National Geographic : 2009 Sep
• It is not an obvious refuge. Built nearly a cen- tury ago, the Italian lighthouse has been in dis- use for years. Its spiral staircase is in a state of mid-collapse. Its hollowed-out rooms smell of sea rot and urine. Young men sit cross-legged in the rubble, chewing qat---a plant whose leaves contain a stimulant---and playing a dice game called ladu for hours. Some huddle in a corner and smoke hashish. ey seem like ghosts in a city le for dead. But the lighthouse is quiet and it is safe---if anyplace in Mogadishu can be considered safe. Mohammed, 18, comes for the view. From the top floor he sees the ruins of his neigh- borhood in the once illustrious Hamarweyne district. He can see the remains of the former American Embassy, the posh al Uruba Hotel, the Shangaani district, once teeming with gold merchants and perfume emporiums---all now blasted away. A lone goat stands in the mid- dle of the main road, while the centuries-old houses alongside it slowly crumble, occasionally burying alive the squatters who inhabit them. Mohammed can also see, just below the light- house, the small crescent of sand where he and a few other guys sometimes improvise a game of soccer and the naked children clinging to chunks of discarded Styrofoam as they bob on the waves. He can take in this daily paradox of joy and destruction if he wishes. But he prefers to gaze farther out, at the unspooling carpet of tranquillity that is the Indian Ocean. "I spend my time looking at the sea," he says, "because I know that my food comes from there." Mohammed is a sherman. Every morning at ve he pushes out into the water with his nets in a small boat. Whatever Mohammed catches, he hauls by wheelbarrow to the market. On mornings when the wind is not too hazardous, his catch fetches two or even three dollars--- which means that he, his parents, and his two younger siblings will have enough to eat that day. A mortar blast incapacitated his father years ago, and his family has depended on Mo- hammed s income since he was 14. He cannot afford the ten-dollar monthly cost to attend school. And anyway, all his former schoolmates have disappeared. Most have joined the Islamic extremist militia called al Shabaab, which in Somalia s latest chapter of misery is locked in a ferocious power struggle with the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), a shaky alliance backed by the United Nations. For young males like Mohammed, al Shabaab is a tempting exit strategy from powerlessness. en again, many of his former playmates are now dead. Mohammed has grown up in a country that has collapsed. He had just been born when Somalia s last president, a cultish dictator named Mohamed Siad Barre, was overthrown and the country descended into decades of sustained an- archy. He is one of an entire generation without the slightest clue of what a stable republic looks like. ey are learned in other things, however. "M16s, mortars, grenades, bazookas---I can tell each one apart as soon as I hear it," he says. Somalia s northern coastline, overlooking the approaches to and from the Gulf of Aden into the Indian Ocean, is a base for pirates preying on sea traffic between Europe and the East. When I visited the country last year, Somali pirates were attacking scores of ships o its coast. Yet I found the country s interior to be, if possible, even more volatile. Since then, erce clashes between insurgents and govern- ment troops have accelerated even further as Ethiopian forces, which had invaded Somalia late in 2006 to oust a short-lived Islamic govern- ment and prop up the TFG, pulled out in Janu- ary 2009. e chaos has invited a fresh ow of EVERY AFTERNOON MOHAMMED GOES TO THE LIGHTHOUSE.