*A story of love and loss, of pains and dreams*
I thought about it every day for the twenty five years that I’ve lived here. I think about it sitting here behind this old rugged sewing machine as I observe life in the camp, as the wind blows fine dust across the expansive field. I think about it on those nights that sleep refuses to come, as I stare at the darkness lying in my tent. I think about that night that changed everything. It was New Year’s 1991, in Muqdisho, and I was about 14. I remember waking up to the sound of gunfire, in the dead of the night. Loud, deafening, frightening gunfire. I felt like jumping out of my skin even though I was used to hearing gunshots occasionally, for there’s nothing louder and more terrifying than the sound of a bullet leaving an AK47. I remember armed soldiers running in a field and shooting their weapons, bombs exploding in the distance, a child crying. It was dark out and I didn’t know where the shots were coming from. My Aabo (dad) ran outside to see what the noise was all about and he stopped a bullet. I could see his silhouette as he fell on his knees. As he hit the ground, he let out a deafening cry with all the breath he had left; Run!
I couldn’t move a muscle. I forgot how to breathe; I was certain I was going to die. But instead of fear, I felt calmness and emptiness. A feeling of numbness. A sense of resignation to the end – and I was certain it was nigh. Then all of a sudden, my Hooyo (mom) mounted my two year old baby sister Sumeya onto her back and then grabbed and we started running, almost tripping over bodies lying on the street. Bombs were exploding in the distance. The earth was shaking beneath my feet, and people were running in all directions. Mothers wailed, children cried and we ran without looking back. We ran for our lives.
We stopped outside Muqdisho, breathless after running for what seemed like an eternity, taking shelter in an abandoned garage. At dawn, after a terrifying listening to rockets landing nearby, we joined a great horde on donkey carts, in cars and on foot. It was a long caravan of men, women and children. Some children were lucky to ride in donkey carts or cars but the rest of us had to walk, except the little ones, like Sumeya, who were carried on the back by their mothers and fathers.
As the bright orange morning sun peeked through the horizon, we came across a shooting scene just outside the city. The earth was damp and red with fresh blood that glittered in the morning light. There were bodies scattered around. A child suckled the still-warm milk from a dead woman’s breast. One boy had been shot in the head. There was the smell of blood and a flock of vultures gathering in the nearby acacia trees. Sticky sand glued my feet to my sandals. It was the first time I had seen a dead body and my stomach churned at the sight.
But we didn’t stop; nobody looked back and the caravan hurried on. Luckily no gunmen followed us. But soon we were getting hungry and thirsty and we had not carried any food or water. We begged for food from the villages we passed but we didn’t manage to get much. My sandals broke in half on the way and I had to walk carefully, avoiding thorns and pebbles. My feet got sore because of the heat and the harsh terrain. Sumeya stopped crying and was becoming weak. She was still on Hooyo’s back, with only her head showing above the clothing. I could see her eyes were disappearing in their sockets.
The walking never stopped; we walked all day and only stopped at night to rest and sleep and at dawn, we set off again. Some families couldn’t carry on and got left on the road and others never woke up from their sleep. The caravan carried on, regardless. And after four weeks of walking in a crowd, stripping the trees of edible berries and drinking water from the river, those of us that remained arrived at Dadaab refugee camp. First thing I remember seeing was the vast open red semi arid land; so red was the soil that it was almost hauntingly reminiscent of the bloody shootout scene outside Muqdisho. The setting sun lazily caressed the wide expanse of sand and the dark faces of the men and women and children as an array of low shacks came into view, beneath the cloud of dust gusting around our feet as we walked faster than ever. For weeks, I had seen the reflection of death and pain in those listless eyes and sunlit, sunken faces, but now all they showed in the low evening light was hope.
