Nairobi, Kenya – Abdalle Mumin is still looking over his shoulder, even after months spent in what he calls “exile”. The Somali journalist rarely leaves his safe house. He checks his phone constantly. Sometimes he turns it off or switches sim cards, just to make sure. Sitting stone-faced in a darkened office – blinds drawn on a sunny Nairobi afternoon – he reflects on the past year of his life.
“If you ever asked me when I was in Mogadishu in 2013 or 2014 ‘would you like to go outside Somalia or would you like to quit journalism?’ I would simply say to you, ‘no.’ I was really very much proud to be in my country and to see that my country was changing.”
But now, he is alone: away from his home and his wife and his six young children. For their safety, he arranged for them to go into hiding in Somalia. He says he only speaks to them every few weeks. For him, that’s the hardest part.
Before he was forced to flee Somalia, it did seem as if things were finally improving in the country after more than two decades of war. In 2011, joint African Union and United Nations forces wrested control of Mogadishu from al-Shabab, an armed group linked to al-Qaeda that had seized large swathes of southern Somalia since their emergence in 2006.
At the end of 2012, the coalition forces also took Kismayo, a port city on the southern coast that served as a stronghold and major source of income for the group.
In recent years, Mogadishu residents said they felt safer. Public services – post offices, rubbish collection, schools, banks – were coming back. Mumin felt that, in his way, he was part of the transformation. “Reporting from Somalia, reporting about human rights issues to the wider world is part of helping my people; I was helping my people.”
That ended on January 26, 2015 when two armed men tried to kill him.
Raised in conflict
Born in Kismayo in 1984, Mumin was raised in conflict. He barely remembers a time without it. He and his father moved to Mogadishu in 1991, when he was just five years old. At the time, Dictator Mohamed Siad Barre’s regime was collapsing. Its disintegration allowed for the re-emergence of political and clan rivalries that would tear the country apart.
“[My father] was hoping to get me a good school in Mogadishu but unfortunately the civil war broke out, people were displaced, there was no schools,” Mumin remembers. He and his father fled to a town called Qoryoley, 100km outside Mogadishu, and then eventually settled in a displacement camp on the outskirts of the capital.
It was there that Mumin finally managed to enroll in school. He knew from a very early age that he wanted to be a journalist. He got his start through poetry, perhaps the most popular art form in Somali culture. In the fifth grade, he remembers he would write about politics, love and family. “My head teacher saw that I was active, that I was courageous. He encouraged me to start to write about Somali traditional poems for the school magazine. I was not a journalist. I was still young. But when I graduated from the secondary school I had the ambition to be a journalist.”
In 2000, when he was just 16, Mumin enrolled in a journalism training course. He graduated the next year and began to climb through the ranks of Somali media. But it was never easy and, almost from the beginning, it was dangerous work.
He contributed as a columnist to a Mogadishu newspaper until 2003, when fighting in the capital pushed him and his new wife to the northern Puntland region. Then he started working at a local radio station, covering politics and human rights.
After a few years he was appointed as the Puntland correspondent for a Mogadishu radio station and tasked with reporting on the regional administration, which had separated from the dysfunctional Mogadishu government a decade earlier.
But in 2010 he was forced to flee again. Mumin says local officials tried to arrest him after he wrote an article about a colleague, who was himself jailed for trying to interview rebels in the region. “I went to the jail and I visited him,” Mumin says. “I wrote an article about what the life in the jail was. Very critical life. No water. Lights were on all the time – day and night. Poor health conditions in the jail.”
After avoiding arrest, Mumin took his family back to Mogadishu, where he began a Social Science degree at a local university. “I was happy, [I was] with my family,” he remembers. “I got a job in a local radio [station] in Mogadishu. Then I started to contribute to two big newspapers, The Wall Street Journal in the US and The Guardian in the UK. I was happy with my life.”
