At that time Somalia was of some special interest, as it was one of the newly independent states in Africa and no-one really knew what to expect from them. For about a century most of Africa had been ruled by European colonial powers, and some parts of it a lot longer. Now at least the British, French and Belgian colonies were one by one released into official independence, although the word was often not taken so literally by the Europeans and by the USA, who had newly arrived on the continent as the 'great friend from the far West', looking for new markets to buy raw materials and to sell their consumer goods.
Most of the newly created states were still dependent on much help and assistance from the former colonial masters, which were only too happy to oblige. So even the new states were officially sovereign and became members of the United Nations, their economy, administration and legal system were still widely in the hands of the same people who were there before the declaration of independence. Police and military were still under the command of white officers, and others trained the recruits for the new national armies.
Having been born in Africa myself (by chance), although I did not live there long enough to have many memories, I always had a special interest in the continent. Even though I am a white man of Celtic origin and as European as one can be, this little matter of my place of birth is a bond that still exists between Africa and myself.
Somalia was a little different from the other new states, as it was formed out of more than one colony. The new state on the proverbial 'Horn of Africa' included the once Italian colony, which had been taken by British forces in February 1941, and the much smaller British colony of Somaliland. On July 1st, 1960 they were put together and became the new state of Somalia, with a single white star on it sky-blue flag and Mogadishu as its capital. With 637,661 km² Somalia is slightly larger than Ukraine and a little smaller than the Canadian province of Alberta.
The city of Mogadishu is however much older than Somalia. It was founded around 900 by Muslim traders, who came from the Arabian peninsula. But there were smaller settlements in the area already since the first century.
Given its strategic position in the Benadir coastal region on the Indian Ocean, Mogadishu has been an important regional port for more than a thousand years. Having been visited by various European powers and desired by the Portuguese, who discovered it in the 15th century, the city remained free of Western influence and was never taken by the old colonial powers.
In 1871 Barghash bin Said, the Sultan of Zanzibar, occupied the Mogadishu with troops and in 1892 his successor Ali bin Said leased it to Italy. Thirteen years later, in 1905, Italy purchased the city and port and made Mogadishu the capital of Italian Somaliland, which had been established since 1889.
British troops took Mogadishu in February 1941 and stayed until April 1950, when the United Nations established the Italian Trust Administration of Somalia (AFIS), which existed for a decade and had the task to prepare land and people for independence.
Right from the beginning Somalia's development was hampered by tribal feuds and political rivalries. In 1969, following the assassination of President Shermarke, a military government assumed power in a coup d'état led by General Siad Barre and the Chief of Police, Jama Korshel.
Barre became President and Korshel Vice-President. The revolutionary army established large-scale public works programmes and successfully implemented an urban and rural literacy campaign, which helped dramatically increase the literacy rate from 5% in 1969 to 55% by the mid-1980s.
However, struggles continued during Barre's rule. In July 1976 a real dictatorship of the Somali military commenced with the founding of the Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party. In 1977 and 1978 Somalia fought with its neighbour Ethiopia in the Ogaden War, in which Somalia aimed to liberate and unite Somali lands that had been partitioned by the former colonial powers.
Somalia created the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF, then called the Western Somali Liberation Front, WSLF) and sought to capture Ogaden, a province of neighbouring Ethiopia. Somalia acted unilaterally without consulting the international community, which was generally opposed to redrawing colonial boundaries. The Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries refused to help Somalia and instead backed Communist Ethiopia. For most of the war, Somalia appeared to be winning in most of Ogaden, but with Somali forces at the gates of Addis Ababa, Soviet and Cuban forces and weapons came to the aid of Ethiopia.
The Somali Army was decimated and Somalia sought the help of the United States. Although the Carter Administration originally expressed interest in helping Somalia, they later declined, as did American allies in the Middle East and Asia.
By 1978 the moral authority of the Somali government had collapsed. Many Somalis had become disillusioned with life under military dictatorship and the regime was weakened further in the 1980s as the Cold War drew to a close and Somalia's strategic importance was diminished. The government became increasingly totalitarian, and resistance movements, encouraged by Ethiopia, sprang up across the country, eventually leading to the Somali Civil War, which went on for several years.
