Wednesday 25 November 2020

Life after Al Shabaab

I have written a report for the BBC about what happens to people after they defect from Al Shabaab in Somalia. You can read the report here, in English and Somali:

Life after Al Shabaab - English version

Life after Al Shabaab - Somali version

Here are some photos from the rehabilitation centre. Thank you to everyone who spoke to me for this report and to those who helped me with it.

A leaflet with a phone number people can call if they want help defecting from Al Shabaab

Filing cabinets containing information about the defectors

Imans come to the centre to teach the defectors about Islam

The defectors learn skills such as tailoring - these are some of the dresses they made. They gave me one with a matching petticoat.

Here are some of the defectors who have learned tailoring skills.

Some of the defectors train as mechanics.

Others learn computer skills such as video editing.

The defectors also go to class to learn literacy, maths and other skills.

Friday 15 May 2020

Comedy, cartoons and coronavirus

Like all other countries in the world, Somalia has been affected by coronavirus. It is hard to imagine how it would cope with a giant spike in cases, given its broken healthcare facilities and the fact that so many people live in crammed, crowded camps where it's impossible to keep at a safe physical distance from each other, and where there is not nearly enough (or, in some cases, any) running water and soap.

Despite or perhaps because of all the challenges, people are coming up with all sorts of innovative ways of spreading the word about how to prevent the spread of COVID-19, from cartoons, to comedy sketches, from songs to poems.

Cartoon by the famous Amin Amir of Amin Arts

Here's a BBC piece I wrote about some of the things that are being done:

Here's the script of another BBC report I did - you can click on the links to see the song and the video:

Aid agencies are warning of a catastrophe in Somalia if coronavirus takes hold. They say it's likely the number of cases is far higher than the 1054 (check and update if necessary) officially confirmed. Despite the country's many challenges, Somalis are coming up with all sorts of inventive ways to try to stop the spread of COVID-19. Our Africa Editor Mary Harper reports:


Somalia is an intensely oral society, so special poems and songs are being written, urging people to wash their hands regularly with soap, to maintain a safe distance from each other and not to visit people when they are sick. Even the finance minister has written a song. But there are huge challenges. Years of conflict, drought and corruption have left a broken healthcare system. Millions have been displaced, living in cramped camps, with no access to regular supplies of soap and water. Social distancing is impossible. The military has been deployed to hand out masks in camps for the displaced. Soldiers are driving a specially designed COVID-19 awareness bus around the capital Mogadishu, with loudspeakers blaring out a song urging people to do what they can to protect themselves:


Comedians and cartoonists have also been deployed. Somalia's most famous cartoonist, Amin Arts, has drawn pictures with people shielding themselves from huge green viruses. He is preparing a special one, featuring camels, for the country's large population of nomads. Camels have also been used in videos - people are being urged to keep at least a camel's-length distance from each other.


Two popular young comedians have clubbed together to make a series of videos featuring broomsticks - another way of showing how far people should be from each other. These have proved hugely popular, downloaded from the internet hundreds of thousands of times. One big challenge is dispelling myths about the virus. The jihadist group Al Shabaab, which controls much of the country, says it has been brought in by infidels. Others believe only Chinese people can get it, that all Muslims are immune, or that it can be cured by eating a special kind of sweet. Even if the correct messages are getting through, Somalia will not be able to cope with a big outbreak. It is already struggling with the worst locust invasion for twenty-five years and devastating floods. There have also been years of drought and more than three decades of conflict.

Here are some photos of the soldiers spreading the word about the virus.

Monday 6 April 2020

Mogadishu March 2020

CUE: One of Africa’s longest-running conflicts is that in Somalia. It has gone on for more than thirty years, and has taken many different guises, from clan violence to warlordism to radical Islamist militancy. There’s a huge international presence in the country, ranging from African Union forces to US special forces, but they are unable to restore peace. Our Africa Editor, Mary Harper, has just returned from the country.

