Sunday, 9 May 2010

What should I tell my children about Somalia? In celebration of Mother’s Day

By Ifrah A. Ibrahim
May 09, 2010

There are many events that have altered my life. The one that has had the most significant impact on me is the day I became a mother for the first time. Ever since then, I believe my main role at home and in society has been that of a nurturer and teacher. As a Somali mother living in the West, I feel it is my duty to teach my children about their religion, culture and identity because I want them to feel proud about their ancestry. I have shared with them the many folklore tales I heard as a child such as “Cigaal Shidaad”, “Dhagdheer”, “Araweelo” and “Been Hawaas”. I have recounted to them my many childhood stories and the mischief I would get into with my brothers. However, it has been a terrifying ordeal for me to share and teach them about the events that have plagued Somalia since the breakout of the Civil War. Recently my daughter taught me a tremendous lesson and in the process forced me to revisit my views and principles on what exactly I should tell my children about their homeland Somalia.
A Somali refugees mother waits with her daughter to be registered by the United Nations High Commission of Refugees (UNHCR) at Dagahaley camp in Dadaab in Kenya's northeastern province, June 3, 2009. Islamists briefly re-took an area of Mogadishu on Wednesday in street battles that killed 14 people, wounded dozens more, and added to an exodus of residents from the coastal Somali capital, residents said. Weeks of intense fighting in Somalia has driven tens of thousands of people from their homes, swelling camps on the Kenyan border that are already the largest and oldest in the world, sheltering more than 270,000 Somali refugees. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly

As a child, my parents taught me to be proud of my Somali identity. My father would tell us the stories of Somalia under colonialism and the humiliation that came with it. My parents’ generation had stood for values of independence and freedom. Once the British and Italian colonialists were gone, Somalis were able to unite under one nation and flag. I was told countless times that I had to achieve superbly in school because I was the future that would bring further change and progress to my country. I took immense pride in being part of the Somali nation.

Of course, I was aware of all the injustices and the lack of basic human rights. I wanted to be part of a new era in which Somalis would enjoy the right to choose their own leader through a democratic process. That was never to be. It seems we were never ready to take over the reign of our nation, since it had been hammered in our brains for the longest time that “qabiil” had been buried that we truly believed it. My inability to deal with the reality that is now Somalia stems from the fact I was taught to never discuss   “qabiil” for it is “ceeb”. For many Somalis it is still taboo to ask, talk and mention “qabiil” in a conversation. 

As part of my daily routine, I browse the many Somali websites in order to gather news and try to make sense of the quagmire that is Somalia. One day I stumbled upon an article titled,   Muqdisho of Yesteryears and Today’s Muuq-Disha (Biyokulule Online) and while I was so engrossed in the article, I was startled by my six year old daughter when she gasped and cried out “Hooyo, what happened to this city and where are the people who lived there?”  I will be the first to admit that I am more of an avid reader and have a tendency to not look at the pictures. That’s when I noticed the photographs she was pointing to and we browsed them together. 

I explained to her it was the capital city Mogadishu of my homeland. And she started to ask many questions. Such as where was the mayor of the city who would allow its destruction? Was there no police to stop the atrocities? Why are people doing that to each other? I tried my best to answer her questions with words that I felt were appropriate for her age and intellect. On that day she vowed that she would be the one to rebuild her country and make it beautiful again. That statement made me proud.

However, she also forced me to revisit the first time I became a mother close to eighteen years ago. It was the summer of 1992 when Allah SWT blessed me with a son. I was ecstatic and scared when I first laid eyes on him. He was a source of joy to me and I fussed over him. During my “umul” period, the world decided to finally pay attention to Somalia. There was a civil war raging and people were being killed on a daily basis. One of the worst famines was occurring in Somalia. As I cared for and fed my son, I watched devastating pictures of Somali people dying and dropping like flies because of hunger. The people most affected were the innocent civilians who were forced out of their cities, villages and farms fleeing for their lives to only succumb to death by famine.
It was a very depressing time for me. I would look at my son on my lap and see innocent Somali children die of because they had no food. Yet their parents had “iman” and seemed to accept the inevitable without complaining. I cried many hours that summer. I taped the news reports and specials on Somalia because I wanted my son to know when he grew up that he was among the fortunate and that he should always be thankful to Allah.  I promised myself I would one day tell my son about how “Baydhabo Janaay“ became  Baidoa: the City of Death” where thousands of people died due to the callousness of the warlords.

