My Parents’ Country, in the Grip of the Shabab

The aftermath of a truck bombing in Mogadishu, Somalia, on Oct. 14. Officials said the attack was carried out by the militant Islamic group Shabab. Credit Feisal Omar/Reuters

NAIROBI, Kenya — One evening in August, I climbed onto a dusty old truck in the Dadaab refugee camp in the eastern Kenyan desert, about 50 miles from the border with Somalia. A tarpaulin in the truck bed covered the sacks of beans it was transporting to the Somali capital, Mogadishu. The driver readily picked up some passengers: four women and eight men for $60 each.

The women sat in the front beside the driver. I sat with the men on the tarpaulin. Six truck tires were strapped onto the tarp. We had to hold onto the tires to keep from falling off the truck as it bumped along a dirt road through a forest. Yet I was excited.

My parents had lived in the Dadaab camp since fleeing Somalia’s civil war in 1991. And it was only this year that my reticent father opened up and spoke to me about his childhood in Luuq, a seaside town in southwestern Somalia, and about Mogadishu, where he was a soldier in the 1970s.

I was born in Dadaab, 22 years ago. With more than a quarter-million people, mostly Somali refugees like my parents, the camp has turned into a sprawling city.

It was also this year that my parents moved to the United States to join my sister. After they left in the summer, I felt compelled to travel to Mogadishu, the city of my father’s youth. The stories my parents told me described a Somalia and a childhood that I would never experience, a world before the civil war, before the rise of Islamic militants and truck bombings like the one on Oct. 14 that killed more than 300 people in Mogadishu. I wondered whether I would belong in Somalia, and set out to discover it.

The truck drove on through the forest. The laughter of hyenas pierced the night. I searched for patterns in the stars. On the second morning, we were told we had crossed the border. We were in a quiet village named Tuulo Barwaaqo. The sky was as blue as it was in Dadaab. It was the same forest. The desert soil looked the same. But I was elated to be in Somalia.

A few hours later, we reached Shibah, a village so silent I wondered if it had any people at all. A tattered black flag hanging from a pole beside the road signaled that the village was controlled by the Shabab, the militant Islamist group battling the Somali federal government.

Travel through Shabab territory had rules. You stopped when you saw the black flag and looked for Shabab men. They charged a fee at the first checkpoint you encountered and issued a receipt, which allowed you to cross their land without paying again. It granted you safe passage through Shabab country — unless the militants suspected you of being a spy or a journalist, which meant certain death.

The checkpoint was deserted. We passed several villages with black flags. When we stopped, we couldn’t even find clean water to drink. There were no men around; only women and children. “The men have either joined Shabab or gone on Tahriib,” said a woman I met in Daifa, one of the villages. “Tahriib” refers to the desperate journeys of African immigrants on perilous seas to Europe.

Later in the afternoon we reached Waraha Dhobley, the first sizable town in our journey. The houses here had iron roofs. There were young men on the streets. Nobody wore a uniform. I couldn’t tell who was a Shabab soldier.

The shops were open, and women sold tea by the cup. Everyone was already in the mosque for the afternoon Asr prayer. We alighted to seek food. I walked into the first restaurant I found. A woman inside told me to get out.

“Why?” I asked.

“Get out first,” she shouted.

A young man walking outside overheard us and came over.

“Sheikh,” he asked me, “why are you not in the mosque?”

During prayers the Shabab expected everyone to be in the mosque. “I just arrived here,” I replied. “I am traveling.” I knew in Islam the rules were relaxed for travelers. “Serve him,” the man told the woman, his voice now soft.

A little later, I followed Adan, the driver, to a Shabab post to pay our passage tax. We entered a structure of wooden blocks hammered with corrugated sheets all around and painted blue.

A boy of about 17 or 18 took out a customs form printed in Somali with sections for the names and addresses of the driver and the owner, the starting point and destination, the amount of luggage, the number of passengers and the amount to be paid. He charged us the standard rate for trucks carrying goods: $230.

Most drivers preferred Shabab-controlled roads to government-controlled ones. They saw the Somali government soldiers as greedy and corrupt and had a name for them: “Cali-Uus,” or “the big-bellied Ali.”

A journey through Shabab country was predictable. There was a sense of order: You knew what to expect and how much you had to pay. It was striking in a country where all institutions had broken down, where corruption choked everything.

The Shabab forbade bribes, khat, smoking and music. Most Somalis approved, even if they did not actually follow these rules. You traded freedom for safety.

Around dusk we arrived in Buaale, a city on the Jubba River. We were stopped by Shabab soldiers in military uniforms and masks on a bridge. Two young soldiers asked us to step down from the truck with our bags. They searched the luggage.

Before setting out, I had been given several pieces of advice about traveling through Shabab areas: Discard your smartphone or at least hide it. Cut your hair (I had a cropped fringe; I got a crew cut). Don’t wear body-hugging jeans. Don’t carry items suggesting that you are a journalist.

Adan, the driver, hid a notebook I had on me. We were questioned and frisked simultaneously. We were asked to remove and unpack our bags. The women were told to stand aside. Only their bags were searched.

One of the passengers, Abdi, was caught with a smartphone. The Shabab soldiers gave him a hammer and ordered him to destroy it himself. They tore Halima’s Somali passport. Hassan had the wrong haircut and they shaved the middle of his scalp. Nobody protested.

We couldn’t leave Buaale at night because of a curfew. The town had large oak trees. It also had farms and concrete buildings. There were shops and restaurants, an ice-cream parlor, some fluorescent lights, too. The people spoke in hushed tones. When they spoke of the Shabab, it was in praise. The only loud voices were of the children.

Everyone seemed to be tuned to the local radio station, Al Rahma, run by the Shabab. A speaker spoke about the faith and the land being under threat, about foreign troops looting the country. The Shabab were the warriors trying to stop them.

The next day, a few miles after the last Shabab checkpoint, the truck entered Afgooye, a city controlled by the Somali government.

Afgooye was beautiful, with large farms, impressive buildings, numerous shops. I watched heavily armed Burundian soldiers, in Somalia on an African Union mission, marching down a road. And there were scrawny Somali boys with guns roaming the streets. I was told they were the government.

I could use my smartphone and play music. I had my freedom. I wasn’t sure about my safety, though. The next morning, I set out on the road to Mogadishu, the city of my father’s youth.

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