When you land at Mogadishu's international airport, the first form you fill out asks for name, address, and caliber of weapon. Believe it or not, this disaster of a city, the capital of Somalia, still gets a few commercial flights. Some haven't fared so well. The wreckage of a Russian cargo plane shot down in 2007 still lies crumpled at the end of the runway.
Beyond the airport is one of the world's most stunning monuments to conflict: block after block, mile after mile, of scorched, gutted-out buildings. Mogadishu's Italianate architecture, once a gem along the Indian Ocean, has been reduced to a pile of machine-gun-chewed bricks. Somalia has been ripped apart by violence since the central government imploded in 1991. Eighteen years and 14 failed attempts at a government later, the killing goes on and on and on -- suicide bombs, white phosphorus bombs, beheadings, medieval-style stonings, teenage troops high on the local drug called khat blasting away at each other and anything in between. Even U.S. cruise missiles occasionally slam down from the sky. It's the same violent free-for-all on the seas. Somalia's pirates are threatening to choke off one of the most strategic waterways in the world, the Gulf of Aden, which 20,000 ships pass through every year. These heavily armed buccaneers hijacked more than 40 vessels in 2008, netting as much as $100 million in ransom. It's the greatest piracy epidemic of modern times.
In more than a dozen trips to Somalia over the past two and a half years, I've come to rewrite my own definition of chaos. I've felt the incandescent fury of the Iraqi insurgency raging in Fallujah. I've spent freezing-cold, eerily quiet nights in an Afghan cave. But nowhere was I more afraid than in today's Somalia, where you can get kidnapped or shot in the head faster than you can wipe the sweat off your brow. From the thick, ambush-perfect swamps around Kismayo in the south to the lethal labyrinth of Mogadishu to the pirate den of Boosaaso on the Gulf of Aden, Somalia is quite simply the most dangerous place in the world.
The whole country has become a breeding ground for warlords, pirates, kidnappers, bomb makers, fanatical Islamist insurgents, freelance gunmen, and idle, angry youth with no education and way too many bullets. There is no Green Zone here, by the way -- no fortified place of last resort to run to if, God forbid, you get hurt or in trouble. In Somalia, you’re on your own. The local hospitals barely have enough gauze to treat all the wounds.
The mayhem is now spilling across Somalia's borders, stirring up tensions and violence in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, not to mention Somalia's pirate-infested seas. The export of trouble may just be beginning. Islamist insurgents with al Qaeda connections are sweeping across the country, turning Somalia into an Afghanistan-like magnet for militant Islam and drawing in hard-core fighters from around the world. These men will eventually go home (if they survive) and spread the killer ethos. Somalia's transitional government, a U.N.-santioned creation that was deathly ill from the moment it was born four years ago, is about to flatline, perhaps spawning yet another doomed international rescue mission. Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, the old war horse of a president backed by the United States, finally resigned in December after a long, bitter dispute with the prime minister, Nur Hassan Hussein. Ostensibly, their conflict was about a peace deal with the Islamists and a few cabinet posts. In truth, it may be purely academic. By early this year, the government's zone of control was down to a couple of city blocks. The country is nearly as big as Texas.
Just when things seem as though they can't get any worse in Somalia, they do. Beyond the political crisis, all the elements for a full-blown famine -- war, displacement, drought, skyrocketing food prices, and an exodus of aid workers -- are lining up again, just as they did in the early 1990s when hundreds of thousands of Somalis starved to death. Last May, I stood in the doorway of a hut in the bone-dry central part of the country watching a sick little boy curl up next to his dying mother. Her clothes were damp. Her breaths were shallow. She hadn't eaten for days. "She will most likely die," an elder told me and walked away.
It's crunch time for Somalia, but the world is like me, standing in the doorway, looking in at two decades of unbridled anarchy, unsure what to do. Past interventions have been so cursed that no one wants to get burned again. The United States has been among the worst of the meddlers: U.S. forces fought predacious warlords at the wrong time, backed some of the same predacious warlords at the wrong time, and consistently failed to appreciate the twin pulls of clan and religion. As a result, Somalia has become a graveyard of foreign-policy blunders that have radicalized the population, deepened insecurity, and pushed millions to the brink of starvation.