It happened a few hours after I landed in the capital Mogadishu. I was in my room – a converted shipping container - in the heavily protected international airport. I heard the crump of mortar fire, not far away. I later heard the weapon had landed inside the ‘green zone’, and that a man had lost his leg. 

The Islamist group, Al Shabaab, had managed to fire the mortar into what is supposed to be the safest part of the city.

A journalist friend told me how a car blaring music had drawn to a stop on an ordinary street, where people were going about their daily business. Two men - dressed casually in Western style clothes - got out of the vehicle. Nobody paid them much attention. They opened the boot and brought out a contraption, used it to fire a mortar, then got back in the car, music still pounding.

This brazen incident showed how Al Shabaab is able to operate in the heart of the capital, which is supposed to be under government control. The group not only carries out regular attacks. It raises taxes in the city, including on goods arriving at the port. It distributes money to the poor and dispenses justice from mobile courts, which are considered less corrupt and more efficient than other courts. I was told even an MP used an Al Shabaab court to settle a land dispute.

The group continues to govern huge swathes of territory, mainly small towns and rural areas. But it is under threat. 

Its middle and senior ranking leaders are targeted by US drone strikes, which also kill civilians and their precious livestock. The Somali army, supported by African Union forces and American advisers, has had some recent success, capturing a string of towns and villages outside Mogadishu, and, crucially, holding onto them. 

The unit Al Shabaab fears the most is called Danaab, which means ‘lightening’. These are elite US-trained commandos, who wear black balaclavas and carry their guns properly, unlike the rag tag bunch that makes up the regular army.

But despite all of this, Al Shabaab continues to strike in Mogadishu, other so-called government-controlled towns, and targets outside Somalia.

The recent mortar attacks on the airport ‘green zone’ have struck fear into the heart of the United Nations and other internationals stationed there, including burly private security personnel and the British embassy with its black door - a brass Number 10 nailed onto it - just like Downing Street in London.

At night time, some UN compounds are not lit up – they are in pitch darkness, a safety precaution against Al Shabaab attacks. One night, I was making my way through the blackness when I bashed straight into a concrete barrier, falling head first into the sand and badly bruising my body. It was humiliating.

There is much talk in Mogadishu of the forthcoming elections. In Villa Somalia – home of the Somali president and other top officials – ministers plot and scheme, and seem to pay little attention to the desperate conditions of people outside the compound. There are about 800 camps for the displaced in the city, with igloo shaped structures fashioned from plastic, scraps of metal and faded pieces of cloth. Some people have lived there for more than two decades.

There are also those who make a fortune from Somalia’s war economy. The internationals are paid danger money even though many of them never leave the relative safety of the ‘green zone’. Somali businessmen and former warlords make multi-million dollar deals in the property, telecommunications and financial sectors. Brightly coloured buildings, shops decorated with cartoon-like paintings displaying their wares, and luxury apartment complexes spring up around the city, some already scarred by Al Shabaab attacks.

Every time I go to Mogadishu, I feel that everything changes on the surface but everything remains the same underneath. Amid the shiny new buildings and bright new technocrats, Al Shabaab, and now the Somali branch of the Islamic State group, carry on killing and bombing.  The government – still – doesn’t work. Somalia’s young population has known nothing but war. Which poses the question: if people don’t know what peace looks like – how on earth are they going to be able to bring it back?

The kindness of friends

Here is a BBC From Our Own Correspondent I wrote after receiving dozens of messages from friends across Africa asking if my family and I were safe and well during the corona pandemic, and telling us to take care. The script is below and you can listen to the audio version here - it's the second item: From Our Own Correspondent

Across Africa, governments have declared curfews and lockdowns. Less than two months after Egypt became the first country on the continent to confirm a coronavirus case, the outbreak has reached almost every African nation. There are fears about the region's chronically underfunded health services and the millions who are more vulnerable because of HIV or malnutrition. The UN has warned the impact of COVID 19 on Africa will be devastating and that huge injections of global cash will be needed to weather the crisis.  But so far the continent has been less badly hit than Europe and many Africans are worrying about people over here says Mary Harper.

