Editors’ note

As Sadia Musse Ahmed has highlighted, marriage ties across clan lineages have an important role in ensuring safe passage. During the civil war such family ties were a source of protection for many; they enabled family members to move through otherwise hostile territories equipped with a ‘name’ or contact relative who could act as their guide or protector (magan-gelyo). Many people were saved by relatives or friends temporarily ‘adopting’ them under their clan name.

Amina Sayid is a medical doctor from the coastal town of Brava, about 250 km south of Mogadishu. The Brava community descended from Arab settlers, has a language of its own and is not part of the ethnic Somali clan system.4 However through her mother and her husband, Amina’s extended family is linked with two of the Somali clan lineages. During the early part of the war these two clans (Hawiye and Darod) were at war, placing her husband and children in grave danger.

At the outbreak of war in Mogadishu many people fleeing the fighting sought refuge in Brava. The displaced included Bravanese themselves and Somalis from other parts of the country Amina describes here how all who came to find safety were welcomed, whatever their clan. Among those displaced to Brava were large numbers of people from the Darod clan family, particularly the Marehan who had to flee Mogadishu because being closely associated with the injustices of Siad Barre’s regime, they were a target for revenge attacks. As Amina records, whilst the Marehan were specifically victimised, anyone, particularly men, associated with the Darod clan family were vulnerable to attack.

Ironically given the revenge-driven nature of much of the conflict in the early stages, and the deep shock of its people, it was the politically insignif­icant and unarmed Bravanese community that was decimated. Being outside the ethnic Somali clan system, the Bravanese community was an easy target for the rampaging militias of all sides who swept through the town in search of plunder and enemies during the first years of the war. The Bravanese were looted and even killed, with impunity

Amina witnessed what happened in Brava in 1991; her testimony includes a first-hand record of the terror endured by her own family, neighbours and other residents of the coastal town, and those displaced from Mogadishu sheltering with them. Brava is on record as having suffered the worst violence of any community.5 Affected by several waves of fighting in 1991 and 1992, Brava was terrorised and captured at different times by different clan-based militias. As a consequence of the looting, clan persecution and rape, those who could fled to the refugee camps of Kenya, (see Chapter 3) Yemen or in some cases Europe and America. A UN report notes that in August 1996 Brava ‘looked deserted: there were very few young male adults walking in the streets’. (UNDOS 1997)

Amina’s story

On 30 December 1990 civil war broke out in Mogadishu. I was attending a graduation ceremony at the Mogadishu Medical School when the first shelling started in the north east of the city I had to rush, take a taxi and pick up my two daughters from school. On the road people were running to get public transport. At the school, parents, with fear in their faces, were asking each other what was happening. On the advice of the taxi driver; to reach our house we took a coastal road, which was safer, and we arrived home without difficulty Fortunately we were living in the south western outskirts of Mogadishu, known as Kilometre 7, the opposite side to where the fighting was going on.

However, I was worried about my husband and my brother who were working in the city centre, and about my parents who lived in the inner city It turned out that my husband and brother were safe and made it home by taking twisting and turning paths.

Meanwhile the fighting intensified and spread to the city centre. By sunset the fighting between Siad Barre’s soldiers and the opposition militiamen [the USC] had stopped but the city was plunged into darkness, and people fell easy prey to looters and armed bandits.

At dawn the following day the fighting started again and the telephone lines were cut off. People began to flee the war zone. Waves of people were coming along the road near our home. This road, linking Mogadishu to Afgoi (a town 30 km inland), was one of the only ways to safety to the south. It was a parade of people in despair. Mostly they were on foot, carrying or dragging their belongings, with elderly people limping along.

Every means of transport was used. Wheelbarrows carrying elderly people and children, rented or private carts, old lorries, tractors and private cars. This terrible scene went on all day As we were nearby we took many people in, among them friends, relatives and acquaintances, who used our home as a stopping place.

The situation was worsening and everyone had guns in their hands. Looting was widespread, even in daytime. We decided as a family to escape to Brava, my home town 200 km south of Mogadishu. My husband drove us, our two daughters of seven and nine years old, up to Afgoi. We joined waves of people fleeing the fighting. Driving was not safe, as cars were highly sought-after by looters. So we had to drive very early in the morning. Afgoi had become a refuge for thousands of people. It was itself overcrowded and insecure.

Buses to Brava were not available and it took us four or five hours to find a place on a lorry – and then we had to pay four times the normal amount. My husband went back to Mogadishu to look after our house for a while.

