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Inside Somalia: With the African Union forces

On the ground with peacekeepers at K-4, the most dangerous spot in Mogadishu.

Editor's note: Somalia defines the term failed state. This GlobalPost series includes accounts of being under fire in Mogadishu, an investigation into the Al Shabaab rebels, a look at Somalia's revered poetry and an analysis of when Somalia will improve.

MOGADISHU, Somalia — The soldiers insist that you get used to the crack of bullets and the mortars landing nearby. It gets to be normal, they say.

“You can be standing here one minute and then, boom, you’re dead. That’s just how it is,” said one Ugandan officer. “If you think about it too much you’ll run mad.”

In that case it’s surprising there’s anyone sane left in Mogadishu, a city that has been at the heart of a 21-year war and stands as a blasted monument to the decades of destruction.

In 1988 clan-based militias launched a rebellion against the general-turned-dictator Mohamed Siyad Barre. When he was chased out of Mogadishu in 1991 the clans turned on one another in a battle for economic control and political power.

The years that followed have been a violent dance as clans and sub-clans split and reform, collaborate and fight as circumstances shift.

The current fighting is, once again, in-fighting.

The allied Islamist insurgents of Al Shabaab, a group that has declared its allegiance to Al Qaeda and Hizb Al Islam, are battling for power against their former ally Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, president of the Transitional Federal Government.

Ahmed has the political and financial support of the United States and the United Nations and, more significantly, the military support of 5,300 Ugandan and Burundian soldiers who make up the African Union peacekeeping mission here, known as AMISOM.

Over the years the reason for the conflict has changed but the killing has remained the same.

Hundreds of thousands have died, more than half a million Somalis are in refugee camps, half the remaining population of 7 million survives on food aid, tens of thousands are forced to flee their homes every month. The humanitarian impact is staggering.

The battered seaside city bears witness to the meticulous destruction. Bombed-out buildings, collapsed houses and rubble-strewn streets are the result of round upon round of fighting.

And still it goes on. On three out of five evenings recently spent in Mogadishu thudding mortars and staccato machine-gun fire ripped open the quiet of the night. When fighting is heaviest the worst of it is at K4, which is short for the traffic circle four kilometers from the port.

K4 marks the frontline between the few square miles of the city that AMISOM controls and the rest, where Al Shabaab holds sway. The junction links the airport to the seaport and Villa Somalia, the hilltop presidential compound.