We finally saw them; the white aid people dispensing food. Everybody rushed like chickens seeing grain, almost stepping on each other. But Hooyo was too weak to run, she had fed us the scarce food and berries we found along the way, and she still had her grip on my wrist. She was bent forwards as she walked, or rather dragged her feet, one sandal on her left foot, and the other, broken, in her hand. When we made it to the tents, the white people gave us food and we sat down to eat, Hooyo unhooking my small sister from her back. I’ve never been happier to sit down, to finally stop walking. I was relieved, until…
I remember vividly the loud cry mom gave just as I took the first sip of water from the shiny bottle. Sumeya! Oh God, my little Sumeya! Wake up! She was on her knees, shaking my Sumeya vigourously, as she wailed. Tears were running down her cheeks and her cry got weaker and weaker, barely audible. My sister was motionless and frail in her arms, her dead eyes staring back. I remember seeing the men from our journey tear her out of Hooyo’s arms and restrain her as the women consoled her. I sat there on the hot earth, watching, motionless, as the sun set beneath the acacia trees until the dark engulfed everything. Until I blacked out.
When I woke up the following morning, the men had already returned from the grave and were breaking bread. Hooyo, at this point, had withdrawn and refused to eat or sleep. She hadn’t slept or eaten for weeks. She sat and stared into the distance, as people set up tents around us. That night she went quietly in her sleep, joining my father and sister. The men came again to take her away and they laid her next to the tiny grave.
no one leaves home unless home chases you, fire under feet, hot blood in your belly
– Warsan Shire (from the poem HOME)
For a long time, I didn’t know where I was or what I was doing. I was all alone in the unforgiving desert. The days were hot. The nights were cold and I dreamt of the sea. The white beaches of Muqdisho where we swam and played football were the only solace. I thought of the trips we took to visit my Aabo’s hotel chains across Somalia, when we would sit down on a breezy balcony as he taught me about business and his travels abroad. He spoke fondly of Italy and Egypt and Arabia. Sometimes, he’d tell me about the impending civil war in our country. If anything happens to me, I want you to take care of your mother and sister. We are the men of the house, you and me. Promise me. I felt bad that I let him down, that I couldn’t protect my sister and mother. I couldn’t forgive myself. Sometimes I thought about the poems he composed and the times he read to us the poetry of Hadraawi. The verses were still fresh in my memory.
If the young were not butchered,
the blade not stained with blood;
the one who takes care of you at the end
not breakfast for the vultures;
the brave one who seeks to save you
not dragged down by wild beasts;
if those whose safety should be sanctioned
were not riddled with bullets,
the wolves racing each other to reach them;
if those who should be grieving
were not forced to rejoice –
and this show of joy worn as a charm;
if whoever remained alive had not
fallen under the rule of the gun,
becoming thick-skinned to pain,
would I be so at one with you?
If the land had not been scorched
by neglect and lack of water;
if Benadir, once bountiful, was not
now looked upon with pity;
if at dawn the refugees did not
flee in waves, great numbers
making for the holy sites;
if petrol was not fetishised;
if even the country girls
who used to wear fine poplin
were not abused now in Bahrain;
if the country had not gone
a thousand times begging
to the Arab kings, to the feathered emirs
would I be so at one with you?
I dreamt about her too. Her name was Sahra, she was a year younger than I was, and we were inseparable for as long as I could remember. We did everything together. Come on now, Amin, let’s go, she was always urging me, running up a hill or down the beach. Come and see this, she’d say dragging me by the hand. She lit up any room or home she went to, and had a certain light to her that was infectious. She had walnut-dark skin that glowed, soft and delicate; eyebrows that were dark and arched ever so slightly; a graceful aristocratic nose; strong cheekbones; and long dark hair that curled up and gathered beneath her shoulders. My father often talked with pride about our clan, the Ogaden, who were famous for poets, tall men and beautiful women. The most beautiful women there ever were, he said. She is going to grow up into a young beautiful woman, and when she does, you will marry her, my Aabo said, one evening, talking about Sahra. I thought about her and wondered what might have happened to her, whether she was safe. For a long time, I lived in my head.
Until one day a woman saw me wandering in the camp and, noticing that I was lost, asked me about my family tree, and I recited to her my lineage twenty generations back, as my Hooyo had taught me. She told me she knew a woman called Hawo from the camp who was from my “door” of the clan. She took me to her tent and Aunt Hawo took me in and included me in her ration card. Because I shared the number on her card, I became her child and her children my siblings.
