Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Nuruddin Farah: "We No Longer Own Our Country"

Nuruddin Farah, a Somali novelist, writes of what it means to lose one's own country -- utterly:
On the day I needed to fly out of Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, to get back home to Cape Town, my only choice was a Kenyan Fokker, normally used as a cargo plane, that was flying back to Nairobi with passengers. As we were being shown to our seats, the Kenyan captain told the passengers to hand over our passports. He said that he would hold them in the cabin until we landed in Kenya.

I became angry when I asked the other passengers, who were all Somali-born, what passports they were traveling on. Two of them had Canadian nationality, three of them -- one a Somali-Swede, the remaining two Somali-Dutch -- had European Union passports. I asked the captain if he would have demanded the passports of non-Somalis from Canada, Sweden and the Netherlands taking a flight from Mogadishu.

He knew where I was headed, but of course he didn't want to go there. So he asked, "What precisely is your gripe?"

I replied that I objected to handing over my passport to a Kenyan who had no authority over Somalis. Did he not know that we were still on Somali soil, not his country, but mine? Was he aware that Somalia was a country in its own right?

He mumbled something about America, but I couldn't hear exactly what he said. He might have alluded to a post-Sept. 11 world in which Somalia was perceived as playing host to a terrorist network that resulted in the attack on a hotel full of Israeli tourists in Mombasa, Kenya. I don't recall him saying anything about September or Mombasa, but he acted nevertheless as though the mention of America alone in today's Somalia was sufficient to put the fear of God into its citizens. And when I requested that he speak up, the pilot informed me that he could deny me the right to fly on his aircraft. Then with his hand outstretched, he demanded that I decide whether I wished to travel or not. (Rumor had it that Kenyan pilots were required to keep a list of all passengers, including their nationalities, who were flying out of Mogadishu. Any passengers holding Somali passports or having Muslim-sounding names were to be reported to Kenyan authorities, working with the United States, who would then monitor their movements.)

I became aware as I considered my options that I was getting caught up in my emotions over the chaos that has enveloped Somalia since American forces left the country in 1993. This post-collapse was having a far-reaching effect on how Somalis were being treated in a world adjusting to Sept. 11. In the end, I realized that I had no choice but to accept my humbled condition within the rationale of terrorist paranoia. So I gave him my passport.

I struggled to control my temper for the two-and-a-half-hour flight to Nairobi, angry not at the pilot or, for that matter, the United States, but at my people. I wondered why we have allowed such indignities to be visited upon our nation -- and for so long. The answer is that we no longer own our country.

Somalia, which lacks a functioning government, is a free-for-all country. Anyone may enter: no visas are necessary nor does anyone check passports. Nobody honors Somalia's airspace or its porous borders, especially not Ethiopia, whose military, every so often, occupies large chunks of Somalia on America's behalf on the pretext of hunting down Islamists -- and not even the African Union or the United Nations has ever bothered to reprimand Ethiopia for its behavior. Last year, there were reports that a group of United States soldiers, having received a nod of approval from a Somali warlord, went into Mogadishu and abducted a terrorist suspect from his sick bed.

In Mogadishu, the consequences of Somalia's collapse were evident everywhere I went, beginning at the airports, which are controlled by warlords who demand "landing fees." Destitute Somalis, refugees from the countryside, were squatting in ruined buildings that once housed the offices of state utilities, the polytechnic schools and the Foreign Affairs Ministry. These refugees have no charitable groups to look after them -- because of the lawlessness, United Nations and nongovernmental organizations stay in Nairobi and travel in and out of Mogadishu during the day, leaving the city before dark.

Even more disturbing because of the ominous omen for Somalia's future is the lack of education available. The Somali tradition of secular education is extinct. The schooling that does exist is financed by Arabs, which means Arabic has replaced Somali in school curriculums. This is tragic, especially because writing in Somali was in its infancy when the state collapsed -- the standardization of the script having been adopted in 1972 -- and Somalia is the only African country with a population numbering in the millions to boast of having one unifying language. This will no longer be the case if Arabic continues to be the medium of instruction in schools.

Little of value has remained of Somalia's wealth. Its beaches have been rented out to entrepreneurs who dump nuclear waste there. Government property has been taken over by African and European countries because of nonpayment of taxes. Even Somalia's flagship airline has been confiscated for not settling its landing or take-off fees. Somali children destined to become prostitutes are exchanged for a truckload of weapons, given to a warlord.

Can we, Somalis, be responsible if our country becomes a terrorist haven when we do not own it -- a Somalia where anyone can come and go without our authority; where American soldiers allegedly go in and out and abduct possible suspects; where Ethiopia invades at will; where our beaches are the dumping sites of other country's nuclear waste; where Arabs alter our educational system and secular tradition?

To own Somalia's problems and eventually its solutions, we must take possession of our country, and everyone must return our property to us, and all interferences in our affairs must stop. But if our land remains someone else's playground, and we continue to be victims of everyone else's machinations, then we won't make the necessary link between our post-collapse and America's post-Sept. 11. ("Another Little Piece of My Heart," New York Times, August 2, 2004)

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