August 13, 2007

Slain journalists stood up for Somalia


JOHANNESBURG -- One day a few months back, Mahad Elmi lined up a couple of guests for his morning radio call-in show: He had a major Mogadishu warlord, and also the head of an Islamic militia fighting for control of the Somali capital. Both men were in the habit of presenting themselves as great protectors of the people, battling to bring peace and justice to the city.

Mr. Elmi was having none of it.

"You claim you're fighting each other, but the only people getting killed here are innocent civilians," he said. "Are either of you prepared to take responsibility for this? For what you're doing to this city? To the people?"

Both men were enraged at his bluntness, and ended the show with threats. But across Mogadishu - across Somalia - people listened to the show on Radio HornAfrik and they cheered Mr. Elmi for standing up for them one more time.

Mr. Elmi was killed Saturday, shot in the head just outside the station's Mogadishu offices. Hours later, HornAfrik co-founder Ali Iman Sharmarke, a Somali-Canadian, was killed when his car exploded as he returned from Mr. Elmi's funeral. The Somali government say they've arrested two men, but no motive was given for the killings.

Mr. Elmi, however, had many enemies, and so did the station.

"We have enemies on all sides - they have one common agenda, and that is to make sure that no stable institutions are created in Somalia," Ahmed Abdisalam Adan, another Somali-Canadian who co-founded HornAfrik with Mr. Iman Sharmarke and Mohamed Mohamud Elmi, said yesterday overcome with tears for his friends.`

He was in Toronto visiting his family this week or he'd be dead, too, he said: "Everyone knows I would have been in the car" with Mr. Iman Sharmarke. He had a grief-stricken phone call with Mr. Elmi only moments before he was killed.

When I made my first, terrifying trip to Mogadishu 4½ years ago, HornAfrik was an oasis: Inside the high walls of its compound, I could shed my six Kalashnikov-toting bodyguards and the vast, dust-caked hijab I wore as a disguise in the streets, and sink down into a chair to sip sweet tea in the company of friendly Canadian faces.

More than that, though, the hallways of HornAfrik were full of the cynical joking and the frenzied activity of a dozen hard-working reporters - it was a newsroom, and it felt like home.

I first heard about HornAfrik in 2002, when Canadian Journalists for Free Expression honoured its three founders with the Courage in Journalism Award. They couldn't make the ceremony, but organizers played a short film that told the story of three Somali refugees who came to Canada with nothing, built prosperous new lives for themselves, and then gave it all up to move back to the anarchy of Mogadishu and start an independent media company in an effort to support the country's fragile steps toward peace and democracy.

I thought, if I ever get to Mogadishu, I've got to meet these guys.

A year and a half later, a drug-smugglers' flight deposited me on a deserted air strip outside the Somali capital, I hired a pickup truck full of gunmen to take me into the city, and was soon knocking on the iron door of HornAfrik.

I didn't know Mr. Elmi or Mr. Iman Sharmarke well. I met them only long enough to be enormously impressed with what they did.

I saw Mr. Elmi, a hugely energetic man then in his late 20s, bounding up and down the corridors. He was often the first one in to the station and the last to leave at night. Mr. Iman Sharmarke, welcomed me to Horn Afrik, gracious and calm, and he, Mr. Adan and I talked about Ottawa.

It turned out that Mr. Adan's wife and kids lived just blocks from my mother. Both men spoke with great fondness about Canada and the peaceful lives they built there. They were homesick, but they were committed to their vision for a new Somalia.

And everywhere I went in Mogadishu (and, on subsequent trips, elsewhere in Somalia), people were listening to their broadcasts and were profoundly grateful for the straight-up, tell-it-like-it-is reporting that they provided and the forum they gave Somalis across society to air their views. They brought a powerful sense of independence to their work - the only time I have ever heard anyone talk like that in Somalia, where clan and family loyalties have trumped years and years of efforts for peace.

Mr. Adan will leave Ottawa soon, on his way back to Mogadishu, back to run the station. "Ali died in vain if I stop what we are doing," he said last night. "The risk is real and I have to think about it. But on other hand, we have people who are bent on silencing anyone who does anything positive in this country. So giving up would mean giving in to them. All of our business and community leaders have left in the last few months, as the clashes have been going on, and the [militias are] targeting different people. But I have to make sure that those who died for these ideals did not die for nothing."

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