Along the road to Brava exhausted people were travelling on foot for several days to reach places like Merca or Qoryoleyjust 90-100 km from Mogadishu. Our journey took 14 hours instead of the usual six or seven. On our lorry I had no time to think as I was struggling to protect my daughters from being hurt, for we were packed in. The lorry driver took advantage of our desperate situation and crammed us into the back, creating tensions and disputes among the travellers. At stopping places those travelling in groups were luckier because they could send one or two of their group to get water and food supplies while the others kept their places on the lorry. These stops gave us an opportunity to exchange information. Many of the people on our lorry were missing members of their families, left behind in Mogadishu because they were out of the house when the danger forced the others to leave home. Some had witnessed killings caused by either shelling or opposition gunmen. It was very sad to know how these people [felt] to lose everything they cherished and be forced to flee without any plans for their future. They were all worried, hopeless and emotionally affected, probably with long-term consequences for their health caused by emotional stress.

Historically Brava is one of the most ancient coastal cities of Somalia. In 1991 its population was estimated to be 5,000-6,000 people. Thought to be originally Somali Arab settlers, the indigenous Barawans have their own language, Jimini, which is related to Swahili. Unlike most ofthe rest of Somalia’s population, they do not use a clan system to identify themselves – during the war, for Barawans this characteristic could save you or be your death – and they traditionally practice cross-cousin marriage.6 Culturally conservative, similar to other Arab cultures but different from the predominant Somali culture, most of Barawan society has typically not allowed girls access to further education. Women take the hijab head covering and after puberty girls are expected to stay in the home.

The town’s traditional trade links with Mombasa and Zanzibar had stopped during the 21 years of the Dictator’s [Siad Barre’s] rule. The main livelihoods in the town were fishing, trade and small businesses and handicraft [Brava was famous for its leatherwork and cloth weaving tra­ditionally done by men]. Brava is also well known for its peaceful tradition and strong religious values.

When we arrived in Brava our house was already full of relatives who had been displaced but I managed to get a room for myself and my children, and my husband who joined us after a weekThe city was full of displaced people coming from Mogadishu. Community elders helped them to take shelter in public buildings; others were accommodated by friends and relatives, while many others made their own temporary shelters. The city was quiet and peaceful and the displaced had nothing to fear or protect themselves from. The only problem was the food shortage and inflation. Many displaced people were optimistic and believed that they could go back home once the fighting in Mogadishu was over: Displaced women became householders and started establishing small businesses in and around Brava. Some even risked going into the war zones to bring back goods to towns like Brava.

However; in January 1991 Barawans were unaware of the tragic events that were in store and were to haunt our memories forever.

At midday on 9 February 1991 when the market was full of people, suddenly, without any warning, the town was invaded by a huge number of heavily armed gunmen with ‘technicals’ [four-wheel-drive vehicles customised and mounted with heavy machine gun]. I realised that they were USC men7 and that they were after male members of the Darod. They started shelling the town, killing several people and injuring many others. They were everywhere. I ran to the house. Seeing them coming down from the mountains behind Brava my youngest brother said:‘They are like birds coming down!’We closed our door so we could only hear the shelling. After a while when it stopped a little we opened the door to see gunmen coming and going everywhere [looking for Darod people]. We heard shouting and screaming from our neighbours. My mother, whose clan isn’t from Brava though she was born in Brava, said we must do something; so she and I went outside and cried:‘Please leave us! These people are innocent.’ But they said our neighbours were Marehan and why were we interfering? They said that if we did not go back inside they would shoot us. We went back into the house. Fortunately they didn’t come to our house.

Throughout the night we heard the screams and crying of people. We were told by some of our neighbours that they were attacking the women.

I couldn’t eat for two days. I was so worried about my husband because he was Darod. My mother said we must leave by whatever means because someone might point out to the gunmen that my husband is from Darod.

I learned that nine Darod were killed that first day. This was my worst two days ever: I couldn’t believe what was happening.

After the shelling, the next step was indiscriminate looting, raping, torturing and destroying. Initially they looted cars and bigthings. We saw them take the earrings from an elderly woman neighbour.8 We thought they were just after Darod but it was an excuse forthe violence. We don’t know why to this day On that first night a lot of women were raped. In the morning there was a demonstration by men, taking the holy Koran and put it on their head saying:‘We are helpless. We are helpless. God help us!’ Later on elders from Brava approached the warlords about what had been done to the people but the warlords just said: ‘We can’t help you. You should have been armed. You should arm yourselves and defend yourselves.’

We don’t know how many women were raped but we know it was a large number and it included the Darod women who were displaced in Brava. The raped women were desperate because we don’t rape in our culture. Brawani women were very conservative and this was the end of the world for them. They were shocked and traumatised. Some denied what had happened to them. You would hear about a mother and a daughter who had been raped. Brothers and husbands were desperate but couldn’t do anything to help them though they tried to protect them. Maybe in one or two cases raped women were divorced by their husbands but mostly the husbands stayed and tried to help them.

