TESTIMONY 5: HALIMO ELMI
Within a few months of Mogadishu’s collapse into inter-clan warfare, in 1991, it became clearto many ofthe city’s inhabitants that the fighting was not going to be over soon and they were likely to suffer terrible consequences if they remained. But to leave was not an easy undertaking – it required planning, resources, cooperation, weapons and personal connections. For by then transport and fuel was scarce, captured by militia fighters, and in every direction in the surrounding countryside heavily armed militia groups manned checkpoints and carried out ambushes to control movement, kill their enemy, and plunder whatever resources they could find. To passthrough the checkpoints was extremely hazardous unless they were manned by members of your own or your related clan group or you were travelling with members oftheir clan-group, in which case you could hope for, but not necessarily be guaranteed, some protection.
Forthose seeking the relative safety in the far north ofthe country the only realistic option was to join others and travel in convoy. Finding a place on a convoy depended on your connections and what you could contribute in terms of transport, fuel, weapons, money combat power, or skills. For the many people who did not own or have access to a vehicle, money to pay fora space, or medical skills for example, being taken on board would be down to luck or another’s pity One man who will be remembered for the number of people he helped to escape by convoy to the north is the late Ali Warsame, one of Somalia’s biggest building contractors. It is said that one convoy he organised consisted of more than 1,000 people. Many vehicles ran out of fuel and had to be roped together and towed. It took more than six months forthe convoy to reach the north west – a distance of about 1,000 km, covered in 80 minutes by aeroplane.8
Halimo Elmi travelled north on such a convoy with her four children and her mother: Unlike Halimo’s husband they were not from the north but sought refuge there. Halimo’s testimony describes how the war affected her extended family, which cross-cuts three of the main clan groups: Hawiye, Marehan (Darod) and Isaq. Like the many other families with links to more than one clan, Halimo’s family was split apart by the war which made it too dangerous for her husband to remain in Mogadishu with her and the children. Halimo explains how she and her urban family coped with displacement to a remote, arid, pastoral area in order to escape from the violence and be reunited with her husband. Halimo used her skills as a midwife to help other women and to maintain her family.
We were living in Mogadishu when the civil war broke out there. We were living in Karan, which was the first place the artillery targeted. We had to leave the area in such a rush that it was impossible for us to take anything with us. We had only one flask and a lantern, we did not even have shoes. We were rushing too fast to think about anything. Everywhere there was war. We just wanted to find some safety so we headed out of Mogadishu in a convoy of vehicles with about 100 other people. We had left Mogadishu in the morning and by the afternoon we had reached an isolated place and could proceed no further because we could not travel at night as our vehicle lights would attract attention.
This first night there were 15 women in our group who went into labour; brought on by the stress and shock of the war and our journey. Of the 15 only eight were full-term pregnancies; the rest were between five and seven months. Seven of the women were in one car and the other eight were in two cars. I and another woman, who I found out about later; were the only health professionals – I a midwife, she an assistant midwife.
That night we had no light, not even a torch. My husband heard men shouting,‘There are women in labour – we don’t have anyone to help, please come and help us!’ He came to me as I was cooking white rice in an oil tin. He said:‘I heard there are some women in labour. Please can you go and help them?’ I said: ‘How can I go at this time?’ I was afraid of the snakes. Finally I was persuaded and they brought three women to me who said they were full term. I took them under a tree. I asked the driver to put on the car headlights and then we covered the space between the car and the tree with a sheet to make a shelter and so that the light would not be too visible from afar I put the three women inside this shelter; Luckily for me they were not delivering spontaneously so I could deliver them one at a time with Allah helping me because I am alone. The first delivery was of a stillborn baby full term, nine months – a daughter. As I finished the first delivery the second and the third women started to push.
I called two of the husbands and said:‘Please, I need assistance. I am alone and the two women are pushing at the same time.’ One of the husbands came to me and helped me. He was not feeling shy You feel shy when you have some privacy but without it everybody needs to help and there is no differentiation between men and women.
