Friday, September 21, 2012
By Michelle Shephard
Ahmed Abdisalam Adan and his wife Falastine Iman have both worked as journalists in Somalia and narrowly escaped death in separate terrorist attacks - ANDREW FRANCIS WALLACE/TORONTO STAR
Ahmed Abdisalam Adan is a survivor and despite nearly dying in a suicide bombing that killed two of his friends, the Somalia-born Canadian considers himself one of the lucky ones.
“I’m alive,” he says in his first interview since the May 1 attack in central Somalia, his red and watery eyes the only visible reminder of the injuries he suffered when shrapnel tore through his body. “I’m not surprised it happened. I wasn’t expecting it but I wasn’t surprised.
“At some point,” he says. “You don’t look for the logic, you just thank God you’re alive.”
This has been the reality for years for those on the front lines in Somalia — a country that may finally be on the road to recovery with last week’s election of a new president after two decades of chaos, corruption, conflict and internationally-appointed governments that failed to bring peace.
Adan, a former journalist who co-founded the media company HornAfrik, was a member of Somalia’s transitional parliament when he was targeted in the bombing. His delegation was visiting the region of Dhusamareb when a suicide bomber rushed toward them, killing seven, including two MPs.
Al Shabab, the Al Qaeda-affiliated group that claimed responsibility, is at its weakest since its rise to power in 2007. But what the organization lacks in support or territory hasn’t stopped its targeted assassinations of political leaders and journalists, or the deaths of civilians killed in large-scale bombings.
“It’s difficult to guard yourself against someone who wants to die,” says Adan. “This is the phenomenon of this war.
“And at the end of the day this is the tragedy of this — young boys are killing themselves without knowing why, without understanding, without planning it themselves.”
With burning metal embedded in his stomach and head, Adan was airlifted to neighbouring Ethiopia for emergency surgery, then transported to Washington and finally to Toronto, where he is undergoing treatment at Sunnybrook Hospital for lingering ear and eye injuries.
For Adan, there is no time spent pondering “why me” and “what if” scenarios.
He is pragmatic and positive about Somalia’s future. The only dark moments come when he thinks about the past and is overwhelmed by the loss of friends and colleagues.
“They have killed so many good people. I know so many people who were trying to do something positive for the country,” he says. “That is more painful than what I went through.”
Beside Adan at the Somali restaurant in north Toronto where we talked this week is his wife Falastine Iman, a witness to one of the most agonizing memories he has.
It was August 2007 and Adan was back briefly in Ottawa while Iman, also a journalist, was in Mogadishu. She called him Aug. 11 to tell him the tragic news — Mahad Ahmed Elmi, a popular host of HornAfrik, had been shot to death on his way to work.
“I had convinced Elmi to come from South Africa to take over the show,” says Adan. The death still weighs on his conscience, as do the murders of other journalists he inspired, who then died reporting.
Elmi’s funeral was held on the same day he was killed. Iman talked by phone with her husband from the grave before leaving the site in the back seat of a Land Cruiser carrying two other journalists — Adan’s friend and HornAfrik co-founder, Ali Sharmarke, and Reuters’ photojournalist, Sahal Abdulle.
Barely 10 minutes later, Adan’s phone in Ottawa rang again.
“She said, ‘Ali is dead,’” Adan recalled.
The conflict was not as clear cut then as it would later become. Al Shabab was in its infancy and a popular movement fighting against Ethiopian troops who had rolled across Somalia’s borders in December 2006. The transitional federal government of the day had blood on their hands too and Ethiopian troops stood accused of human rights violations.
Everyone hated HornAfrik’s unbiased reporting and it was never clear who had planted the improvised explosive device that detonated under Sharmarke’s seat in the Land Cruiser.
The night Sharmarke was killed, Adan recalled the last words of his friend in an interview with the Star: “I’m just worried about the young reporters,” Sharmarke told Adan. “The risk is getting so great.”
Adan knew when he later chose to become a politician that he would continue to face those risks.
In May, it was Iman’s time to cling to the phone and feel helpless half a world away.
She is now based in Washington as a reporter for Voice of America and looking after the couple’s two young children. She heard about the suicide bombing from an editor.
“As soon as he said there was an explosion, I knew it was Ahmed,” she said.
“Ahmed is always optimistic but I’m the opposite. I’m so superstitious if my hand starts to shake I call him.”
She was supposed to call the local VOA reporter to find out what happened but instead she called Adan’s number. And called, and called, and called, refusing to believe he was gone.
Eventually someone in the region got the names of the victims and told Iman her husband was injured but alive. Soon after, she was on a flight to Addis Ababa to be by her husband’s side.
Adan says despite all he has watched his homeland go through, he has high hopes for the new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who survived an assassination attempt just two days after being named president. Adan knows him personally. In 2002, he was the executive director of the Centre for Research and Dialogue when Mohamud worked as a field researcher for post-conflict reconstruction.
Mohamud was not expected to win the election and not well-known and, for Adan, that’s a reason to celebrate.
“It wasn’t even 24 hours later and there was a party here,” he says, sweeping his hand around the Istar Restaurant where banners congratulating the president still hang.
“That wouldn’t have happened 20 years ago, or 15, or even 10 years ago,” he said. “We’re not looking at clan, or his background or connections, people here were celebrating hope.”
Somehow Mohamud had risen above Somalia’s notorious corruption — getting the vote of the majority of parliamentarians without buying votes, using intimidation, or relying solely on clan politics, which has filled the void in the past two decades without a functioning government.
“The concern is that he will be overwhelmed by the problems. I look to the international community and say will they wait, or will they take the risk and work with the Somali people,” says Adan.
‘This means doing something on the ground ... The Shabab has been beaten militarily but now you need the political track,” he says, sounding more comfortable talking about politics again than his own ordeal.
“It’s much more expensive and long term — development, rehabilitation, institution building, training, paying salaries, this is where the help is needed.”