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Miriam Farfh sits with her belongings after a fire destroyed her house in a camp in Bossaso in northeast Somalia in February 2005. Thousands of Somalis are displaced due to war and drought. (Karel Prinsloo/Associated Press)

In Depth

Somalia

A ravaged land

Last Updated Dec. 27, 2006

It is one of the world's poorest countries, but even that benighted fate cannot protect it from religious warfare spilling over from the Middle East to here in the Horn of Africa.

Since July 2006, Islamic insurgents, many of them religiously inspired teens, looked to be on a roll. After two months of intense fighting, the rebels, under the auspices of the Islamic Court Union, took the Somalian capital Mogadishu from a coalition of local warlords and began to spread their control over some of the larger cities of the interior.

Their success was such that just a few weeks ago hard-line Muslim clerics in these centres were threatening to behead believers who did not pray five times a day, according to the New York Times. But then the tide changed.

With the aid of better-equipped troops from neighbouring Ethiopia, a predominantly Christian country, the Somalian military unleashed a Christmas offensive that dislodged the Islamists from much of the country and sent them hurrying back to their stronghold in war-ravaged Mogadishu.

Observers said the fighting was the worst the country has seen in decades. Some reports said Ethiopian fighter jets were firing missiles at the retreating forces and suspected hideouts.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, have been killed, depending on whom you believe. Thousands of others have fled their homes to escape the fighting, deepening an already severe humanitarian crisis.

The UN's World Food Program suspended its relief drops in troubled areas, while a sister agency set up camps in border areas to shelter an additional 50,000 to 100,000 possible refugees.

Sadly, for too many Somalis, this has become a way of life.

A history of ruin

A drought-ridden land, Somalia engaged in civil war, with no internationally recognized government, from 1991 until 2005.

Even now it is ruled for the most part by warlords, and while the international community recognizes the transitional government, which has been based in Baidoa, the influential African Union has been sharply critical of that government's use of Ethiopian forces in this current conflict.

Somalia's largely nomadic population, estimated at seven to 10 million, is almost all ethnic Somali, but divided into six rival clans and thousands of sub-clans.

Since the seventh century, Somalia has been a centre of trade because of its location on the Horn of Africa, where the Red Sea becomes the Gulf of Aden and meets the Indian Ocean.

Britain and Italy established colonies in the 19th century and ruled Somaliland until 1960, when the United Nations integrated the north and south, and gave Somalia its independence.

The union of the two colonial cultures, however, never really worked, and Somalia remained politically and ethnically divided. After a war with neighbouring Ethiopia in 1963-64 and two presidential assassinations, the military took power in 1969 under Maj.-Gen. Muhammad Siad Barre.

Barre engaged in a new war with Ethiopia in 1977-78 that ended with Somalia further divided. As guerrilla groups formed to oppose his autocratic rule, Barre instituted a reign of terror on three clans in the north and the south — ordering his troops to destroy water wells and grazing lands, and to rape and massacre thousands of people. In 1991, the insurgent guerrillas forced him to flee to Nigeria, where he later died.

Most of the country has been in anarchy since then, while clan militias fought for power and thousands died from starvation and war.

Canada's sad chapter

In 1992, the United States organized an international military force to try to end the chaos. Canada contributed 900 soldiers from its elite Airborne Regiment. The mission was a disaster.

The troops were unable to establish control and found themselves fighting the very people they had been sent to help.

Some desperate Somalis started stealing from the soldiers' supplies. On March 4, 1993, Canadian soldiers found two Somalis on the grounds of their Belet Huen camp. They shot at the pair, killing one and wounding the other.

A few days later, a teenager was caught breaking into the camp. Soldiers beat him to death. One of these Canadian soldiers subsequently attempted suicide. The incidents became a scandal in Canada and resulted, four years later, in the breakup of the Airborne Regiment.

U.S. troops also found themselves at war with the Somalis.

On Oct. 3, 1993, U.S. Army Rangers attacked one warlord's stronghold in Mogadishu and encountered stiff resistance. Three U.S. helicopters were shot down, 16 soldiers were killed and 83 were wounded in the battle, which became the focus of the movie Black Hawk Down.

Photos of angry Somalis dragging the body of one soldier through the streets caused revulsion in the United States and prompted the U.S. to bring its troops home.

The military mission was followed by a United Nations humanitarian effort to alleviate famine, but even the UN withdrew its international staff after suffering significant casualties.

Since 1991, warlords have carved Somalia up into personal kingdoms, and some of them have been involved in a succession of peace negotiations.

Northwestern clans declared an independent Republic of Somaliland in 1991 in the area along the Gulf of Aden coast, roughly following the borders of the former British Somaliland. Their leadership has not been recognized by any country.

In 1998, other clan leaders declared an autonomous state of Puntland, including the Horn at the northeastern tip of Somalia and the regions along the northern part of the Indian Ocean coast.

The latest round of peace talks, begun in 2003, produced a transitional parliament, which gathered in Kenya in October 2004 to elect an interim president, Abdullahi Yusuf.

Yusuf and his prime minister, Mohammed Ali Gedi, flew home to Somalia in February 2005 and were met by thousands of cheering supporters during a tour of the country.

Yusuf has asked African and Arab countries to supply 7,500 peacekeeping troops to disarm militiamen who continue to roam.

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