When we finished delivering the first three we heard shouting:‘Please we need assistance!’There turned out to be 12 other women in labour! So we collected them together in the same place under the small tree in the dark. By the end, the area near the tree was covered in membranes, placenta, blood so that when you stood on it you would slip on it. Only three of the newly delivered babies survived, one daughter and two boys out of 15 deliveries. Seven were premature and five were stillborn. We put them in separate graves. For the mothers there was no tea or water to drink – nothing. Some of the men had special pots containing water which they gave to them, but that was all. The morning came and everyone saw the 15 women lying like this. In our society people are kind in such situations and they went to try to find them some milk or tea but we could not find anything. We collected the women together and put them in one car that had shelterThen the whole day we drove on, turning to one side and then another to prevent being attacked and when we came close to a village we would avoid it. The whole day we advanced slowly – but with nothing by mouth – no food. By the night-time we found somewhere to sleep and eventually some food and drink.
We travelled in this way for several weeks before returning to Mogadishu, expecting things to have improved there. When Siad Barre’s forces left we returned to our home in Karan [a district of Mogadishu] but everything in our house had been looted. We were left with nothing. We had to borrow cooking utensils and mattresses from relatives and neighbours. We hoped that the war would soon stop. My husband who is from Somaliland wanted us to go to Hargeisa but I only knew Mogadishu and when he left in our car I refused to go with him. I hoped that security would return to Mogadishu so that we wouldn’t have to travel to remote places such as Hargeisa.
But then there was another war between the sub-clans of the Hawiye tribe and we had to leave Karan again, eventually moving to the Hodan area of the city. We had not expected the Hawiye clans to start a war. We had thought that, once Siad Barre had gone, everything would be settled. But insecurity worsened after the demise of Siad Barre.
At the time the civil war broke out, although there was a government the health services were very poor; especially women’s care, or Mother and Child Health services, and hospital services. So women were among the most vulnerable groups when the fighting started. During my displacement in Mogadishu there was a woman who was due to deliver living in a small hut near my home. Early one morning I took her to my home to deliver My children had found her in need when they had rushed outside after some bomb attack to see who had been the victims – they were always curious and had become very brave whereas I didn’t even like to open the door. I put her in a small corridor of the house and I delivered the baby I cut the cord, which was asphyxiating the baby As I tried to revive the baby a large artillery bomb landed in our sitting room. The roof was cracked and there was so much smoke that we could see nothing. I was still holding the baby boy but the mother, in her shock, had jumped up and run away still carrying the placenta inside her We couldn’t find each other in the chaos. I held onto the baby who was alive, but we didn’t find his mother until the evening – by which time she was nearly dead.
While she had been running the placenta had separated causing a postpartum haemorrhage. She had fainted in the street, in an isolated area where people were all running away from the shelling. A family living near our home identified her. They said:‘We know this woman, she is called Hawa. She lives here. What has happened?’When you see someone lying on the floor the first thing that comes to your mind is that they have been shot. Everybody thinks she is dead. It was around sunset when a small boy said to me:‘Please Halimo, there is a woman lying in the street.’ She was lying about 50 steps away We took a wheelbarrow to fetch her and I attempted to soothe her. Because she had a spontaneous delivery and didn’t have an incision the procedure is to check the placenta. By this time there was no placenta, everything had separated, there had been too much bleeding and she had fallen into a coma. We had no alternative, we just did the Somali way of treating someone in shock – we wrap them up in a wet blanket and wait until they come to. After three hours she regained consciousness.
Finally I took her into our home as she didn’t have any family nearby All her family had run away but because she was in labour she had not been able to go with them. So she was alone. We stayed together for a week. Eventually she was reunited with her husband who had feared that she had died.
Hawa’s mother was an old widow whose husband had died when the children were very small. They used a donkey to carry water to sell. Then the donkey was injured by shelling, its thigh was cut to the bone and the mother said:‘Please Halimo, can you try to stop the donkey bleeding?’The donkey was more important to them than a son because they depended on it. I said: ‘I cannot suture a donkey because he is not tame.’ She said:‘I will call some men to hold him.’ So they held his two legs in front while I sutured him. I tried to stop the bleeding as best I could. When I had finished I was about to go home when there was another artillery bombardment and the donkey and the woman were blown to pieces in front of me. One could not tell the donkey’s body parts from those of the old woman.
