When Somali government forces found Osman during an operation in a village outside of Mogadishu on March 9, 2007, they arrested him and sent him off to jail to face interrogation, beatings, and torture.
Osman was not a terrorist or an anti-government militant. He was a journalist working for HornAfrik, a Somali-language news organization that had been critical of the Transitional Federal Government's military operations, in which innocent civilians were often the chief victims.
"This is the man we want," Osman recalls the commanding officer saying, as he was carted away. "Because of the hate they have for the media, and especially when I said I worked for HornAfrik, they had me beaten, tortured."
(Osman's name – and those of the other Somali journalists interviewed in this story – have been changed because of threats to their lives, even in exile.)
For the next 11 days, Osman faced a very uncertain future. "They wanted to kill me, but some of them understood that – with the kind of work that I do – that there could be repercussions if I was killed outright, so they put me in jail," says Osman, speaking in the office of a sympathetic Somali peace organization in the Eastleigh suburb of Kenya's capital, Nairobi. "But there was a lot of pressure on the state from the international community, so that is how I was released."
Within three days, Osman's father and two fellow journalists would be dead in separate attacks. That is when Osman joined more than 50 journalists who are fleeing Somalia – a country in desperate need of witnesses to an 18-year-long civil war with no end in sight.
Somalia is one of the most dangerous places for working journalists. Since 2007, at least 13 journalists have been killed because of their work and more than 50 have been forced to leave the country, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists and the National Union of Somali Journalists. Those who remain behind to witness the continued war face the constant threat of intimidation, beating, and torture – not only from rebel militias, but even by the transitional Somali government.
Ordinarily, organizations like the CPJ would call on the government of Somalia to ensure greater safety for journalists, but Somalia has no effective government to call upon. On Dec. 29, 2008, the president of the Transitional Federal Government, Abdullah Yusuf, resigned. The country remains largely in the hands of a collection of warring militias, most of whom view journalism as an existential threat rather than a civic need.
"When the Islamic Courts Union arrested you, people could come and talk and ask questions, and there could be some dialogue," says Ali, an exiled Somali journalist and chairman of a group calling itself the Committee for Somali Journalists. "But with Al Shabab [a radical Islamist group], there is no dialogue, there are no questions. Anyone who asks questions on your behalf also gets arrested."
"Why we become targeted," Ali says, "is because these people do not want media coverage and international exposure of the massacres they are carrying out."
Like Ali and Osman, Abdi is a wanted man in his country. His crime is journalism.
In March 2007, Abdi found himself reporting from the village of Huriwa, where Al Shabab had a large military training camp. In Huriwa, Abdi witnessed four Somalis being killed by Al Shabab.
" 'Because you come to write reports for them [the Westerners] then you have to die,'" Abdi says one of the Shabab warned him. Fortunately, the Islamists were slow to follow through on their threat, and three days later, a pro-government force of Ethiopian peacekeepers pushed Al Shabab out of the village. Yet Abdi says he still wasn't safe from Al Shabab's threats. "My father had to use his meager resources to send me out," he says.
Now living in exile, Abdi, Osman, and other Somali journalists still feel threatened, because Somali Islamists also live in Eastleigh.
"We have refugee status here, but we still don't feel safe," says Ahmed, another exiled Somali journalist. "The conflict has just been transferred here. The people who support Al Shabab are all here. By 7 p.m. in Eastleigh, we cannot move from our apartments."
Although they are cut off from their home countries, the men stay in regular touch with friends and families, who keep them posted on what happens in Mogadishu and throughout the country. The same mobile-phone networks that Al Shabab use to coordinate their battle activities can be used in a positive way by journalists.
"As we are talking now," says Ali, reading a message on his cell phone, "I know what is happening. Any [breaking news] that I get, I put it on my website."