My work in Mogadishu in 1989-90 involved me working with a local charitable organisation, Aadamiga (‘humanity’), which was helping displaced women from Somaliland [the north west region] and the central areas.9 The government’s attitude towards Aadamiga was hostile. Siad Barre did not want any non-governmental humanitarian initiatives in Somalia.10 Aadamiga’s director, my cousin, had been threatened in 1989 and had left the country for a long time without warning. I had stepped in to help in her place. Because of the work I was doing with Aadamiga, helping disad­vantaged people, and because of my relations with international people I became a target and four attempts were made on my life.

My work involved me in getting to know many international people. My neighbours saw me coming and going with foreigners and threatened me, telling me to stop my activities. I told them there was nothing wrong with what I was doing – that I only socialised or discussed humanitarian and development issues, not politics with white people.

One day in late 1990 one of my neighbours asked me if I had heard the warning that I was targeted and would be shot? I felt angry because she and other neighbours clearly didn’t want me to stay in the neighbour­hood.‘This is my gof [land]’, I told her: In other words I intended to stay put. Later that day I saw a neighbour’s boys behaving suspiciously and overheard them say:‘Is she still here?’ Some time after, a vehicle went past and someone shot at my house.

It was some days after the shots were fired at my house that a friend of mine, a Marehan girl, told me to be very careful because she had heard the Marehan military say they would ‘clean’ the town in the next three days.11 By ‘clean’ she meant that they would kill or force everyone they opposed to leave. She encouraged me to ask protection from the Italian Embassy. Being Hawiye, my family was from one of those groups opposing the regime so on hearing her warning I contacted members of my family to warn them to store food and water enough for three days and I asked my brother to come and stay with me. This was when the war was starting [December 1990]. During this time whenever I went out I wondered if I would come back.

On 31 December; despite the insecurity in the city [war had broken out the day before] I decided to go to buy charcoal for the family as we desperately needed fuel to cook with. As I was going to the market I noticed some men following me and some people were looking at me and at each otherWhen I reached the man who was selling charcoal I asked him how much it was. He told me and I thought it was expensive and he was taking advantage of the war Just as I bent down to say ‘This is expensive’ I was hit in the head by a bullet.

My skull was broken, fractured. They had aimed at my face but luckily I bent and escaped with just the top of my head hit – you can see the hole!

I don’t remember everything that happened next; I just thought my head was divided into two, and remember blood all over my body. But someone put ground charcoal on the wound to stop infection and bleeding. Four women carried me to my home and I was eventually taken to hospital. After two to three hours my brother comes looking for me and took me to my German friends to treat me and for an X-ray to check if the bullet was still inside. Luckily it wasn’t.

I was helped to get back to my family’s house just at the time when Siad Barre was ousted from Mogadishu on 26 January 1991.The situation in Mogadishu was terrible. At first I had felt happy for the war as it meant something would change, but then I became disappointed as the fighting continued after Siad Barre had gone, and many people were suffering far more.

I was starting to recover meanwhile. Around me I saw the terrible situation developing in Mogadishu. I saw in the street a child suck from its mother though she’d died the night before. I saw destitute women and I thought what’s the difference between her and me? God will see us as the same. That’s when I decided ‘I can only die once and I’ve missed that day God has saved me so I must be brave and help the people.’

Some food aid was being provided by the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) but I saw that the dry food rations donated to help the hungry were instead mostly being looted and some sold in the market – the poor people were not getting it. It seemed to me that the answer was to cook the food for those who needed it as it would be less attractive to looters. I discussed the situation with the director of the ICRC and suggested the wet feeding programme could use just some of the dry rations, leaving the rest for other means of distribution. Even some of my own people [people from the same clan family] said they would kill me because they saw my idea as a threat to their income – as they had been exploiting the food aid system.12

I started with one ‘kitchen’supported by the ICRC as a pilot initiative. When it started, there was an old man who had come for food but lay on the floor because he was too weak to stand. After a month getting cooked meals he was standing again. Nobody wanted to help in the beginning. It was hard to find people to cook the meals but we expanded to seven kitchens and then 50. Later on everyone wanted to run a kitchen as it become a source of food to eat [volunteers received food in return for work]. Both public and private sectors had collapsed. By the end of 1991 there were 100 kitchens in Mogadishu and about 600 altogether as the programme expanded to Merca and then Baidoa – it wasn’t possible to go beyond Baidoa because of fighting in the Lower Juba area.

Most people who came to the kitchens were displaced or receiving food for work.13 People were desperate. Some people I saw had walked for 30 days from Kismayo to try to find food and safety. They had survived by eating wetted animal skins and green grass, like the animals, until they reached the kitchen camps in Mogadishu.

The camps of displaced people were mainly in public buildings such as schools, often in existing residential areas. We put kitchens in the same location as the displaced. Some people, who were residents rather than displaced, complained that the kitchens were creating epidemic diseases. They felt that the kitchens should be moved to encourage the displaced people to stay outside the residential area. I told them it wasn’t the kitchens causing disease but the fighters who were causing the people to be displaced.

