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World

Somalia marks 20 years of conflict

Twenty years ago, Somalia's dictator Siad Barre fled from the capital Mogadishu, triggering the nation's descent into chaos. Prospects for a return to peace seem slim. Islamic militants have a tight grip on power.

Islamic insurgents with guns

Islamist insurgents also control pockets of the capital

The United Nations this week urged the international community not to give up on Somalia, as the country marked two decades without a functioning national government.

"Somalia is one of the world's most intractable crises," the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, Mark Bowden, said in a statement. "Let us reaffirm our commitment to building a lasting peace which matches the resilience of millions of Somali people who continue to work toward a better future."

That, however, is easier said than done. On January 26, 1991, President Siad Barre fled Mogadishu, after ruling Somalia with an iron fist for over 20 years. To this day, the country doesn't have a functioning government and Islamic insurgents have taken over power in large parts of the country.

Barre said in his last interview as president with German broadcaster ARD that he had had enough.

"I'm tired and I'm fed up with these kinds of political matters," he said.

A failed intervention

Siad Barre

Siad Barre followed an authoritarian socialist rule

Barre came to power in 1969 as a result of a military coup. He established a dictatorship and during the Cold War, first sided with the Soviet Union, only to later shift his allegiances to the United States in the late 1970s. He said he had found himself caught in a difficult spot between "the two big rocks."

"Then you will be crushed and that is very bad," Barre said in the ARD interview. "It would have been better if our country had not been in such a strategic place."

In January 1991, an alliance of several warlords ousted the dictator from Mogadishu. But what was supposed to be the liberation of Somalia became the country's doom. After the enemy was gone, the alliance against Barre collapsed. Decades of civil war began. Soon, pictures of starving and dying people went around the world, prompting the United Nations - with strong US support - to intervene.

"We come to your country for one reason only: to enable the starving to be fed," said the US president at the time, George Bush senior, in a broadcast to the Somali people. "We must help them live. We must give them hope. America must act."

But the mission threatened to become a second Vietnam for the United States after just a few months. Mohammed Farah Aidid, the most powerful warlord in Mogadishu, was determined to drive away the US troops. In October 1993, Aidid's army shot down two US Black Hawk helicopters. Eighteen marines were killed in the battle, with some bodies subsequently dragged through the dusty streets of Mogadishu - live on CNN.

The United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM) mission was soon history. Somalia became a no-go zone for the US and was left to its own devices. Varying warlords continued to terrorize the population. The current government led by President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed controls only a few pockets of Mogadishu with support from African Union troops. The vast majority of the country is now in the hands of Islamist rebels known as al-Shabab.

No future for the next generation

Today, the arid Horn of Africa nation is home to a whole generation who have known nothing but war fed by corruption, clan politics and regional rivalries.

Woman with children in Somali refugee camp

Somali children face a bleak future

"Ever since I was little I'm used to seeing people die," says 20-year-old Abdi. "When I was three years old, there was heavy fighting in our village. Many people were shot. Those are my first memories. When people are killed - it doesn't mean anything more to me."

For those young Somalis who haven't joined the militia, piracy is another option. With a weapon in their hand, they capture foreign ships off the eastern coast of Africa. There are no other future options for the next generation after 20 years of war.

"The constant fighting has worn us down," says a woman on the street in Mogadishu. "Somalia is no longer the country it used to be. We have nothing. We are all refugees."

The UN's Bowden, however, said increasing numbers of children were enrolling in schools, health clinics were opening, and the economy led by the agricultural, banking and telecom sectors was growing rapidly. These improvements in many development indicators were proof that Somalia should not be regarded as a hopeless case.

"Progress is possible even in these difficult circumstances," Bowden said. "The international community must step up its support to the people of Somalia if we are to protect the gains we have made."

The UN is planning to launch a new five-year plan for Somalia, setting out humanitarian and development goals later this week.

Author: Antje Diekhans / sac
Editor: Rob Mudge

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