Gunmen for hire – $50 a hit
Somalia has always been a dangerous place for reporters. This reputation was cemented in the early 1990s, when several international journalists were killed covering the US-led invasion of Somalia. But the job has always been far more perilous for Somalis, who actually live amid the chaos, as they dodge crosshairs, political agendas and clan animosities.
“Things may be getting safer for the public, but Mogadishu certainly isn’t safer for journalists,” says Tom Rhodes of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Rhodes is a good friend of Mumin’s and helped secure some financial assistance for him after he fled Somalia.
“It costs $50 to hire a gunman in Mogadishu,” Rhodes explains, “so it’s not a coincidence that Somalia tops the [Committee to Protect Journalist’s] Impunity Index this year.”
The list ranks countries based on the number of unsolved cases in which journalists have been murdered. For the first time since the organisation began compiling it in 2008, Somalia has knocked Iraq off the number one spot.
According to the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ), five journalists were killed, seven injured and 47 arrested in 2014 alone. Five media houses were also attacked and “repressive legislations” were enacted by the governments in Mogadishu and Puntland.
And while many journalists have been targeted by groups like al-Shabab for reporting on atrocities, the Federal Government of Somalia is not necessarily an ally.
In May, while in hiding, Mumin published a story online with the title “Somalia: A Threat by Any Name.” In it, he discussed an order issued by Somali authorities to media houses. The government asked that al-Shabab be referred to as UGUS, an acronym in Somali, which translates as “The Group that Massacres Somali People”. Not long after, al-Shabab issued a counter-order, demanding that journalists refer to the Federal Government as UGUS, which they had altered to mean “The Group that Humiliates Somali People”.
“The independent media in Somalia is between al-Shabab and [the Federal Government]. Each side is giving instructions. They are telling you to do this and this and not to do this and this,” Mumin says. In fact, things are often much worse. Journalists have been arrested for reporting about rapes committed by security forces, the use of child soldiers, corruption and other issues that are uncomfortable for the Federal Government.
“[Since the outbreak of war in 1991] we have lost more than 60 journalists,” says Mumin, citing NUSOJ statistics. “No case was investigated properly and was brought to book in the courts in Somalia.”
With so much pressure from all sides, many of Somalia’s most experienced journalists have simply left, leaving behind a young, undertrained core of reporters.
“[Most] professional journalists working in Somalia are younger than 20 or 18. Some of them [are] 17 or 18,” explains Mumin. “Eighty percent don’t even have required or professional skills. Because the most professional ones left the country after death threats or something like that.”
And the media environment in Somalia is extremely politically charged. Experts say many local outlets are viewed as biased and some are used by their owners as tools for political and financial extortion. “A lot of these [young journalists] are manipulated by the media owners,” says CPJ’s Rhodes. “When you open yourself up to biased, politicised reporting, you can make enemies.”
At the end of 2014, Mumin was reporting for international outlets on the changes taking place within al-Shabab. The group’s leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, was killed in a US drone strike on September 1. Subsequent strikes further damaged the group’s leadership. As Mumin documented these losses, he began to receive threats. Telephone numbers he didn’t recognise sent him cryptic messages. On Facebook, he was called a kaffir – a non-Muslim – for working with Western media. “In October they told me, ‘we will get you and we will kill you soon.'”
Several of Mumin’s colleagues have been killed over the years. He says most of them failed to heed the threats they had received. Remembering this, he became more cautious. He drove a car with tinted windows and always took different routes home. His wife was a kind of security adviser, urging him on some nights to stay away from the house.
“One day someone came and asked my name,” he says, recalling a particular incident. “Like: ‘Where is Abdalle?’ And she didn’t recognise that person; he was a young man,” he recalls. “She said ‘he will come soon but what should I tell him?’ [The man] said, ‘no, he is my friend. I will come back when he comes.’ And he didn’t show up again. So she called me and she told me that.”