Most mornings I wake up to messages on my phone – on WhatsApp, email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Telegram, so on and so on.

Today I received a Facebook message from a 13-year-old boy I know in Hargeisa, the capital of the self-declared republic of Somaliland. His name is Egal.

“Mary – are you OK? My family and I are so worried about you in London, where there is too much coronavirus.”

Another message pops up on Instagram. It’s from a dainty-faced young woman, Sagal, who I met last year at the Hargeisa International Book Fair.

“Please be careful Mary. Please, please take care. Make sure you wash your hands often – for at least twenty seconds.”

Somaliland reported its first two cases this week.

The Hargeisa Book Fair

Another message, this time by email, comes from a dear friend, Saeed, who has used his United Nations pension to build a museum in Hargeisa.

“I hope you and your family are well despite the calamity of this viral disease. We are on high alert here in Somaliland, where people are sometimes too obstinate to follow the health guidance messages.”

The museum built by my friend Saeed Shukri

Saeed Shukri with a traditional Somali house

here are lots of fascinating things in the museum including disturbing photos of Somalis taken to Europe to be 'displayed' in 'Somali villages' in public fairs and exhibitions - these people were taken to Crystal Palace in London

 Saeed ShThis man on a bicycle was also 'on display' at Crystal Palace

I worry about Somaliland where health facilities are totally inadequate. 

I worry even more about Somalia to the south, torn apart by more than thirty years of war, where about a third of the population is displaced. Where millions of people live crammed together in camps.

Camps for the displaced in Mogadishu 

I receive a voice message from Ahmed in the capital Mogadishu. He was deported from the UK after committing a serious crime. On arrival, he knew nobody in Somalia as he had been away for years and comes from a despised minority clan. He has slowly – and with great difficulty – built some kind of life for himself, but says he suffers stress from the frequent explosions and irregular money supply.

He too is worried about me and corona, as is Abdulkadir, who set up an ambulance service using converted minivans to rescue victims of suicide blasts.

The list goes on. I find it humbling that I have received so many caring messages from friends living in some of the harshest and most dangerous conditions on earth.

Coronavirus has not yet hit Africa that hard, although cases are rising. In Somalia, there have been a handful of confirmed cases – all people who recently came from abroad.

But I get scared when I think about what would happen if the disease took off. 

I think about the displaced people, many of whom live in the eight hundred camps in Mogadishu. How will they regularly wash their hands for 20 seconds with water and soap? Water is collected in yellow plastic jerrycans, crowded queues at the tap. Social distancing is impossible as people live cheek by jowl in small igloo-shaped structures, made from cloth, plastic and the odd bit of metal sheeting. 

How will people follow hand washing guidelines in places like this?

There are also a lot of myths about COVID-19. One friend said I must eat lots of halwa, the sticky, Somali version of the Middle Eastern sweet made from sesame seeds, as it is believed to be both a ‘prevention and a cure’. Other misconceptions include the beliefs that only Chinese people catch the virus, even as it spreads rampantly in Europe and the US; that it is spread by mosquitoes; that it cannot survive in hot weather. 

I also get worried messages from people in Somalia’s western neighbour Ethiopia. One from a cook I met last year at a hotel next to thundering waterfalls. Another from the land of the Afar, hardy nomads who trek with their camels across harsh, dry land. The devout man I use regularly as a driver says he is praying for me and my family every day.

A long WhatsApp message from a young man in the ancient town of Lalibela tells me about how there is little food because farmers are too scared to come to market. He ends by asking if I can send him money until, as he put it, “this hard situation passes”.

Ethiopia too has few confirmed cases. 

But some of the locals have shown hostility towards Europeans and other foreigners. Some have been pelted with stones, others refused transport, accused of importing the deadly virus to a country that had previously been spared.

Somalis, Ethiopians and other Africans have borne the brunt of racism and other forms of ill-treatment in the UK. I can’t help thinking that if Westerners find out what it is like to be discriminated against simply for the colour of their skin and their countries of origin, they might think twice before victimizing others.

