RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We've been hearing this week from NPR's Frank Langfitt about the fight for the control of Somalia, the country in the Horn of Africa where civil war has dragged on for nearly two decades. Today he takes us on a tour of the shattered capital of Mogadishu. It is one of the world's most dangerous cities, where radical Islamists called al-Shabab are locked in a grinding battle with African peacekeeping troops. Trapped in the middle are Somali civilians just trying to stay alive amid the violence.
(Soundbite of airplane)
FRANK LANGFITT: The morning flight from Nairobi banks over the Indian Ocean and descends towards a runway next to the beach. Waves crash and the wind whips through sand dunes dotted with pock-marked buildings. An abandoned jet lies near the edge of the runway with a broken wing.
Unidentified Man #1: Welcome to Mogadishu, ladies and gentlemen (unintelligible) International Airport. The time now is 25 minutes past 9:00.
LANGFITT: I'm travelling with a group of journalists, guests of the African Union. The African Union has more than 7,000 troops here defending a weak U.S.-backed government. The troops say they're pushing al-Shabab back and want to show off new forward bases. Before we head into town, our host, Ugandan Major Barigye Ba-Hoku, has this advice for our mostly white group.
Major BARIGYE B-HOKU (African Union Officer): Generally speaking, people of your complexion are targets for these idiots here. So when we sit in our convoys, try as much as possible not to overexpose yourself, alright?
(Soundbite of trucks)
LANGFITT: We board hulking armored personnel carriers paid for by the U.S. government and launch into what feels like a road rally through the streets of Mogadishu. We blow past palm trees, kicking up trash in our wake. There's not much shooting today so people are selling fruit by the roadside beneath brightly-colored umbrellas. A militia man allied with the government lounges in a plastic chair, a bandolier of bullets draped over his shoulders.
One of the surprises in Mogadishu is that there are actually so many people out (unintelligible)gear they're repairing trucks, they're selling bread by the side of the road.
We're driving at least 50 miles an hour. The reason is simple. The African Union does not want to offer al-Shabab a stationary target.
(Unintelligible) now we're going again. It is funny driving through the landmarks. They aren't the kind of landmarks you'd probably expect. It's usually something that's been destroyed or someplace where someone got kidnapped.
LANGFITT: We pass the old U.S. embassy, but you'd never know it. It's a collection of crumbling sun-bleached buildings overgrown with brush. Eventually we make our way back to the airport's concrete gate. It's cracked and bears recent burn marks.
There was a suicide attack here last week. People drove up to the airport and tried to blow open the gate and then they wanted to attack the terminal and shoot the place up.
LANGFITT: African Union troops stopped the bombers but not before they killed nine people, including two soldiers. The African Union has set up hospitals to care for Somali civilians. It's a popular service in a place where most hospitals closed long ago. By 7:30 on a Saturday morning, scores have lined up for help.
(Soundbite of metal detector)
LANGFITT: People with metal detectors check each patient for guns or bombs.
Among the neediest are children who've been caught in the crossfire. Eleven-year-old Abdu Kadri was shot coming out of a mosque. He lies on a bed, his blue T-short pulled up over his chest. There's a gaping incision in his abdomen, which doctors opened to remove a sniper's bullet. Abdu's father says the sniper was with al-Shabab. He waves a reed fan to shoo flies off his son. The boy is in terrible pain.
(Soundbite of child crying)
LANGFITT: On the other side of the room is Howa Mudi. She's 10 and has a brilliant smile. About three weeks ago a mortar landed on her house, killing two of her siblings. Howa was injured so badly, doctors had to amputate her legs. Her father says he doesn't know who was responsible. To record Howa in the noisy hospital ward, I use a special microphone that vaguely resembles a gun. She stares at it in horror and begins to shake. Only when a doctor takes hold of the mike does Howa relax.
Ms. HOWA MUDI (Through translator): I'm unlucky. When I grow up I don't know what I'll do, because I don't have any legs.
LANGFITT: Howa lost her older sister in the attack. Her name was Faduma. She was in her 20s.
Ms. MUDI: (Through translator): Sometimes when I sleep at night, I have dreams. I play with my sister. Then I wake up. This is my biggest problem.
LANGFITT: Mogadishu wasn't always like this. In the 1960s and '70s it was a haven for tourists who came for the beaches and blue-green waters that resembled the Mediterranean. People called it the Pearl of the Indian Ocean. Occasionally amid the rubble you can still catch glimpses of the city that once was, a city that people in Mogadishu hope one day they'll see again. Frank Langfitt, NPR News.