Soon, news came that the dictator Siad Barre was finally overthrown, and he had fled the capital. Everyone was happy about the very humiliating manner in which he had lost power after 21 years of absolute, despotic, erratic and corrupt rule. God Almighty had taken our revenge for us. But as soon as the excitement died, apprehension about the future kicked in. This was so because the new guerrilla force that had assumed power in Mogadishu was an unknown entity. Aunt Hawo said she feared they would constitute the domination of their own clan-family and suppress and settle accounts with the rest of major Somali clans. After all, they are Somalis, she said.
At first, we thought in one or two years, peace would prevail and we would go back. But the conflict continued. Hope for a government better than that of Siad Barre was dashed. My aunt’s great apprehension and doubt about Somalia’s future was soon vindicated by the full blown civil war that tore our country into pieces.
The rest is history, as they say.
no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well
– Warsan Shire (from the poem, HOME)
Soon, more people crossed the border into the camp, all fleeing the war. As tens of thousands came, I saw more and more tents go up to house the fresh influx. The lines at the WFP warehouse grew a hundred fold. The rations became less and less. The hospitals became filled with thin, smelly people. Hundreds of us shared one latrine. It was simply a nightmare.
With each fresh horde of refugees that came, my resignation to the appalling life in the camp grew. I realized that within a span of weeks, I had lost everything. I watched my Aabo die right before my eyes. I walked for days on end to get here. I walked, without realizing that my baby sister was starved to death. I watched men bury my Hooyo next to my little sister’s fresh grave. I lost my name and identity and was reduced to a number. My freedom got buried with them and my movement restricted to a perimeter wall. I became one among thousands of souls whose lives stopped that fateful night. Hundreds of thousands of stories that began with the sound of a gunshot. People who have trekked long distances to escape the gun shot.
Life never stopped nonetheless. It had to go on. And it went on. Schools were built, hospitals put up and many more white people came. And many years later, in 2001, famine hit our war torn country, and thousands of refugees crossed into the camp, emaciated and traumatized. “People floating like pollen in search of more fertile soil.” It was a difficult time at the camp. There were cholera outbreaks and food was scarce and people, mostly children, starved to death. Small graves were dug and little children, in white cloth, put in. It was the worst time I’ve seen since I came here. Edho Hawo fell seriously sick and the hospitals were over crowded. Food and water were hard to come by, and the unrelenting sun punished us from above. Soon she succumbed to cholera. Another grave was dug and we mourned. This left me alone to take care of my younger siblings. It was then I realised that I needed a wife.
Something good came out the famine. It brought Sahra to the camp. She was one among the tens of thousands fleeing the deadly famine. One morning, as I was getting ready to set up my sewing machine outside, I caught a glimpse of a tall girl, covered in a black hijab, walking by with delicate eyebrows and walnut skin. A sense of familiarity stirred within me. And then she turned; I saw her face, beautiful and haunted, especially the eyes. I paused, forgetting to put down the machine. She stopped too, smiled and said, almost as if we were 14 and still playing in Muqdisho: “Come on Amin, are you going to just stand there?” I laughed, and we embraced. Three weeks later, we got married, with the help of friends and well wishers. I spent all my savings to buy a camel for the ceremony. She was against the idea. Said I didn’t have to. But I had to because my father taught me that an Ogaden woman is worthy of a hundred camels. I felt bad that I was still short by ninety nine. It rained that day we got married, the first time in a long time. Rain that poured like a blessing, like a thick natural veil that conceal my bride’s face. People danced and ate to their full. It was the happiest day of my life. And life has been much better since and days move faster now, because I have something that makes it worth living – family.
Terrible as it sounds, this place is all I know. And I’ve stayed within these walls, a prisoner of sorts. I’ve come to know one government and one family – UNHCR. For the past quarter century, I’ve only known Dadaab and its food rations and the neatly arranged white tents and the red soil. I transitioned from childhood into adulthood and middle age right within these walls. I only know of my sewing machine that I use to earn a little money to make things a little easier for my family. I got married within these walls. I’ve also had kids here and their first words was “UNHCR.” It’s the only thing they’ve known too.
