Starlin Abdi Arush – a tribute Editors’ note
It is too early to judge the impact of her work but a book about the war and women in Somalia would not be complete if it did not mention the late community activist and leader, Starlin Abdi Arush, of Merca, a town south of Mogadishu. Starlin was killed before we were able to invite her to contribute to this book. We include here an obituary by British journalist James Astill who spent some time with her in Merca.
Whether negotiating with warlords, setting up hospitals or chairing her Somalian homeland’s Olympic committee, Starlin Abdi Arush, who has been murdered in Nairobi aged 45, often seemed a lone voice of good humour and good sense. Some diplomats spoke of her as the first president of a new, democratic Somalia, but she eschewed such ideas of power.
She died on her way to observe the latest peace talks between Somalia’s warlords. It seems that Starlin was the victim of a robbery; an ironic end for a woman who lived through the nihilistic battle of Mogadishu in 1991, and for whom confrontations with gunmen were a daily ordeal.
Starlin maintained that tribalism had no place in the workings of a nation state and saw plans to save Somalia founder around the rejection of this principle. In 1993, Starlin tried to negotiate an end to the stand-off between the warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed and the American peace-keepers who saw him as the cause of all evil. The Americans launched a disastrous attack on Aideed, and thus became just another faction in a tribal war.
In 1999 Starlin turned down a high-level job in a new, United Nations-sponsored government. She predicted that the government – elected on tribal quotas – would fail. She told clan elders who demanded their share of jobs in her projects:‘I understand your cousin needs a job. But when you have a heart attack, do you want him to treat you?’
Starlin advocated the creation of local governments, to take over aid projects such as those she ran for COSVI, an Italian charity. The projects’ beneficiaries could be expected to support these administrations; and in this way the state could be rebuilt.
Starlin’s childhood in Merca, a small Indian Ocean port 60 miles south of Mogadishu, prepared her for a role in Somalia’s male – dominated society. Her mother – the estranged first wife of one of Somalia’s first vets, and a patron of a Sufi order – expected as much of her four daughters as [of] her three sons. She taught Starlin a fierce love of Somalia’s unique Islamic culture; and an equally fierce intolerance of its misinterpretation by male chauvinists. As an unmarried woman, Starlin wore neither head-scarf nor veil.
After graduating from a Catholic convent high school, Starlin lived in Italy for 13 years. She dabbled with medical school, then forged a successful career in Turin’s municipal government. Italy’s nepotistic institutions were familiar; but its democratic freedoms impressed her.
In 1991 Somalia erupted into war, and when Starlin’s younger brother and brother-in-law were killed as fighting reached Mogadishu, she returned to support her sister, Halima. Weeks later, the battle of Mogadishu began. Their home was mortared daily and ransacked twice. Throughout the fighting, Starlin and Halima organised food deliveries. This led to her involvement with the UN’s emergency relief effort when famine came. With Starlin an increasingly troublesome critic, Mohamed Aideed cited these international ties as a reason to have the Arush sisters hauled before a tribal court. He accused them of scheming with foreign agents. Standing proudly, Starlin with her head bare, the two women asked:‘If we wanted to kill Aideed, why would we need foreign help? Why would we not take a knife and do it ourselves?’ The elders were won over instantly.
Shortly after, Starlin returned to Merca to negotiate the release of some Italian aid workers taken hostage by a fundamentalist militia. Here she endured a slight which was to lead her to transform the town’s dire fortunes. Having assured the militia that she would not help the hostages to escape, one militiaman pointed his gun at her and
asked:‘But why should we believe you?’ Starlin was stunned. Only an outsider – and a thug at that – could have dared insult her in the town where her family had lived for generations. Instantly, she vowed to try putting Merca to right. It was no easy task. Its hospital had 300 employees, many of them idle militiamen, and few medical supplies. She dealt calmly with confrontation. When a thug pressed his gun to her throat, she responded:‘I am Starlin Abdi Arush of the Habir Eji clan. Put down your gun or you will be dead by tomorrow.’ Starlin accepted such incidents as inevitable. Far more damaging was when her European donors listened to rumours, put about by rivals, that she was a warlady carving out a fiefdom.
Strolling around Merca with Starlin was humbling, if timeconsuming – everybody flocked to pay their respects. And Starlin, gravely nodding, gently teasing or cheerfully chatting, always repaid the compliment. Then came her aid projects: the hospital, clinics for mothers and babies, schools for 3,000 children, the demobilisation camp for militiamen. For foreign correspondents, these were practically the only contemporary good-news stories in Somalia.
