Vol. 18 No. 6 · 21 March 1996

People of a Half-Way House

Nuruddin Farah writes about his family and other Somalis who fled their country

3640 words

I remember the renegade tears running down the cheeks of my younger sister, who had been among the first boat-loads to arrive in Mombasa.

‘We just escaped,’ she said when I met her in Utange refugee camp, ‘leaving our beds unmade, the chairs in our dining-rooms upturned, our kitchens unswept, our dishes in the sinks, our future undone. We ran as fast as we could, not bothering where we might end up, in the country and among the displaced, or out of it and among the stateless. We locked up our house as though we were going away for a weekend trip into the country. Afraid of what might happen to us if we stayed on, we didn’t question the wisdom of leaving.’

My sister was dejected and emaciated after an arduous sea journey in an overcrowded dhow, emptied of wise thoughts by the perils, first of joining the displaced, then of leaving Somalia and going into exile. She and my father told me what I understood then to be upmarket tales of horror. Most of them sounded incredible, a great many boasting of apocryphal qualities, spoken meanly, I thought, in order to dishonour the good name of the other clan. I asked my father, then in his eighties, why he fled, and he answered: ‘We fled on the say-so of our clanspeople.’

‘Why didn’t you inquire into the matter before upping and leaving?’ I wondered. ‘You might have found your Kenyan papers if you had the calm to look for them. You wouldn’t be a refugee then, would you? You were once entitled to Kenyan nationality, weren’t you?’

‘We were like a horde of ants fleeing ahead of a hurricane,’ he said. ‘The trouble is we were fleeing in the very direction from which the tempest would eventually roar. Every one of our clanspeople caught the virus of fleeing, and for those in the clans who remained, staying on was also contagious.’ I was reminded of a formidable riddle often put to children, perhaps to ascertain how alert they are. Coming upon twenty deer, a hunter aims and shoots, killing none. ‘How many deer remain?’ a youngster would be asked. The correct response was ‘None,’ only you seldom encountered a child who got it right first time.

I asked my father why he thought he would be killed, simply because he was from another clan. Before I met him in a hospital in Mombasa, recovering from an injury to his spine, my father and I hadn’t set eyes on each other for a little over seventeen years. Not that absence had brought us any closer: he and I continued our habit of disagreeing on every topic. In her effort to make peace between us, my sister tried to change the course of our conversation, saying that it wasn’t who you were or what clan you belonged to that made you leave, but the helplessness. ‘I know many of the other clans who fled,’ she told me, ‘though not necessarily in the same direction as ourselves.’

I could see that my father was displeased with my sister’s intervention. Angrier with those who had made him flee than he was with either of us, he said: ‘I am old enough not to care less about what you think, so let me tell you that we fled because we met the beasts in us, face to face.’

‘You’ve just admitted that you left on the say-so of someone else,’ I reminded him. ‘And besides, you know how people like to make up stories.’

‘Mogadiscio has fallen into the clutches of thugs,’ my father went on, ‘no better than hyenas. Now, could you depend on a hyena to know what honour is, what trust is, what political responsibility means?’

I said: ‘For all we know, Somalia’s warring clans may be fewer in number than its peace-loving nationals, many of whom pursue sedentary vocations. It is those of us of the nomadic stock who are more vocal, and who claim to be the prototype Somali. To my mind, we’re bellicose beasts, forever at each other’s throats.’

My sister remarked: ‘To flee is not an admission of guilt on our part. As for your question, why run? What would you want us to do, buy guns instead of running?’ People might flee, she seemed to say, in the same way that, on seeing other deer run, a frightened deer may run, too.

‘We heard fear in the footsteps of those running,’ my father continued, ‘and sensed fright in the faster pace of our hearts. I reckon it is wiser to join the masses of people fleeing, and then ask why they are escaping, than to be robbed, or raped, or left dead by the wayside, unburied. What’s the point of remaining in a Mogadiscio emptied of all one’s people?’

I said: ‘I don’t see this as a war between the clans, and I hope that history will prove me right. I think that what’s afoot is a battle between men so charged with power-greed that the friction between them will light a great fire which will engulf us all.’

