MOGADISHU, Somalia - Along the ghostly streets of Mogadishu, about the only traffic nowadays consists of starving cats and goats searching for food. They race toward the occasional pedestrian, crying for scraps.
Their owners fled the city's violence long ago, leaving more than half of Somalia's capital deserted. Shops are closed. Burned-out cars sit abandoned by the side of the road. Other than soldiers and militiamen, only the most desperate of people frequent the streets, including orphans and old women who sometimes are forced to compete with the strays for food.
Most others leave their homes only when necessary. In venturing outside, they hurry to their destinations in silence, heads down, avoiding eye contact with strangers. Few dare use cell phones lest they fall victim to thieves or be accused of spying. There's no socializing because it's too risky to stop for chitchat and no one knows whom to trust.
After 17 years of civil war, it was hard to imagine Somalia could get any worse. It has.
These days, this Horn of Africa nation appears on the verge of a total breakdown, according to aid officials and residents.
In addition to a growing insurgency, clan warfare, and no functioning government since 1991, Somalia's fragile economy is disintegrating amid hyperinflation and the local impact of a global food crisis that spurred riots in May.
"We are very close to collapse," said Hassan Rage, a sugar vendor in Mogadishu who earns about $2 a day. Until recently, that was enough for his family to survive. But with Somalia's shilling losing half its value in the last year, he can no longer afford water, lamp oil, or charcoal for cooking.
"Sometimes I don't go home after work, and sleep in the mosque," Rage said. "I can't face the children empty-handed."
A U.N.-recognized transitional government, once seen as Somalia's best hope, is crippled by infighting and largely controlled by former warlords. Ailing and aged President Abdullahi Yusuf has been in and out of hospitals for the last year. His Cabinet, hunkered down in a heavily guarded district of Mogadishu, retains a tenuous grip on power thanks only to the thousands of Ethiopian troops supporting it.
Attacks by insurgents worsen by the day. After a short-lived Islamist government was defeated in 2006, their armed forces shifted to guerrilla tactics, striking government and Ethiopian forces, and launching hit-and-run attacks in various southern Somalian cities.
A U.S. air strike May 1 killed a top insurgent commander whom American officials accused of having links to al-Qaeda. His followers are vowing to step up their assaults, targeting any Westerners in the region.
In May, the latest in a long string of peace conferences was held in the tiny nation of Djibouti, but little progress was made.
Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis is verging on catastrophe, aid groups warn. About one-third of Somalia's population needs emergency food aid. One million people have been displaced over the last 18 months. Thousands have been killed in the fighting.
"We are innocent," pleaded Murayo Siad Roble, a mother of nine. Her husband was killed in November while attempting to find food for the family. "I don't understand what crime we've committed to be punished like this. I'm worried my children will all die."
U.N. and aid groups, which already had a skeletal presence, are pulling back further because of growing violence. Two World Food Program drivers and three Doctors Without Borders staffers have been killed this year.
Somalia's social breakdown has hit the young the hardest. They rarely know peace, stability, or even a semblance of order. In one desolate neighborhood, shabbily dressed children played on a recent afternoon. As usual, it was a war game. They carried guns carved from wood and tossed plastic bags filled with ash to mimic the smoke of exploding grenades.
The real-life drama is not far from this make-believe version. According to a recent Amnesty International report, Somalia's civilians are enduring widespread abuse from all sides.
"The people of Somalia are being killed, raped, tortured," said Michelle Kagari, deputy director of Amnesty International's Africa program. "Looting is widespread and entire neighborhoods are being destroyed . . . and no one is being held accountable."
The insurgents actively recruit teenagers. Hassan Yare, 17, joined Shabab, one of Somalia's largest militant groups, at 11. His father brought him to a training camp before he died in battle.
"I promised him that I will continue the holy war," Yare said. "And when I have children, I will train them to continue the fight after I am gone."