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Inside the World's Worst Hellhole: Somalia, the Perfect Failed State

By Clemens Höges in Mogadishu

Somalia, which has been without a functioning government for almost two decades, serves as a warning for what could happen to other failed states. Rival Islamic militias battle for control of the capital, where the president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, is in constant danger of his life. A visit to the worst place on the planet.

Photo Gallery: Africa's Dirtiest War Photos
AFP

Dealers in the Somali capital Mogadishu are now selling cartridges for Kalashnikovs at 37 cents apiece. The price has dropped by almost half in recent weeks, probably because there is already a lot of ammunition in the city. Mukhtar Ainashe knows this. He steps on the gas and the large SUV he is driving shoots off.

Ainashe is an intellectual. He reads American philosophers like Thoreau and Emerson, he studied in Norway and, until recently, he made a good living working for the World Bank in Washington. He has a wife and two young children in the United States, and he has a passion for expensive watches. In fact, Ainashe is completely out of place in Africa's dirtiest war.

He drives the vehicle furiously across the unforgiving terrain, a former road now pockmarked with grenade craters. The SUV skids through the gravel and bounces along over rocks, its axles making cracking noises, past the ruins of bullet-riddled houses, which shimmer in the sun like the bleached bones of dead animals in the desert.

No Way to Stop

A "technical" -- a pickup truck typical of Somalia, with a machine gun mounted on the truck bed -- is visible in the rear-view mirror, also bouncing up and down on the rough road. It's manned by government fighters -- Ainashe's bodyguards. The driver of the technical can barely manage to keep up, driving as close to the rear bumper of the SUV as possible. Nevertheless, Ainashe cannot afford to slow down -- it would only make him a target for the Islamists' machine guns. Anyone who stops on this road dies.

The SUV circles "Kilometer 4," the notorious, often contested central roundabout where so many people have died. Then it passes the ruins of the parliament building, where the Islamists shoot at anything that moves. Finally, Ainashe reaches a driveway at the base of a hill.

Machine gun nests between battered walls protect the entrance. Ainashe maneuvers the SUV through a narrow alleyway, through checkpoints, around tank barricades, passing guards along the way. When he finally reaches the gate to the fortress at the top of the hill, he hears the guns of the president's forces, which kill people every day. Their task is to protect the five buildings inside the wall. Their enemies are less than a kilometer away, and they can be seen running and shooting.

"Welcome to Villa Somalia," says Ainashe.

The Perfect Hell

The fortress dates from the days of Italian colonial rule. Ainashe is one of the most trusted associates of Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the master of Villa Somalia and the world's most unlikely head of state. More than a year ago, his old enemies made him the country's president, and now his old friends are dispatching fighters to the vicinity of his fortress every day in an effort to kill him.

He is an Islamist and a Sharia scholar, but now he is fighting for his life, alongside Somalis from the West like Ainashe. His goal is to unite a country that he can only see through the observation slit of a tank. It wasn't very long ago that American intelligence agents tried to kill him in an air strike. But now Washington deploys reconnaissance drones from its warships every night, and sometimes it sends him tons of ammunition to keep him alive. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says that Sheikh Sharif is the "greatest hope" for Somalia, and for the "global community."

Almost 20 years of civil war have created the perfect hell. No country has failed more thoroughly than Somalia, so much so that it has become a warning sign for countries like Afghanistan, Yemen and Sudan. Worst of all, this hell has no gates that can be barricaded shut from the outside. Somali pirates attack Western ships while Somalia's Islamists are cooperating with al-Qaida and training terrorists. And if their troops capture Villa Somalia and Sheikh Sharif dies, global terror will have gained yet another safe haven.

A Tool of Allah

Sheikh Sharif looks like a boy in his best suit who has taken a seat in his father's big wing chair. He is sitting in his peach-yellow study, facing 1980s-style cut-glass tables. Sheikh Sharif has a soft, sensual face and has a pair of metal-rimmed glasses perched on his nose. He is 45, but he looks younger.

Ainashe believes in this man. He says that this president isn't just fighting for himself, because, as a devout Muslim, he sees himself as merely a tool. If Allah had other plans, He would either banish him or kill him.

Sheikh Sharif brought Ainashe to Somalia last summer. Ainashe's superiors in Washington thought he had lost his mind. So did his wife. Nevertheless, the banker is now here and, as a member of the president's staff, is building a government for a country that doesn't exist. Because he wants to serve Somalia, he says, now that he sees an opportunity to do so. That's why he no longer goes jet-skiing on the Potomac, but instead listens to machine-gun fire and laughs off the mortar shell that hurled a chunk of concrete onto his bed. (He wasn't in it at the time, fortunately.) He is now 40, and he has achieved everything a Somali granted political asylum could achieve in Norway and then in the United States. Now, he believes, it's time to fight.

An official straightens the national flag while Sheikh Sharif speaks quietly, not uttering a single superfluous word. His face is completely neutral, as always, and his body remains immobile down to his fingertips -- even when another round of shots is fired outside the curtained windows. He says his country has more than enough men who like to cause a commotion.

"We are even more important for the world than for Somalia," he says. "You have to help me -- for your own good." In 1991, rebels overthrew the former occupant of Villa Somalia, the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. But then the country's clans began tearing each other apart.

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