Today from Hiiraan Online:  _
In Somalia, a war on journalists

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

It was a Thursday afternoon in Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, when I decided to head to the popular new restaurant known as The Village, opposite the National Theater. That decision almost ended my life.

The restaurant, built recently by a returning Somali diaspora businessman, had become a symbol of Mogadishu's newfound hope after years of civil war. It was a place where journalists, activists and reform-minded politicians gathered to talk about the issues facing our rebuilding nation.

I found my journalist colleagues sitting there - about 10 of them, mostly young men like myself, scraping out a living in perhaps the most dangerous job in the world. I greeted them, we drank some tea, and we talked about the challenges facing Somalia's newly elected government, and about our hopes for a new peaceful era.

I did not stay at the restaurant very long. Around 5:30 p.m., I excused myself, telling my colleagues it was getting late and I needed to head home. In Mogadishu, it is best not to travel after dark. As I left them, the sunlight fading, I remember them still sitting there, chatting away.

That memory will haunt me forever. Twenty minutes later, as I was still moving across the city, I received a phone call from a politician. He told me I had barely escaped catastrophe. Two suicide bombers had walked up to the open-air restaurant and blown themselves up. Some of my colleagues were dead, I was told, and several others wounded. I sat stunned, unable to even speak to my friend driving the car.

My friends Liban Ali Nor, news director at Somali National TV; Abdisatar Dahir Sabriye, producer at Somali National TV, and Abdirahman Yasin Ali, the director of Voice of Democracy - who I'd been laughing together with just minutes earlier - were now dead. Six other journalists were badly wounded. The table we'd all sat at was in the middle of the blasts.

Moments of friendship and happiness now tore through my mind, as I choked with bitterness and sorrow. I thought back to 2010, when Liban Ali Nor and I lived together inside Mogadishu's Bakara market, which was then controlled by the Islamist rebel group al-Shabab. Al-Shabab frequently punished or killed journalists they did not like. We somehow survived those dangerous days - and now this?

I spoke to my friend Yusuf Keynan, who barely survived the attack. He struggled to tell me what happened. There were three explosions, he sputtered. Two suicide bombers, followed by another blast.

Although 11 others died in the attack, my colleagues are convinced that we journalists were the targets. They say that the three journalists were immediately gunned down by the armed attackers as they got out of the car, before blowing themselves up on the spot.

If true, this is the first time suicide attackers specifically targeted journalists, and it could mean our lives just got even more dangerous, and our futures more uncertain.

The next day, another colleague, Hassan Yusuf Absuge, was shot in the head three times by armed assailants in the Mogadishu streets. Altogether, 10 Somali journalists have been assassinated this year. That does not count the others who have died incidentally in the line of fire.

Worse, we aren't even sure who is killing us. Nobody has ever been arrested or detained in relation to my colleagues' killings. We aren't even sure who is so determined to snuff out our voices. Some suspect al-Shabab is behind the killings. But al-Shabab is much weaker in Mogadishu than it used to be, and yet the assassinations keep growing.

My brain keeps flashing back to those last minutes at The Village, where I was spared death or injury by just minutes. There, I see the faces of my colleagues, whom I will never see again in this world. They were young men with bright futures, but their lives were ended by people against the peace and development of our country.

Working in Mogadishu as a journalist, we've become accustomed to threats against our lives, and even the occasional death of our colleagues. In choosing this career path, we accept these risks. But to be targeted by a suicide attack is something else entirely. We are not politicians, or diplomats. We do not have body guards or armored cars. All we can do now is try to minimize our movements even further, and keep watching our backs.

When I finished university, I received several job offers from local organizations in Mogadishu, most supported by the foreign aid pouring into our country. I rejected those opportunities in order to be a journalist.

My friends in university who graduated with me in my social science studies are now calling me repeatedly, requesting I stop this dangerous work. My family also has forbidden me to work for the local media, where I am most likely to make enemies - so I work only with English-language international media.

Why do I continue at all? I have high aspirations. I want to write more about Africa, to explore in-depth Somali society, culture and politics. Someday, I will be an author. This, I believe, is my contribution to the rebuilding of my country and our society.

As for the danger I face every day: I believe that every person passes on at his own time. Until then, I, and the Somali people, can only continue to strive for our dreams of a better future.


Abdi Ibrahim is a special correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers in Mogadishu, Somalia.

(EDITORS: In August 2007, McClatchy special correspondent Mahad Ahmed Elmi, also a popular local radio show host, was shot in the head several times by unknown gunmen and killed in Mogadishu.).



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