The idea for this book came about during a conversation I had in 1993 with a Somali refugee who had formed a London-based Somali organisation. On the day in question this normally calm man was clearly preoccupied. It emerged that he had recently learnt that his wife, who had stayed in Somalia when he fled the country, had been captured by militia, imprisoned in a villa with many other women and girls, and repeatedly raped and sexually violated for months during some of the worst violence in Mogadishu in 1992.
Recently reunited with his wife after two years he had found her greatly changed. She had been unable to tell him about her ordeal but had eventually confided in a female friend.
This woman’s experience pointed to a side of the Somali conflict that the outside world, and many Somalis themselves, were largely unaware of – the extent to which gender-based violence, most notably rape, had been used to prosecute the war.
It was this story that led CIIR to begin research for a book with the aim of ensuring that women’s experiences of gender-based violence in the war would not be forgotten. Early on in the research for the book, however, it became obvious that there was much more to tell about the impact of the war on women’s lives. It was also clear that one of the most powerful ways to document such history was for Somali women themselves to tell it. The result is this book, which seeks to contribute to understanding about the war’s impact on women as seen through the eyes of women themselves. Here women write and talk about the war, their experiences, and the difficult choices, changes and even opportunities the war has brought. In the process they describe the position of women in Somali society, both before and since the war.
The contributors come from different parts of Somalia, including the towns of Brava, Mogadishu and Baidoa in the South, the region of Puntland in the north east, and Somaliland in the north west. Also represented is the Somali-speaking region of Kenya’s north east, and Somali women refugees from the vast Somali diaspora in Yemen, Canada and Britain. That the book contains more contributions from women of northern Somalia and pastoral cultures than from the south and non-pastoral ones is the result of difficulties in collecting
contributions rather than of intentional bias. Together the individuals represented here give an insight into most sides of Somalia’s clan divisions. They met as a group for the first time at a workshop in the UK in 1997 to share their views and develop the book’s themes.
Some of the contributors are academics and researchers, some are health professionals, social and community workers, teachers, artists. As educated, professional women they represent a tiny minority among women in Somalia where female literacy is around 12 per cent. But what they speak of is relevant to the majority of Somali women. The war has rocked, and in places cracked, the foundations of society – the family – and in Somalia women, whatever their relative wealth or poverty, gain their social value from their role as wives, mothers and sisters.
All of the contributors have been forcibly displaced by the war; many have become refugees or asylum seekers; some still are unable to return home and remain refugees. Others have built new lives for themselves in parts of the country where they may have had no previous experience but where, because of their clan identity, they are relatively safe. Almost all have endured agonies of separation and loss. For most, their nuclear family – mother, father and children – has been riven by the conflict between clans, forcing them to make heart-breaking decisions in order to save themselves and their children. For many this has meant separation from partners and children as each sought refuge in their own clan territories or outside the country.
The contributors have in common their experience as war – affected women. But most also share a resolve to overcome their adversity and help others by whatever means they can. ‘I lost everything and witnessed killings and saw dead people lying in the street’, says one. ‘I became traumatised and suffered from stress and deep depression yet somehow I developed an inner strength and have not given up hope.’
Some of the stories in this book are painful to read and some material will upset many Somalis who may believe it shames their culture. Many contributors struggled with the rights and wrongs of talking about certain events but concluded that it is more important to tell the truth than protect cultural sensitivities. The accounts in this book are part of a wider collective memory of the war. It is a memory still being built more than 10 years on: as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s 2001 Human Development Report for Somalia notes, sexual violence remains a critical issue in many parts of Somalia. On the positive side, there are Somali human rights organisations in Somalia today where none existed before the war and some are trying to tackle the issue of sexual violence. The Dr Ismail Juma’ale Human Rights Centre in Mogadishu, for example, monitors and records incidents of sexual violence. Hopefully the work of such organisations will help prevent a recurrence of the kind of atrocities that happened in the early years of the war.
Our biggest thanks go to the women whose words are published here, for allowing their experiences and topics of study to be shared through this book and for their patience while the text was being finalised. We were in contact with many more women than are represented in this final version, and we would like to thank all those who showed an interest in the book and who helped along the way. These include Zamzam Abdi, Faiza Jama, Sara Haid, Faisa Loyaan, Sacda Abdi, Amina Adan, Qamar Ibrahim, Safia Giama, Faduma Mohamed Omer ‘Halane’ plus Anab Ali Jama and the other women of Sheffield Somali Women’s Association and Welfare Group.
Thanks too to all those who shared their expertise and helped to shape the final manuscript: Amina M. Warsame, Dr Adan Abokor, Faiza Warsame, Mark Bradbury, Adam Bradbury, Judith Large, Pippa Hoyland, Ruth Jacobson and Dr David Keen; and to Joy Lawley for her invaluable commitment to the project over six years.
Among those whose voices are missing is Zeynab Aideed, whose oral account of her experience as an internally displaced person was one of the inspirations behind the book.
This book was made possible through the generous funding support of the Department for International Development, Comic Relief, NOVIB, Christian Aid, CAFOD, UNICEF Hargeisa, and ActionAid Somaliland.