At the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport last week, I was emerging from a concourse when three electric carts driven by Somali airport workers whizzed past, startling me.

Many Somalis have a distinctive look - very dark skin, slender frames and broad, roundish foreheads - and, to those who know a little about Somalia, it should not be surprising to encounter them at the Minneapolis airport. Immigrants from that ravaged country have settled by the tens of thousands in the Twin Cities and surrounding area with a hustling, entrepreneurial passion.

This is particularly evident at the airport, where three-quarters of the cabdrivers today are Somalis, as are many of the hub's workers. Cultural difficulties have been few but instructive. Some cabbies have refused to transport passengers carrying alcohol purchased at duty-free shops; store clerks have declined to scan products containing pork; a group of imams demanded separate prayer spaces for Muslims.

Seeing them everywhere started me thinking about their troubled homeland. One way of looking at Somalia is to see it as a sinking ship, where for years only the most fortunate - the wealthiest and best-educated - could get to lifeboats. The rest remain trapped in an increasingly desperate place, at the mercy of the world's goodwill.

Here's hoping they can swim.

The converging carts took me momentarily back to a dusty intersection in Mogadishu 11 years ago, when several vehicles full of armed Somalis converged around me. I was not just startled then, but frightened. I was in Mogadishu researching my book Black Hawk Down, and despite their alarming entrance, the armed crews quickly worked out an arrangement with my security detail. I did not understand the terms, any more than I can claim to understand all of Somalia today. But here's how I see it:

Somalia's present, like its past, continues to be a story of confusion and failures. Just last week there was violence over food, when merchants began refusing to accept Somali shillings, the hopelessly inflated paper currency diluted by enterprising locals who simply print their own. Islamist insurgents continue to battle the fragile, Ethiopian-backed central government, which needs foreign troops to survive but which, arrayed behind Ethiopian bayonets, cannot hope to win the hearts and minds of its people. Further stirring this mess are occasional U.S. air strikes, such as the one that recently killed Aden Hashi Ayro, the suspected al-Qaeda leader there.

The thriving Somali community in the Twin Cities is just one of many in a diaspora of millions, inhabiting refugee camps in Kenya and enclaves all over the world. There is a growing Somali presence in Sweden and the Netherlands. When we shot the 2001 film Black Hawk Down in Morocco and advertised for Somalis to work as extras, thousands showed up.

It makes me wonder whether some of the misery in Somalia might be caused by this relative ease of foreign travel and immigration. I am not suggesting we throw up barriers to Somalis or anyone else. Global immigration patterns are a vital and natural consequence of an increasingly international market economy. But one downside might be the perpetuation of failure in states such as Somalia.

In that country, there is a near absence of civic institutions and leadership. When I was there, I felt sorriest for the many decent people I met who were helplessly trapped between violent spheres of power.

On one side are the capitalists, or warlords, most of them closely allied to clans or subclans. They are in business to enrich themselves and their own. They care little about society as a whole - indeed, those who do not belong to their group often are regarded as the enemy. The absence of laws, taxes and regulations benefits those fortunate enough to control a valuable commodity or resource, but very few others. As one of these wealthy operators told me: "Anarchy is good for business."

These powerful cliques do as they wish. They amass money and power. They pillage, rape and murder. There is no one to stop them except rival factions, which is why, when I visited Mogadishu, the city was carved into sectors patrolled by armed gangs.

On the other side are the Islamist radicals, who care about society as a whole, but only insofar as they can shape it to their own zealous ends. They impose their harsh interpretation of sharia, or Muslim law. For all but the truest believers, it is a terrible trade-off. Women, for instance, are frequently raped by the unchecked bands of warlord-led militia. Islamist social rules and courts briefly offered them some protection, but under sharia it was also true that a raped woman could be stoned to death for adultery if she could not produce four male witnesses to verify her version of events.

Many women nevertheless adopted the veil and the other mandated strictures, and many ordinary Somalis embraced the Islamists - which shows how desperate they were for law and order. A man there told me he sent his children to the local Islamist school every day because there was no alternative: "I spend the afternoon un-teaching them the things I don't want them to learn."

The Islamists were chased out of power by a U.S.-backed coalition of Ethiopian and secular Somali forces, but the movement continues to fight. The only hope is for the warlords to unite and get behind a secular, Western-style government, which was precisely the hope in 1993 that led to the battle I wrote about in Black Hawk Down.

Another peace conference opened recently in Djibouti. Without substantial world support, any effort to create a popular local government is doomed.

One of the things Somalia lacks is a capable, homegrown movement of educated, determined nationalists capable of fending off the religious radicals, disarming and controlling the warlords, and standing up for the interests of people who just want a stable, civil society. I wonder whether the drain of Somali talent, money, and ambition to other places in the world - so evident in Minneapolis-St. Paul - isn't one of the reasons no such movement exists.

In the fairly recent past, those born in a Third World country lived and died there, and if they were unhappy with their government, be it colonial, ideological, or simply (as was most often the case) a sheer kleptocracy, they had no alternative but to accept the injustice or struggle to change it. No more. Emigration remains an insurmountable hurdle for most Somalis, but for many it offers a safer, easier option of escape from violent oppression and chaos.

Who can blame them for taking it?

Mark Bowden is a former staff writer at The Inquirer and is now national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly. Contact him at mbowden@phillynews.com.