I want to tell you a story about a young man named Abdirahman. Full disclosure, that’s not this young man’s real name for observable reasons. Abdirahman and I met in Kismayo in the summer of 2014.
Before I continue, I want everyone reading this for a moment to suspend the brain impulses that fire off thoughts at the precise moment of hearing the words ‘Kismayo, ‘Jubba Administration’, and the summer of 2014. We all remember what a politically charged time that was, and I will try to retell this story in a way that removes it from its socio-political context and implicit bias, as much as I can. I know this place holds a lot of pain for many people, and I both respect and honour all of it. I know I'm discussing the most contested region probably in Somalia today, Jubbaland. Maybe more coated in controversy than Sool/Sanaag/Cayn. Anyway, this isn’t about any of that.
This is the beginning of many stories about a group of young Somali soldiers who changed my life in the summer of 2014. This is a story about one of those young brothers. Abdirahman. It’s about the preservation of life. About fear and forgiveness. Second chances. About having your absolutes and certainties beaten the hell out of you by circumstances written before you ever placed a foot in the material world. And finally, It's about telling one of the million stories about being a boy in Somalia, and wars fought by boys till today in the backwaters of Somalia’s rivers; The Jubba and Shabelle. May Allah forgive us for what we've done to our boys.
Once upon a time in the summer months of July 2014, I moved to Kismayo, Somalia. For good. After many years of failed attempts, employment opportunities that fell through, and empty bank accounts, my dream to relocate to the place of my birth finally found its time and place. For good. I had my eyes set on my Mogadishu, everyone did. but I neither had the pennies in pockets, nor familial connects to sustain myself in a city where rental prices can pay for Manhattan penthouses.
A dear friend of mine, one who I now credit for saving my life, and taking me to Kismayo, offered me an opportunity to work there.
I jumped at the gig, and within days flew to Kismayo with 50 dollars in cash, and a hotel room booked, overlooking the Indian ocean. My first night I slept more soundly than I had in 25 years abroad. One day I will write about this friend. He has an important story too. The road ahead was cemented with financial insecurity, cultural challenges, and just plain old insecurity. But I was home. And I was never looking back. I was never going back to the passive aggressive cold.
Now for those of you unfamiliar with the landscape of a post-conflict Kismayo. I’ll say it isn’t as easy on the eyes like Mogadishu. It's much smaller, much quieter in very eerie sort of way. Very coastal, musky air, lots of swaying trees, and withdrawn locals distrustful of the diaspora girl running around and staring at them. This wasn’t too alarming, as my friend prepared me for the context in which I was to navigate, as I was now living in a city recovering from a fresh episode of inter-clan brawls.
The details of my work there are not very relevant to this story, other than that it brought me in close proximity to many young men in the armed forces of Jubbaland. It was in these daily interactions, pleasantries, and exchange of our back stories that I embarked on a journey of my own making.
This was difficult to write, and the subtle details escape me three years later, but I will try to capture the essence of what Abdirahman’s story meant for me. And I think what it could mean for Somalia.
Abdirahman, belonged to, in my eyes, an inspiring group of young men, that made up the underpaid, ill-equipped security forces, tasked with fighting the last remnants of Al-Shabaab- The faction responsible for atrocities and memories many of us work diligently to never remember.
These young men, shared their stories of fighting Al-Shabaab through the years, many having spent the entirety of their youth, living in the unforgiving landscapes of Jubbaland, while fighting to take back Kismayo. We shared stories about my life abroad, the details of how I spent the days while exiled during the troubles in Somalia, Burburka. And mostly why I was still an unmarried woman at the age of 30. And of course, their complicated many lives, particularly, their time as children of conflict, and now men and soldiers .
In all of our exchanges, there was one story that still sends shivers down my spine every moment I attempt to recall the words Abdirahman used to describe his miraculous survival as a prisoner of war, at the hands of Al-Shabaab. Abdirahman, the lanky young brother, always smiling, reserved, soft-spoken, kindness in his words, changed my life with a single story. It changed my ideas about the men of my homeland, and taught me the hard work of recognizing that we are a people with deep pain. A pain that reverberates through every action we take in this temporary world.
