Magazine article The Spectator

Apocalypse Now

Magazine article The Spectator

Apocalypse Now

Article excerpt

Caroline Moorehead The World's Most Dangerous Place: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia by James Fergusson Bantam, £20, pp. 406, ISBN 97805306859 In his introduction, James Fergusson apologises for the title of his book. Somalia, he writes, may no longer be the most dangerous place on earth. Since the summer of 2012, a newly elected government under a former university professor who once worked for the UN is bringing stability to the country, exiled Somalis are going home, Mogadishu is being rebuilt and the pirate menace, if not exactly under control, is being contained. It may be so. But the country Fergusson describes is the stuff of nightmares.

In 1960, the former British protectorate and Italian colony united to become an independent Somali republic, under a civilian government. Nine years later, General Siad Barre took power in a military coup and ruled with scant regard for the human rights of his citizens until 1991, when the country's 140 clans, sub-clans and sub-sub-clans fractured into civil war.

Worse was to come. The south fell under the sway of the Islamic Courts Union, which brought Sharia justice and Salafist doctrine.

And though that was not a particularly terrible reign, after it was crushed, with the help of Ethiopian troops, al-Shabaab, extremists with ties to al-Qae'da, occupied swathes of the country, until they too - or so it is hoped - were checked by the Uganda-led African Union mission.

And in the wake of all this have come competing geopolitical and religious interests, weapons pouring in from every direction, soldiers of fortune, warlords and criminal gangs, Islamic fighters, suicide bombers, foreign advisers, 'combat engineers', security experts and the great paraphernalia of the international aid world, with its army of contractors, guards, fortified compounds and white Toyota Land Cruisers To say that Fergusson has managed to bring total clarity to this messy, murky chaos would not be true.

But such a task lies beyond the skill of any writer.

What he has done, however, with heroic tenacity and no little courage, is to spend much of the last two years wandering from one end of the country to the other, interviewing politicians and presidents, fighters and pirates, foreign advisers and security guards, and above all scores of ordinary Somalis, whose lives have been destroyed by 20 years of carnage and whose tales he eloquently recounts. An elegant writer, with two books on the Taleban behind him and a scholarly understanding of history, he brings to terrible light the catastrophe that is Somalia, with its feral young people, its maimed and sickly children, its war created famines, its corruption and never-ending brutality. …

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