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Somalia: The most beautiful country in the world, and the most deadly


Country in trouble: Overseas director of Concern Paul O'Brien on one of Somalia’s beaches. The east African country has so much
potential, he says, but there is no industry and over three million people are starving

Country in trouble: Overseas director of Concern Paul O'Brien on one of Somalia’s beaches. The east African country has so much potential, he says, but there is no industry and over three million people are starving

Country in trouble: Overseas director of Concern Paul O'Brien on one of Somalia’s beaches. The east African country has so much potential, he says, but there is no industry and over three million people are starving

A few weeks ago, when the world was caught up in the euphoria of Barack Obama's election, a 13-year-old girl was dragged into a football stadium in front of 1,000 spectators.

Earlier that day, a team of men came into the stadium and dug a hole in the earth. A group of trucks loaded with rocks pulled up around the hole. As the sun set that evening, a gang of men took hold of the girl and threw her into the hole, burying her in rubble up to her neck.

She knew what was next. She made a last-minute plea for her life but her captors spat in her face and laughed at her.

There was no shortage of takers in the audience willing to carry out the death sentence. Dozens surged forward from the crowd trying to reach for rocks.

They set about stoning her to death. Within 10 minutes, her face had been torn to pieces as blood pumped from her scalp.

Medics took her out of the ground to check if she was alive. They felt a distant pulse. The stoning recommenced until she drew her final breath.

Some weeks' earlier, Aisha Duhulow had been gang-raped near her village. Her fatal mistake was to report the crime.

Local militia deemed her deserving of death on the grounds that she had committed adultery.

Nightmare stories like this one are par for the course in Somalia. In the world's most dangerous country, the stoning of an innocent teenager is the fodder of everyday life. Anyone brave enough to speak out against it is dealt a similar fate.

This week, the anarchy continued in this broken state, one of the poorest and driest on the planet, when a bunch of ragtag pirates armed to the teeth with knives and Kalashnikovs, hijacked a Saudi supertanker carrying €100m of oil.

A new ship more than 300 metres long, the Sirius Star is the biggest tanker ever to be seized at sea and was carrying one quarter of Saudi's daily output of oil. Today, it remains in clear view off the Somali coast as its owners negotiate a possible ransom deal. Its crew of 25, including two Britons, are believed to be safe but the risk of mounting a military raid to free it from pirate hands is considered too great.

This audacious attack is the latest in a spree of hijackings that threatens one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Since the beginning of 2008, the International Maritime Board estimates that in Somali waters alone, more than 80 ships have been targeted, resulting in at least 36 successful hijackings. In most cases, the ships' owners simply pay a ransom.

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In the vital shipping lanes off the coast of east Africa, where vessels heading west from Asia cross the Gulf of Aden to reach Europe, these ocean-going robbers have become so sophisticated in their trade, they now take their pick of the 16,000 cargo ships that pass through the Suez Canal every year.

No ships are immune from the threat.

Even containers carrying relief supplies to feed their starving compatriots are captured in a criminal plague which is believed to have netted almost €80m in ransoms so far this year and turned these modern-day buccaneers into multimillionaires.

As mayhem continues off the coast, hunger and desperation afflict at least one third of the country's nine million people on land.

Somalia hasn't had a government since 1991, when warlords and extremists took over, wreaking havoc across the country and producing one of the world's biggest humanitarian disasters.

The British Foreign Office lists Somalia as the most dangerous state in the world.

It classifies the entire country as an absolute no-go zone, the only country on its books to come with such a warning.

In recent months, aid agencies have been forced to pull out leaving its people to fend for themselves.

According to the United Nations, 32 of its workers have been killed this year.

As head of Trocaire's Somalia programme, Rosemary Heenan has been working there since 1992 when the civil war was at its height.

Her team has since been forced to move to neighbouring Kenya. "The levels of violence and insecurity in Somalia today are the worst I have ever seen," she says.

"The recent piracy shows how the security situation has deteriorated further.

It's also hampering the relief efforts by blocking the import of aid supplies and driving up already exorbitant food and fuel prices. I cross the border as often as I can but you have to be very careful because of the very high risk of kidnapping or shooting.

"Since January this year, 32 aid workers have been killed and a further 22 have been abducted, of whom 16 are still missing. These repeated attacks seriously curtail our work."

In a climate of fear and chaos, Trocaire manages to maintain its schooling and emergency feeding programmes in 14 communities in the Gedo region of the south but their survival faces growing danger.

"Despite the near impossible conditions, our local staff are trying to get emergency supplies to those in need," says Ms Heenan.

"Ordinary Somalis are struggling to survive in the face of appalling levels of violence and deprivation.

"There are now 3.2 million in need of emergency assistance with over one million people having been displaced by the fighting."

The charity Concern has also been forced to pull its Irish workers out of Somalia fearful for their lives. Overseas director, Paul O'Brien, is one of the most recent Irish visitors to the country and has been horrified by what he saw.

"The humanitarian situation there is really as bad as it gets. It is the most forgotten emergency.

"A number equivalent to three quarters of the Irish population are in need of food but we are finding it very difficult to reach them.

"This week, the focus of the world was on the pirates at sea while those in dire need on land continue to suffer away from the glare of the media's spotlight.

"There is a real sense of danger in the air. You see a lot of men with guns. Our trucks have been stolen so we have to pay people for vehicles every day. That vehicle comes with four young men with Kalashnikovs who sit up on the back to protect the car itself, not us.

"Kidnapping and the paying of ransoms has become a very lucrative industry in itself, which is why Westerners face a very real threat. We predicted it was only be a matter of time before a big oil tanker would be seized because the pirates have become a lot more sophisticated. Once ransoms are being paid then they have more money to buy bigger boats and better weapons."

Amid the horrors of this tortured land, there is a startling beauty in its landscape, especially along the treacherous coastline that has the grabbed the world's headlines this week.

"I've travelled around the world but Somalia is one of the most beautiful places I've seen," says Paul O'Brien.

"I've never seen a sea that is so deep blue in colour. The beaches go on forever and are completely empty. That's the real tragedy of the place. It has so much potential yet there is no industry and they produce absolutely nothing."

Under the law of the gun, Concern still manages to retain 75 local staff in Somalia but is continuously fearful for their safety. Yet despite the apocalyptic mood in the country, Paul O'Brien is hopeful that a safe and stable Somalia will emerge one day.

"The vast majority of Somalis just want to see peace and want their children having a future. There is something admirable about the ingenuity of the people. For a long time, they were called the Irish of Africa because they are considered very entrepreneurial.

There's even a bizarre side to the pirating that's enterprising. They see opportunities and grab them.

"In a country that has no foreign investment and produces nothing in terms of minerals, it's quite extraordinary that they have raised about $100m this year alone. If you could get them to agree among themselves, they'd probably make a great job of running the country."

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