said.
That leaves a fundamental question: will the Shabab press its advantage to attempt to take Mogadishu once again? On Friday the indication was that it might be its intention, as the capital saw one of the fiercest gun battles in recent weeks when Islamist fighters attacked the house of a local government official, leaving 17 dead.
The Islamist factions have also become increasingly bold in recent weeks, with their spokesmen in Mogadishu regularly holding news conferences and carrying out floggings in the parts of the capital they control, whereas only a few months ago they were careful not to be seen in the open.
Despite the high profile of the Shabab in recent weeks, some analysts believe that it may be content with the chaos in Mogadishu that has bogged down the contingent of African peacekeepers as well as Somali-Ethiopian troops. They believe, too, that the Shabab is wary of the several thousand Ethiopian troops who defeated them before.
Fears over what would happen if the Islamists were to take the capital and impose sharia law across the south were underlined by a single incident at the beginning of the month - the stoning to death for adultery of a 13-year-old rape victim, Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow, in Kismayo. 'You know how bad it is getting,' said Zam Zam, 'when a 13-year-old is stoned to death. Then you know that it is really scary.'
'Somalia in general and Mogadishu is in the midst of a deep political, humanitarian and security crisis,' said Asha Haji Elmi, an MP and activist and delegate to the UN-led peace process, who fled before the Ethiopian advance in 2006. Now based in Nairobi, she remains in daily contact with people in Somalia.
'They talk to me about a precarious situation, and it is civilians who are paying the heaviest price, especially women and children. It is unbelievable. There are internally displaced spread everywhere. There is no secure place.'
She forcefully rejects any new attempt to impose a military solution on her country: 'The solution is political. It requires dialogue. That is the only symbol of hope. A military solution cannot be the answer to the problem. Everyone who has tried to solve Somalia's problems by force has failed.'
1960 Britain withdraws from British Somaliland, making way for a union with Italian Somaliland. The new country is known as the Somali Republic.
1969 A coup launched by Mohamed Siad Barre ushers in a period of increasingly authoritarian rule.
1977 Siad Barre invades the Ethiopian territory of Ogaden in a bid to create a Greater Somalia. The Soviet Union and Cuba back Ethiopia.
1991 Siad Barre is deposed by warlords, largely from the south, armed and supported by Ethiopia. The country descends into factional fighting. In May the northern clans declare an independent Republic of Somalia.
1993 Facing an appalling famine, the UN launches a humanitarian effort led by US and Pakistani troops. Thwarted by General Mohamed Farah Aideed, the mission suffers casualties, including the episode described in the film Black Hawk Down, above right, when 17 US Rangers were killed - and the UN mission leaves in 1995 in the wake of the US withdrawal.
2004 The two-year peace process concludes in the establishment of the Transitional Federal Government. It never manages to establish real authority.
2006 A coalition of businessmen, clerics and militias known as the Union of Islamic Courts sweeps to power. Ethiopia, encouraged by the US, intervenes to support the TFG and drives back the Courts, claiming they are allied to al-Qaeda's East African network.
2008 With the leadership of the Courts in exile, a resurgent Islamist movement, focused on the hardline Shabab militia group, makes gains throughout the country, threatening Mogadishu and Baidoa by November.
Source: The Guardian
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