Very saintly and devout Abdirahman, never looked me in the eye- which I assumed was out of piety, but later came to know was out of accommodation. One afternoon, i dig up the courage to ask him about the story behind his nickname. I don’t want to share that nickname out of respect for Abdirahman's privacy, and but I can share it loosely meant, ‘ the escaper of death’.
I asked him to retrace the inexplicable luck that lead to his escaping the blades of an executioner, moments after he was sentenced to a beheading- For the crime of serving in the armed forces of the government, or what resembled a government at the time.
So we begin. Abdirahman tells me of the many years before today, in the time of transitional governments and great violence- A time when he was a soldier to many, militia to some, and an infidel to others. Abdirahman was a teenager, whose early formations challenge my very ideas of childhood and adulthood. I was the child compared to him. I couldn’t call myself an adult after hearing what made him a man. So he began with a moment in his past where he was captured by a group of AS fighters, after succumbing to an assault on his patrol group.
After some time in captivity. Abdirahman tells me that there was a decision made by a local Amir that Abdirahman and his friends were to be 'made an example of'. Abdirahman, and his fellow soldiers were to be beheaded the following day during Casr prayers, filmed as part of media strategy to humiliate any man or woman decreed by AS arbitrary law as a ‘murtid’.
“Idil, if they ever capture you. You must remember one important thing. Never beg for mercy”. Abdirahman advises as I shudder at the thought of being captured by those guys. Shit I didn’t do anything, I thought and hope. I’m a goddamn civilian. A woman too. And i just got here.
“What the hell do they want with me?. I think i’m fine. I'll be fine” I reasoned, as if Abdirahman played a role in my fate in the coming years.
“Of course you play a role. All you diaspora do. You’ve returned, and that’s a power move. You’ve returned to claim the land they have plans for. Plans that don’t include a Somali foreigner who can barely speak her language, and whose hijab slides off every few seconds. You're an abomination to them. “ Abdirahman reminding me i’m not innocent in any of this. None of us are. Damn.
Just remember to never beg. Don’t cry. ever. Oh man, never cry, I'm telling you, never, ever cry. That's the second worst mistake you can make here. The first being captured. Osman cried. There were several of us. Osman was the second one to be cut. He was hysterical Idil. My god, my dear cousin was a mess.
It was his cousin.
You see idil, we were lined up, forced to kneel. Hands tied. Some of us buried our faces in the dirt. I knew if I looked at what was to happen to the unfortunate ones before me, I would break. That's it, it would end me. Osman wasn't so smart. He was the second in line.
He looked up. He looked the moment he heard the whimpering coming from what remained of Hassan’s vocal cords, as the executioner cut into his skin. Osman was done Idil. He was finished the moment he looked up. There was no way he was going to survive his turn. No damn way in hell.
He started screaming, and bowing at the feet the executioner. A mixture of snot, tears, and sweat rolling down his weeping lips. I tried to remember him in a more dignified light idil. I really did Idil. But I can't. It was a pitiful scene. My god he begged. He begged like that man had the power to grant him paradise. I didn’t wanna cause any attention to myself incase they bumped me up a spot, but I had to plea with Osman. I just had to. I had to ask him to stop begging.
"Osman! Warya. Nacalaaaaaa, abaha ku dhalay, shut the fuck up! He doesn’t care. Be a man. Just pray. it will be over quickly, and your blubbering and sobbling isn’t gonna help you Osman.
Osman didn’t listen. He kept crying. That idiot. He wouldn't stop crying, and they all assembled before him, as I know they would. He gave them a show. He became the show. Begging, as if l the hollow of a man before him, the coward with the hidden face, would yield to mercy. They filmed Osman. My god he must've been good for the morale of their fighters.
Idil, if they ever get you. Never cry. They love it when we cry. It’s dramatic, and good for fighters to see. Disgraceful Gaalo. Nothing like a weeping and scared little murtid. They love that shit. I watched, and now I was more determined than ever to not break. They won't make a show out of me. Do you know who my grandfather is. He will never rest, if he hears in his grave his grandson wailed like a newborn.
