One is a Somali widow. Another is a teenage Somali orphan. They were neighbors in Mogadishu’s Bakara market, until fighting and intimidation by Islamist militants such as the Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabab took away the men in their lives, and with them, the women's sense of security.
Now alone and unprotected in a safer but still hostile adopted country, they work together to sell tea on Eastleigh’s busy streets, and cling to each other like sisters, a family of women.
“We are like turtles without shells, completely unprotected,” says Istiqlal Harian Farah, a 35-year-old Somali mother of three children, two of them now dead. “We have no male relatives here, nobody outside in Europe or America to send us money, nobody in Somalia who can look after us. When someone pulls our dress in the street, you can’t even shout out to complain.”
She stops, her eyes filling with tears. “But when we come home and we combine our cries, there is a glimmer of hope. At least there is the confidence in having each other. We can go to the shops, and together we can protect our children.”
Two decades of instability and war in Somalia have destroyed countless families in that country, displacing 1.55 million from their homes into internal exile, while forcing another 440,000 others to flee to Kenya, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Yemen. More than 80 percent of these families fled because of insecurity, and many have lost family members. But the most vulnerable of these are women, who lack protection against sexual exploitation and abuse, and increasingly, forced recruitment into the dangerous front lines of Islamist rebel groups.
Statistics are hard to gather, particularly in conservative Somali societies where personal matters are kept quiet, and especially in refugee camps, where pro- and anti-militant Somalis live side by side. But if the women streaming into United Nations-run displacement camps in the northern Somali city of Bossasso are a gauge, then sexual exploitation and gender-based violence have become frightfully common. At the Bossasso camp, more than 300 survivors of gender-based violence were identified by doctors and referred to treatment centers.
One woman's ordeal with Al Shabab
Aside from tragedy, desperation, and a roof, Ms. Farah and her housemates share little in common.
Farah was a basketball player on the Somali national women’s team who spent the past decade and a half as a government official, urging young Somali girls to continue in school and to participate in sports. Her activism attracted the interest of the Islamist militia, Al Shabab, who had taken control of the Bakara market in late 2008, when US-backed Ethiopian troops retreated from their occupation of Somalia. Al Shabab militants wanted her to use her skills to recruit women for Al Shabab.
“I refused,” she says, still defiant a year later. As a devout Muslim, she disagreed with what she saw was the alien version of Islam being preached by Al Shabab, a theology that cast aside Somali traditions of tolerance and negotiated settlement of disputes, in favor of quick and violent justice.
But while she disagreed with their theology, she preferred to practice her faith quietly at home, knowing that Al Shabab had supporters in the community, among the younger neighbors and even members of her family. “My attitude toward the mujahideen is that I see them as inhuman; I don’t see any hope of their being civilized,” she says. “But they are not people who can be picked out of a crowd. This is a movement inside the people among us. What identifies them is how they react inside their community. One day, they will slaughter people in the market. They chop off arms because of some crime. This is how they create fear and make us their hostages.”
One night, in Jan. 2008, Farah was finally released from the grip of Al Shabab, but at a terrible cost. “They attacked us in our home,” she recalls. “I was sleeping in one room with my daughter. My husband was in the next room sleeping with my two sons. They threw a hand grenade into my husband’s room and killed all three. They killed my husband, but their target was me. I had to leave.”
Today, her only surviving family is her 13-year-old daughter, Sagal, whom she won’t let outside her apartment in Eastleigh for fear that even she will be taken away, for war or for other purposes.
A teenage orphan escapes war
Fatuma Abdikadir Mahamad was just 14 years old when she lost both her mother and father. It was in late 2007, when a criminal in Bakara market shot her father dead in the street. Fatuma was away from the house at English language lessons, but when she returned home, she says, the house was empty. Neighbors told her that her father was dead, and that her mother had grabbed her three brothers and sister and fled, leaving her behind. One neighbor, who was also planning to leave Mogadishu, took Fatuma in, and together they planned their escape from Mogadishu.
“I don’t know if my mother is alive or dead,” says Fatuma, in clear English. “My ex-neighbor wanted to come to Kenya, so I joined her. I was scared to stay in Somalia.”
Fatuma had no money to pay for transport, so her neighbor paid for her. But on arrival in the Nairobi suburb of Eastleigh, it was clear Fatuma would get no easy rides. The neighbor treated young Fatuma like a servant, forcing her to work from morning until night, cooking and cleaning around the house in order to earn her two meals per day and a place to sleep. After a year of this, Fatuma saw another former neighbor from Bakara market – Farah – and she agreed to come stay with Farah instead.
“I am the first born of my mother, I don’t have someone to look after me, and I don’t have someone to look for my mother,” she says. “Here it is nice. It is safer. If there is a problem, Istiqlal helps me.”
Fatuma is just 16 years old, but she has the light-colored skin and round face that makes her a classic beauty in Somali eyes. This beauty should be a blessing, but in a foreign country without any male family member to protect her, it is a curse.
On a recent Friday night, Kenyan born Somali boys from the same apartment complex showed up at the apartment, and tried to grab Fatuma to take her to their room. Farah and another woman managed to drag Fatuma inside the apartment and locked the door, but outside the boys kept pounding on the door, threatening to call the cops and have this apartment of women taken away on immigration violations.
“The whole night we were fighting,” says Istiqlal. “They were intimidating us, telling us they will call the police. What can I do? We can’t let the girls go with them, and we can’t keep the girls back because they will call the cops.”
Farah says she cannot think of returning to Somalia, with Islamists penetrated into every community, and she cannot remain in Kenya, where there is little chance of being killed, but even less chance of earning a decent livelihood. What she seeks is refuge far from the Somalia of her memories.
“In Somalia, there was food and housing, but death was at our door,” she says. “Here, there is no death, but we have no money, and sometimes we go days without eating. But at least here, we can protect each other.”