JAWHAR, Somalia — For years, residents of this sugarcane-farming town watched as their lives were torn apart by Somalia's descent into anarchy.
Looters in the 1990s burned the mammoth sugar factory, which once provided 1,500 jobs, and peddled the remains as scrap metal. Irrigation canal gates along the muddy Shabelle River rusted shut, flooding thousands of acres of crops and desiccating thousands more.
Shootings and rapes were an everyday occurrence as marauding local militias extorted money from drivers, business owners and even the hospital.
Fed up with the bloodshed and tired of waiting for a federal government, town leaders made a bold decision in 2001. They invited a rich businessman from Mogadishu, the capital, to move the 60 miles north to Jawhar and become their warlord.
"We had no choice," said Hassan Dhisow, 30, who joined the new warlord's forces and now commands a 950-man militia. "No miracle was going to fall from the sky and save us."
In the 14 years since the collapse of the government of Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre, Somalia has fractured into a patchwork of feuding fiefdoms, which, like Jawhar, are ruled by warlords and machine-gun-toting militias.
Mogadishu remains a no-go zone for even the interim president and interim prime minister, who serve in a provisional government formed last year in neighboring Kenya. When Interim Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Gedi briefly visited Mogadishu last month, a grenade attack killed eight people during his speech. In October 1993, 18 U.S. troops were killed in the capital during an aborted mission to capture one of Mogadishu's most notorious warlords. It's little wonder that Somalian government leaders have spent most of their time this year in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital.
But for the people of Jawhar, the deal they made to install a warlord appears to be paying off. Today the town is an oasis of stability in war-torn south-central Somalia, and the region is seen by some as a possible model for rebuilding the collapsed state.
Unlike Mogadishu, where gunfire echoes regularly through abandoned downtown streets and bystanders are killed in the cross-fire of rival militias, residents in Jawhar are again free to stroll at night without fear. Illegal road checkpoints disappeared. The hospital director says he hasn't treated a local gunshot wound in two years, thanks to a ban on civilians carrying weapons.
"One of the most impressive things in Jawhar is the peace and humanitarianism," UNICEF's outgoing Somalia representative, Jasper Morch, recently told a gathering in the village. "It's precious. I hope the rest of the country does what you're doing right now."
The rest of Somalia has taken notice. Some leaders in the interim government are proposing Jawhar as a temporary capital. And Jawhar's new warlord is hoping to prove that even an unelected militia leader can transform into a respected politician.
It's too soon to know whether he'll succeed. But it's a burning question in a country where the majority of the new parliament consists of warlords and former military commanders who have spent most of the last decade attacking one another.
"We feel there is a national responsibility on our shoulders," said Mohammed Omar Habeb, the 55-year-old warlord of Jawhar, who calls himself chairman of the Middle Shabelle Authority, a body he set up to govern the area. "I want this region to be an example for all of Somalia."
Habeb, better known as Mohammed Dheere, or Mohammed the Big Man, is a burly, 6-foot-2 importer who grew up in Middle Shabelle, but moved away during the Siad Barre regime and grew rich trading agricultural goods.
When Jawhar leaders approached him about returning, he was looking for a platform to enter national politics and expand his business interests. Habeb had no previous experience as a warlord. But in the absence of a central government, it appeared the quickest route to political prominence, particularly for someone with enough money to form an army.
Habeb did not hesitate. "I decided only I could end their suffering," he said. "I dream about being prime minister one day."
With rumored backing from the Ethiopian government, Habeb built an army, entered Jawhar and took over nearly everything in town, including the statehouse, where he set up residence. Not everyone welcomed him. Scores died in the fighting that ensued. Some residents mined the roads to kill his soldiers. Local journalists accused him of arresting those who questioned his power.
But after crushing rivals and securing the peace, Habeb today wins praise from many residents for restoring order, even if he had to do it at gunpoint.
"He is our liberator," said Ibrahim Mohammed, 80, elder of a farming village just outside town. Mohammed said his hamlet was nearly destroyed during clashes before Habeb arrived. Their tiny school and mosque burned down.
"We have been forgotten," he said. "We can't ask the government for help because there is no government. Now we ask Dheere."