I was in shock for four hours. I lost all my sense and feelings. I could not speak. I just looked at things.
Hundreds of things like this were happening everywhere. Day by day we got experience. I got used to such things so that when I heard bombing I was not so scared because it had become part of normality There is a Somali proverb:‘You will learn from difficulties.’
Finally though, I had to accept that the war was not going to end soon and that for the safety of my children we had no alternatives other than to follow my husband to Hargeisa. If we had had our own car we could have taken many things with us that we needed but as our car had already gone north with my husband we could only take a minimum and the priority was to find space for the children. I was not thinking of anything else at that time.
When we left Mogadishu we were about 35 vehicles with a minimum of 100 people – so overcrowded. Seventy per cent were children and women. We could not go alone. There was always a need to have gunmen for protection when we were passing from one clan area to anotherWe would travel with gunmen from one area who were responsible for our protection until we reached the next area, when we needed new gunmen responsible for security in that area. Altogether we had around four gun vehicles (‘technicals’). My husband’s clan had no power in Mogadishu at that time. So we had to get some of my family to look after us – not only us but also others, for example Isaq, who were with us. Through my family relations with the gunmen I was responsible for all these Isaq people travelling with me.
If a convoy encountered checkpoints or militias that suspected you had anything valuable, and if they were not related to your family they might kill you. My immediate family and I are the luckiest people, as we did not face any victimisation. We didn’t mind about not having money or material possessions as at least we had our lives. Other people in our convoy were not so lucky – some had lost their children, their husbands. We were the only family who were untouched; the other families in our convoy all suffered – some from gunshot wounds sustained at the checkpoints. Once our convoy was attacked and we lost at least 15 per cent of the convoy in one go. People living in villages along the route were afraid when they saw a convoy coming from Mogadishu because they believed that gunmen must be coming. So they would arm themselves and there would be a clash between the village gunmen and the convoy gunmen. Even among our bodyguards there were some who were with us and some who were against us so there would be in-fighting. Others wanted to loot from the vehicles and when they were opposed they would start shooting.
By accident we found my husband when we reached Beletweyne [a town in Hiran region, about 300 km from Mogadishu]. He was on his way back to Mogadishu to find us. At that time it was so risky for him to stay with us that I asked him to go ahead with some of my male relatives to look after him.
When our convoy reached Abudwaak [about 200 km north of Beletweyne] we felt safer; as my mother’s family lives there and we were able to get care from them. Travelling from that area to Burao we felt very secure. A month after leaving Mogadishu9 we arrived in the morning at a place called Berka near Burao [the second largest town in the north west] and we decided to stop there for a rest.
While we were cooking our lunch fighting broke out in Burao causing many ‘refugees’ to flee from the town. We were shocked – why were all these people fleeing? They said that there was a civil war between Habr
Ja’lo and HabrYunis [two sub-clans of the Isaq] in Burao. It was 1991. On the way from Abudwaak to Las Anod and to Burao we had felt very close to reaching our friends and relatives and safety. But when we found refugees fleeing from Burao we felt totally demoralised.
Reconciliation between the sub-clans was achieved after some time and we were eventually able to settle in Burao where we stayed more than two years. During this time I ran a private maternity hospital. I acted as a gynae-obstetrician because they had only one gynaecologist and when the conflict came he left with his tribe. Every afternoon I visited about 20 women and I learned the conditions caused by the war really affected women’s lives. One of the commonest complications among women is secondary sterility. This is sterility resulting from infection, often after a woman has given birth or miscarried then become infected and had no treatment or inadequate treatment. Sometimes they suffer from infection of the fallopian tube. It is common to see a woman who had two children before the war but is unable to conceive afterwards because of secondary sterility.
The problem displaced women face is the lack of medicines and health services but also the lack of water and soap to wash. In the rural areas it is very difficult for a woman during menstruation; she has to find cloths to use and if you don’t have any you have to stay isolated the whole day because you cannot walk around. It is difficult to clean your body. The water well may be three hours’ walk away. Even if you can get clean water the priority is not to wash because you need to drink. Sometimes your skin feels smelly. The problem of infection for women is very serious. They are vulnerable to infection, miscarriage, tetanus. Women died like animals. And even though many have now moved into urban centres they have problems accessing health centres and they don’t have money to buy the drugs they need; nor do they have specialist doctors. There is a need for specialist women who can provide women with advice and treatment on secondary sterility because if they get the right diagnosis and treatment they can be treated [successfully].
