The cars drive into the United Nations compound in Mogadishu. The two Somalis get out, and so does the Filipino woman, and the sad-looking Egyptian who has been telling everyone he must be on the flight back to Nairobi at four o’clock. I am the only one who is going on, to the Save the Children Fund compound. Ahmed turns the car around and there are only the two of us in it. The guards open the tall metal gates to let us out, and there is no sign of the Toyota pick-up which escorted us from the airport, a machine-gun mounted behind the cab, a man braced against it as if he were in the prow of a whaler. I catch sight of an anxious face in the wing mirror and recognise it as mine. There is a ceasefire in Mogadishu but it doesn’t involve anything so prosaic as a cease in the firing. What it means in practice is no first use of artillery, a moratorium on heavy ordnance. It has not put an end to the shooting: thirty casualties a day are turning up at the couple of gamy hospitals in the city.

Glancing through the rear windscreen, I see the Filipino woman looking back at me, and talking animatedly to the guards. The door opens and a teenager in Arab dress slides onto the seat beside me. He grins and rests an automatic weapon in his lap as nonchalantly as if he were taking an instrument to school for orchestra practice. A German-made firearm precedes a man of thirty through the passenger door. The journey to the Save the Children Fund compound turns out to be brief – brief and uneventful. All that happens is that we pass field guns and a French-built tank in the street. We pass jagged buildings and mounds of tandoori-coloured earth, staked with sticks to mark graves.

Aid is being transported to Mogadishu by groups such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and the World Food Programme, the ICRC and the WFP – there’s an airlift of initials. As the letters are going in, the figures are coming out. At least ten thousand people died in this city, twice as many again were injured, and 700,000 are in urgent need of food. As one senior relief worker says, ‘Mogadishu now is just lines on the map. There is no central government, no electricity, the schools haven’t run for 18 months. No taxes have been collected, no hospital staff have been paid for 18 months. There’s been a total collapse of the economy.’

Mogadishu turned the gun on itself last year after chasing off President Siad Barre, the octogenarian bully who rumbled away from the capital in a tank full of bullion from the Central Bank. I’m in Somalia fresh from bearding Barre at a hotel in Nairobi – he had at last dragged himself over the Kenyan border. He was a grey and uncommunicative presence glimpsed across the threshold of a room stuffed with antelope heads and hired muscle. He was putting up at the Safari Park, a kind of Tree Tops motel. The Presidential Suite, which would once have done Barre to a nicety, was gallingly down the hall from the guest in 901. Hardly had the United Somali Congress run Barre out of town than it stopped being united. A rift emerged between the interim president, Ali Mahdi Mohamed, and his chief of staff. General Mohamed Farah Aideed. It was a consequence of Ali Mahdi’s willingness to entertain the idea of a compromise with Barre. But its origins lie deeper, in Somalia’s history of competing, feuding clans and sub-clans. Aideed’s group, the Habir Jedir, and Ali Mahdi’s Abgal brotherhood, took Barre’s meagre legacy and converted it into a pittance, razing Mogadishu with weapons that the superpowers had taken it in turns to give Somalia since independence. It was as if Sicily had been of geopolitical interest in the Cold War, and the Families had taken advantage by exacting respect from each other with APCs and mortars.

Food has arrived for the first time since the ceasefire. At Mogadishu port, I join a relief caravan of eight lorries and two hundred hired guards. Mogadishu is the first place in the world where relief organisations have routinely taken on armed protection. The guards are accompanying the lorries in a fleet of Toyota gunships like the one which shadowed Ahmed’s car from the airport. These gunships are Mogadishu’s ‘technicals’, pick-ups which have been customised and put to a use beyond the wildest moonshine hallucinations of the hayseeds and good ole boys who run about in them in the American South. They are torqued and cantilevered, shot up and thrashed from the civil war and prickling with armaments. The length of one technical is measured by a howitzer extending through the sawn-off cab so that its muzzle is directly above the deckled radiator. The hunkered gunner overhangs the tailgate. Another crew has commandeered rockets from one of Barre’s MIG fighters: in a shoot-out, they wouldn’t so much fire the missiles as kickstart them, wiring them to jump leads which could safely be uncoiled round the corner from their vehicle before being connected to a 12-volt car battery.

Today’s food drop is to be at Hamar Jab Jab – Mogadishu’s southside, Aideed’s turf. All the technical gangs are USC men, Aideed’s boys. With mirrored sunglasses and Western T-shirts they are Mogadishu’s mobsters, goodfellas who owe allegiance to one of the city’s two great godfathers. Each man is paid about £4 – enough to keep him in spicy tea and qat, a plant which resembles celery stalks but produces a narcotic effect when chewed. Tubs of the stuff swing from rear-mirrors. The old lorries rev and shudder. Like a wagon train, they creak out of a stockade – metal containers drawn up on the quayside to seal off the bags of grain from looters. Without perhaps having given the matter due consideration, I am on the roof of a Toyota land-cruiser at the head of the convoy. There is a man riding machine-gun, as well as two men with automatic rifles and a child in a straw hat holding a rocket-launcher.

We haven’t gone far – we’ve reached a disused banana depot where a man is sleeping among the wooden pallets – when we notice that the lorries behind us are idling. One wagon has been held up because of a query over waybills. The rest of us cannot move on until it has caught up. A straggling truck could be prey to pirate runabouts. There is nothing to do except inhale the smell of rotting fruit. Technicals sweep past us to interdict traffic coming the other way: sloughing vans triple-deckered, club-sandwiched, with startled looking Somalis.

