The sun rises over the Horn of Africa, further baking the parched land. The sound of battle a few kilometres away blends with the subdued chatter of more than 3,000 Somalis gathered at a series of bomb-proof concrete blocks that protects the entrance to the African Union (AU) field hospital in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. Here, the young and the old, the sick and the malnourished congregate in the dust and relentless heat. No more than 400 of the thousands queuing will receive treatment today. AU soldiers refer to this checkpoint as 'The Gates of Hope' and nothing is left to chance. Al-Shabab - the Somali mujahideen that's been fighting to establish an Islamic state since 2006 - has repeatedly targeted the hospital with mortars and suicide bombers. Those queuing understand the implications: women comply tolerantly with the order to remove their burqas before being scanned with a hand-held metal detector; even a dying grandfather, who was pushed for 10 kilometres in a wheelbarrow by his son, does not escape scrutiny. I ARRIVE IN MOGADISHU at the end of March, amid the brutal conflict that's crippled Somalia for two decades, claiming 400,000 lives, and the worst drought this region has experienced for 60 years. 'We need medicine, doctors, anything at all,' says health minister Dr Adan Haji Ibrahim, before a Thursday morning cabinet meeting at Villa Somalia, the bullet-riddled seat of the country's Transitional Federal Government (TFG). (Until the threat of famine finally entered the global consciousness this month, Somalia had been widely ignored by an international community fatigued with stories of the conflict here, and preoccupied with the events of the 'Arab Spring' to the north.) More than 10 million people in the region are threatened by famine. Two million Somalis had already been displaced by the war and insurgency before the drought caused that number to mushroom by another million in just a few months. So desperate is Ibrahim for support - Somalia's health service operates on an annual budget of HK$5 million, compared with Hong Kong's HK$40 billion - that, walking past the Chinese embassy on a recent trip to Nairobi, Kenya, he spontaneously knocked on the door to ask for assistance. Unfortunately, the mission was closed. 'My initial concern was that when the rains came, the parched conditions would prevent water drainage, leading to flooding, unsanitary conditions and outbreaks of cholera,' Ibrahim says. 'Now, though, with the rains still not here, we are seeing a massive increase in the number of illnesses related to dehydration and malnutrition, and a corresponding rise in mortality.' Crops are failing and food prices are rising. In Bakaara market - the site of the United States military disaster that was depicted in the film Black Hawk Down - a bag of sorghum wheat that a few weeks ago could have been bartered for one goat, now costs four. Entire villages in Somalia's pastoral heartlands have been abandoned, says Saeed Hersi of the Norwegian Refugee Council. 'Not only does this mean the country's next harvest has failed, but subsequent crops are not being sown.' News channels now stream images of Somalis migrating en masse. Up to 1,500 a day are heading south, into Kenya, flooding into Dadaab, the world's largest refugee camp, with a population of 380,000. Others are fleeing north, into Ethiopia, hoping food and shelter are available at the feeding centres in Dollo Ado - itself inside the drought zone. Conditions in these camps are deteriorating rapidly, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Its staff describe families walking for more than a month to reach help, with significant numbers dying along the way. UNHCR is calling this displacement, and the broader issue of regional food security, the world's worst humanitarian disaster. Its chief, Antonio Guterres, says: 'Mortality rates are already three times [above] emergency ceilings. Dadaab holds the poorest of the poor, and the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.' Such statements catch the public's attention but sometimes appear glib. Responding to threats from al-Shabab, the UN pulled its humanitarian agencies out of southern Somalia 18 months ago, leaving a huge vacuum in the country's aid sector. So while the UN camps in Kenya and Ethiopia benefit from being the focus of international attention and receive the aid that such awareness garners, Somalis too poor or sick to reach them are left to fend for themselves in ad hoc camps inside Somalia. Worse, they risk being targeted by al-Shabab, which has threatened to kill the few foreign aid workers still in the country and any Somali receiving help from them. According to Ibrahim, Mogadishu is home to more than 230 camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs). At the AU field hospital, Haleema, 30, says she lives at one such site. Her family abandoned their farm in the Lower Shabelle region after the irrigation system ran dry, ruining their crops. She says she's been waiting several hours for her infant son, Omar, to be seen in triage. 'We have no water; we have no food. All we have is fighting,' she says, cradling her child. The febrile baby has diarrhoea and is unable to keep down his milk - typical symptoms of dehydration and malnutrition. In a remarkable act of kindness, other patients, probably no less needy, give up their place and usher the pair closer to the front of the queue. 'There are two hospitals we can get to in the city, but the AU hospital is free and the conditions are better,' Haleema says. 