Starlin had hoped to hand over her aid projects and help set up a local administration in Merca. There seems little doubt that the people would have supported her. More than 1,000 of them lined the streets to receive her body home.
She is survived by her family and her fiance, Roland Marchal, a French academic, who said:‘She never much considered her own future. She only thought of her country.’
Starlin Abdi Arush, peace activist and aid worker, born 3 March 1957; died 24 October 2002.28  
5. With thanks to Amina M. Warsame.
6. The same saying is used by women to describe men; it is said to have been coined by women.
7. Mohamed Sheik Abdillahi (1997) Somaliland NGOs: Challenges and Opportunities (London: CIIR).
8. Sceptics argue that women were allowed to participate in the Conference so as to build international donor confidence; Ibrahim Nur (2002) ‘Somalia case study’, in ‘Gender Sensitive Programme Design and Planning in Conflict-affected Situations’, ACORD, unpublished.
9. This section on Puntland is compiled from Faiza Warsame’s ‘The Role of Women in Rebuilding Puntland’ in War Torn Societies Project (2001) Rebuilding Somalia: Issues and Possibilities for Puntland (London: Haan Associates). It is extracted with permission of the author and WSP.
10. Adam J. Bixi, ‘Building From the Bottom Up: Basic institutions of Local Governance’, in WSP 2001.
11. CIIR/ICD (2003) Multiparty Local Government Elections in Somaliland, December 2002 (London: CIIR) www. ciir. org.
12. As international aid agency relief and rehabilitation programmes got under way in Somaliland in the early 1990s the formation of local nongovernmental, particularly women’s, organisations was encouraged. The international community wanted local organisations that could be contracted to deliver emergency relief aid and reconstruction and, more broadly, to empower women.
13. From an interview in Maria Brons and Amina M. Warsame, 2003 ‘Empowerment after Return: Negaad Women in Somaliland’ (unpublished).
14. The term used in the south of Somalia to describe such gang members is mooryaan – thought to mean a group ‘of hunger-driven men, with no honour and no dignity, who would eat or do anything’ (Nuruddin Farah 2000), and known as jiri in Puntland.
15. In traditional Somali politics there is no centralised state, nor are there political offices or ranked leaders. Decision-making is conducted democratically (although formally excluding women) by segmentary groups of kinsmen meeting in general assemblies, where all adult male family heads or elders seek to reach decisions through consensus.
16. Amina M. Warsame (1997) ‘The Impact of the Civil War on Pastoralists, Especially Women and Children’, unpublished thesis (The Hague: Novib/Institute of Social Studies).
17. The other committee members were: the late Faiza H. Abdillahi – Vice Chairperson, Anab Omer Leye, Maryan Abdi Obsiye, Ahmed Aw Gedi, Hasan Jama, Muhamed Elmi.
18. More than 10 people put themselves forward as candidates for the presidency, including one woman. Out of those who nominations were accepted, Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal, the president since June 1993, achieved the greatest number of votes and was reinstated for a second term.
19. Including the Akishe and the Gabooye (composed of the Midgan, Tumal and Yibir).
20. During the civil war Somalia’s legal, judicial and law enforcement system collapsed. Since then no uniform constitutional and legal rules have been applied across the country. The Somaliland government has adopted Islamic shari’a as the basis of all laws in combination with the pre-1969 penal code, in place prior to Siad Barre’s regime. For many people the pillars of laws are a combination of Islamic shari’a and xeer, or customary law, governing clan behaviour. UNDP (2001) Somalia Human Development Report 2001 (Nairobi: UNDP).
21. President Mohamed Ibrahim Egal died in May 2002 while undergoing surgery in South Africa. The Government of Somaliland immediately appointed the Vice-President, Daahir Rayaale Kaahin, to take over as transitional president until the multi-party presidential elections in 2003.
22. Member of WPF quoted in CIIR 2003.
23. Though some, like Sara Haid, a young Somali woman born in Britain and founder of the British-based Somali organisation Tawakal, find ways of contributing to life ‘back home’ through Somali organisations in the diaspora.
24. Noreen was one of Somalia’s few Christians.
25. The concern Noreen refers to here is that without original documentation to prove a person’s medical qualifications it was quite possible for false claims to be made and impossible to disprove; the likelihood of this happening was high given the very weak administrative systems in place and the strong clan tensions prevailing at the time.
26. Drawing up a Code of Ethics for Medical Practice was only one of the numerous legislative tasks which faced the newly formed Somaliland government.
27. Noreen is referring here to those people who had been sacked on the grounds that they had been found to be unqualified to practice as medical personnel.
28. Guardian, London, 4 November 2002.