Whenever Mumin neared his home, he’d have his wife on the phone, waiting for him. When he was just outside the gate, she would let him in and shut it quickly. But the constant vigilance took its toll. He started seeing threats everywhere, especially in his neighbourhood. “I saw someone running behind me. I thought that he was running to kill me and I started running. And the man shouted ‘Hey, hey, I’m not a stranger, I’m not a risk, I’m not a killer. Please, please, don’t run!’ But I couldn’t trust him.” Mumin was less than a kilometre from his home, but that day he ran straight past his house and out of his neighbourhood.
The day of the attack started like any other Monday. After scanning the news and checking on some potential stories, Mumin went into town to run errands. Just days before, he had reported on the bombing of a hotel as it prepared to host Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Now, all was quiet. He stopped at Dahabshil bank in central Mogadishu and then started driving home.
It was around Kilometer 5, one of the safer neighbourhoods of Mogadishu, that Mumin noticed he was being followed. In his rearview mirror were two men in a white car, with their eyes locked on his. “So I turned, I took the left turn, they do the same. And again I changed my way, another turn on the right. They did the same. They were all the time following me. And I was alone.”
Mumin steeled his nerves. He considered how the attack might unfold. He had his phone with him at least. He flashed his turning signals in the hope that it might briefly confuse his attackers and he prayed his tinted windows would give them pause. “They couldn’t understand whether I was alone or with other people. But [the car] was not bullet proof. They can shoot me at any time.”
As the two cars closed in on Mumin’s neighbourhood, his pursuers suddenly veered down a road to the right. They knew where he was going, and they were trying to cut him off. Mumin took a left instead. But when he got ahead of them, they spotted his car and opened fire.
Ducking down with his foot on the accelerator and his hands at the wheel, he drove fast and blind out of the neighbourhood. “One bullet hit on the back light of my car,” he remembers. “I could hear “phoomp!”
Mumin abandoned his car at a nearby mechanic’s and found a place to hide. He called his wife and his colleagues at The Wall Street Journal in Nairobi. He was on a plane to the Kenyan capital the next morning.
Eight months later, he is still in hiding. In early February, two men carrying AK-47s came to his home in Mogadishu and demanded that his wife tell them where Mumin was. She said she didn’t know. On May 13, another gunman wearing a mask knocked. “That time he threatened that if he can’t find me they will do something to my children,” Mumin says. He arranged for his family to go into hiding.
He worries about them constantly, especially his children. Mumin’s wife was pregnant when he fled Somalia and gave birth just a few months ago. He has never met his youngest child.
In the darkened office in Nairobi, Mumin’s voice wavers as he talks about his family. He says it is hard to think about them stuck in a safe house, unable to simply be children. On the rare occasions when he speaks to them, he finds it almost too difficult. “They are asking me ‘why don’t you send me biscuits, why don’t you send me a bicycle? Why don’t you send me a ball so that I can play?’ They are innocent. They have the right to play, to eat biscuits, to have good health. Unfortunately they are young. They don’t understand what situation I am in.”
Mumin has given up hope of returning to Somalia any time soon. Instead, he’s trying to raise the money to bring his family to Nairobi. But because he can’t work, he can’t afford to support them.
Al-Shabab has been active in Kenya over the past three years, carrying out attacks in Nairobi and Garissa – near the Somali border – and on the Kenyan coast. With large networks of Somali immigrants and refugees across the country, Mumin worries that he may still be a target. He continues to receive threats. On August 30, Mumin received an email from someone calling himself Abu Hamza Mujahid, who threatened to cut his throat.
Mumin hopes that some day, he and his family can be reunited and he says he has applied for asylum in the US. Throughout his ordeal, he has received support from The Wall Street Journal, The Committee to Protect Journalists and Freedom House. But even in his darkest hour, he never thought to ask for help from his own country.
“The [Somali] government [it] seems that they are not willing or, I don’t know, maybe they don’t have the capacity to help journalists. And journalists are the same as the other Somali citizens who are paying the price on a daily basis. Women, children, men, employees. Everyone in Somalia is subject to be killed by al-Shabab.”
The article was produced in collaboration with the Human Rights Centre at Al Jazeera.