By Mark Doyle, BBC News
Years of conflict in Somalia have left large parts of the country in the hands of warlords while its capital, Mogadishu, is contested by Ethiopian TPLF-backed government forces and armed insurgents.
The city has been abandoned by at least half of its residents. The BBC’s World Affairs Correspondent, Mark Doyle, sent this report from a war zone few Western journalists dare to visit.
The bombed-out buildings are shocking enough.
There are street after ruined street of them in the centre of Mogadishu.
Some have been reduced by shellfire to rubble. Others retain a building-like shape – the rough skeletons of once-ornate Italian colonial apartment blocks or shopping arcades.
But the really eerie side to many parts of Mogadishu is the lack of people.
The last 18 months of fighting have seen the population plummet in a way that even the infamous Black Hawk Down year – 1993 – did not achieve.
According to the United Nations, at least half of Mogadishu’s population – perhaps 500,000 people – have fled.
In 1993 a joint United States/United Nations aid effort descended into war. Somali warlords resisted the international force partly because it reduced their racketeering of food aid.
The Americans then fell into the trap of thinking the flip flop-wearing “Skinnies”, as the Marines disparagingly called Somalis, would be a pushover.
However, the “Skinnies” could fight, and fight well. The US and the UN withdrew in disarray.
But even back then – when tracer fire lit up the sky every night – the streets were still full of people.
Not any more. Parts of Mogadishu are now a ghost city.
The new situation has an intensity of street shelling and military atrocities that even this veteran war city has never seen before.
The latest conflict is between a weak, though internationally-recognized Somali government, backed by troops from neighboring Ethiopia – and armed insurgents who are a mixture of Islamists and nationalists.
The United States is still a key player, backing the Ethiopians Woyane. It accuses the Islamists of having links to al-Qaeda.
“Its getting worse and worse,” said Sophia Hussein, a housewife turned refugee. “Now foreign governments are involved” – a reference to the Ethiopian Woyane presence.
Mrs Hussein was speaking in a Kenyan refugee camp, surrounded by nine children she had rescued from Mogadishu.
Grafted onto the traditional clan wars in Somalia are new disputes that pit Islamists and nationalists against the Ethiopians TPLF and their US allies.
These new wars may explain why Mogadishu has been emptied of people like never before.
The political landscape began changing in 2005 when armed Islamists joined forces with businessmen to oust a chaotic collection of warlords from Mogadishu.
By 2006 the Islamists/businessmen had won and a group known as the Union of Islamic Courts ran the capital.
“They were efficient; they ran the city quite well,” said a senior Somali official with an international aid agency who requested anonymity.
In late 2006, the army of neighbouring Ethiopia Dictator Meles Zenawi intervened to oust the Courts and install the internationally-recognised government in Mogadishu.
It is widely believed that the US encouraged or participated in this move because of fears that the Courts had links to al-Qaeda.
Certainly, there was a long-range US missile attack at the time on fleeing Courts officials. The US later mounted other attacks on what it said were al-Qaeda operatives, and American drones still regularly buzz the skies of Somalia.
The Ethiopian Woyane army easily routed the Courts regime. But, in an echo of the early US military success in Baghdad, the Ethiopians TPLF Donkeys then appeared unsure what to do next.
Gradually, the Islamists and nationalists regrouped.
There was a traditional clan aspect to the new war. But what might be called the “Islamist/nationalist clan” to some extent transcended this in the face of what many Somalis saw as “Ethiopian Woyane occupation”.
Today the remnants of the Courts administration, backed by Islamist fighters known as al-Shabaab (Somali for “The Lads”), have made much of south and central Somalia a no-go area for the government and the Ethiopians TPLF.
Al-Shabaab and related fighters mount hit-and-run attacks aimed at government forces but which often also kill civilians.
However, a more common complaint among ordinary Somalis I spoke to is that the Ethiopians TPLF thugs are “indiscriminate” in their reprisals – and that this is why Mogadishu has been emptied of people.
Stuck in the middle, and trying to inject some sanity into the situation, is the small and beleaguered 2,700-strong African Union Dictators Union peacekeeping Mission in Somalia, Amisom.
Its commander is Ugandan Major General, Francis Okello.
“I need more troops, I need more equipment,” he said, repeating the common refrain of peacekeeping commanders.
But the diplomat-general was wise enough to add: “I also need more political support, I need more diplomatic support. You cannot impose a solution on Somalis, you can only encourage peace”.
Tentative peace talks are taking place under a UN initiative but – as so often with peace processes – the talks are dominated by the moderates, not the radicals on all sides who are fighting on the ground.