The town was living in a nightmare. In all its history nothing like this had ever happened before. What was most shocking for the people of Brava was the humiliation and the violations. We were not armed. We Brawanis keeping saying:‘Why? We’re not involved in politics, we’re not involved in anything. Why did these things happen to us? We are defenceless.’ Brawanis had never expected the war to affect them.

After that first night people started to leave by whatever means, many trying to get to Mombasa on small fishing boats. There were few boats available so they were overcrowded. People had been robbed so they had little to take with them. There was no time for preparation or planning, unlike in Mogadishu. Some people I met later told me they had drunk sea water Some left elderly family members behind to save their girls from being raped.

Fortunately after three or four days we found a family friend’s bus. He came to Brava to transport people and so for my husband’s safety we went back to Mogadishu [so that he could escape further north; Mogadishu itself was now a dangerous place for Darod].We couldn’t go to Kismayo because that was also full of armed people. The bus was very overcrowded. So many wanted to leave Brava that only the strongest managed to get on. The fare was 50,000 Somali shillings [compared to 6,000 before the war]. Many people couldn’t pay so they started walking along the coast. On the road there were many checkpoints looking for men mainly from Darod. At one checkpoint a young member of an armed gang (mooryaan) came on to the bus pointing out some of the men ordering them to get off in order to check their clan. So it is lucky for those [like my family] who have someone to protect them, and it was an advantage to have been born into a different clan [from the group being targeted as this enabled us to help people get through unharmed]. I was frozen. Terrified. We were lucky to have my uncle with us. Along the road we had seen a lot of men’s bodies lying dead. Killed just because of their clan. Thinking about the people who were helpless and didn’t have any other clans to protect them is awful.

I left Brava a town eviscerated by human predators and abandoned to its hopeless fate as a city conquered by cruel enemies. Mogadishu was itself in a state of total anarchy Everyone was armed, regardless of age, and clashes between armed bandits for control of a given area were frequent. We moved back to the same area as before. Our house was OK; it had been looked after by some neighbours. But everything was difficult, finding food especially because we were living far from the market and the way was dangerous. A big group of women would go to the market together and a man would go with us and bring us back.

Even then we believed that everything would soon be sorted out and the war would end. All this time our daughters were terrified. They studied our faces and felt our fearThey couldn’t go to school because it wasn’t running so they stayed at home, although when they could they went to Koranic school in the mornings. I worked as a volunteer in the Banadir Mother and Child Hospital for a while but my main objective was to find a way of escaping the warThe hospital had been looted. Although many people were still using it, there were no drugs, surgical equipment, materials. I came back to work at the hospital because it was better than sitting at home. We had lost our jobs, we had no salary. The Red Cross supplied weekly food rations at the hospital, which helped. It wasn’t safe to work there. From my house at Kilometre 7 to reach the hospital 2 km away was very dangerous. The way had become an empty road with big, looted buildings along the way with gunmen patrolling. Some mornings I found other people going to town whom I could walk with; if I couldn’t find others to go with I stayed at home.

When Darod tried to recapture Mogadishu I witnessed in Wardhigley [a district of Mogadishu] many Hawiye women running along the road carrying cutlery and kitchen utensils and shouting to the opposition fighters [USC]:‘Give us the guns! Take these [the cutlery]! You, go home and do the cooking! You are the women, we’re the men!’They went to every military checkpoint and threw their knives and forks and spoons at the men. [The women’s actions were to humiliate and goad the now tired militia into fighting against the returning forces of Siad Barre, which threatened to overrun the city]

In another period of heavy inter-clan fighting I saw many women running in the street wearing weer [white headbands to signify mourning]. I stopped one and asked her what was going on. She said the women from both sides of the fighting had gone wherever the fighting men were to be found and had called on them to get out from their holes:‘Stop fighting or we will go naked [uncover our heads]!’9They went to men on both sides of the conflict. The men were ashamed and stopped fighting.10

While we still had some money I needed to find a way out for myself and my daughters. [It had been too dangerous for Amina’s husband to stay with them in Mogadishu so he had left some months before to make his way north.] There was no security for us in Mogadishu. On 15 May 1991 I managed to get tickets for a boat going directly to Mombasa, Kenya. It was quite a small fishing vessel. There were 90 passengers on board, mainly women and children. It took a week to reach Kismayo where we stopped for two days to pick up other people. We all slept in the open. My daughters and I were very sick.

There was a woman giving birth on board the boat and I had to assist her The crew let us use a cabin. It was her first baby and she was circumcised. I couldn’t suture her without a kit but I stopped her bleeding and when we reached Kismayo I went to the hospital and found an old colleague who gave me some antibiotics for her: Fortunately both she and the ‘boat baby’ that came to join our desperate community survived.