There are other lessons to be learned from Africa. It has had its fair share of epidemics, including ebola. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was Liberian president during the twenty-fourteen to sixteen ebola outbreak, which killed more than eleven thousand people in West Africa, mainly in Liberia. In a recent letter to the world, she spoke of the importance of international cooperation, and it was only this that defeated the disease.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
“I am making a similar plea to my fellow world citizens,” she said. “Every person, in every nation, needs to do their part.”

Thursday 2 April 2020

Somali clerics help fight coronavirus and Al Shabaab's COVID-19 messages

I have been lucky enough to talk to Somalia's most senior religious leader, Sheikh Ali Dheere, the deputy minister of foreign affairs, Osman Aden Dubow, the deputy coordinator for the Prevention and Countering of Violent Extremism in the Office of the Prime Minister, Koshin Abdi Hashi, and the university professor and senior adviser in the ministry of foreign affairs, Mohamed Ali.

The told me about what Somalia's religious community is doing to help stop the spread of the virus and to counter Al Shabaab's messages that coronavirus has been imported by 'crusaders' such as the Africa Union intervention force, AMISOM.

I wrote a BBC report about it, which you can read if you click here: My piece on Somalia's religious leaders and coronavirus

Sheikh Ali Dheere washing his hands
Sheikh Ali Dheere entering the mosque
I took the following pictures of a koranic school in a Mogadishu camp for the displaced - all madrassas have been closed in an attempt to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Here is the text of a report I did for BBC radio about the initiative.

As the number of coronavirus cases continues to increase in Africa, there are fears the disease could wreak havoc in countries affected by conflict. Somalia, which has been in a state of war for more than thirty years, is a prime example. Although there have been only three confirmed cases so far, the government is deeply concerned about the possible spread of COVID-19, and about messages about the virus sent by the country’s Islamist group Al Shabaab. Our Africa Editor Mary Harper has been speaking to members of Somalia’s religious community:

In a recent communique, Al Shabaab said coronavirus was being spread by what it described as ‘crusader forces who have invaded Somalia and the disbelieving countries that support them’. The militants, who control much of Somalia, have also said Muslims cannot catch the disease. This is what the government is up against. In an effort to counter Al Shabaab’s messages and teach Somalis how to protect themselves, it has enlisted the support of the influential religious community. The deputy minister of religious affairs, Osman Aden Dubow, says their help is essential as they are the most trusted people in the country. After the closure of Somalia’s tens of thousands of madrassas, koranic teachers and imams have been recruited to spread the word about COVID-19. They will drive around in cars mounted with loudspeakers to tell people to wash their hands for twenty seconds with soap and water and to maintain a safe distance from each other. The same messages will be transmitted from the minarets of mosques. But even if they get the right information, hundreds of thousands of Somalis won’t be able to protect themselves. Displaced by violence, floods and drought, they live in over-crowded camps, without access to soap and water, and no way of keeping apart from each other. Somalia’s most senior sheikh, Ali Dheere, says anything that causes harm in Islam is not permissible – and that certain practices such as washing the dead will have to change in order to stop the spread of the virus. People are also being encouraged to pray at home, although there has been no mention of closing mosques – a highly sensitive issue in this deeply religious country. It’s not just Al Shabaab that is spreading incorrect information about coronavirus. Some Somalis believe it is a divine punishment imposed on China for its treatment of Muslim Uighurs. Some say it has hit America because the US oppresses Muslims. Somalia’s government and religious community have a mammoth task ahead of them, both in terms of busting myths and of teaching people how best to protect themselves.

These are some photos I took of IDP camps in Somalia. I do not know how people are going to practice social distancing or find enough water and soap to wash their hands regularly in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus.

Here are a couple of photos by the Reuter's news agency showing people washing their hands with ash: 

And, finally here is a photo I took of a mosque in Mogadishu's commercial district, Bakara Market