1991 saw great changes in Somalia. President Barre was ousted by combined clan based forces from the north and south, all of whom were backed and armed by Ethiopia. Following a meeting of the Somali National Movement with the northern clans' elders, the northern former British portion of the country declared its independence as Somaliland in May 1991. Although de facto independent and relatively stable compared to the tumultuous south, it has not been recognised by any foreign government and remains widely isolated.
In January 1991 Ali Mahdi Muhammad was selected as an interim president for the whole of Somalia until a conference between all stakeholders to be held in Djibouti in February of the same year. However, United Somali Congress (USC) military leader General Mohamed Farrah Aidid, the Somali National Movement (SNM) leader Abdirahman Toor and the Somali Patriotic Movement (SPC) leader Colonel Jess refused to recognize Mahdi as president.
This caused a split between the SNM, USC and SPM and the armed groups Manifesto, Somali Democratic Movement (SDM) and Somali National Alliance (SNA) on the one hand and within the USC forces. This led to an all-out civil war that devastated the country, which has not had any proper government ever since. In 1991 Somalia became the first country to be recognised as a 'failed state' and it still is the worst example of a nation in complete anarchy.
It is not surprising that this led to atrocities, mostly against the defenceless civilian population, and so many Somalis fled their country to seek a better life elsewhere. But that is not an easy task.
Some time ago I met one of these Somali refugees in Belgium. His name is Abdi and he comes from Mogadishu, where his father used to work in the harbour master's office. Abdi, now in his early thirties and a tall and slim man with the typically handsome Somali features, had been on the move for nearly four years before he reached eventually the southern coast of Italy.
Having been a medical student in Mogadishu, his prospects of ever becoming a doctor in Somalia were shattered when the armed militia of one of the many warring factions first closed and then later destroyed the university. For a while Abdi survived working as a stevedore in the port of Mogadishu (photo above), but then he decided to leave Somalia and try to get to Europe.
Leaving for good
He was not the only one with such ideas, and soon a group of more than young 200 men had been formed. They found a ship - a small and rickety tramp freighter plying the coastal trade - whose captain was willing to take them to Mombasa in Kenya. But nor for free, of course. The fare was $ 500 for each passenger, payable in cash and in advance. Somehow (he was not willing to elaborate on details) Abdi and most of the others managed to get the money, and on the appointed day they embarked in the freighter.
The conditions were appalling. There were of course no cabins or bunks, so the refugees had to stay and sleep in the hold, constructed for freight and not for passengers. They had to bring their own food and water, sleep on the cold bare steel floor and were not permitted to go on deck during daylight hours. There were no toilets either, and a few buckets had to do for that purpose for nearly 200 men.
"The whole ship stank horribly," Abdi remembers, "was very dirty and full of rats. But they were quite welcome in a way, as we caught and ate many of them. We were willing to take any hardship, if it would bring us freedom and opportunities."
While at sea, the old freighter encountered engine problems more than once and sat motionless for hours while repairs were made. After more than two weeks crawling along the coast the engine failed again, the ship began to drift and struck some submerged rocks.
It began to take in water and listing, and the captain ordered his passengers and crew to abandon ship. They did and managed to swim to a deserted strip of beach nearby, almost sure they were now in Kenya, even though not in Mombasa.
As the area seemed uninhabited, the group of refugees started walking in southern direction, orientating themselves on the position of the Sun. They had little food left, and almost no water, but they kept going, in the hope to reach a Kenyan town soon. After another day they were still on the move through uninhabited desert. In the afternoon a couple of armed pick-up vans approached with high speed and began firing at the group. They then realised that they must still be in Somalia, being attacked by one of the many warring factions.
Many were hit, some fatally, and the group dispersed in panic. The vehicles did not bother with close inspection and drove off again after a while. "Maybe they ran out of ammunition," Abdi speculates, "or perhaps just got bored with shooting at us. Most of those militia men are very young, undisciplined and often drunk or on drugs. You never know what they might do, but mostly it is violent."
After darkness had fallen, the dispersed group gathered again. "But over 20 of us were dead, and 17 were wounded," Abdi tells me. "I was lucky and had not been hit. Allah was protecting me."
