Surfing the shark-infested waves off Somalia's capital of Mogadishu is a run with death in what is already one of the most dangerous places on Earth.
The sandy white beaches off the city, where hundreds have died in clashes between U.N. troops and clan militias, are patrolled by one of the five most vicious species of sharks.The Zambezi River shark, or Carcarinus Zambenzensis by its scientific name, is a 6 1/2-foot, 390-pound blood-crazed killer that will attack anything that moves with its razor-sharp teeth.
These scavengers, drawn up the east coast of Africa by the stink of camel intestines dumped in the sea by city butchers, are probably as unpredictable and dangerous as the Great White shark of "Jaws" fame, fishermen say.
"You must be joking," says a South African, who works at Mogadishu's U.N.-controled airport runway that hugs the rocky coastline, when asked if he has tested the waves.
Gazing longingly out at the rollers foaming in across an azure sea, the native of Africa's surfing capital Durban adds: "You'd be out of your mind if you even put your big toe in the water."
Life on the beach was not always like this in "The Mog," as Somalia's war-torn capital is known to thousands of United Nations peacekeepers.
Soon after thousands of American-led troops hit Mogadishu's coast at the start of Operation Restore Hope to end famine and lawlessness last December, U.S. soldiers found a little chunk of California on the edge of Africa.
The beach where the first American troops landed next to the airport was renamed Arroyo Beach after a U.S. Marine killed in a firefight with Somali gunmen.
In those days, U.S. Marines sat tanning on the porch of a beach hut made from plywood freight cases listening to rock music on their portable stereos.
Lifeguards with white zinc sunblock on their noses sat watchfully in their high chairs, distracted only by passing female soldiers in bikinis with their M-16 rifles slung over their shoulders.
Inflated truck tire inner tubes or bits of plank served as surfboards for the swimmers.
During those few months of relaxation before the storm of violence that hit Mogadishu, soldiers would sit about in the sand, telling stories and trading bits of their uniforms for smuggled alcohol or other items of barter.Comment on this story
Then in May, a French diplomat's secretary was savaged in the waves off Arroyo Beach and she later died of shock.
Arroyo was deserted and a shark warning sign was erected. Weeks later, 24 Pakistani U.N. soldiers were gunned down by Somali militias in Mogadishu and the capital spiraled into a guerrilla war that confined peacekeepers to base.
Over the next four months, only the hardy visited Arroyo beach and took a swim in the waves - perhaps tired of the heat, the incoming mortar bombs and the carnage of the U.N.'s fruitless search for the warlord Mohamed Aidid.
Last month, a Russian from one of the teams that runs civilian transport helicopters for the United Nations, was standing waist-deep in the waves at Arroyo when a shark bit him.