I ran into other Somalis in Mombasa’s refugee camp, escapees who had brought along with them damaged memories. Time and time again they spoke of the terror which they had lived through, their demeanour undignified, their eyes mournful, their temperament as runny as the lachrymal catarrh affecting an uncared-for orphan. They reminded me of the earth just dug up and piled by a tomb as yet unfilled: I sensed that, buried among the ashen memories which they had brought with them, there were incommunicable worries. They were nonetheless part of a ‘we’, sharing a communal nightmare. That I was not included in the ‘we’ was made clear to me. But then I was not assumed to be part of the ‘they’, either.

I was nonplussed by the tempestuous outpouring of sentiments and emotions, expressed in intense clan terms. There was such venom in their recollections that I was shocked, not so much by what any of my interlocutors said, as by the severity and the depth of the hurt, which now ran in their blood.

‘We know who we are,’ several of them repeated again and again, with bitterness in their voices. ‘What has occurred in Mogadiscio has taught us who we are.’ What did they mean by ‘us’? This was not some sort of double-talk, saying one thing and meaning something totally other: they were wholeheartedly committed to a new form of Somali-speak, in which ‘us’ referred to a post-colonial reality governed by the anachronistic sentiments of clannism. I found myself needing to make it clear to every single one of them that I belonged neither to ‘us’ nor to ‘them’.

And before I was conscious of it I was playing host to a memory, that of my last day in Somalia in August 1974. As part of a safar-salaamo farewell, all the members of my immediate family, young and old, had come to the airport to see me off.

I had little desire to publicise my departure, for fear that my trip might be cancelled. But not so my family, who threw a sort of despedida, Latin American-style. In the family home, prayers were said to bless my departure with verses from the Koran. They were said by my mother’s favourite sheikh, a venerable priest who had been on a retainer for years. My sisters gave a party of eats, to which a few of our intimates and a couple of my in-laws were invited. Later, with everyone in their smartest get-up, we posed for photographs. They were pleased that I was leaving for Europe, not only because they believed that better opportunities were in wait for a young writer, but because I would be out of the reach of Siad Barre’s security forces. I wasn’t happy to leave and sensed that I might not return.

I remember standing with several of them for a group photograph, then sharing an aside with an older brother giving me advice; I recall my mother warning me of the perils of alien lands (‘You came back with a foreign wife before, I suggest you return alone this time!’); I remember a sister requesting that I write newsy letters more often; I recall my four-and-a-half-year-old son, wholly enthralled and enjoying the despedida, asking that I send him clothes, bicycles and things from England so he could show off to his mates. (Neither my son nor I was blessed with the foresight that 13 long years would pass before we would meet again.) I remember my father, on one of his high horses, appearing enraged about a promise I had allegedly forgotten to honour, but refusing to tell me what it was, no matter how many times I begged him. Later, taking me aside as the final call for our flight was made, he said: ‘You are not a blessing, but a curse. May ill-luck be your companion in this and the next life, too.’

The years have borne testimony to the condition of my exile, a darkness with enough light for me to make sense of my comings and goings, never for once bothering if I were blessed or cursed. Years later, in Berlin, I was to learn of my mother’s death in April 1990 after a long illness. I was devastated not to have seen her again. Looking back on it now, I am relieved that she did not live to experience the civil strife which brought about the fragmentation of the land she loved so much.

Not long after I met my father as a refugee in a camp in Mombasa, he, too, encountered his death in a land marked by uncertainty. He died a quiet death, on Friday, 12 July 1993, two days before he was due to join my sister, who had already left for the USA. Until his death, he remained undecided if he should stay in Kenya, as a well-looked-after octogenarian refugee, or return to Mogadiscio, or follow my sister to Detroit. Oh, the comings and goings of life, the goings-on! As for my son, he had truanted from his school in Montreal during his teens, and gone back to Mogadiscio against my counsel. Because he had fled, leaving his papers behind, he ended up in the same refugee camp in Mombasa, and later at a college in Nairobi, before joining my sister in Detroit.

My scattered family members are more numerous than I can list: but they include a sister stranded in Holland, stateless, another sister with asylum papers in Canada, a brother with a large family, two sisters and their dependants, and also my son from my previous marriage, in the US. Finally, there is a half-sister, so far unaccounted for, most likely among Somalia’s displaced, and two other brothers, now in Ethiopia, one of them in Dire Dawa, near Harar, awaiting the outcome of his sponsorship to North America, the other holding a high government post in the Ogaden, where he has moved from Mombasa: all of them are migrants riding the wind of their fortune or misfortune. During the despedida at Mogadiscio’s airport I could not have foreseen how my leaving when I did would be followed by deaths in my immediate family, and eventually, and most important, the painful death of my country itself. What catastrophes!