An outbreak of war in 1995 forced us to flee Burao. This time we fled into the dry, rural pastoral area where my husband’s family live. We were among 700 families to flee to the area, coming from different places as refugees. Later on some people were not happy with the situation so they moved on to other areas to survive. I chose not to leave as I didn’t have any money and was dependent on my husband’s family. We were to live here for one and a half years.
It was a remote, isolated area. You might see a car once every three months. The first year was really hard. I was so unhappy. We were all
3 These women and children fled the southern regions of the country for Berbera, in the far north. The war displaced hundreds of thousands of people within the boundaries of Somalia. Many were women and children whose men were killed or had to flee the country. Making long and hazardous journeys, those who survived shared nightmarish memories of seeking a way through warring clan territories where bandits and militia preyed on the convoys of terrified citizens. (Betty Press/Panos Pictures)
[feeling] negative and unhappy. The biggest problem at first was the children because it was their first experience of rural life. But when there is no alternative you have to adapt to the situation. My husband and I lived in the settlement close to the wells but after a while the four children would go far afield tending the animals with their grandparents, uncles or aunts so at times we didn’t see them for a week or two at a time. They were learning to be pastoralists, and learned and sang about camels and goats.
Because there was nothing else to do I developed a small bush clinic to support the people, many of whom were not used to nomadic life but like ourselves were refugees from the city. I set up under a small tree with a shelter made of leaves. I used it as a ward. Although it was a nomadic area there were many refugees from the towns who were not nomadic. There were no health services or transport. I started this thing from scratch and all the women (though not often nomadic women) came when they heard there was a midwife. They would come 500 km. Women would be brought to me on camels, for example those in prolonged or obstructed labour: At first only the most difficult cases were brought to me. It was so remote and isolated – I was the only midwife for hundreds of miles. The nearest place with a health centre was Las Anod or Erigavo. Then people started to bring all kinds of cases and to call me out to them for help. Sometimes they would come from six to seven hours’ walk away. To reach them I used to ride a camel because I can not walk these long distances. Sometimes I rode a donkey but it is uncomfortable.
It was a very difficult experience. I would be brought pregnant women with eclampsia but I didn’t have anything to use to assist them. If the case is prolonged labour; obstructed labour or placenta praevia or toxaemia such as eclampsia there is no solution, the woman will die in front of you – you cannot do anything. You pray or you go to the place where she is and you look at her and are able to do nothing. Your mind fills with great sadness and really it is better not to see the case. They call for help and when you see an eclampsic woman in a coma and you just only have your hands and nothing else, it is very difficult.
I kept a record of the cases I attended and people who helped me. Within one year it was 250 women. Fifty per cent of these died. Towards the end of the first year when the health demand increased I tried to buy some emergency materials such as IV [intravenous] fluids in case of eclampsia. I tried to do something to save the situation.
It took a year to adapt to this situation. We drank the same water as the camels and goats. After a year I forgot to worry I tried my best to do something for women. We formed a committee and I said I myself am ready to support the community that I am in but I have no money to buy drugs or essential materials that we need for emergencies – at least for transferring the patient to somewhere where they can receive help. We developed a community taxi for emergency cases and we collected money. For example, there would be men buying camels or livestock and we would write to them to contribute money for emergencies. We were successful. We collected money and I would go to Yerowe to buy IV fluids, emergency treatments, dressing materials, suture kits, local anaesthesia for small emergencies.
I trained three women to be traditional birth attendants and during the last year they were doing the deliveries and they were doing the emergency calls and if any of them couldn’t manage I would go with them. The second year I felt a little freer because I had support. Through these actions we were able to save the lives of 10 women with eclampsia. We bought diazepam injections to stop the convulsions and we gave them drips. We would take the old car; which was repaired by the community to be used only for medical emergencies, to the patient from the remote areas to Las Anod or El Afweyne or Erigavo the town where my husband’s family is from. So during the last year I was able to save many more patients. When the security situation improved in Erigavo and I decided to leave the rural area they all cried. My husband’s family is still there.