Osman was now gone. All I now remember of him was his crying. His tears only showed the rest of us the type of man he was in his last moments before he met our God. I hated him then Idil. I had no right to. But god damn I hated him. I was taught to hate cowards. I thought we were all gonna die, and didn’t want any of us to give them our tears too. Osman broke and betrayed us. We became cowards.
It was years later I realized, he broke because he actually liked living. I never cared too much for living. I never thought of thinking about caring about this stuff. But I didn’t know death either. So there was that.
I made a decision Idil. It was my turn. I’m going to skip over the other deaths before me, because one of those other deaths was that of my dearest friend on earth, and I would rather not relive those moments. It was my turn. Everyone else was gone.
Hollow man picked up the bloodied blade, and kneeled before me. His eyes met mine to tell it that it will be wrecked with petrifying fear in seconds. He put the blade to my neck to intimidate me. It almost worked. But I had nothing left to give by then. I looked up at the hollow man, and I asked him to let me pray.
The Hollow man, and the rest of the spectators belted out a collective laugh.
“Pray??.....A murtid praying?. To who? The Infidels you serve. Is it to AMISOM? Who do you mosquitos pray to?" He turned to his audience like he was pleased with himself for his scathing wit.
I ignored his taunts, and asked him to let me pray once more. One of the hollow man’s sidekicks convinced the mindless drone to let me pray. That it didn’t matter anymore. I was soon to be dead, like the rest of them. They’ve won, he reminded the Hollow man. I was the only one left to exterminate.
The Hollow man lifted me up, and kicked me to the side.
“Let’s see you pray, you bloody insect. Gaal ba tahay, what do u know of prayer”. Hollow man never stops taunting. He enjoys this alot. I could tell. He was in this just for this. For the killing and breaking men part.
I stood up. I promised I wouldn’t look at the headless bodies of what remained of my friends. My plan was simple. When I was in full upright position, I would run. Not to escape, of course. That would be silly. I resigned myself to death before they lined us up. I was fine with my fate, but I will not be cut. No way. You see my plan was ingenious. I would run. Run faster than the speed of a pick-up truck evading IEDs. And faster. Run fast. That's the plan. I just keep running. Running faster.
The goal: a gunshot to my back. They would be hysterical and inundated enough with rage upon realizing I had deceived them, and fire. Hollow man is an idiot, and will shoot. This I'm certain of. He did shoot. The idiot. He missed. They kept on shooting and missing. I was still running.
How was this possible? My feet kept going, and the sounds of the gunfire grew intense, kept expanding. Impossible.
It then hit me while running. The intense gunfire to the back of me was an exchange of gunfire. There were others. Holloman and his bandits were ambushed. Like they ambushed us. My boys came.
The bastards finally came for us. I was still running. Almost too late for me. It was almost too late. Too late for the rest of our boys, but they came for me. I will never forget the moment I stopped running. My heart was ready to rip my chest open, and my body worn. I rested on my bended knees, while looking up at the exchange of gunfire I ran from. I’ve never been more happier in all my days to see gunfire Idil.
But that’s not the end of the story abaayo. That’s only first half of the journey. Not even the important half. I made one promise that day. That I would spend the rest of my life hunting the Hollow men down. It’s no longer about justice or this country, or serving the men I serve. I would make them pay for humiliating Osman like that. For reducing Osman to the moments before his death. It's all we remember of him. They will pay for it.
And as my luck continued, I had my chance to enact that pain back onto the world sooner than I imagined. Months later, my boys and I would overwhelm a group of them. All of them dead, but still granted more mercy in their deaths than they offered my friends. As we inspected their camp, we found one of them hiding. One of them lived Idil. Survived the entire fight.
My boys found him trembling behind sticks. He was begging like Osman. He had enough gunfire pointed in his direction that would set the Jubba River ablaze. He was crying like Osman too. Oh my god, that pleased me so much. To see him so humiliated and alone. One of my fellow soldiers put the butt of his AK47 in his mouth, and taunted him to speak another word. He just needed one excuse to shoot right through him.
Sister. Something happened. A feeling. I started to feel things. Something overcame me. I saw Osman’s eyes in this boy. He was a boy. I didn't notice he was a boy. Not a day over 15. I was a boy too, but not like him. He was a child. Why didn't I see before he was a child.
