Judith Gardner and Judy El Bushra

Why were you born?

Why did you arrive at dusk?

In your place a boy Would have been welcome Sweet dates would have Been my reward.

The clan would be rejoicing A lamb would have Been slaughtered For the occasion,

And I would have Been glorified.1

Somalia grabbed international attention in 1992 as the world’s media broadcast images of a people dying from hunger in the midst of a terrifyingly violent conflict between competing warlords and their drug-crazed fighters vying for control of a collapsed state. Later that year television cameras followed American troops as they landed on the beaches of the capital Mogadishu to lead what turned out to be a disastrous United Nations intervention intended to end hunger and restore peace.

The Somali state had collapsed in 1991 as civil war engulfed Mogadishu and the corrupt and oppressive military regime of President Mohamed Siad Barre was forced from power. After 30 years of independence Somalia had ceased to function as a single state. In May 1991 the north west regions seceded from the rest of Somalia to form the independent Republic of Somaliland.2 Here a fragile peace was quickly established and fledgling governmental and non-gov­ernmental organisations emerged to take responsibility for governance, security and reconstruction. Elsewhere, notably in Mogadishu and further south, Siad Barre’s fall gave way to clan-based militia warfare that brought terror to hundreds of thousands of people.

Described by a US diplomat in 1992 as ‘the worst humanitarian crisis faced by any people in the world’, Somalia had by the end of that year seen an estimated 500,000 people – 300,000 of them children – die in the war and subsequent famine.3 Some 1.5 million Somalis had fled to neighbouring countries and beyond.

But the world’s attention soon switched to the atrocities of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, followed later by the crisis in Kosovo. Only as a result of the post-11 September war on terrorism has Somalia again touched the headlines in the West, this time as a suspected haven for Islamic terrorist groups.