Welcome to tough, unpredictable Mogadishu

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Media captionAndrew Harding reports from an aid station in the Somali capital

We've got eight gunmen in the pickup in front of us, another seven are watching our backs in the vehicle behind. Welcome to the rough, unpredictable streets of Mogadishu.

The last time I was here, we were embedded in the Green Zone security bubble of the African Union peacekeeping operation at the edge of the Somali capital, with its Ugandan and Burundian troops, its heavy mortars and armoured convoys.

This time, we have spent a few days living at a hotel in the rather more bracing atmosphere of Mogadishu city. It's an experience that sharpens the reflexes, and emphasises the enormous complexities and risks - from rival clan militias, freelance kidnappers, Islamist al-Shabab militants - facing those trying to help tackle the latest catastrophe to strike this wretched country.

As I write this now, there is shouting at the hotel gate, and within seconds guns are being pointed at heads. A hundred metres away, a small crowd of new arrivals - fugitives from the famine - are sitting near a roundabout waiting for someone to guide them to one of the many informal camps that, for years now, have been springing up across Mogadishu.

Local aid workers reckon about 200 people are reaching Mogadishu's camps each day from the countryside.

Many are in a wretched state. At Badabado Camp, about 30,000 people are living in flimsy homemade tents. In the crowded child nutrition centre, I saw four babies in a state of the most extreme starvation, skin stretched tight over bones. Their mothers - indeed almost all the families here - have come from territory controlled by al-Shabab.

Several women confirmed the group were making it very difficult for people to leave the famine zones.

Bintow Hassan, 40, arrived here three days ago from Lower Shabele. She said al-Shabab gunmen killed her son near their home when they spotted him carrying a bag of food. "They said it was food aid from the Infidel… They tied him up and shot him," she said.

We briefly visited the Medina hospital in Mogadishu, which was packed with wounded from the recent upsurge in fighting in the city. Plans to visit another hospital that is trying to treat the most severely malnourished children was called off for security reasons, but I'd urge you to read a colleague's description of it.

Help is arriving here. A local Somali NGO, Saacid, showed us round some of its soup kitchens, where it serves some 80,000 meals a day. The maize comes from the United Nation's World Food Programme (WFP), which is banned from operating in territory controlled by al-Shabab.

The WFP is the only organisation with the logistical muscle to end the famine quickly. So the ban is a lethal obstacle. But Saacid is an interesting - potentially crucial - example of the way to circumvent the ban since it already operates kitchens in al-Shabab-controlled districts of Mogadishu.

"It's not that difficult in reality," said Bashir Mohamoud, Saacid's acting country director. "Well, it's difficult, but possible. We are familiar in the community and use elders and community members as the link between the Shabab and our programme. Shabab have no problem with that."

He says Saacid is seen as neutral and non-political, and "we never pay taxes on humanitarian deliveries - to any groups". That is also a vital point for the US, which is particularly concerned about the possibility of any of its funding falling into the hands of the al-Qaeda-affiliated group.

Saacid says it could easily channel far more food into the heart of the famine itself, but has yet to receive extra supplies from the UN and other agencies. "It's politicised," said Mr Mohamoud.

Somalia is a hard place to help.

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