I removed the butt of the gun inside his mouth, and pleaded with my squad to spare him. Their eyes screamed, “Madness’. They were right. In mere seconds, I had gone mad. I was mad. I waited many months to humiliate one of them like they had with mine, but all I wanted to do was protect him. I felt closeness to this boy. He was a child. I didn't see before, but he was a child. He had such gentle eyes. Scared little eyes, eyes that never belonged in places like this. His eyes looked like they were convinced that mercy still lives in this place. Like Osman.
Idil. In that moment, I remembered how the Hollow man did not spare Osman. The world proved Osman wrong. Allah had spared me. I never expected much from anyone or anything, but I was spared. Was it for this. For this boy. I thought Allah wanted me to reflect mercy upon this boy. I jumped in front of him, blocking all the ammunition pointed at him with my body, and begged my squad to spare his life. I was mad.
“He’s a child’. I begged.
“We’re all fucking children. As were our friends. Men, un-deserving of the deaths they met. Abdirahman. Abdirahman, you fucking coward. You stand before me, defending this pig of a bastard. You can't be serious. This vermin”. He kicks the young boy, hard in the chest. The boy allows it. As do I.
I grab the hand of my friend, place my head upon it. I plead with him to spare this young boy. I plead with him to create for a brief moment, a world in which we’re all just boys. Scared boys.
He tosses aside my grip, along with my head.
“Then he’s your fucking problem now Saxib. Unbelievable. He wants to mother this terrorist now”. He walks away.
I was relieved. I tie the young man’s hands and direct him to walk in formation, and should he as so much flinch a muscle, it would be his end. I ask him where he’s from. He says Jamaame. I tell him Jamaame is no longer an option, as his seniors live there, and they will never trust him again. He’s been in our midst. I ask him if he has any relatives anymore. He says he has an aunt in Kismayo.
It was clear I had now become his guardian, Idil. We walked. He never spoke. Eyes fixed to the ground. The other boys resented me for bringing him along. Not only did he serve as memory of the losses we endured, but I also demanded we share our ration of food and resources. We walked until the sun began to prepare for its nightly exit. We were tired, and about 30 kilometres from the Kenyan border. We decided to make camp there, and spend the night in the bushes.
We had enough. Come morning, we would make our way to the nearest town, and my superiors would decide what happens to the boy next.
He sat down. His legs tired as well. We began to prepare for Maghrib prayer. I asked the boy if he wanted to pray. He didn’t answer, and just stared at the ground. My friend, still angry and disappointed with my decision, commenced the call for prayer. The rest of us assembled next to him. Before my friend could finish the call for prayer, we were all distracted by the sounds of violent laughter. It sounded like it was coming from the boy.
“HAHAHHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.” “KKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKK”. It was the boy. He was mocking us. He thinks I'm a fool.
I had enough. I broke our prayer formation, charged at him, and grabbed him by his scrawny little neck.
“Warya what the hell is funny, Nacala Abaha ku wase. Maxa ku qoslay. What the hell is so funny?”. He thought I was a fool for my kindness. I was so angry.
My grip on his collar grew with my anger, and I began to lift him with both of my hands. His face before mine. I stared at his pathetic, compressed little face, circled by annoying laugh lines, as it suddenly turned to sadness
It was the weirdest thing Idil. He began crying. Then sobbing. I put him down. I kicked him in the stomach. Oh Idil, how I regret that kick. I was infuriated. So full of rage . He was now wailing. I regret kicking him so much. I had no idea what would come next. His skinny body on the floor, huddled in a corner. More wailing.
“I’m sorry aboowe. I’m so sorry. I’m crying. I’m crying because your friend just delivered the call for prayer... He knows the words. You all know how to pray. My Amir told me you were murtids. Infidels.If you were infidels, how come you know the call for prayer. ”
“How do you know how to pray? You guys are muslims. I can't believe this. How are you Muslims? He told us you were Infidels. and You know how to pray. You know the words. I’m so sorry. You know how to pray. They said you were Gaalo.” Wailing as he explained.
The rest of us stood in silence, while the world as we knew it, left our bodies. We were all just boys.