ON a recent trip into northern Somalia we managed to get to Hargeisa, the capital of a nation no one recognizes. In 1991 Somalis in the northwestern part of the country declared themselves an independent state they call Somaliland, but they have little support from the outside world.
Nominal independence has not protected the region from the civil war and famine that has affected the rest of the country, and now Hargeisa is one of the most war-damaged African cities I have ever seen. From there we set out for Borama, a town where elders and others have gathered to try to bring peace to the north.
But the journey to the peace conference at Borama was far from peaceful.
Some elders and relief personnel had been robbed on the road to Borama a day before, so we - I was traveling with my wife Betty, a photographer, and two Mennonite peace workers whose organization was sponsoring the peace effort - left Hargeisa with an escort. But after several checkpoints, each with dozens of men armed with submachine guns and more, the escort turned back. We wanted to get to Borama, so we went on alone.
Shortly after that we passed a four-wheel-drive vehicle parked at the side of the road. The top was chopped off to make room for a cannon, and a half-dozen armed men were on board.
These vehicles are known here as "technicals," a term UN and other agencies adopted because "technical assistance" is the euphemism they use to describe the gangs they hire as guards.
The vehicle began to follow us, gaining quickly. Then we heard what sounded like their big gun being fired and something hitting the pavement behind us.
Our Somali driver, Abdi, a calm and wonderful man, hit 85 miles per hour and got us to a village just ahead of the technical. There a man from the gang pulled him out and tried to hijack the car with us and the Mennonites in it. But the vehicle wouldn't start. Abdi later told us he had hit a kill switch.
Then the villagers came to our rescue. Tired of violence, they protected us, pulling out the would-be hijacker and putting their bodies between our car and the gang's vehicle.
ON a tense standoff, the gang backed up and aimed their big gun at our car. We all prayed. The gang fired the gun, but into the air. No other shots were fired by anyone. Finally, the gang retreated.
A pickup truck loaded with well-armed villagers escorted us to the next village, which they said was the edge of the gang's territory. Then we proceeded to the peace conference. It was relatively calm in Borama and we could walk around unguarded, or so we thought. In our last half-hour there, Betty was robbed of a camera at gunpoint.
Oh, and I lost my jogging shoes in Hargeisa. UN staff there had told me there were no longer mines on the main road and that there were no snipers. So off I ran. But a man with a submachine gun stopped me and motioned for me to take off my shoes.
When I hesitated, he fired a burst next to me. You never saw shoes come off so fast.
At least they were my old pair.