Name: Hamse Ismail
Address: Hero-awr Street, Goljano
Phone number: 002522-4073983
Date first published: February, 2015
Word count: 12,000
For years, I wondered how anyone comes to be the last man standing in a fight for freedom. Is it sheer luck – not to be hit by a bullet, not to lose a limb? Or does destiny decree that someone has to survive, to be witness, despite losing a host of comrades who plied their oars alongside him in times of peril? The answer may lie beyond the realm of valour and cowardice.
I took the gun with an avid conviction to fight against a mighty foe who sought to eliminate my people. In the winter’s cold and foggy dawn, the rebels readied themselves for a final assault on Hargeisa, the regime’s last stronghold in the north. Subduing tyranny was our common motivation. Total liberation of our land had never been closer.
General Hussein, in his rebel uniform, emerged from his tank like a dragon coming out of its den. He was a light-skinned, stocky man, with stained teeth. He took out his binoculars and gazed towards the end of the highway that led to Hargeisa. This route passed between two rocky hills, past which lay the city’s main western check-point. On its western front Hargeisa was surrounded by a natural fortress of small hills that no tank could penetrate. General Hussein, however, could see no movement of personnel, nor heavy weaponry. There was no gunfire. But he had never been able to trust the tranquil hills.
I felt a tingling sensation in my hand as I pulled out a letter and tried to read it, but the sun was not high enough yet and I quickly put it back in the pocket of my combat trousers.
‘What was that, Rasheed Mahmoud?’ Yusuf asked.
‘The declaration,’ I said.
A sudden smile decked his face. He nodded in silence, as though uttering a word would rob him of the glow of this moment.
Most rebel fighters were young, an entire generation born under General Idiris’s long rule. And although the 25th Infantry was the regime’s most formidable battalion in the entire north, it had not managed to repulse the advancing rebels and consequently the city had been under siege for the past week.
The regime’s forces were running out of steam in the face of the rebel fighters’ growing momentum. Dwindling ammunition and food supplies could not be replenished since the airport had been taken. They could not expect reinforcement, for General Idiris was fighting off a surprise attack on Mogadishu by another rebel movement, which had quickly made its way into the heart of city. The fighting in Mogadishu was now concentrated in and around the presidential compound. Rumours surfaced of General Idiris fleeing the capital, adding to the uncertainty that hung around the minds of the city-dwellers.
‘Do you think Captain Ali will put up a fight?’ asked Yusuf.
‘I don’t know,’ I said, that same question had been nagging at me for hours.
Captain Ali led the 25th Infantry. He was the most notorious and shrewd military leader in the north, a loyal and trusted commander under General Idiris. Despite having been a close friend who had trained with my father, he now led the military assault that had dislodged the rebel fighters from Burao, the second-largest town in the north. My father had been the rebel commander. He was killed in the attack.
In my anger and grief, I found my mission. As soon as I left law school I joined the rebel fighters to secure justice for my father and to continue his work to free our people.
Khadija was my first and last girlfriend right up to the time I joined the rebellion, following the killing of my father. Distance and war had strained our relationship. But I had kept thinking about her, all along. She knew then who I was truly wedded to, the cause. But I still thought of her, still want to marry her.
General Hussein moved forward to address the rebel fighters, ahead of the final and decisive assault on the city. Despite the tension, he held up his hand as if to test the wind and the crowd hushed. There was finality in his clear voice and it gave the assembled men the confidence we all needed at such a momentous point in our quest.
‘Dawn will break with the freedom of our people in Hargeisa. It shall mark the end of more than two decades of oppression. It shall be a testament to the futility of corrosive power, for freedom is rooted in man’s intellect and will.’
The words were uplifting to the rebel fighters. I stepped forward and addressed them myself. I reminded them about the rules of engagement, so hard to observe in a guerilla war. I put my hand in my right pocket to feel the letter, as if I were drawing some mystical energy from it.
‘Our movement is not willing to stoop to their standards: we shall not kill women, children nor the elderly. We shall not kill civilians and prisoners. We shall not let anger cloud our judgment nor vengeance dull our thinking, nor greed create a fog in our mind. Our strength emanates from the justice of our cause.’