Three of the injured were so badly wounded that they could not walk. One died within hours, and the other two asked their comrades to put an end to their suffering.
Someone who had a knife eventually did, and shortly after midnight the remaining group moved on. At some stage during the night they must have crossed the Kenyan border, and shortly after sunrise they were spotted by a patrol of the Kenyan army.
Trapped in Kenya
The Kenyans took them for Somali fighters from the civil war, an assumption underlined by more than a dozen of them having shot wounds. They rounded up the refugees, searched them for weapons and took away most of their possessions, including the little money some of them had left. Then they were marched to a detention camp, only a few miles from the border, where the Kenyans were holding already more than a thousand Somalis under armed guard.
"They thought we were all militia men," Abdi says, "and quite a lot of the other detainees actually were. But there were also many civilian refugees, people like us, who just wanted to get away and have a decent life."
Abdi spent more than two years in various Kenyan detention camps, until he had convinced the army officers who interrogated him many times that he was not a fighter.
By then the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had established a liaison office in the area, and the UN staff - most of them Europeans - began to register, feed and process the Somalis.
It took another six months before his case was processed further, and with another 100 refugees from Somalia (some of them actually former fighters who had managed to bypass the UN interviews) Abdi was eventually transported to a UN camp outside Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.
"Conditions there were a lot better," Abdi reflects. "We lived in clean huts, had beds, running water and three meals a day. They also had some books and newspapers there, so I began to read and improve my English. The UN people had told me they were trying to find a place for me, and I hoped it would be in the USA. So having better English, I thought, might be a good idea."
But the USA were not interested in taking any Somalis. Their traumatic experience in Mogadishu in 1993, which is a story in itself (and well documented in the book - and film - Blackhawk down), was still too fresh in the American memory. The general perception in Washington was that all Somalis were terrorists, or at least potential terrorists. So they wanted nothing to do with them, and certainly not give them shelter and education in the USA.
A Chance in Egypt
Time dragged on, and it was nearly three years since Abdi had left Mogadishu when he was offered a placement by the UN staff. Not in the USA though, and not in Europe either. An Islamic charity from Egypt had offered to take twenty young Somali Muslims to Alexandria and give them a university place. It was not what Abdi had desired, but better than sitting in a refugee camp in Kenya. A few weeks later he flew with 19 others from Nairobi to Cairo and was welcomed at the airport by an imam from the charity.
All looked fine at first, and Abdi was enrolled as a medical student at the University of Alexandria (photo left). So he seemed close again to his dream to become a doctor. But then disaster struck.
What Abdi and his Somali comrades had not known was that the charity which looked after them had close links with the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical Islamic organisation actively involved in Egyptian politics and basically the only real opposition to the authoritarian government.
From time to time the regime decides to crack down on their activities and stages police raids on known supporters.
One of these raids happened about half a year after Abdi'a arrival in Alexandria. Dozens of armed policemen surrounded and stormed the charity compound and arrested everyone inside. But Abdi had stayed on for an extra lecture at the university and then missed his regular bus. So he had to walk to the compound, which took him nearly three hours. By the time he arrived, the building was empty and showed clear signs of a police raid.
"Once again Allah has protected me," Abdi says. "He kept me back at the university to save me. Had I returned home at the usual time, I would have been arrested as well." And then, after a short pause, he adds: "Perhaps he has special plans for me. One day I might be called to do some great deed."
A smile appears on the Somalis handsome face, a rare occasion, as he is usually serious and looks not unlike one of the famous African statuettes carved from ebony, with beautiful but stern faces.
Abdi was not the only member of the household who had escaped the police raid by sheer luck. One of the servants, who had been to the market, shopping for food, was also spared and had returned a short while before the medical student.
Flight into Libya
And while Abdi was only an innocent bystander, caught in the internal political conflict of Egypt, the servant was an active member of the Brotherhood. He now used his contacts, and for the next few days he went on the run with Abdi, sleeping in a different house every night.
They went west from Alexandria, and eventually reached the town of Sidi Barrani, near the border with Libya, where the Brotherhood has support bases.