Two days out from Kismayo our boat [ran out of fuel].We were stuck in Kenyan territorial waters, miles from land. An old seaman on board suggested we should put a sail up. Finally we reached a place where we could see land. We stayed in this place for nine days because the Kenyan authorities refused to give us any assistance and ordered our boat to go back to Somalia, which was impossible without fuel. We waved for help from passing fishing boats but no help came. Everything ran out. We were starving. We cooked together once a day. Those who got on at Kismayo shared their rations with us and some people managed to catch some fish which we cooked by burning bits of the boat but by the last three or four days there was no food. Water was OK because the boat had a filtration system so we could make fresh waterThis saved us. It was terrible: the children begging for food, the elderly fainting from hunger:

The boat had a radio. One day on the BBC Somali Service we heard a Somali journalist for the BBC based in Kenya [reporting] that our boat had been transporting arms and there had been an accident at sea and all passengers were dead except two. This was a cruel lie and a terrible thing to hear. We could only imagine the pain and distress it caused our loved ones. It was not until the next day that we could send a radio message to Mogadishu informing our relatives that the announcement had been a lie and we were all OK.11

Our plight continued until the boat owner; from his Kenyan residence, finally persuaded the Kenyan authorities to allow him to take supplies to the boat. We received food and fuel and had to make our way back to Somalia. Our boat dropped anchor in Kismayo and from there I went back by bus with my children to Mogadishu via Brava. I had no choice. Mogadishu was the only place where I could find a way to safety.

However; the situation in Mogadishu was worsening further and the relatively free movement of people that had been possible during some hours in the mornings now became very dangerous due to new hostilities between sub-clans. Things were really bad.

I remained stuck in Mogadishu for a further six months. We came together with my elder brother’s family to share things, which helped us get by. I did not lose hope. I never stopped trying to find out about escape routes either within or outside Somalia. Some who organised these escape routes made their fortunes, even though often they used inadequate and unsafe transport.

I heard from colleagues at Banadir Hospital that there would be some flights leaving from Mogadishu to Garowe [in the north east]. My friend and I went to the airport to see if I could manage to pay. At the airport we found a young boy of 18 or 20 who was a mediator [between the plane’s owner and passengers].We asked him if he could sort out seats. He agreed for US$200 per seat. He said he didn’t know for sure which day the plane would take off so I was to bring my children every day to the airport and to be ready.

It was 21 November 1991, almost a year since the war had started, when my two daughters and I left Mogadishu on this small aircraft which landed two hours later in Garowe, in the Nugal region of north eastern Somalia. Although I didn’t know anyone I recognised someone, who helped us to find a hotel, and from there we travelled to Bossaso to join my husband. Eventually, from Bossaso, along with many other displaced people from the southern region we crossed by boat to the refugee camp in Yemen, in search of the chance of education for our daughters now that all the schools were closed or destroyed in Somalia. Having first sought survival, we now sought life.


1. The information in this chapter comes partly from Sadia Musse Ahmed’s own experience and partly from research she conducted in the early 1980s on women’s issues in the Somali Academy of Sciences and Arts in Mogadishu. Some is borrowed from her MSc thesis, submitted to London University in 1994. (See references)

2. The government of Siad Barre implemented reforms in the Islamic family laws to promote equality between men and women.

3. Lean meat cut into small pieces and deep-fried with oil or ghee and herbs, then cooled with purified ghee. This meat could be kept for a long time.

4. See Mohamed M. Kassim, ‘Aspects of the Benadir Cultural History: The Case of the Bravan Ulama’, in Ali Jimale Ahmed (ed.) (1995) The Invention of Somalia (Trenton NJ: Red Sea Press).

5. UNDOS (1997), Studies on Governance 1, Lower Shabelle Region (Nairobi: UNDOS).

6. Parallel cousin marriage.

7. The United Somali Congress (USC) was headed by General Mohamed Farah Aideed, leader of the Hawiye clan-based military force. The USC led the attack on Mogadishu to overthrow Siad Barre. USC forces targeted members of the Darod clan group, which had carried most power and wealth under Siad Barre. The coastal towns of Merca, Brava and Kismayo and the inland towns of Baidoa and Bardera suffered waves of invasions by inter-clan fighters.

8. In 1992 an aid agency noted that in some badly looted communities such as Brava women were found inside their homes on the verge of starvation, unable to go in search of food or help because all their clothes had been stolen.

9. The threat to remove their headscarves is traditionally used by women to break up fighting between men. In an Islamic culture, for a woman to uncover her hair in front of a man who is not her husband, let alone a group of such men, is considered shameful.

10. This and the account of women goading men to fight illustrates that women were not neutral or passive in the war but could act either as

promoters of war or peace, depending on their interpretation of the situation.

11. Allegedly the boat owner was from a Darod clan and the journalist from the Hawiye, the opposing sides at this point in the conflict. It is assumed that by issuing what he presumably knew to be a false report the journalist was inflicting pain on those he regarded as his enemy.