Though I did not have an official position in the rebel command structure, I had become the unofficial deputy to General Hussein, my pedigree as the son of the founder of the armed struggle against General Idiris, had reinforced my position.
The rebel fighters advanced into the check-point. ‘Welcome to Hargeisa’ read the street sign.
Although my parents were born and bred in Hargeisa, I had never been to the city. Born in Mogadishu, I grew up in Cairo.
Pick-up trucks mounted with anti-aircraft machine guns drove ahead with tanks in tow, captured from retreating regime forces a few weeks earlier. We were firing blind, targeting enemy tanks in the town beyond the hills, which echoed the heavy shelling, a reminder to the sleeping city that freedom seldom came on a peaceful morning. We then headed for Birjeh Military Barracks, to the west of the city. We moved with slow care, for we feared mines.
Ahead, down the valley, lay the Barracks, home to Captain Ali’s battalion.
‘Fire into Birjeh!’ General Hussein ordered.
The Barracks were subjected to intense shelling. A mortar struck an ammunition depot, igniting a cascade of deafening explosions that prompted the regime forces to turn tail and run away.
‘Do you want him alive or dead?’ asked Yusuf, his voice almost drowned by heavy gunfire.
‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
‘I mean Captain Ali: he killed your father, right?’.
I did not know what to say. The rebel fighters overran the Barracks. But deep inside I knew I wanted Ali taken alive, and to challenge him: why had he chosen loyalty to General Idiris over his closest friend, my father? I could not understand what possessed a man to betray the ties of kinship.
Within two hours the 25th Infantry Battalion was vanquished. We moved in to the part of the base that was not on fire. I saw Lucas, a Swedish journalist embedded with the rebel fighters, taking pictures of a fallen regime soldier whose beard looked familiar to me. As I walked towards him it became clear this was the supine body of Duuliye. Duuliye was the son-in-law of General Idiris. But Captain Ali, our family’s nemesis, was still at large.
‘Duuliye is dead!’ I shouted as I brandished my AK-47.
Rebel fighters quickly flocked around the corpse. One young rebel fighter kicked it, for three members of his family had been killed in a neighbourhood shelling led by Duuliye’s unit.
‘You devil, die in disgrace!’ he shouted.
We learned Captain Ali had fled to the South with a few pick-up trucks. We wouldn’t pursue, taking control of the whole north had to be our priority. But sooner or later, he would have his day of reckoning. I believed this more than l life itself.
The fall of Hargeisa could not be considered complete until we had hoisted the rebel flag at Khairia Square, in the city centre. We drove there through bombed-out neighbourhoods that lay in utter ruins. They had been deserted since the civilian population had fled in droves, two years earlier, following heavy air bombardment. Decomposing bodies lay everywhere. The place looked like an earthquake zone. I had never seen such carnage.
As we reached the square other rebel fighters streamed in from different directions. A huge effigy of General Idiris stood in the centre, daubed with slogans of the revolution. Our faction started to destroy the statue. In the heat of the moment, like Abraham destroying the idol, I struck the nose off the statue with vicious force from the barrel of my AK-47.
‘You imprisoned and killed my father,’ cried one rebel fighter, standing on the broken face of the statue on the ground.
General Hussein and I climbed on a tank to address the rebel fighters, now numbering over three thousand.
I saw Yusuf wave to me in jubilation, holding his radio aloft. I knew it was good and unexpected news.
‘Rasheed!’ he shouted. He rushed close to the tank and handed me the small radio, which I held close to my right ear.
‘General Idiris’s regime has fallen. The president has fled Mogadishu. His forces in Hargeisa, the regime’s last stronghold in the north, have fled too,’ said the announcer struggling to keep a steady voice.
I pressed my palms against my chest, felt the air empty from them. Our rebellion was at an end. Idiris had suffered the same fate as other tyrant leaders. Excited rumours swiftly spread through the rebel crowd.
General Hussein had wanted to address the rebel fighters, but seeing the overwhelming joy in my face, he passed me the bullhorn.
‘Our armed struggle has ended, but the task of rebuilding our country starts here. The rebirth of our nation has just begun. Our country is free at last!’
I flashed the victory sign and waved the rebel flag.