In Sidi Barrani they met a fisherman, who hid them in his boat and brought them eventually to Libya, where they felt safe eventually.
After about two weeks they reached the port city of Benghazi (right) and there they parted company.
The servant was preparing to return to Egypt and work with a different group of the Brotherhood, but for Abdi that option did not exist. For the Egyptian police he was a fugitive, a potential suspect of foreign origin, even though he had done nothing wrong. But the legal system in Egypt is very arcane, and once in police custody or prison, a man could easily disappear or spent many years of imprisonment, without ever being charged for anything. (Amnesty International has many such cases on their books.)
Abdi was advised to head for Italy and seek his luck in Europe. Having had the desire to live in the West from the time he left Mogadishu, he liked the idea. He was put in contact with Libyan boatmen who organised regular trips across the Mediterranean, carrying migrants and refugees from numerous countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Many of those reach Libya after long and dangerous journeys, often on foot, across jungles, mountains and the great Sahara desert.
Across the Sea to Italy
Compared with them, Abdi was relatively well-off, as he had some money and was in good health. But the money he had was not enough to pay the fare demanded by the boatmen. So he had to spend a few more months in Benghazi, working again as a stevedore in the harbour and doing all sorts of jobs he could find.
When he had earned and saved enough money for the boatmen, he was brought to a battered fishing boat in the port, where about 300 other Africans were already waiting. They came from a number of different countries in West Africa - mostly from Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Niger and Nigeria - and had little in common but the wish to reach Europe. They belonged to different tribes and spoke different languages, were suspicious of each other, and some even showed signs of hostility towards their fellow travellers. Abdi was the only Somali in the group, and his East African origin and culture set him immediately apart from the rest and made him the outsider.
"There were times when I feared for my life," he tells me, "as many of the West Africans don't like us and only care for themselves. Especially the Nigerians are very dangerous. They all carry knives, and they like to be in charge and bully other people. And if you don't follow their orders, they might just kill you and throw you overboard."
But once again Abdi had luck - or perhaps Allah - on his side. The captain of the old fishing vessel was a devout Muslim and knew of his connections with the Brotherhood (even though Abdi was never a member). He took him aside and told him to stay with him in the wheelhouse of the boat, thus giving him some protection from the aggressive Nigerians in the hold of the vessel.
"He didn't like them either," Abdi recalls, "and he carried a pistol for his own protection. He only did this kind of work because he needed the money to feed his large family."
Abdi has no grudge against those who charge money for carrying refugees, but it has to be said here that a lot of very shady characters - many ot them outright criminals - make millions from smuggling people across the Mediterranean into Europe. They use their position to exploit the most vulnerable people on the planet, and their earnings far exceed what anyone would need to feed a family, even a large one. It has been established that many criminal organisations, especially the various branches of the Italian Mafia, are involved and take large 'commissions' for their help and co-operation.
After a two-day journey, during which the boat evaded Libyan coast guard vessels and several Italian and US warships, the skipper landed his human cargo in a dark and moonless night on a beach near the town of Avola in the south of Sicily.
As soon as all his passengers had disembarked, the Libyan sailed away and soon disappeared out of sight, having made about $ 300,000 for two days of 'work'. Even though he would have to share this sum with a number of others involved, it would still leave a fat profit for him.
At the beach the group was met by some Italians, most likely members of the Mafia, who ushered the freshly arrived Africans into the loading spaces of three large lorries. What happened next Abdi can only guess, as they were kept in the lorries for two days.
"There was enough water in bottles," he remembers, "but not much food. Just some crates with fruit and a few loaves of bread. The Nigerians put themselves in charge of the food, so I did not get much of it. But at least I survived. After we had left the boat, they were less threatening. Perhaps they were afraid of the Italians who helped us, or maybe of the Italian police."
The Slaves of the Mafia
But there was no police in sight, and the lorries made their way across the Strait of Messina (on a ferry) and ended their journey close to the city of Naples, where the Africans were handed over to another group of Italians.
"They were all armed," Adbi says, "some of them even with automatic weapons. And they were not very friendly to us. We were brought to some kind of camp, given white overalls and told we would be here for some time, as we had to work off our 'transport fee' and the costs for our food."
