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Inside Track: Despatch from Mogadishu

CAMEL burgers, creepy-crawlies and al-Qaeda's nasty cousins.

Ah, it's good to be back on the road. Arriving in Somalia last week I was quickly reminded of the things I really miss as a foreign correspondent. And that was only after the ageing African Express Airlines DC9 dropped towards what, up until the last moment, looked like the Indian Ocean rather than the runway at Mogadishu airport.

That the plane had seen better days totally preoccupied a New York-based United Nations representative sitting next to me. I knew instinctively I had drawn the short straw within minutes of taking my seat next to him.

"Geez, this runway looks like something out of an Indiana Jones movie," he pointed out unwantedly, as our plane taxied for take off at Berbera airport in Somaliland.

In retrospect perhaps he had a point, given that what can best be described as a series of distinctly retro-looking aircraft lay alongside the apron. I couldn't help noticing that one lay in a crushed heap having clearly slewed off the runway, while another had the inexplicable slogan "National Paints" peeling from its rusting fuselage.

Mogadishu airport was typical Africa bedlam, the row from baggage reclaim suggesting that a another round of Somalia's interminable civil wars had just broken out. Sanctuary of sorts however was to be found at my hotel.

Dubbed by a Time magazine article the Best Hotel in Hell, Mogadishu's Peace Hotel, is one of the few comparatively secure places in this war-ravaged city. Coming and going from here by vehicle is to run the gauntlet of al-Shabab, ideological cousins of their better known big brother, al-Qaeda. Kidnappings and suicide bombings are al-Shabab's stock in trade.

As a counter measure to such threats our vehicle never takes the same route twice and accompanying us in a pickup are Bashir's Boys, a private security escort organised by the hotel owner and comprising six mean-looking chaps draped in bandoliers of bullets and touting machine guns.

Friends and acquaintances at home often ask what it's like to be a journalist working in places like Somalia. Most are surprised to hear that so much of the one's time is taken up with basic necessities, like finding a safe place to stay, edible food and access to the internet to file pieces like this. All are not easy to come by in Mogadishu.

Speaking of food, I've had camel meat almost every day since I came here. I made the mistake of pointing out to a colleague that I like camels and have a twinge of guilt every time I tuck into the meat that is pounded to make it sufficiently tender. "I'm sure you like cows but that doesn't stop you eating them at home," he replied.

It was the spy novelist John le Carre who once said that "a desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world".

Back on the road I'm instantly reminded of how true that is. Camel meat, cockroaches, terrorists and washing my smalls in the hotel room sink are all part of the experience. Frankly, I wouldn't have it any other way.

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