BOSSASO, SOMALIA — The banks here are brimming with people.
Not with people banking, but with some of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled the utter chaos that erupted in the collapse of this East African nation's regime in 1991. When looters stripped every building and moved out, the displaced people seeking refuge moved in.
Today, squatters make their homes where commerce and government should. Money is exchanged at thatched, open-air stalls instead, where men armed with Kalashnikovs sit on old flour bags full of the devalued Somali shilling, now 7,500 to the dollar, and wait for customers.
The fact that Somalis trying to plan a convention this November to discuss national reconciliation don't even have a public building to meet in is just one of the many barriers to reestablishing a government in a country that has had none for six years. And after the US-led United Nations mission in Somalia (UNISOM) withdrew its forces in 1995 - after failing to restore order or capture any of their least-favorite warlords - Somalis realize that the impetus for national repair and reunification must come from within.
That is not to say that Somalis are not aggravated by how quickly their war-torn nation has dropped off the international community's agenda in the years since a clutter of world television cameras awaited the arrival of American marines on Somali shores in December 1992.
"The international community says that until you are on your feet, we are not going to help you," says Mohammed Abshir Waldo, secretary-general of the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF), the ruling political faction in northeast Somalia. "The answer is, how am I supposed to show you that if I can't stand on my feet?"
But with some interest in lending assistance from the Arab League and from Italy, which once held part of Somalia as a colony, Somali leaders are planning to hold a conference to establish a "National Salvation Council" this fall.
With an expected 1,000 delegates representing 26 groups and political factions across the country, organizers are hoping to establish an interim authority that would set up national elections within six months.
Gen. Mohammad Abshir, the top SSDF official in Bossaso, insists it can be done. "Our society has been fragmented into regional groups as a result of our painful national tragedy, and we want to get our leadership all in one place, discuss our differences, find a peaceful solution, and then form an interim national government," he says.
In the past, attempts at such a gathering have been made in places like neighboring Ethiopia or Kenya. This, however, will be the first attempt at national reconciliation on Somali soil, giving optimists hope that they have reached a turning point.
"Somalia is passing through a painful and shameful period, and I believe we will come through," says General Abshir. "Our people have suffered enough." In the havoc that has swept the country since the beginning of the decade, some 300,000 Somalis starved to death, thousands of others died in fighting between clan-based militias, half a million fled to neighboring countries, and hundreds of thousands more became internally displaced persons.
State without a state
Today, Somalia is a state without a state, a disjointed patchwork of regions with varying degrees of anarchy and neglect. In the south, three major warlords still vie for control of the ravaged capital of Mogadishu. In Mogadishu and elsewhere in southern Somalia, banditry is a more persistent problem than actual fighting.
Here in northeast Somalia there is relative stability, but efforts to launch regional administrations have had scant success. The northwest of the country has been declared independent Somaliland by President Ibrahim Igal, a strongman-turned-governor who has imposed touches of law and order but whose statehood is recognized by no one. He says he will participate in the unity conference, but only as an "elder" - and only if his state is acknowledged as sovereign.
Abshir says he is upbeat because at least one of Mogadishu's main warlords - the son of the late Mohammed Farrah Aideed - has told the general that he is in favor of national unity.
But the international community has lower expectations. After the elder Aideed's murder last year, American officials had hope that the US-educated Hussein Aideed might tame his father's political faction and bring them to the peace table, but those expectations have not been met.
Moreover, UN sources say that Hussein Aideed is opposed to participating in the Bossaso conference. That makes many Somalis and international observers doubt whether any kind of reconciliation is possible any time soon. Some Somalis say that they estimate it could be another eight to 10 years before they have a central government again.
Barriers to reunification
In a country where everyone speaks Somali, practices Islam, is considered part of one ethnic group, why such pessimism? Even optimists like Abshir recognize several key and self-perpetuating factors that act as barriers to reunification:
Power-hungry warlords and militia leaders who drove the destruction of Somalia in the first place. Each fears losing control. All say they are in favor of forming a new central government, explains one Somali political analyst, but each one thinks he should be president.
Young men employed in militias or "security" positions who fear that they have a job to lose if Somalia is reunified. "In Mogadishu every guy under 30 is a warrior, so his job is to sit around with his AK-47 and chew khat [a mild narcotic]," says a UN security official.
Other local and foreign players who profit from the anarchy. These include militia members who get paid to provide security, khat importers who don't have to pay duties on the narcotic leaf, and foreign businesses who have seized the opportunity to exploit Somalia's few natural resources.
People who participated in the looting and killing. Many are afraid they could be held accountable for their crimes.
Warlords who may not be able to bring all their members under control, or disarm or disband their militias even if they tried. Somalis are fiercely independent, and many of the armed do not answer to anyone except fellow family members.
Explains a development expert here: "It's not like Afghan tribal chiefs who have total control over their tribe. The warlords have loose control over their military power. Even if they shake hands, can they deliver the troops?"