WISIL, Somalia — The wind howls here, lifting off the desert, roaring into town, gathering force as it squeezes between the metal shacks along Wisil’s main drag and blasts into people’s faces.
Spectral figures tramp by, their faces wrapped in checkered scarves to keep the sand out of their eyes and prevent it from burning the backs of their throats. Lashed by the wind, donkeys bow their heads.
Against this tableau appears Mohamed Gelle. He is hard to miss. His eyes are pried open with little white straws wedged between his cheek and his eyebrow because, he says, he never wants to sleep. Wisil’s children laugh mercilessly at him as he hunches under a tree and wolfs down a melon, mumbling to himself as the juice dribbles off his chin into the tangle of rags that make up his clothes.
“That man,” said a passer-by, with a sad shake of the head, “used to be the richest man in town. He had five taxis in Mogadishu.”
Not far away, trudging along in oversize flip-flops, is Mahamoud Ahmed Dini, who unlike Mr. Gelle moves unnoticed, looking completely normal — until you see the left side of his head. His left ear has been sheared off, leaving a spongy stump and a sand-encrusted hole.
“It was a 37-millimeter shell. A zook !” Mr. Dini says, almost proudly. “1991.”
One man loses his ear, another seems to have lost his mind. A single mother with five children says goodbye to her home during a barrage of mortar rounds in Mogadishu, the capital, and arrives here broke, embarking on a life of squatter-hood.
Though Wisil is just another windswept town in central Somalia, barely a tiny dot on the most detailed maps, it seems to embody something bigger, something true for the entire nation: an enduring sense of loss.
Somalia has been missing a functioning central government for nearly 20 years, a record in modern times. The government imploded in 1991 and nobody — not the warlords, clan elders, religious sheiks or United Nations-backed technocrats — has been able to rebuild it.
The problems that stem from this are scattered far and wide. The lawlessness, the lack of resources, the isolation and the desperation extend outward in various degrees of intensity from the bullet-scarred streets of Mogadishu to remote, impoverished, uneventful villages like Wisil, which are essentially left on their own to deal with the wreckage of a never-ending war.
With cloudy eyes and trembling lips, Mahamoud Nur Ali, the oldest man in Wisil, remembers when the Italians invaded Hobyo, a nearby coastal town (and now a pirate den) in 1925. He was 8 and his traditional world of camels and deserts, blood feuds and swords, was about to change.
But he says he does not begrudge the Italian colonizers. “Actually,” he said, sitting on a thin reed mat in a house made from flattened oil drums, “those were the best days we had. At that time, there was some law and order.”
Today, what law and order there is left in places like Wisil comes from the intricate clan system. Somalia may be one of the most homogenous countries on the planet, with nearly 100 percent of its people speaking the same language, adhering to the same religion (Sunni Islam) and belonging to the same ethnic group.
But this nation is split into a dizzying number of clans, sub-clans, sub-sub-clans and so on, and just about everyone in Wisil hails from the same sub-sub-clan, the Sa’ad. After the government collapsed, many men here fought fiercely for the Sa’ad’s leader, Mohamed Farah Aideed, a notorious warlord. Mr. Aideed humiliated American troops in 1993 in the Black Hawk Down battle but was killed a few years later, leaving Wisil’s people without a champion.
The village today has a few thousand residents, no running water, no electricity, no TVs. Its sandy main street is littered with camel vertebrae, red-and-white Sportsman cigarette packs and donkey dung. A portrait of isolation, Wisil is eight hours’ drive from the nearest town with electricity, down a road so bumpy that travelers get calluses on their hands from holding on so tightly as they are jostled over it.
The young men here say that if there was a government, maybe there would be better roads. And wells. And schools. And hospitals. Many children here have dime-size scars on their foreheads, the mark of traditional medicine, typically a burning stick touched to a child’s face in the hope of ridding the young body of malaria and other diseases.
“What do we do for fun?” said Bashir Ahmed, a young farmer, sitting with friends outside a bare shop. “We sit here on the stoop and watch the road. That’s our fun.”
Wisil’s people are herders and farmers, scraping a living from the thorny landscape. At this time of year, the sun beats down and the wind picks up, stirring so much dust that the bottoms of the clouds turn pink, the color of the desert.
That same wind froths up the seas. Wisil is not far from the Somali coast, and many Somali pirates pass through here, especially during the de facto pirate summer vacation because of the rough ocean.
The other day, a pirate convoy thundered through town, the tires of the four-by-four trucks churning up a mini-sandstorm as the trucks flew past.
“We don’t get anything from them,” scowled Mr. Dini, the man with the missing ear. “They use their money to drink wine and sleep with prostitutes.”
Several pirates in Wisil admitted as much. One pirate named Mohamed, who claimed that he made $250,000 in 2009 for hijacking the Faina, a Ukrainian freighter packed with arms, said he spent all his money on cars, qat (a leaf Somalis chew for a high) and women. “If I knew how to save like a normal person,” he joked, “do you think I’d still be doing this?”
A small, clan-based local government, the Galmudug State administration, is trying to establish a foothold in this area, and clan leaders want money from the United Nations to help create fisheries, livestock projects and other jobs to give young men an alternative to piracy.
But the basic human needs here are staggering. On the outskirts of Wisil stand dozens of deserted gumdrop-shaped hovels made from scraps of plastic. These used to be homes of displaced people fleeing Mogadishu’s fighting.
“Where did they go? I’m not sure,” said Abdi Aziz Hassan, a volunteer policeman. “Maybe they left because of the wind.”