Somalia in ruins

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

KATY CLARK: I'm Katy Clark and this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. It's hard to imagine that things could get worse in Somalia. The country has been engulfed by violence for almost two decades. It's had no working government since 1991. Now, according to the United Nations, Somalia is looking at its biggest humanitarian crisis. The U.N. estimates that more than half the country's population needs food aid or other assistance. U.N. officials also say that the number of Somalian refugees has risen by more than 40 percent since January. Meanwhile, a weak transitional government is battling militant groups like Al-Shabaab for control of the country. Robert Draper traveled throughout Somalia for an article that appears in the September issue of National Geographic. In the capitol Mogadishu, Draper met an 18-year old fisherman named Mohammad.

ROBERT DRAPER: When I came to Mogadishu, Katy, I was interested in finding some kids who were like Mohammad, who considering that there had been 18 years essentially without a government, had no idea of what a government is supposed to do, had no idea what law and order are supposed to be and feel like. And I met Mohammad while wandering through this abandoned lighthouse in the Hammer Wayne district of old Mogadishu. And as you mentioned, he was an 18 year old fisherman, basically the only member of his family who is working because his father was incapacitated by a mortar blast and he feeds his family. When he doesn't catch fish they don't eat. And though fishing itself is not a dangerous pass time, taking the fish to market is. The Bakaara market where he often sells fish was repeatedly shelled when we were there and Mohammad talked to us about wandering through the area and seeing bodies strewn all over the street and having nightmares as a result. He stopped going to school because his closest friend was killed and a lot of his other classmates joined Al-Shabaab and Al-Shabaab tried to recruit Mohammad. They offered him a lot of money, at least by Somali standards, something like $100 per month. And that would be a huge bounty for his family and his family earnestly debated the pros and cons of whether or not he should join. And ultimately their decision to say to Mohammad, "Don't join, stay as a fisherman," was not based on morality, was not based on an antipathy towards Al-Shabaab and what they were doing, but instead on the concern that Mohammad might be imprisoned by the government or killed as a result of being a militant Muslim. And then they would have no one to feed their family at all.

KATY CLARK: Where does Al-Shabaab get that $100 to offer to a young man like Mohammad?

ROBERT DRAPER: Through all sorts of illegal trading, through drugs, through the selling of Contract [ph], through -- presumably through other extremist Muslim organizations, perhaps through al Qaeda, we're not sure. But what we also heard is that they give you a hundred up front and then promise you that they will give you a hundred every month. But then after a while say to you if you are a young soldier for Al Shabaab that if you're fighting for a holy cause, you should not want money, you should not expect the money. And so after a while the money stops being given.

KATY CLARK: The United Nations reporting this week that one in five children in Somalia is acutely malnourished. And you talk about Mohammad, no schooling. I wonder what that means for the future of the country if you have this whole generation that is struggling with hunger and lack of education and no idea what a civil society is like.

ROBERT DRAPER: Well that's right. I mean you have instead children who like Mohammad, don't know what a law is, literally don't know what it is, have no sense of what a government is supposed to do since the government in Somalia does not provide basic services of water or electricity. That's always provided by clans. But instead a generation that knows what an amplified explosive device sounds like versus a mortar blast. Then you have kind of a culture that's rigged for self destruction, on top of the basic health calamity that you described. I searched for anything that would look like a solution while I was there. What I heard over and over was that a missed opportunity came in 2006 when the Islamic courts, an Islamic group took over from Ethiopia. They were largely moderate Islamists but the Bush administration believed that because one of its leaders had made sympathetic comments about al Qaeda that they were essentially an offshoot of al Qaeda and therefore refused to recognize them, refused to negotiate with them. Then the Islamic courts ultimately fell prey to their own militia group, which was Al-Shabaab. Had we maybe been more tolerant, more willing to engage with the moderate aspects of the Islamic courts, then maybe things would not be so bad as they are now.

KATY CLARK: We hear from time to time concerns that al Qaeda will be moving into the lawless situation there, moving into the area that's the lawless situation of Somalia. Did you come across any evidence of that?

ROBERT DRAPER: I did not, no. And that's an ongoing concern but, you know, Katy, I think the tragedy to all of this is during the time of the Cold War, the argument has been made that many African nations were kind of used as pawns on this chess board that the USSR and the Western powers such as the U.S. were playing on. And certainly Somalia was one of them. Then after the end of the Cold War, African nations were largely ignored by the U.S. and other countries. There were some humanitarian efforts but the level of engagement definitely decreased. Nowadays, in the wake of September 11th, the tendency from our government has been to view African nations strictly through the prism of whether or not they are with us or against us, as the phrase goes, in the War on Terror. And that has certainly been the prism through which Somalia has largely been seen. And so while it's a salient question to ask, and would be certainly a nightmare scenario if a caliphate were to emerge in the horn of Africa, it is, I think, a grossly incomplete way of viewing the tragedy that is Somalia. And there are obviously ways that we can help this nation beyond simply seeing whether or not they are sympathetic to terrorist organizations.

KATY CLARK: Robert Draper's article on Somalia and Somali land is in the September issue of National Geographic now on news stands. Thank you.

ROBERT DRAPER: My pleasure.