SHE DIDN’T WANT her face splayed on photographs or her real name printed in bold on pages of unknown, unimaginably far-away newspapers. But Halwo* wanted people to know. To know that lives of the other are here, present and stingingly overlooked. When she talks about her children, about Amiin, her eyes get watery and there’s no stopping the tears. Halwo, a Somali woman unsure if widowed already or merely not yet, not sure of her children’s destinies—both future and past. Sitting in a nondescript office just a stone’s throw away from rivers of traffic flowing through the veins of this Asian megalopolis, amid a landscape of concrete and skywalks suspended mid-air as foreign to her as anything she could’ve ever imagined while herding goats on the arid plains of her homeland, with carefully worded patience she tells me of those days leading to her escape.
Born in the depths of punishingly barren Somalian lowlands, Halwo has never before seen, not even on photographs, a town as big as this. “The people are nice, but I don't know how to live here. Everything is so foreign, the language, the food, the streets. When I arrived, I couldn't eat anything, I just didn't know what those dishes were. There is so much noise, so many lights. But there is nowhere else to go for me and my youngest son.”
Now, at 37, she is re-learning to navigate her life from scratch in a town as disorienting as they get, challenging even to the ones born in its chaotic womb. Talking to her, I instinctively understand that her life, were she born in a country that had given her the opportunity, her smarts would’ve carried her far. It’s because of her eyes, a dark shade of green, that I understand this: they are constantly glinting with flashes of comprehension even though we speak different languages, even in spite of us sharing precious few cultural notions.
After the death of her mother, Halwo never again felt truly at home or loved, not until the birth of her first son. “I was sent to my aunt’s house and she was never good to me. I had responsibilities, I had to take care of the goats, but I was too young and I lost a few of them. The screaming, the extra tasks… and then, when I was 16, she told me to marry my cousin. By that time, I loved my goats more than anything else, they reminded me of the times when I herded them with my mother.”
In spite of the marriage being pre-arranged and forced upon her without her having any say in the matter, along with moving to a new house there came a new degree of freedom. In quick order she gave birth to four sons and among the bleak household chores, it was Amiin, the eldest one, that became the source of joy in her life. “I could tell him anything and he would do it, he felt responsible for so many things at home, for me. And when he grew up a little, he started herding the 40 goats that I inherited from my mother. He cared for them, took them to far-away places trying to find good grazing pastures, they became as much of a joy for him as they were for me once.”
As much as she wished for it, life in Somalia is rarely lived in isolation. Her husband, skilled at turning the patch of dirt behind their house into a garden resplendent with rice, fruits and millet—and doing so one rainy season after another, was the ire of his neighbors who watched him enviously from their adjacent dusty field. It wasn’t long before the burly man living next door paid a visit and accused the family of putting a curse on his crops.
Superstitions are no laughing matter in rural Somalia, much less so when used politically. Halwo and her husband were born into a small Somali clan called Arainale and, in the village, they were its only members. The majority of the villagers were of the Hawiye clan and, her neighbor, sensing a power dynamic giving him an upper hand, seized the opportunity.
“He told us that if we didn’t leave our house, if we didn’t give him our farm, he would kill us. I didn’t believe him, but I was scared and I forced my husband to go to the village elders. They didn’t want to listen to us, they were from a different tribe and they believed their own people more than us. We visited many homes but no one wanted to talk to us about our problem. Finally we gave up and hoped that our neighbor’s words would just be that, words.”
A few weeks after the man paid his first visit, Halwo’s husband came back home from the field early. He didn’t walk into the house, however, he crawled. His leg was broken and after a lot of persuasion, he admitted to being beaten with farming tools by the neighbor and a group of his friends. “It was a warning and we should’ve listened. I took care of my husband’s wounds, I healed his leg and after many weeks, he was again able to walk. His leg was not like before, but he thought he’s well enough to go to the field and work again. We were slowly running out of food.”
“The same day, my husband found strange men in our field. They told him to run away with the whole family or else we would not live to see tomorrow. They had guns in their hands. That same day, we decided to move out of our house and wait for the bad luck to pass.”
Halwo packed some clothes, a few provisions and instructed her son to go gather the goats—they were leaving for an unclaimed space in the middle of the desert. The patch of land is unclaimed for a reason: waterless, devoid of even a hint of green, prone to seemingly never ending dust-whirls. Walking for 30 kilometers to fetch water and even further to find pasture for the goats, their life in a tent in the middle of a windy nowhere didn’t resemble life at all. “I could not believe that we lost everything. And that other people did not care about the injustice.”