I never showed my son those tapes nor did I tell him about those events. I kept on postponing it telling myself he was either too young or that it would be best to show it to him after peace came to Somalia. My son will be turning eighteen this summer and will insha Allah graduate high school. Peace has still not come to Somalia.

It has been widely reported and documented that children in all parts of Somalia have been and are being recruited by militias, governmental forces and so-called religious armies. Since births are not registered in Somalia, it is not an easy task to track the age of the children. I did not want my son to know fellow Somalis of his age could and would kill because they were being used by malevolent people. I did not want him to feel guilty because he had shelter, food, clothing and above all peace. I think it is natural as a parent to wish to shield our children of the ugliness of the world. So how do we choose what historical events we share with our children? 

I believe it is a dilemma most parents of the Somali Diaspora face today. I do not want my children to know about the horrendous crimes Somalis have committed against each other. By the same token it is our history and legacy whether we like it or not. I have read many stories to and with my children. I have also watched many films and documentaries with them. The most compelling one was “Hotel Rwanda” and we had many heartfelt and illuminating discussions after that. I did not shy away from answering their questions and debating over what forced human beings to kill other human beings in such an atrocious manner.

As Somalis, we lack courage when it comes to discussing the similar incidents that have occurred in our country.  Why do I feel uncomfortable whenever Somalia comes up in our conversation? I think because as a mother I want to give my children a happy ending. I could discuss the Rwanda genocide with them because at the end of the day the war had stopped and life had gone back to some kind of normalcy for the people. Despite the awful crimes, the Rwandan people decided to come together and live peacefully. That is what is lacking in Somalia.

The Rwandan conflict was two dimensional with Hutus and Tutsis killing each other. It is much easier to resolve the issues when you have two parties fighting. With regards to Somalia, the situation seems from the outset a simple one with a simple solution. We are after all a nation that shares one language, religion and culture. On the other hand, it is a complex one because of the intricacies of the conflicts among the clan based factions and Islamic groups. 

In the middle of 1990, Somalia started experiencing political confusion and a lack of direction. A group of businessmen, elders, and ex-government officials published a Manifesto document against then President Mohamed Siyad Barre. Many of the Manifesto signatories were detained but later released after public protest against their detention. This was the beginning of the civil war and its effects were felt throughout the country. The scars of the problems that resulted from the civil war still show across Somalia.

The first violent groups in Somalia were established in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF) recruited its militias mainly from the Majerteen clan which hailed from the central and northeastern part of Somalia, and the Somali National Movement (SNM) which was dominated by the Isaaq clan from the north. Both armed groups were formed by defectors from the Somali Army or state officials, who had sought political asylum in Ethiopia. And consequently, when SNM rebels invaded the north from Ethiopia in 1988, fighting erupted in the central and southern regions after large numbers of soldiers deserted to form the United Somali Congress (USC) and Somali Patriotic Movement (SPM) in 1989. The USC is largely made up of the Hawiye clan family from Mogadishu and central regions; and the SPM is dominated by the Ogaden clan from the south. These insurgent groups mobilized members of their own clans and supplied them with weapons.
In late 1990, as the downfall of Mohamed Siyad Barre’s centralized regime appeared imminent, insurgent groups positioned themselves to control different regions of Somalia. The SSDF was active in the northeast; the SNM spread its militia in the north; and the USC came to occupy the preeminent position of Somalia – i.e. the capital city, Mogadishu, which lies in a predominantly Hawiye area.