Dahabo's story

5 Women prepare food in one of the International Committee of the Red Cross’ soup kitchens in Baidoa, which was the epicentre of the war-created famine of 1992 in which several hundred thousand people died. The testimony in this book by Dahabo Isse describes the soup-kitchen programme that was set up in response, and which reportedly kept 1.7 million people alive each day. (Heldur Netocny/Panos Pictures)

There were many threats and complaints, and much jealousy and suspicion about the kitchens, particularly coming from other women. Of the first 50 kitchens established, I was accused of giving 47 to my own ‘tribe’ – meaning the people working in them were from my clan. I said:‘I care about who will eat the food, not who will cook it.’ I was accused of hiring illiterates to work in the kitchens but I explained: ‘This is an emergency – we need people to cook, we don’t need qualifications.’ One shipload of rations was looted. A ‘minister’ of one warlord came to me and said that if I expanded the programme to Afgoi [about 30 km outside Mogadishu],‘you dig your own grave and the Red Cross won’t come and get you out of it.’ [This threat meant the militia controlling Afgoi did not want their power over the population diminished by the arrival of the soup kitchen programme.]

One day in February 1993 American troops came to my house in Mogadishu. They came in the afternoon when I was resting. They had their helicopters circling over my house. They kicked every door down and broke them. I had cars parked at my compound by workers for the kitchen programme. The UN had agreed that each relief worker with a vehicle should have four guns for protection and had given us ID cards. I don’t know who told the soldiers. Maybe someone told them I was a stronghold for Aideed.

My brother was there at the time. There was a big gun at my house, known as a ‘Zu’ [an anti-aircraft gun]. It wasn’t working but it was on show to protect us from thieves – it belonged to a neighbour’s boy whose belongings had all been looted. The American soldiers confiscated the four guns and the broken anti-aircraft gun. My brother told me to explain about the guns but the soldiers didn’t want to listen. I showed them that the guns were for the relief car and I showed my identity card and told them I was a relief worker – which was why I needed the guns. They didn’t listen to me. They confiscated the guns. They took my identity card, which proved I was a relief worker, and said:‘You don’t deserve to have this!’

While I was speaking the Somali interpreter kept winking at them as if to say ‘Don’t believe her’. I asked him to help me make them understand my situation but he replied:‘You talk in English and they can understand you if they want to.’This was typical of the time – the different groups [clans and sub-clans] were revenge-killing the intellectuals and important people in each other’s groups. The US troops were used by some of their informants as a means of ‘getting’ those people their clan group was against.

I was important in Mogadishu at the time so I was a target for my sub­clan’s enemies, and for jealous people in my own sub-clan. I believe these enemies led the American soldiers to me to do their work for them.

Even though you don’t want to believe in tribal or clan things, you have to. It is like a passport. I am from the general tribe [clan] of Hawiye and from Aideed’s sub-tribe [sub-clan].Those who hate Hawiye will hate me because the Hawiye ousted Siad Barre’s people, and those who see Aideed as an enemy also see me as an enemy because I belong to the same tribe as him. Aideed was being hunted by the Americans, so I was considered their enemy too.

Some Somali people working for the UN were jealous of my work and were planning to use any means to stop me. To the UN they said I was supporting the USC [Aideed’s party], and to the warlords they said I was ‘breaking the backbone’ of the USC [weakening it] by using illiterate women for the kitchen programme and young militia for food escorts. I was taking warriors away from fighting for the USC.

One day a woman who was close to the warlords came to me and told me that it was agreed that one person from each of the sub-clans from my main tribe would organise to kill me14 because:‘You undermine the motives USC fight for and also you breached the religion.’This last part I didn’t understand but I think she meant because of my close relation with foreigners. The rest meant that in giving work to women and young militia I was offering them an alternative to supporting Aideed. A senior relief worker also warned me that Aideed was angry with me and wanted to stop me working with the ICRC.

I was cowed because of my tribe and sub-clan and because of people’s belief that my relief work made me a‘backbone breaker’ of the USC. I felt powerless to deal with what had happened. And the American soldiers had taken away my only source of protection – the guns my brothers used to protect me and my work vehicle. My brothers had never taken part in the civil warThey went everywhere with me as my bodyguards. Without the guns who would protect me? Life really was insecure for me now.

The invasion of my house by the American forces was a big shock for me. I was one of the people who had publicly asked for international military intervention for Somalia through the BBC World Service in 1991 to save lives. Now I was being seen as the enemy

By March 1993 the number of kitchens operating in Mogadishu was 600 [less than the November 1992 total of 980].They had been keeping many hundreds of thousands of people alive throughout the most awful period of Somalia’s warThe situation of the displaced had improved.

When I left Somalia at the end of March I hadn’t intended to leave for good – just to participate in the peace conference in Addis and then get a visa to the UK for a training course. I reached the UK in April 1993. In June 1993 there was the clash between Aideed and the American-

UNOSOM which left 24 Pakistani peace-keepers dead [the event that placed the UN at war with Aideed]. I learnt that two of the kitchen managers were killed when their vehicle was targeted by US helicopter gunfire. I was advised that it would not be safe for me to return to Mogadishu. In my heart I wanted to be there – I didn’t want to be a refugee. But I was scared to go back. I was scared of what had happened to me that day in my house when the American soldiers came, and of being defenceless. I decided I should stay in the UK.