Confidence is slowly returning to the capital, Mogadishu, but aid is still scarce and al-Shabaab reign over much of the country
Clar Ni Chonghaile in Mogadishu
A few hours in Mogadishu is all it takes to make you understand, with a jolt, just how little space the human body needs to survive.
Across a narrow seafront road, a camp for people fleeing drought and fighting has unfurled in the sandy nothingness. From a distance, it looks like rows of colourful eggs decorated by children.
But these tiny domed huts – smaller than some Wendy houses – are strictly functional. They are made of cloth, plastic, cardboard, old sacks or canvas moulded around frames of spindly sticks. To say they are crammed together would be an understatement.
Habiba Gaapow Ibrahim, a striking 35-year-old with pretty glass beads around her neck, moved to the Furuqley camp five months ago from the Lower Shabelle district of southern Somalia. She has four children aged between 10 and 16. Her husband is dead.
"I was a farmer and for the last few months, we never had rain. There was no crop … I had six cows and I lost them all," she says, speaking through a translator.
Like other women who spoke to the Guardian, she talks of the hunger that forced her to flee, running her slim hands down her throat in a gesture that needs no translation. A British estimate says 100,000 people may have died in the Horn of Africa last year because of the famine – more than half of them children under five.
Gaapow Ibrahim has no plans to go home yet. "Here we are safer," she says. "I'm not going back unless I receive food and assistance." But the Islamist al-Shabaab rebels control Lower Shabelle and they have banned most international agencies from working on their turf.
Despite the fragility of life in the camp, it seems her children, listless and aimless in the fierce heat, have no desire to return either. "They want to stay here," she says. "They don't even mention going back."
Six months after famine was declared in six regions, including the camps in Mogadishu, Somalia is still the world's worst humanitarian crisis. There are at least 185,000 homeless people living in a city of nearly 2 million people. Four million people still need aid, and most of these are in the south.
Across the country more than 1.4 million people have been displaced with more than 900,000 fleeing to neighbouring countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia.
Last year, Mogadishu was at the centre of a media and aid storm after famine was declared. Thousands of dollars worth of supplies poured in. It has made a difference, despite criticism that the international community ignored early warnings that a crisis was looming – a delay that may have cost thousands of lives.
Salado Hassan Siyad is one of the survivor. The 70-year-old holds herself regally under a shady tree in a camp for displaced people, her tiny, delicate feet poking out from under her long robe. It took her two days and two nights to get to Mogadishu from the area around Kismayo, which is controlled by al-Shabaab.
Again, she cites hunger as her reason for leaving, but something else too. "There was no food and there were no jobs. Shabaab were in control and it was very difficult with them. There was no job creation. Humanitarian organisations cannot go there. They imposed taxation. They imposed a dress code," she says.
At least people like Hassan Siyad are being fed now in Mogadishu. The city is no longer a battlefield since al-Shabaab withdrew most of its fighters last August, largely ending the ferocious gun battles and shelling that used to echo through the bullet-marked buildings out to the Indian Ocean, where pirates have created their own anarchy.
African Union troops, known as Amisom, and Somali government soldiers say they now control most of the city, but the danger has just gone underground. Al-Shabaab plants improvised explosive devices (IEDs), explodes car bombs and carries out hand-grenade attacks. Their targets are often the Somali soldiers or Amisom forces, but caught up in the attacks are the homeless thousands who are trapped here with no reason, yet, to go back to villages that are often insecure and far from the reach of humanitarian groups.
Aid agencies warn that there can be no let-up in international support, and looking ahead to a voluntary return of displaced people seems a big ask. Although rains were good at the end of the year, allowing people to plant crops for harvest in February and March, and despite reports that some men have returned to their farms, many more are too afraid to return south. The security and aid they require will be difficult to deliver.
"I think there is a significant number who, if the conditions were ripe in their places of origin, would return home," says Gwendoline Mensah, head of UNHCR in Mogadishu. "A lot are rural people. It is obvious to them that there is not much they can do here. I don't think they want to wander around Mogadishu."
But she stresses that returns have to be voluntary, and as long as al-Shabaab control large areas of the south, that aspect is largely out of the international community's hands, although Islamic relief organisations have been co-ordinating returns relatively successfully.
The UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Somalia, Mark Bowden, says: "We were able to halt the downward spiral into starvation for 500,000 of the people who were most at risk last year. Despite significant progress achieved in pushing back the famine … 4 million people are still in urgent need of aid in the country, where the famine continues for up to 250,000 Somalis."
The UN has appealed for $1.5bn (£1bn) to fund relief programmes this year. But the international community can only do so much. It's impossible to ignore the politico-military aspect to this humanitarian crisis, even in relatively secure Mogadishu. Shortly before a briefing for visiting journalists at the main UN compound, a loud boom rang out followed by a smattering of gunshots. Someone had tried to throw a grenade into the compound; they missed and it exploded in an empty lot next door.
It is the security angle that makes managing the disaster in Somalia so challenging. Visiting journalists were briefed by security officers on the latest attacks: five IEDs detonated or exploded in 48 hours; a car bomb discovered and detonated; and "a rash" of grenade attacks. They stressed this was not an unusual week.
The homeless, who seem to have filled every spare nook and cranny in Mogadishu, live with this every day. And the original residents of Mogadishu get on with life too. A man walks down the street wearing a dark fedora at a jaunty angle and chatting into a mobile phone; young men lounge by a wall, like young men everywhere, all high-fives and exaggerated gestures, except that one carries an AK-47; children stand ranged like bottles on a crumbling wall as a kite soars above; donkeys with pretty pink flowers fastened to the ropes around their noses pull carts; minibuses sporting feather dusters in their bonnets groan under the weight of too many passengers and too many bags; a boy in a blue T-shirt raises two fingers to his head in salute and smiles.
Somalia's implosion has not just threatened its own people: analysts say al-Shabaab poses a serious threat to the region. David Cameron is to host a conference next month on a country he described as "a failed state that threatens British interests".
The commander of the 10,000-strong Amisom forces, Major General Fred Mugisha, says some things are getting better. "The population of Mogadishu is regaining confidence," he says as the air conditioner whirrs, dripping water on to sandbags outside his prefab office. "We see most of them going to the beaches every Friday. We see a different dress code. Women are going back to the traditional Somali way of dressing."
A lot should depend on President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed's transitional federal government (TFG), but the administration, which is backed by the international community, is riven by infighting. MPs are supposed to be drawing up a new constitution to prepare for the formation of a new government when their mandate expires in August, but a Nairobi-based diplomat said it was like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas.
The various parties to Somalia's collapse have little incentive to seek altruistic solutions – the people who suffer most are the ones trapped in the city's 300 or so camps.
A feeding centre in Mogadishu's tense Hodan district offers a microcosm of the crisis. Food is being served from vast vats to lines of mainly women and children. Next door, across a sandy yard, babies are being weighed and those who are malnourished are given a special supplement, PlumpySup. Men and women are carting away their monthly stipend of cereals, pulses and oil, hefting the heavy sacks on their shoulders in a heat that seems to melt the brain.
Near the vats of hot maize, a little boy lets out a piercing cry, sits down suddenly in the dust, and drops a big shallow bowl full of hot porridge-like maize. The gloopy food falls on his dusty toes and sticks to his red flip-flops. He dropped the bowl because he burnt his fingers on the plate.
The centre is run by the UN's World Food Programme, and Sorrdo (Somali Relief, Rehabilitation Development Organisation) and feeds an average of 7,000 people a day. It is a lifeline to the thousands who live in surrounding camps. As they leave with their buckets, bowls and saucepans of food, the people are given a few bananas each and then pass through a corrugated iron gate on to the road to head back to their camps.
A Somali aid worker gets to the heart of the problem as he watches people carrying away the sacks of grain. "It is very bad. I cannot get words to express what I feel. Mogadishu in the 1980s was one of the most beautiful cities in the Horn of Africa," he says. "The whole city has turned into an IDP [internally displaced person] camp."
Just a few hours later, an IED, planted the night before, explodes on a nearby roadside, along a route taken by people returning from the feeding centre to the camps. The target is a police checkpoint. Two police officers and four civilians are killed. Eleven more people are injured.