The fiercest clashes in Mogadishu began on the Sunday morning of December 30, 1990, when inter-clan fighting erupted between Government forces and the supporters of the USC. In January 27, 1991 Mohamed Siyad Barre fled the Capital and two days later, USC proclaimed an interim president. Within the USC, the choice is protested and inter-clan fighting began. Thousands of people have died in a frenzy of clan killings since Siyad Barre fled the capital, and rival clans have rejected the appointment of the interim president government. Within a year, inter-clan fighting caused the death of an estimated 300,000 people and displaced 500,000 and more, according to estimates by the UN and relief agencies.

Somali anarchy is characterized by a proliferation of violent clan-based groups, mainly centered around a single person, who became to be known as a warlord. However, warlords have not emerged from Somali traditional authorities, but largely from former military, political or economic elites who came to power during the post-colonial era.  Unfortunately, the current warlords in Somalia are defined not only by their guns but also by the claim to possess of the al-xaqq and al-axkaam. They have metamorphosised into the righteous Sheikh-warlord whose mission is to spread the “true” faith.

Still, these warlords and their armed factions are all dependent to varying degrees on sub-clan rather than national support. According to the latest reports from Mogadishu, numerous armed factions are currently struggling for control of the presidential palace. The conflicts within these violent groups, who are now masquerading as Islamists, are indeed clan-wars with religious coloration.

With the passing of UN-sponsored Governments and the flowering and disappointment of successive hopes, the tradition of the “insurgents/freedom fighters/jihadists” grew and developed. One warlord-oppressor after another added something of himself to the portraits of “Somali Nationalism”, while the many self-proclaimed presidents, in their failure, bequeathed new characters and new tokens to the idea of a functioning Central Government yet to come. Each clan-based armed faction had its own rhetoric and justifications; yet they were in no way separate, and their many ideas and beliefs persist in today’s Somali political arena.

Also, let us not forget about the infamous pirates who promulgated Somalia once again on the international scene. It did not help that many media outlets romanticized the whole event. Here I had to laugh with and at my children when they seemed happy about all the attention Somalia was getting and enjoyed being seen as pirates by their fellow classmates. But I also cried because they were proud of their nation for the wrong reasons. In their minds, the pirates off the coasts of the Indian Ocean were comparable to “The Pirates of the Caribbean”.  They could not tell fact from fiction.

Piratestan was also the one phenomenon I did not have trouble talking about to my children. I explained that the piracy was a direct result of the collapse of a central government. Fishermen had their territorial seas protected by the national navy and no foreign vessels could come and illegally fish off our coasts. Actions that had started off as a means to protect their livelihood became a scheme to demand ransom by fishermen who felt justified since they were ignored by the entire world. Somalis also claim their ocean and coasts has become the dumping site for nuclear waste from the West. However, I made it clear to them that kidnapping and demanding ransoms was not only anti-Islamic but also a criminal act. As a parent, it seemed an easy task since I have been teaching them right from wrong for as long as they can remember. It also allowed me to bring up the importance of having law and order, hence the need for a functioning and strong government in Somalia.

Amidst all that confusion and chaos, we hear there is a government that is recognized by the International Community but is in constant jeopardy. The current President who was part of the United Islamic Courts (UIC) is being condemned by his former brothers in arms and they are fighting him tooth and nail. We now have the so called Islamists who started off as the UIC and disintegrated into different groups who are quick to call their friends of yesteryears the foes of Islam. We hear and see of the horrors committed in the name of Islam.

Somalia’s current state of affairs cannot be discussed and debated without mentioning the meddling of neighboring countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti. Depending on who you talk to, they are either our friends or our foes. But the undeniable truth remains that their interference has created a wider divide among Somalis. Furthermore, the foreign troops present in Mogadishu are adding fuel to the fire because they represent the “kaafirs” the Somali religious groups are so eager to rid the country of.