Because my fate and that of my fellow nationals is tied to our country’s destiny, any talk about Somalia brings me sad associations. And I wonder if my years of exile have been futile, now that there is no ‘country’ to return to. But then there are essential differences between those committed to going back to the land of our neurosis and inspiration and those who admit that they do not want to return. Another major difference is that whereas a despedida was thrown to honour my departure, they had no such gathering to see them off, or wish them well. They fled!

I spent almost four weeks in Kenya, travelling between the coastal city of Mombasa and Nairobi, where I was onerously engaged in the task of talking to senior Foreign Ministry officials known to be close to the country’s President, Daniel arap Moi.

The city of Mombasa boasted a large number of Mogadiscians for the first time in its history, its streets full to bursting with Somalis loudly communicating with one another in the guttural sadness of their tongue. Clothed in the tawdriness of their sorrow, almost all of them would explain that they had come on dhows from the southern coastal city of Kismayo, although some may have started their sea journey from somewhere else, or overland from the hinterland to the west or north of the capital.

On arrival, they were kept in quarantine for a few days before being taken in convoys to the Utange refugee camp, a few miles outside the city centre. The camp security fell to the Kenya police, whereas feeding and registration were UNHCR responsibilities. Uniformed guards manned the exits and entrances of the camps. I felt repelled by what I saw or heard daily: Somali refugees being harassed by the Kenya police, UNHCR officials displaying a racist arrogance.

Two days after my arrival I was introduced to the head of the unit, a Kenyan who commended my sister for being so helpful as his interpreter whenever he talked to the Somali women. ‘For somebody in a refugee camp,’ he said, ‘your sister is highly impressive.’

I asked: ‘How so?’

‘She’s highly educated and respectable,’ he said.

For a brief moment, I was in two minds whether to remind him that, among the inmates of the camp, there were more than a dozen professors from Somalia’s National University, several former ministers, and at least one famous film-maker: men and women who, if the circumstances had permitted it, might have been welcomed by Kenya’s highest authority.

He ventured: ‘But you don’t look like a refugee yourself.’

‘How do refugees look?’ I asked.

Smiling wisely, he said: ‘They don’t look like you.’

I told him that I might have been a refugee if I had come from Mogadiscio on a dhow. Like my sister, my father or my son. ‘But tell me, how are they defined, the Somalis?’ I asked: ‘Refugees, asylum-seekers, visitors?’

‘People of a half-way house,’ he said.

‘How do you mean?’

‘Whether defined as such or not, they are in a refugee camp,’ he answered. ‘And with their being Somali and our neighbours, perhaps we need not bother to define them. Even so, some may seek asylum, some may apply for a visitor’s visa to be stamped in their Somali passports. But then they consider Kenya as a half-way house, a place from where they would launch themselves further afield, into Europe, the USA or Canada.’

When I made as if to speak, he raised his hand, indicating that he was no longer interested. He said: ‘Anyway your sister has our permission to come and go. My men have instructions not to bother her.’

‘What about the others?’ I asked.

‘We have a problem with them.’

He wasn’t specific as to what that problem might be, or whether a little greasing of a palm might make it vanish.

‘Given how things are in Kenya, did it ever occur to you,’ I asked, ‘that your country might blow up, and that you might seek refuge in Somalia?’

‘I consider that possibility,’ he admitted. ‘Daily.’

The white of his palm facing me in the gesture of a man surrendering, he took a theatrical pause, and looked around before saying: ‘Now please!’ Meaning, ‘Please go!’

Very few people are aware that at one time Somalia played host to one of the largest refugee influxes on the continent, with the ‘guests’ from Ethiopia accounting for more than a quarter of the nation’s population.

This was a point alluded to by several of those with whom I had spoken, one of them having been the director of a refugee camp for close to eight years, from 1981 to 1989. He quit six months before fleeing the carnage in Mogadiscio, and then became a refugee himself, even though, in Kenya, he cannot be granted the status officially.