'I wished to come last night, but with all the fighting [it was] too dangerous.' NUMEROUS AS THEY ARE, visiting Mogadishu's IDP camps is no easy task, even when embedded with a multinational peacekeeping force. The fighting with al-Shabab is so relentless that travel with the AU/TFG is undertaken only in armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and on strictly varied routes. After some discussion about the next sortie from the Amisom (AU Mission in Somalia) base, near Mogadishu airport, commanders agree a convoy can be diverted past one of the smaller IDP camps near Lenin Road, on the way to the front line at Bondere. Sitting in the lead vehicle of a three-APC convoy, we rumble northeastwards to the scene of the day's fiercest fighting. The city is noisy and active, much like any other in Africa, except for here, the hubbub contains the sound of constant gunfire. Nosing into the debris of the shattered suburbs, the APC grinds to a halt yards from the former Ministry of Information. The superheated, stultifying air is laden with tension and the ripe sweat of the eight Ugandan soldiers and three journalists crammed into this reinforced steel hull. The soldiers speak urgently in Swahili. Peering through the narrow plate glass window, it appears we are marooned between open scrubland and a stretch of half-destroyed houses. Al-Shabab occupy a line of buildings less than 100 metres ahead. The only way to extract ourselves is to reverse all three hard-to-manoeuvre vehicles. Seconds pass. Then comes the crack of incoming sniper fire. Al-Shabab bullets hiss through the air. Our Ugandan escorts reach for their roof-mounted machine guns and return fire. The wall of noise that erupts is ear-shattering; smoke and cordite fill the cabin. The Ugandans are tenacious. Although nominally referred to as peacekeepers, 'there is no peace to keep', says Major Ba Barigye wryly. They and their Burundian comrades - Amisom's backbone - have fought doggedly since February to retake al-Shabab-held neighbourhoods. Although AU force commanders will not confirm casualty rates, more than 100 of the contingent are thought to have been killed in action this year. Five minutes pass in an ethereal whirl. We remain pinned down by gunfire; the AU machine guns pound out a defiant response. I am jammed in a seat directly under the forward barrel and spent shells cascade down, searing my sleeveless arms. A gunner runs out of ammunition; hands help to relay another heavy case of bullets up to him. My senses are dulled but I suspect each man in this vehicle recalls being told that al-Shabab possess anti-tank missiles. A brief lull. 'Go! Run!' I hear someone yell. Leaping out the back of the vehicle in 12kg of body armour, my feet sink into the sand. Adrenaline kicks in. Running hard, keeping low, weaving at the sound of every rifle shot, thoughts fill my head, about family and friends; how beautiful but entirely forsaken this country is. We duck into the labyrinthine, bullet-riddled rubble of houses, detouring around a booby-trapped corpse, jumping a wall, not knowing who is lurking around the next corner. After what feels like an eternity we come upon a troop of Ugandan soldiers engaged in battle with the insurgents. After a few minutes spent regaining our composure, we follow their communications lines back to safety. That afternoon, with the vehicle retrieved, we visit several Amisom positions. It becomes clear al-Shabab is digging a network of trenches across the city, and that parts of Mogadishu are beginning to resemble a first-world-war battlefield. 'We need helicopters to flush them out, or this will just remain a stalemate,' says a field commander. The AU strongholds are manned by young soldiers on one- or two-year tours, proud to be protecting fellow Africans. Their lives fluctuate between hours of boredom and the intensity of battle. Normal comparators don't apply: Private Francois of the Burundian army says his sector is 'very safe today' but, asked if he had been shot at in the past few hours, he seems surprised by the question: 'Of course,' he says cheerily. Finally, in an area just far enough away from the front line to feel slightly less dangerous, the APC pulls up outside the unnamed IDP camp. Unable to enter because of the risk of kidnap and unable to linger in case we come under attack, there is just time to snap a few pictures of the temporary shelters, crammed one against the other, made of bits of wood and plastic and rubbish; the occasional fruit stall, children and their mothers. We move on, dispirited to be so close yet so helpless. A few hours later, further up the lines, I witness the heart-warming sight of a group of Burundian soldiers singing traditional songs from their homeland in a bombed-out factory. Their melodious voices rise above the incessant gunfire and mortar blasts of Mogadishu, a semblance of beauty and logic returning to the world. 'WE ARE TRYING TO rebuild a state with the US$1.5 million we derive each month in revenues from Mogadishu seaport - our only steady income,' said Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, speaking before he was forced to resign his post as prime minister, the fall guy in an ongoing power struggle between President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and the speaker of parliament, Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden. 'But we're struggling and have been long overlooked by the international community.' International organisations have been in stages supportive and disparaging of the TFG - an unelected body that, since its inception, in 2004, has exercised a tenuous mandate over parts of Mogadishu but little else of Somalia, and that has been undermined by the corruption claims and clan-based divisions that lie at the root of most of the country's woes. Mohamed, a Somali-American and former commissioner for the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, in New York state, showed that, for the first time in 20 years, Somalia could be governed effectively. In only seven months in office, he slashed the size of the cabinet, expanded the tax base, weeded out corrupt officials and, above all, ensured that previously unmotivated TFG soldiers - on whose efforts and loyalty the country's future stability will depend - received regular