Vicious Cycle

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It would be easier to list the tragedies that haven't befallen Somalia in its 51 years of independence than to list the ones that have. The Horn of Africa's archetypal failed state has suffered the signature geopolitical ill of every decade for half a century: post-colonial trauma and a coup in the 1960s, Cold War proxy conflict and military rule in the 1970s, famine in the 1980s, interminable civil war in the 1990s, Islamist terrorism and piracy in the 2000s.[[SHARE]]

But if the world had been Somalia's problem for years, it wasn't until the 1990s that Somalia returned the favor. The collapse of military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre's warlord-besieged government in January 1991 and the famine that ensued drew the United States and the United Nations into the ill-fated humanitarian mission that culminated in Black Hawk Down. The failure touched off a decade of U.S. angst over its post-Cold War role as the world's policeman, and served as a prologue to the U.N. peacekeeping failures -- Rwanda, Srebrenica -- of the years to come.

Since then, one crisis in Somalia has begat the next. The secular warlords of the 1990s has given way to the more inscrutable Islamist forces of the rebel group al-Shabab, and this summer the country has once again been struck by famine -- one which the United States, despite offering more than $500 million in aid, is in no hurry to intervene in militarily. But as Somali pirates have arisen as a serious threat to international commerce and the U.S. war on terrorism has expanded to encompass Yemen and other hard-to-reach places in the Horn of Africa, there is no escaping the fact that Somalia's problems are, more than ever, the world's problems as well.

Above, a boy looks through a fence as newly arrived Somali refugees wait outside a registration center at the Dadaab refugee camp in eastern Kenya, on July 23.

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The terrible famine gripping Somalia today is only the latest sad chapter in the last 20 years of the country's history, which has been defined by anarchy and violence. Law and order began to deteriorate when President Siad Barre fled Somalia in January 1991, leaving the country in the hands of a number of clan-based guerrilla groups.

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Children wait at the Save the Children center in the Somali town of Belet Huen in August 1992. Even then, armed gangs prevented Red Cross teams from delivering aid to the soup kitchen, while bandits attempted to pillage the assistance.

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In December 1992, the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a U.S.-led military intervention to protect the relief shipments heading to Somalia. Here, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Edward Perkins and British Ambassador David Hannay vote in favor of the resolution.

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By January 1993, the number of foreign troops in Somalia had risen to nearly 30,000. Above left, a Somali boy and a U.S. soldier sit in a street on Jan. 6, 1993, in the capital, Mogadishu, while in the opposing photo a detachment of U.S. Marines board an airliner on Jan. 19, 1993, prior to returning to their base in California.

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Tensions only worsened in the summer of 1993, when Mohamed Farah Aidid, the leader of a Somali faction, referred to the international peacekeeping mission as a "deadly force" and thousands gathered to protest the U.N. presence.

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Somalia's social and tribal divisions soon caused its security forces to fracture. Here, a Somali woman hangs laundry of U.N. peacekeepers between wrecked Somali combat planes at Mogadishu airport in July 1993.

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The wreckage of a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter is strewn across a Mogadishu street on Oct. 14, 1993. The incident immortalized in the book and film, Black Hawk Down, saw 19 U.S. soldiers die as their helicopter was shot down by Somali warlords as it attempted to root out ammo caches. The episode marked the beginning of the end of the U.S. military intervention in Somalia.

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Over the next 10 years, Somalia was increasingly torn apart by rival gangs. While a fragile U.S.-supported transitional government attempted to restore order in the capital, the Islamist rebels captured vast segments of the country. Fearful that a Taliban-like theocratic state could take root in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia, backed by the United States, invaded.

Above, Somalis stand in front of a bullet-riddled building in July 2006.

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The instability on land soon led to piracy on the waters off of Somalia's coast. Here, a Somali gunman carries a Russian-made long range machinegun in the port town of Merca in October 2005, as he guards a vessel, the MV Herol, from pirates while it offloads food aid.

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Piracy has only gotten worse in the intervening years. Above a pirate stands on a rocky outcrop on the coast in Hobyo, central Somalia, on Aug. 20, 2010. A hijacked Korean supertanker is anchored on the horizon.

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African Union peacekeepers from Uganda establish positions in southeastern Mogadishu on July 29.

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Ignoring international condemnation and the plight of Somali citizens, al-Shabab maintained its ban on Western food aid in the areas its controls and denied the existence of a famine in Somalia. On Aug. 6, the militant group withdrew from Mogadishu. Here, a government militiaman sits on a pickup truck-mounted anti-aircraft gun on Aug. 13 in Mogadishu's Bakara market.

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A young Somali refugee stands next to her family's U.N.-provided shelter on July 31 in Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp. A new site in the camp opened to some 5,000 refugees from an ever-swelling number of Somalis. As anarchy in Somalia shows no sign of abating, it is unclear when these refugees will ever be able to return home.

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