‘Such a precarious existence, the African’s!’ he remarked.

There was a truth in what he said, and I asked him to elaborate. He struck me as a man standing amid debris. He wasn’t the type who would easily abandon himself to a feeling of despair.

‘Love, personal dignity, wealth and power are short-lived in Africa,’ he said. ‘More than anybody else, perhaps because I worked with refugees, I appreciated what it meant to live in peace long before our land was visited by its own plague ... An elderly Oromo refugee once spoke of peace and war as small cuts of cheap metal set in silver. I had not understood what he meant until I got here, a refugee.’

‘Do you know where he might be, that elderly Oromo?’

‘He fled at more or less the same time as I did; he may be here for all I know, although I have not seen him. If not, then he fled back to where he came from, to another camp for the displaced, somewhere in Ethiopia, trying to adjust to his new circumstances.’

‘What do you reckon his status is now?’

‘No longer designated a refugee because he is back in his country, he will be at the tail-end of the displaced, prepared to travel round the vicious circle of his ill-luck. He started poor, remained disadvantaged, politically disenfranchised, and then became a refugee, and is currently displaced.’

A silence, as vast as the sadness which he was surrounded with, engulfed us all. I asked: ‘How are you coping?’

‘I sleep less,’ he said, ‘and question myself often, wondering if I was sufficiently humane to the refugees in the camp I ran for years. My mind goes repeatedly over the tiniest details. Although I did better than most, I often conclude, regrettably, that I failed in my duty to the refugees, who were, more often than not, mere numbers in columns.’

‘Your future prospects as a refugee?’ I wondered.

‘It is as though the night has descended early in my life, the darkness total, a darkness with no tone to it at all, none whatsoever.’

There is a certain urgency to the life of a refugee during the first few weeks following flight, as the vastness of what has been lost makes itself known in unprepared-for ways. The terror of survival is all that refugees think of, at first, as they sit in groups whose members are amenable to one another, congregating in the shade of a tree or around the brightness of a lamp-post, the new totem-pole of their togetherness. The refugees celebrate the sadness of their narratives as they reminisce. They engage a million man-hours of refugee-time in introspection and self-analysis, and consequently feel more depressed at the end of the day than they were at dawn. They are suicidal. A great many of them are religiously reflective, pondering on the curse that has paid them and their country a visitation.

Only much later, in the small hours of the night, in the privacy of the sleepless dark, with insomnia as their audience, do many divulge their secret worries to themselves. This way, they take in what they have done as if unwittingly: leaving Kismayo as Somalis, and arriving in Mombasa as ‘refugees’. Only four days’ sea journey separates them physically from Somalia, but the distance is greater when they go over it in their memories. By leaving Kismayo as they did and by coming, stateless, into Kenya, it is as if they have blown up the bridges linking them to their country.

The near-total absence of UNHCR staff from the Mombasa camp, especially the international staff, was a topic to which many kept alluding in their deliberations with me. It was an open secret that these staff flew in from Nairobi, making their trip coincide with their weekending plans. They put up in sumptuous beach hotels, to enjoy the swimming and night-clubbing facilities that were on offer. This, the refugees felt, was not only cruel, but very unprofessional. Myself I met a Ghanaian, the head of the mission, and his Danish deputy. They both wore a don’t-harangue-me expression, discouraging the refugees from approaching them.

There were other complications. Having entered as Somalis in broad daylight and been designated ‘refugees’ without the privileges attached to this definition, the Somalis could only get out of Kenya with difficulty. They were fettered by restrictive laws forbidding them to leave without exit permits. To obtain these, they would have had to visit lots of offices, grease a great number of corrupt palms. Some, I knew, contemplated leaving in the safety of darkness. They plotted their departures to the minutest detail, fearful of the consequences if they were caught. For they would end up in detention.

Their movements circumscribed within the narrow perimeters of their alienness, the refugees remind themselves often how fear, in effect, liberates one from a sense of belonging. By braving the unknown, which is the first in a series of fixed steps, beginning with the idea of home and ending at the threshold of the refugee’s state of mind, the Somalis make a commitment to saving their lives rather than waiting for possible death – an act that requires an affirmation of self-regard, and trust in one’s right to life. To this end they have come to Kenya, as embers of this or that clan turn to ashes and are buried.

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