The 300 Africans who had left their own countries in the hope of a better future in Europe had reached the 'promised land', but did not find it the paradise they had dreamed of.
In fact, they were used as slave labour by the Mafia in a large-scale operation that collected, sorted and disposed of rubbish, vast amounts of rubbish - as Abdi remembers - and some of it highly toxic and dangerous.
"We had no protection against poisonous stuff," he tells me, "no masks or gloves. Only shoes and the white overalls we all had to wear."
After a few days the first of the Africans showed signs of respiratory problems, and soon some got sick and could not work properly. They were taken away by the Italians and never seen again.
"I don't know what happened to them, but I think the Italians just killed them," Abdi says. "We never saw any of them again in the camp, nor heard of them. Some of their friends were very frightened from then on, and we all feared to die there on the rubbish dump. It was so huge that you could not see anything but rubbish. Only in the distance above us we could see a mountain [Vesuvius], and at night the lights of a big city to the north and north-west."
This city was Naples, but at that time Abdi did not know that. He only found out when he and some of the other Africans decided to escape from the Mafia's rubbish dump.
"While we were working there, I had become friendly with some of the others," he recalls. "There was one other Somali man, from Kismayo [in southern Somalia, close to the border to Kenya], who had been there already for some months before I arrived. He knew what was going on and had planned to run away for some time. We also became friendly with three men from Burkina Faso, who also hated the Nigerians and sought we [the two Somalis] could protect them."
Christmas in Naples
Somalis have a reputation as a warrior race and distinguished themselves over centuries in many wars and conflicts. But Abdi was no fighting man, he wanted to be a doctor. However, the man from Kismayo had been in a militia for a while and was very strong, as Adbi remembers. They made a plan and on Christmas Eve, when their Italian masters were celebrating and paying less attention to the camp, the five cut a hole in the wire-mesh fence and slipped away.
They walked for hours, got eventually a lift from a local lorry driver on his way home, and on Christmas morning the five African Muslims found themselves in one of the poorer districts of Naples.
Coming from Mogadishu, Abdi spoke some Italian and was elected leader of the group. They moved about, aimless and just trying to get their bearings, and ended up in a church "that looked like a mosque without a minaret" [Basilica of St. Francis de Paola, photo above], where hundreds of Neapolitan Catholics had gathered for Christmas morning mass.
"We didn't understand much," Abdi says, "but we felt that it was a house of God, and so we felt safe. As Muslims we do things different, but we know of the Christians and have no problems with them."
When mass was over and they remained in the back of the church, one of the priests spotted and approached them. In his limited Italian Abdi explained their situation, and the priest took pity on them. He put them up in a hostel for the homeless, run by the Franciscan Order, where they had a bed and food, could shower and received new clothes.
"On that day," Abdi remembers with a glow in his eyes, "I knew that I was save and that my long and difficult journey was over. I had arrived. I was in Europe, and people were friendly to me. Allah did not forsake me."
More than fours years had passed since he had boarded the ill-fated coastal freighter in his home city and sailed off in search for a better future.
For some weeks the five Africans stayed together in the hostel, but when some of the Franciscans made subtle attempts to convert them to Christianity, they felt that it was time to move on.
From other men at the hostel they had learned a lot about Naples, and how to survive there. And they had also obtained a road map of central Europe and some money. The three men from Burkina Faso, who did not speak Italian, decided to stay and take a basic language course the Franciscans offered them. But Abdi and his Somali friend chose to leave and go north.
A Journey to Belgium
For several months they made their way up the Italian peninsula, tramping or walking, stopping for a few weeks of work where it was offered, and then moving on again. They were treated well by the local people, exploited by those who offered them employment, and always in danger to be picked up by the Italian Police or Carabinieri.
They met other Africans on their way, improved their language skills and learned a lot more, especially the art to survive. Eventually they had reached the city of Mantua in northern Italy, where a chance encounter with a long-distance lorry driver decided their further fate.
He came from Belgium and was now a citizen of that country, but was as black as the Somalis. He had been born in Congo, then a Belgian colony, and was as a child adopted by a family from Liège, where he grew up, went to school and became a true Belgian, only distinguished by the colour of his skin.
