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Mogadishu diary part 1: Getting there

Andrew Harding | 16:37 UK time, Monday, 29 November 2010

Dawn at Nairobi's international airport. A solitary giraffe outside the perimeter fence. Herds of foreign tourists heading on safari, draped in khaki and cameras.

At Gate 4, a noticeably sombre atmosphere - perhaps 60 Somalis preparing to board a scheduled flight for Mogadishu. One man recognises me and cameraman Phil Davies from a previous trip we made about seven years ago. He used to be a journalist but not now.

Andrew Harding wearing a flak jacket in Mogadishu

Camera? Check. Tripod? Check. Flak jacket? Check.

"Too dangerous," he says with a frown, then mimes the action of a saw, amputating his arm. He lives in an area of the Somali capital controlled by the Islamist militia, al-Shabab. "They lash people there. Every day - for the smallest thing."

He's now working for a foreign aid organisation - still a risky choice. "Al-Shabab call us the hands of the infidel. Their eyes are on us all the time." For a while he sent his seven-year-old daughter to a Koranic school in the city, in order to "try to fit in", but took her out when she came home saying she'd been taught how to "use a pistol... The world must understand what al-Shabab are. How dangerous they are."

We fly north-east for an hour and a half. First over flat, seemingly empty scrubland, then over a messy quilt of fields.

There's another old acquaintance on the flight, a senior western diplomat I've met in other conflict zones who has years of experience in - and apparent patience with - Somalia. He's coming here with, he says, a tough message for the Transitional Federal Government - the unelected, heavily western-backed, besieged administration that clings on to power in a chunk of Mogadishu, defended by some 8,000 African Union troops.

The TFG stands accused of wasting the last two years bickering among themselves and failing either to bring change to the area they control or to broaden their political base by reaching out to the feuding clans and groups across the country. The TFG's mandate expires next August and the international community wants a broader coalition assembled to take over, otherwise it may abandon the TFG altogether.

There's a growing consensus that the "top-down" approach to state building isn't working in Somalia, and it may be time to shift focus to the handful of local administrations that are actually making some headway. The northern region of Somaliland is a prime example.

As we come in to land, the plane swings out over the Indian Ocean, hopefully out of range of al-Shabab's guns, before landing on the beach front. Mogadishu airport sits in a sliver of coastal territory controlled by Ugandan troops. It's the second time I've been here in under a fortnight - the last trip was prompted by the release of the Chandlers, the British couple held by pirates.

This time, we're "embedded" with Amison, the African Union peacekeeping force. Curiously, after a period of little, or negative, international media coverage, they've taken the trouble to hire - via the UN - some British PR consultants to help arrange our visit.

Amisom, with their heavy armour and Ugandan soldiers, offer some serious protection from the snipers, the mortars, the roadside bombs and the kidnappers. But their forces are also the principle targets of al-Shabab right now - and because of incidents like this, none too popular with some civilians either. Would we be safer with one of the clan-based militia groups in the city? Probably not. The word on the street here is that al-Shabab are offering $1.5m (£1m) for a foreign/white hostage. There are no easy options in Somalia.

Speaking of options - the BBC has just unveiled the results of a new opinion poll conducted in Mogadishu. In a place as dangerous as this, the circumstances of the process may well be as revealing as the actual results.

Crossing the frontlines here, pollsters braved gunfire from rival militias to visit most of the city. In areas controlled by al-Shabab, it was considered too dangerous to ask people directly, what they thought of the group, instead they spoke of "the opposition."

View of Mogadishu from the destroyed parliament building

Mogadishu has been left in ruins by two decades of conflict

The poll reveals a resilient population - overwhelmingly optimistic about eventual peace, but worried about the short term.
  • Ninety-two percent of households say they're are unable to meet their basic needs.
  • More than half feel the world has forgotten Somalia.
  • As for al Shabab - the opposition - a full 71% of respondents see them as a force for bad.
  • Seventy-two percent are unwilling to see them in power.
  • Just over half of all respondents believe African Union peacekeepers now controlling roughly half the city can end years of conflict in Somalia.
  • Fifty-seven percent of the randomly selected households live in makeshift camps under plastic or iron sheeting.
  • Forty-one percent are illiterate.
  • In a country with nothing resembling a social safety net - only 27% of those interviewed consider themselves unemployed.
  • And one percent, retired.

This is the first of five entries from Mogadishu this week.


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