salaries. He is also respected by the diaspora, and by Washington. When forced to step down, in June 19, demonstrations erupted in Mogadishu. Observers described the moment when Somalis protested in support of a politician as 'historic'. Since Mohamed's resignation, Washington has demonstrated a total lack of trust in Ahmed, bypassing him at every level in the fight against al-Shabab, and even offering a US$120 million defence package, including surveillance drones, to Burundi and Uganda rather than to the TFG army. More significantly, four days after Mohamed stepped down, the US resumed its policy of unilaterally targeting and assassinating members of al-Shabab and their increasingly close al-Qaeda allies based in Somalia - a strategy last publicly acknowledged with the slaying of the East African US embassies bomber Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan in 2009. As journalist Jeremy Scahill recently reported in The Nation magazine, an impotent Ahmed said of this strategy: 'For our sovereignty it's not good, but the positive part is you're attacking criminals.' Uncertainty surrounds the future of the TFG, and not just because of Mohamed's departure and US scepticism about its capabilities. If the death toll among Amisom troops does not abate - or should Uganda fall victim to more al-Shabab bombings (blasts during last year's World Cup left 74 dead) - Bujumbura and Kampala might decide to reduce or withdraw their 9,000-strong force, with all the instability that would bring. Few countries are likely to relish filling the void. Mogadishu is hard warfare. Certainly no African member of the Arab League has rushed to pick up the poisoned chalice of combating al-Shabab. Other political considerations prevail, particularly the international demand that elections take place by August next year. The TFG is in a transitional phase, having unilaterally extended its mandate for three years, and it will have to be tested at the polls before it achieves a legitimate, democratic mandate. However, with the drought and insurgency having displaced so many people, just how a national vote can be held in 12 months' time is anyone's guess. CHINESE INVESTMENT WOULD certainly help stabilise the country, suggest various TFG sources, before Energy and Petroleum Minister Abdirizaq Mohedin runs through a shopping list of natural resources, including uranium and oil, that, he says, China would be welcome to explore for. Mohamed expresses how surprised and grateful he was when (in March) Li Baodong, Beijing's ambassador to the UN, unexpectedly raised the issue of Somalia's future in the Security Council, promp- ting an entire day's debate between members: 'The links between Somalia and China were very strong before the war; the Chinese built our main hospital and our sports stadium,' he says. 'Please convey our gratitude, and that we are always happy to work in partnership with the Chinese people.' 'This is Sodonka Road, once the most beautiful boulevard in Mogadishu,' says journalist Ali Gutale, standing next to a bomb crater and gesturing towards what looks like an overgrown jungle track. 'Anyone who knew Mogadishu 20 years ago would shed tears to see this. In the evening, people would leave the cinema or theatre and walk here. The reason it was beautiful is because it was built by the Chinese. 'It would help security and improve life a lot if the PRC came back.' In December 2008, images flashed around the world showing sailors on fishing boat Zhenhua 4 fending off Somali pirates with molotov cocktails made from a seemingly ample supply of empty Tsingtao beer bottles. It was the first Chinese merchant ship to be threatened so publicly by pirates and, weeks later, China dispatched her first fleet of warships to the Gulf of Aden, to join the international anti-piracy effort. With its potential oil reserves - particularly compelling given the tensions between North and South Sudan, on which Beijing is dependent for considerable quantities of petroleum - and its sea ports; and with the US military presence in the region, China's strategic interests could be well served by nurturing the TFG, argues Adams Bodomo, director of African Studies at the University of Hong Kong. What is more, China has a good track record when it comes to working in so-called failed states, says Bodomo. 'Take Angola: China went in when the country was on its knees. And, when the civil war ended, it was the only major investor ... it's about taking risk, both economic and political.' Bodomo says there is a moral imperative to the investments made in Africa by Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs). 'The biggest problem Africa faces is the lack of infrastructure to begin exploiting its economy,' Bodomo says. 'Beijing can help bring that development. If it's private Chinese companies you're talking about, yes, they maximise profit and many are a disaster for Africans, given their record on labour rights and the environment. But SOEs? Look at northern Sudan, where there are Western sanctions. China needs 10 million barrels of oil a day and to meet that demand its SOEs invest in Sudanese petroleum, providing jobs, income and infrastructure. You can't say that, because of your problems with [President Omar] al-Bashir, you're going to allow tens of thousands of Sudanese children to risk starvation.' With or without Chinese help, amid the hunger, killing and chaos in Somalia, tiny gestures - such as the patients ushering Haleema and her baby towards the front of the queue - show hope should never be lost. Although baby Omar's fate is unknown, al-Shabab has ended its fatwa against foreign aid workers and the UN co-ordinator for humanitarian support is finally on his way to Mogadishu to discuss with the TFG how best to help the starving masses. For the first time in two decades, sides so utterly opposed to each other appear to be working for the same outcome; to save Somalis from further suffering.