He listened to their story and offered them a lift to Belgium. "He said that things were good there, and that there were many Africans, especially from the Congo," Abdi recalls. "We liked the idea to live where Africans are numerous, so we accepted his offer."
As there are no longer border controls between most EU countries on the continent, the journey from northern Italy to eastern Belgium went smoothly and without any trouble.
In Liège (photo right) the lorry driver gave Abdi his address, and several other addresses of administrative offices and useful charities. He told him what to do, and that he would help him and his friend.
Within days the two Somalis had registered with the authorities, claimed political asylum in Belgium (their cases are still pending) and been given a room each in a clean hostel for refugees. They also registered for the government-sponsored language course that is compulsory for receiving any state aid and handouts.
Meanwhile Abdi speaks a very respectable French and can also manage a simple conversation in Flemish. He has applied to study medicine, but was refused a place because of his uncertain status. However, he was able to be accepted as a trainee nurse in a Liège hospital.
"It is another step forward on my long journey," he tells me. "I soon will be a qualified nurse, and so can work in a hospital. And when my status is sorted out, I may get the chance to study medicine as well and become a doctor."
The optimism of this young Somali refugee is quite amazing, and he never seems to give up, no matter what life throws at him. One cannot be sure, of course, and it is a long way to become a fully qualified doctor, but if Abdi keeps going the way he has been for years now, he might well achieve his dream and cure the sick as a GP in the future. I certainly wish him luck and success.
Unfortunately his friend from the rubbish dump in Naples was not so lucky. Having a different temper and no great academic aspirations, he got involved with shady people, soon after they reached Liège.
He frequented seedy bars, and soon worked for the criminal underworld as a body guard and drugs courier. Abdi lost touch with him after a while, and only learned from the newspapers what happened next.
The man from Kismayo was caught in a drugs raid while trying to smuggle heroin from Belgium into Germany, and shot in the process. He survived injured, was eventually tried for drugs offences and illegal possession of firearms, and currently serves a long prison sentence in Germany, at the end of which he will be deported.
"Allah was not looking after him," Abdi says, "and more important, he was not looking after himself."
Some final Thoughts
It is hard to comment on this, and I wonder if one has the right to do so. During my more than 30 years with Amnesty International I have seen thousands of cases, and met many refugees in person. And as much as they have a lot in common, in detail every case and every person is different. They are all human beings, individuals with human rights, which are often enough violated or denied.
It would be an illusion to expect that the rich and powerful countries of the developed world could help all of them, and solve all their problems. And in fairness, many of the problems refugees encounter are at least partly of their own making. They trust ruthless criminals, who only exploit them and see them as means of income, with their lives and pay them large sums of money. That alone spells trouble, and it often leads to great hardship and disappointment.
Most refugees dream of the rich West as a sort of paradise, of which they have no knowledge. Their dreams alone drive them, and those dreams are often shattered. We could and can help them to see the truth and reality, by making the world more transparent and communicate better around the globe. Since the invention of the internet this task has become a lot easier, and every time I see that I have a reader from a so-called 'third world' country I am happy.
Information is crucial for all of us, but especially for those who put their lives at risk in the search for a better future. Knowledge is power, and it is also a great travel companion. So is the ability to speak foreign languages. (I have a few myself and lived in different countries. But I would never even think of living in a country whose language I don't speak.)
We live now in a 'global village' and the old idea of borders and boundaries no longer makes sense. In the developed world we need more people, and there are many willing to come. But uncontrolled and illegal immigration does not help either side; not the western societies in need of new workers, and not the refugees who are pushed around by criminals as cash-producing pawns.
We need a proper concept of immigration, with clear rules and guidelines. And we also need strict policies of enforcing the law against those who engage in people smuggling and exploitation of the vulnerable refugees. Everyone can contribute to a better society and a better future, with fairness and open borders, but also with punishment for ruthless and abusive criminals. Every step forward helps, no matter how small.
Today BLOGGERS UNITE are organising a mass blogging about refugees and thus do their share. I am happy to be a part of this group and hope that my small contribution - the story of Abdi, a man from Mogadishu - will be food for thought to those who take the time and kindness to read it.
The Emerald Islander