Although many sympathizers of the Islamists would like us to believe that they are jihadists advancing the cause of Islam, the truth is that those who state they are fighting in the name of Allah are in fact using the Quran and the Sunnah of our Prophet (PBUH) to advance the one cause all Somalis have in common : “qabyaalad”.  It is the one and only ideology that resounds strongly among all regions, factions, so called regional administrations, militias and the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). In Somalia, it seems the conflicts that have occurred in the past, the infighting among the clan militias, the rampant killings of the innocent civilians and the slaughtering being done in the name of religion can all find root in the belief of “qabyaalad” over the notion of nationhood.

So when I look closer at the events in Somalia, it is one confusing situation where all the protagonists whether in the name of democracy, security, patriotism, peace and/or religion are working hard to ensure their respective clans have a dominating role in the pseudo-political arena.  No wonder it is an insurmountable task for self-respecting parents to try to educate their children about the ongoing war in Somalia. It all boils down to teaching them about clan politics and what is the use of transferring such ignorant knowledge when we are already seeing the negative and long-lasting impact it has currently in Somalia?

In light of the recent disappearances of young male Somalis from their homes in North America and Europe who were said to have joined the ranks of the Al Shabaab, I decided it was imperative that I talk with my son about Somalia. I must admit it was extremely difficult approaching the topic since all political and religious factions are motivated by clan politics. Still, I asked him to inform me if there were any persons who were trying to recruit him to fight in Somalia. And I also told him that in Islam, it is not permitted for a Muslim to kill a fellow Muslim. I was happy to hear my son say he was a staunch believer in finding a solution through dialogue and not by engaging in warfare.
Some parents have chosen to tell their children that people from certain clans dislike them. Here comes to mind the story of one father who had taught his children that Somalis of a certain clan were their enemies and that they should not associate with his only Somali neighbors who happened to belong to that particular clan. The father actually encouraged his son’s friendship with their Ethiopian neighbor’s son. Both boys started kindergarten together and enjoyed a fantastic friendship until they turned thirteen and the Ethiopian boy’s maternal grandfather joined his family abroad. The old man would look at the young Somali teen in such a manner that gave him goose bumps. So one day he asked his friend what he had done to deserve such evil looks from the grandfather. To which the Ethiopian boy replied: “Don’t mind him, my grandfather hates all Somalis because of the Somali-Ethiopian War of 1977”. That night the Somali boy asked his father if those events were true. When his father answered in the affirmative the young man wanted to know why he was encouraged to play with their former enemy. The father said because it was in the past and to be a good Muslim was to be able to forgive. And so he asked: “Aabe, if we can forgive and be friends with our former Christian and Ethiopian enemies, why can we not do the same of our former Muslim and Somali enemies?”

My children have been asked what their clan was by other children. They answer with the only statement they know: “I am Somali”.  I have chosen to teach my children to judge people based on their character. It is extremely difficult to raise a Somali teenager in the Western world. I so want him to be proud of his Somali identity when at the same time it is hard to find prominent figures he can emulate.

Many parents do not feel comfortable letting their children play with other children unless they know their clans. I am more concerned with the many trials and tribulations that teenagers face in the societies we now live in. To me it is more important to know if my children’s friends fear Allah, have good grades, behave well in society and do not commit crimes. I could care less what clan they belong to so long as they have a positive influence on my children.

To the question: what should I tell my children about Somalia? I have found somewhat of an answer, I shall encourage my son to read about Somalia’s history. I will answer his questions without fear and shame because it is both our legacy as Somalis. I will teach him to look at the same event from different perspectives so he can try to make sense of the heinous crimes committed by Somali faction leaders. I shall also stress the importance of being compassionate because all Somalis have been touched by the tragedies that have been ongoing in our country. I hope he will learn from the past events and that he will never engage in clan politics.

As for my daughter, I will encourage her dream of being the one who will bring peace and stability to Somalia for it is a noble one.  I am happy and proud that she sees herself as part of the solution at such a young age. I hope she has more courage than me. I pray she never loses faith in herself and her compatriots. But I also hope it does not take that long for peace to come to Somalia, for how many more mothers, children, elders and innocent people will have to perish before Somalis realize our war is a senseless war?

Ifrah A. Ibrahim


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