Is there any country on earth for whom the modern nation-state has been such a curse as Somalia? Perhaps it’s an unfair question, since there is so little history to go on. From high hopes on independence in 1960, when the former Italian territory of Somalia was united with its northwestern neighbour, British Somaliland, it was but a short step to the progressively more authoritarian rule of President Mohamed Siad Barre, the man who built up Somalia after seizing power in 1969, then did so much to destroy it. In 1991, refusing to step down after twenty-one years, he threatened to torch Mogadishu. In the end, the destruction went far wider than the capital and the entire country slid into civil war, clan conflict and warlordism, an apocalypse from which it is only now tentatively re-emerging.
Asad Abdullahi, the subject of this often harrowing memoir by the South African writer Jonny Steinberg, is one among Somalia’s many millions of victims. In a sense he is the Somali Everyman, witness to and participant in his country’s multiple tragedies during the past two and a half decades. Bullets