Sometimes things are good here. Other times they are not good at all. Sometimes there is hope in the air and other times there’s just gloom and resignation. We all check the wall of that café that the UN pins a list of lucky refugees whom they select to resettle abroad. I’ve checked it every fortnight for the past twenty five years and I still haven’t given up. I’m yet to be among the lucky though. Some of my friends got lucky and got resettled in Europe and America. Once in a while we talk and they send us some money.
Some opted to pay smugglers and boarded overloaded boats to cross the dangerous Mediterranean. They opted to take their chances because they got fed up of the bleak life here. They said they’d rather live well or die trying. Life in Europe is worth dying for, they said. Some made it alive while thousands didn’t.
Being a refugee is really hard. Being a Somali refugee is unbearable. Because there are so many things that make things worse for us because of our identity. Even the people who could help us are terrified of us. The loneliness of the Somali is a despicable thing that consumes him, that stalks him, that overshadows and alienates him.
The Kenyan government has been nice to us for letting us stay here, and we couldn’t be more grateful. We are grateful to UNHCR and other aid agencies too for keeping us alive in this harsh corner of the world for the past quarter decade. We have three generations of refugees living in this place now and it is now more or less like a city here. We’ve lived here in peace and we are fearful of terrorists as much as the Kenyan in Nairobi is.
But sometimes I smile as I look at this camp’s remarkable resilience. We run a few thriving market places. We sit in tea shops and discuss issues affecting us as we sip spiced tea. Our children play on the sand and learn in schools, albeit crowded. We visit our sick and bury our dead. We wake up in the morning and go to bed at night, albeit beds in make shift tents. It shows that there is peace in acceptance and that we still have our dignity. We have our dignity, despite the very harsh living conditions and the trauma of what we went through. And that it’s all we know how to do.
The Kenyans won’t take me in, I can’t go back to Somalia either because I lost everything back there and it’s too dangerous anyway. I probably won’t be resettled in other countries either because there’s a growing reluctance to take refugees, especially Somalis. That only leaves me with this place; the only place I’ve ever known.
It has been my home for the last quarter century, even though it has been made of mud and sticks because as a refugee I’m not allowed to pour concrete or make permanent structures. From what I gather in the news, Muqdisho seems to be having a semblance of stability, but for me and for most of us, it is too unfamiliar and uncertain.
Closing Dadaab and Kakuma could mean a death sentence for us. I’m worried for all the women and children who have lived here. They are human beings just like the rest of humankind. They did not commit any crime or start any wars or bombed any buildings. I’m worried for my children because they were born and raised here and they don’t know any other home or place. They have big dreams for kids who are stuck in a refugee camp. My first born son is a very bright boy in high school now after being granted a scholarship by a Turkish organization. He dreams of Canada and studies for hours each day in the hope he’ll be among 15 students granted scholarships to study at universities there.
Granted, I’ve hated this God forsaken place for twenty five years. I’ve spent so much time thinking of other places and cursing war lords that I missed out on living in the present, on what Dadaab had to offer, limited as that may be. But as I grow into middle age, I realize that Dadaab is part of me and it’s all I’ve got. I’ve inhaled its dusty air and sat on its red earth. Its fine dust has clung to my face for all those years. I’ve drunk its water and felt its sun on my body. I wed the love of my life and raised my children here. I’ve watched my kids cross the expansive field every morning as the sand blew on their way to school. It has been my home and it never refused me like Somalia did, at least until now.
There’s a reason I’ve had to live here and gone through all this and there’s a reason God has kept me alive all this time. I realised that in many ways I’m blessed with life and health and family. But life, after all, is a test; God does not give a man more than he can handle. I still have hope in humanity, in the Kenyan people and the international community. I still have hope that my country will someday find stability and will have me back. That one day humanity and reason will prevail over guns, ignorance and greed. But until that day, I’ll put my faith in God and keep my fingers crossed, and I’ll hold on to it anyway, because I have no safer place to go.