Mary Harper -


(CUE: Twenty years ago, the military ruler of Somalia, Siad Barre, fell from power. Since then, most of the country has been in turmoil. Warlords, clan militias and Islamist extremists have held sway, and there has been no effective central government. Somalia is often called a failed state. But twenty years ago, one part of the country broke away, declaring itself the independent republic of Somaliland. So far, nobody has recognised it. Mary Harper has just been to both Somalia and Somaliland:)

My journey began in a run-down part of east London on a dreary, wet winter day. I was looking for the Somaliland mission in the UK and I was completely lost. "Walk past the cinema and turn right when you come to the supermarket" - that's what I'd been told by Somaliland's representative to Britain. But I couldn't locate his office. Eventually I found it; a small room in a shabby business centre on a tatty side street.

Even though Somaliland doesn't officially exist, you do need a visa to get there. After a cup of sweet tea, and a fascinating lesson on Somaliland's history from the representative, I had my visa and I was ready to go.

My next stop was Kenya and a scheduled flight to Somaliland. The only hitch was a stopover in Mogadishu - capital of Somalia. Probably the most dangerous city in the world. Luckily there was no heavy fighting on the day I landed there. I walked around the area controlled by African peacekeepers, looking at sweaty Ugandan soldiers piled into a pick-up truck and thick-necked, crew-cropped white men who played some unspecified role in securing the airport.

A glamorous business lady I sat next to on the plane was keen to take me into town - close to the area controlled by Islamist fighters. "I'll just pop out and get you a full Islamic dress - black niqab to cover your body and face, gloves for your hands and socks for your feet". I was worried about my blue eyes, and about the fact that the BBC would be most unhappy with my excursion, so I politely declined.

Once I arrived in Somaliland, things were completely different. No scary-looking security men, no peacekeepers -- just peace. It seemed strange that the Somali territory with a functioning democracy, a thriving economy, and safety on the streets, was the area nobody in the world was willing to recognise.

People were in a state of high excitement about the referendum on independence for southern Sudan. 'Our turn will be next', they said. But outside Somaliland, many Somalis are completely opposed to the idea of any part of their country breaking away.

I was under no obligation in Somaliland to cover myself with thick black material. Most of the women wore the traditional Somali dress of brightly coloured robes and scarves, billowing in the breeze. Some wore veils over their faces, but I was told this was more a matter of fashion than religious observance. As one man said, "Some of the naughtiest girls in the land wear niqab".

The day after I arrived in Somaliland, the Al Qaeda-linked group, Al Shabaab, which controls much of Somalia, issued a new order. 'Men and women are no longer allowed to chat in public; they are no longer permitted to shake hands'. Now chatting and shaking hands - actually kissing hands, is an integral part of Somali culture. And in Somaliland, there is plenty of both.

The people are romantic; long, lyrical poems are central to the Somali way of life, and those that are not about war or camels, tend to be about love. People flirt with each other in Somaliland - in a delicate and sophisticated way. One man was receiving poetic nightly text messages from an unknown admirer.

Another thing that struck me about Somaliland was how dramatically the capital, Hargeisa, had changed since the last time I visited. In 1988, the city was reduced to a pile of rubble and human bones after systematic aerial bombardment by Somali government warplanes trying to crush a rebellion. Hargeisa was called 'the Dresden of Africa'.

Two decades later, the city is flourishing. I stood on a hill overlooking Hargeisa  There were new buildings as far as my eye could see, in every direction. I met a woman who had built a hospital on top of a mass grave, the place where executions used to be carried out.

Somalilanders are coming home from exile to invest and help the territory develop. One man - who works as a psychiatrist in Canada - gives up several weeks of his time for free every year to come treat mental patients because there aren't any psychiatrists in Somaliland. Others - from Britain, the United States, the Gulf and Scandinavia - are setting up profitable businesses, but they are also filling gaps the government cannot fill.

Because it is not officially a country, Somaliland cannot get loans from international financial institutions to repair its shattered infrastructure. The government has no money. But things are happening. Business people are not keeping all their profits for themselves; they're building roads. The told me they also used to pay the salaries of the police force, and their petrol bills.

I walked across a bridge in the second city of Bur'ao; it spans a wide river bed, filled with rusting armoured personnel carriers, left behind after the civil war. The area used to be impassable in the rainy season, so people contributed what they could. A goat, a camel, a dollar. This, together with a bit of help from government and a lot of help from big business, resulted in the bridge.

It all seemed very far away from that cold little street in that remote part of London where I got my visa. But the Somaliland mission in the UK is a bit like Somaliland itself. It has set itself up on its own, without much help or interference from government or international institutions. And it's doing quite well, thank you.