Has my marriage changed as a result of the war? For me marriage is about supporting each other Everyone has his time. Over the past 10 years I have been the family breadwinner. I even bought his cigarettes to give him confidence. I have been responsible for the family’s food, housing, shelter, everything. Now it is his time, so I give him his chance and respect him. When we go to the pastoral area they say that we are fantastic people; we look strange because the way we behave is different from the way they behave. My husband used to cook, to collect materials. Sometimes when he saw people coming, he would stop washing because he did not want to be teased. Eventually he did these things in the daytime when we were alone so that he would not be seen. We looked a very strange family!
Of all the difficulties I faced during the war the only one that really affected me was the situation between my mother and me. It was so sad. My mother is from Siad Barre’s clan. I am from Aideed’s side and my husband is a Somalilander So my mother feels insecure among us, her family. This is a very big problem. Our family is divided. We cannot speak openly with my mother, we whisper; She feels that my husband and my children are against herTo try to gain her confidence, a male member of the family and I decided we would not listen to the BBC as she got distressed when she heard bad words about Siad Barre and news of
Aideed’s effectiveness. She was not happy to live with us, so finally I sent her to live with my sister in Saudi Arabia. She had said:‘I am not happy in this situation. I don’t like it. There is no difference between living with the Hawiye in Mogadishu if they kill me, or if I die here. I don’t want to live here with you. Send me to my children outside the country or I will go back immediately to Mogadishu. I don’t care whether it is insecure or not – everywhere is insecure for me.’
She was with us in the rural area and then for about six months in the town. I could not sleep at night because I would see my mum sitting outside alone, thinking, worrying. She couldn’t see that we are her supporters; she was convinced that we were her enemies so it was a very difficult situation. She didn’t trust anyone. She became isolated. She refused to eat or to drink. I felt sorry and unhappy My mother did not trust her daughter or grandchildren. Now she is happy she has been back to Mogadishu. She said:‘I had to see Mogadishu to see what was going on. It’s horrible when your children are looking like Aideed [in other words they are from their father’s clan which is the same as Aideed’s] so you are my enemies. I don’t want to tell you anything.’
As a result of this experience – and many women I know have suffered the same experience – I have advised my 16-year-old daughter not to marry a man outside her clan otherwise she will face the same problem as I have faced if there is a conflict. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring so it is better to marry a man from among her relatives. My daughter is not thinking about that yet but it is important. Relatives will have the same objectives, the same ideas, the same enemy But if you marry into a different clan you will suffer: I didn’t believe in this before – that is why I married an Isaq man. But I do not want my daughter to suffer the same problem that I faced.
1. The research was supported by the Dutch development organisation NOVIB.
2. I.e. they don’t have the money to invest.
3. In 1941 Allied Forces under British command defeated the Italians, liberating Ethiopia and the Italian Somaliland colony and reinstating British rule in its Somaliland Protectorate which had been temporarily occupied by Italy. Maria Brons (2001) Security, Sovereignty and the State in Somalia: From Statelessness to Statelessness? (The Netherlands: International Books).
4. Known as the franco valuta system, this method of sending money home to family members through clan connections without going through the state banking system was a reaction to deteriorating economic conditions in the country and government economic policies which increasingly favoured certain clans and discriminated against others. The SNM was financed through monetary transactions processed in this way. (Brons 2001)
5. Amina M. Warsame (1987) ‘Moving to the Cities: Somali Women’s Quest for Economic Independence’, unpublished MA thesis (The Hague: Institute of Social Studies).
6. Save the Children Fund (1993) First Steps to Recovery: Somaliland Household Survey (Hargeisa: SCF).
7. Reported in United Nations Children’s Fund (1998) Somalia. Situation of Women and Children Report 1997/8 (Nairobi: UNICEF Somalia).
8. Information from Zeinab Aideed Yusuf who travelled on this convoy.
9. Most convoys took longer, some as long as nine months, to cover the same distance.