I don’t hear my first bullet in Mogadishu until late afternoon. I’m standing with David Shearer, field director of the Save the Children Fund, on the flat roof of the SCF staff house, hardly troubled by the thought that we’re both crisply silhouetted against the skyline. At the report, I flinch – no, I jump. I look at Shearer and see that he is raptly savouring his Marlboro. Three weeks ago, two rounds were put through a car he was in as it crossed the frontier of divided Mogadishu, known to relief groups as the green line.

He says: ‘There are two types of gunfire here. There’s communication gunfire, like that guy. He’s just letting his brothers know where he is, or testing his gun. Then there’s confrontational gunfire.’

‘What’s that like?’

‘It goes rat-tat-tat – BRRRR. The Somalis have a fatalistic attitude towards bullets and shells. They say: “to whom it may concern.” ’

There are three notable recipients of bullets in Mogadishu: the flat man, the sack man and the rock man. By a fluke of climate and road camber, the features of the often run-over flat man have been preserved in the buttery tar-macadam of a city crossing. The sack man, left to rot under his eponymous hemp, has become a macabre piece of body art – Mogadishu’s answer to the Turin Shroud. The mortal remains of the rock man are sprawled beneath the pink seawall of the Lido in the old city. He was shot as he scrambled ashore from a tank that had backed through the wall into the Indian Ocean.

In a district called Wadajir, food distribution has to be suspended after threats from gunmen. Many Somalis stay away from Mogadishu’s ganglands, and the supplies of food that might keep their children alive, because of the dangers. They travel to outlying areas, redoubling the demands on resources there. At Al Ulei refugee camp, twenty miles outside the capital, the people are withered and dirty. They are in rags. They live in tents which are actually no more than sticks, the skeletons of tents. It feels like an act of unkindness to approach them, as the sight of a Westerner prompts unanswerable pleas for food. At Dhar Keynley, 278 children are on a crash feeding programme of Unimix porridge because their height and weight are only about two-thirds of what they should be. Some have malarial eyes, their hair is turning auburn through malnutrition. Mohammed Day-low, the supervisor, shows me charts recording the progress of his under-fives since the clinic opened a few weeks ago. A figure of 12 is logged in the table he keeps in orange ink under the heading ‘Died’. Others are dying in the grounds of Benadir hospital, where hundreds have taken refuge. A few weeks ago, people were dying here from high-velocity bullet wounds, and even the Vietnam vets on the surgical team were goggling at so much blood. First the excess of guns; now the lack of food.

A political solution awaits the resolution of blood feuds among Africa’s Cosa Nostra. Aideed, the self-proclaimed conqueror of Barre, sees himself as Somalia’s don of dons. His pretensions are challenged by, among others, the Somali National Movement, which has claimed independence for the northern territories once ruled by Britain; and by the rump of Barre’s army, resisting Aideed in the south under the tyrant’s son-in-law. The best augury of peace was a meeting in June attended by the bosses of seven Somali clans. On the neutral soil of Addis Ababa, they promised to ‘open a dialogue’ with each other. Also hopeful was the decision of the United Nations to send fifty unarmed observers to Somalia. However, the rhetoric which has become the etiquette in such circumstances – involving peaceful transitions and free elections – has not been uttered. As one Western journalist with long experience of Somalia puts it, ‘for Somalis, Somalia is the centre of the universe and their clan politics are the sole, absolute and eternal meaning of a life in which ideology and democracy have no place.’ As for the developed world, Somalia might as well have ceased to exist come the end of the Cold War, and on the whole it has.

I am promised a trip to see the rock man on a convoy heading into the north of the city. Carl Howarth, pilot for the convoy, says: ‘We haven’t been that far in before. We’ve never stopped and looked around.’ USC technicals will go with us as far as the green line, where Ali Mahdi’s vehicles take over. I travel in a landcruiser flying the pennants of Care, one of the distribution agencies. The crocodile of grain and guns files past the deserted British Embassy towards the narrow alleys of the fishermen’s district. There are settled rockfalls of masonry, and starburst patterns left by rockets in the sides of buildings. The ocean’s ozone makes the smell of human excrement the more pungent.

We are crossing the green line, following the so-called UN Road to the exchange point. The streets are abandoned; there aren’t even gunmen around. But Ali Mahdi’s Toyotas are waiting outside the bank where Barre looted his golden handshake. The gate to the courtyard is still secured by a small green padlock, fastened by the dutiful manager.

The leading USC technical pulls over by a traffic light with its eyes out on stalks, but our vehicle drives through the checkpoint, going north, crunching over cartridges fallen as thickly as leaves. We are by ourselves. We are moving faster, in case of snipers, in case of ambush. We keep going, down the length of the pink seawall, until we reach the breach in it. The lacquered blue of the sea breaking over its open hatch, the shipwrecked tank is training its gun down the coast. Lizards quicksilver away from the body of the rock man as I tiptoe around his tomb.

The old city was left to the technicals and the bandits months ago. I crouch to collect a spent cartridge as a souvenir. As I’m getting up, the gunfire starts – a street or two away, by the sound of it, and confrontational, implacably confrontational. I fumble with my camera. I drop it. Attempting to gather it up, I lose my footing. At last I’m clambering into the landcruiser and we’re hurrying back to the checkpoint. A lorry has been sideswiped, rustled, by a technical which forced it off the main road near the hulk of the Juba Hotel. There has been a lot of shooting. Ali Mahdi’s technicals shouldered their way into the back street and chased the looters through the ruins.

I go into the Italian cathedral, on the green line. The roof is missing. A human skull lies in a shingle of marble. Siad Barre is seen as an ass in a ribald graffito; others assert the righteousness of Islam. Statues of Christ and the saints have been beheaded, for target practice. In the grounds are bowers of a mauve flower I have seen all over Mogadishu. No one seems to know what it’s called. The expats can’t help and the Somalis, who have only 21 letters in their alphabet – no ‘v’, for example, no ‘z’ – they don’t appear to have a word for it.

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