A year passed and both her and Amiin, her eldest son, watched their herd of 40 sheep dwindle to a mere 5 in front of their eyes. “We were forced to sell a few and then eat all the rest. There was no time for them to make more young ones. My mother’s heritage was gone and Amiin’s heart was broken.”
It was either starving in the desert or going back to the village to see if the situation has changed. They decided to take their chances. Their farm was abandoned and the field untilled. “I hoped that the man saw that while we were not at home, his crops still didn’t grow and his barren field was not our fault. I was happy to see the farm abandoned, I thought it meant he was not interested in us anymore.”
The next day, Halwo’s song she was singing while washing dishes and trying to get the dusty house in order, was interrupted by a gunshot. Fighting her legs paralyzed with fear, she trudged out of the house and ran to the kilometer-distant farm. Amiin was lying among the old dry leaves of last-year’s corn, his mouth open and crackling with choking sounds, his head jarringly open where his temple was supposed to be.
He died right there, at only 13 years of age, in Halwo’s arms.
His and her pain must have been agonizing.
She tried but was not able to drag his limp body to the house, she was nauseated by fear for her other two sons. She ran back into the house and she found her youngest one, Mustafa, sitting in the corner. She grabbed his hand and ran out of the front door looking for her other son, for her husband. She circled the whole village, screaming for help. No door was opened, no voice was heard, her cries unanswered.
In frenzy, she ran back home only to see that the gate was wide open and there were noises coming out of the house. Treading lightly, peeking through the window, she saw the neighbor holding her husband by the collar of his dress. She flinched, hid under the windowsill and, as if involuntarily, fled the scene.
That was the last time she has ever seen her husband. Or her two missing boys.
There was no time to think things through. Halwo did not have any money on her and knew of one person only who might be able to help: her friend, Abyan, with whom she used to play the game of girir when she was young. She let her win on many occasions—allowing her to throw the little stones higher into the air than hers—and now Halwo hoped that her kindness would be repaid with a hiding place and temporary peace of mind. Last she heard, Abyan lived in a bigger town, almost a hundred kilometers on foot. After sleeping in the field for a night, she took Mustafa by hand and they set off towards the town.
In Abyan’s house, Halwo stayed for a month. She knew this couldn’t last: people from the village came to the city to buy what was not available in their market all the time. By the third week, Abyan overheard a man asking around about Halwo. “I couldn’t stay at her place, people talk and everyone knows everything after some time. I decided, I will have Abyan sell all the gold that I was wearing and I will pay an agent to get me out of the country. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing another son.”
Looking through the dirty little window on the backdoor of a big white van, it was her first time seeing Mogadishu, or, indeed, the first time to be sitting on a plane. With a stopover in Dubai and finally landing here, in this incomprehensibly big mass of concrete, they arrived at a hotel where the agent booked a room and took Halwo for a breakfast. Slouching over her plate, Halwo was apprehensive. “He told me to rest and eat my breakfast, that he’s going to exchange some money. I couldn’t even try lift lift my hand form my lap, I was so nervous. That is the last time I saw him. They threw us out of the hotel two hours later. We ended up on a street.”
At a nearby train station, Halwo noticed a Somali man buying food from a street vendor. “I spoke no word of this language, I knew no one and nothing about this world and my only chance was to ask this man for help hoping he will not do worse things to me and my son than we have already gone through.” The man proved to be a blessing, providing Halwo with shelter and taking her to organizations that help refugees in urban areas.
It has been two years now since Halwo escaped, her son already speaks the language, but their UNHCR resettlement process is moving nowhere. It sometimes takes five years, most of the time refugees never succeed in being resettled—in fact, only one percent are. “I only wish to be in a country where I know I can start a new life, where I will have peace and provide my son with an education and a future. If I were educated when I was younger, I might have done things differently, I might have not had to leave my country. No one knows what would have happened but knowing is better than not. My son deserves better than not knowing if he still has a father or not, if his brothers are still alive or not, if he will be able to stay here or not, where his life will actually be. He deserves to know, to know better how to avoid life like the one I had and to know what will happen to him if he works hard.”