The rebel fighters erupted. Some fired into air in celebration. Others danced in a frenzy. General Hussein and I jumped down to join them. It was the most exhilarating moment in my life.
‘Let us go and see our houses,’ Abdul said.
Abdul was a fellow rebel fighter and a close friend whose family lived next door to my parents’ house. Our fathers had grown up in the same Daruraha area, a hilly northern neighbourhood. Abdul knew the place very well, and drove the jeep up there. Not a single house still had a roof, since the place had endured the heaviest regime shelling, to flush out the rebel fighters who had briefly infiltrated the neighbourhood. The strategic hilltop location had helped the rebels target impregnable regime positions on the other side of the city, following weeks of street fighting.
‘Yes, there it is: we’ll have to walk. There’s no driving through this mess,’ said Abdul.
We stumbled through the rubble of what had been our family homes. Despite the devastation, our house still looked old and small. A dusty wheelchair was all that remained in the middle of what had once been the living room. My paternal grandmother had spent the last few years of her life in a wheelchair. But my mother was wheelchair-bound as well: she had lapsed into depression following the death of my father.
I searched through the rubble for anything of sentimental value. At last I found an old black and white photo. Dusting it clean, I saw my parents holding a baby, their only child, me. Finding this relic made me as happy as a diver recovering ancient treasure from the ocean bed.
The spectacular devastation of our family homes not only reflected how men at war are devoid of mercy but also how the conflict had shattered our family dreams. We drove back towards the Miiska Saraakiisha Military Barracks.
‘I wish I could have caught Ali or Idiris alive,’ said Abdul, his voice breaking down. ‘I would have cut them into pieces for killing my parents, raping my sister, and destroying our lives.’
‘Stay calm, we’ve got an important declaration tomorrow,’ I patted his shoulder.
‘Yes, I know,’ he sighed.
As we approached the Barracks, rebel fighters were dispersing through the town. They took over military barracks, police stations, important official premises and major junctions.
We parked the jeep by the gate. We could smell the aroma of boiling meat. Camels were slaughtered and the atmosphere of a feast was looming.
The regime forces left behind a great deal of booty. There were tanks, anti-aircraft missiles and grenades for us to recover. I saw some rebel fighters break into an ammunition depot, a warehouse for fuel tanks and foodstuffs. But most of it was old Soviet military hardware.
‘If we’d had all these we’d have recaptured the country six years ago,’ he smiled.
I could not respond: six years ago was exactly when my father was killed.
‘I thought the declaration was to be made as soon as Hargeisa was captured?’ I said.
‘Sorry Rasheed, I did not tell you about this,’ said General Hussein. ‘The declaration is to be made in Buroa tomorrow. We shall be leaving for Buroa tonight.’
Buroa had fallen to the rebel fighters few days earlier, following a dramatic assault led by Lieutenant Adam.
‘Don’t feel upset about that. It’s what the rebel leaders decided after consulting the elders. Don’t blame me, blame Lieutenant Adam: you know how troublesome he is,’ he shrugged.
Lieutenant Adam was the second most-prominent rebel leader, after General Hussein. Though short and thin, he had strong voice; and in all the fights he’d had, he’d never once lost.
Lieutenant Adam and General Hussein never got along well; their previous ranks in government counted for nothing in rebel terms. Fighting the regime was their only unifying factor, and I knew their next fight would be over the future leadership of the country. Lieutenant Adam had trained with my father at West Point Military Academy in New York, I stayed out of their argument.
In the evening came the big feast. We ate camel meat and rice, our faces lit by camp fire light for there was no power supply in the city. We hadn’t had a real meal in three months, not since the day we’d captured the border town of Balligubadle: and before we’d been able to finish eating, we’d come under attack and fled back across the Ethiopian border.
Of the five rebel units, two were to go to Buroa where the meeting was scheduled for the following morning. We could not take the normal Hargeisa–Buroa highway, for most of the bridges were destroyed. We took the Oodweyne road. General Hussein and I travelled in the same jeep. This route was shorter, but it was unpaved and we had several punctures along the way.
‘Do you think the world will accept this unilateral declaration of independence, Rasheed?’ General Hussein asked.
‘I don’t care what the world thinks, but I do believe we have the right to decide our own future. Look at Somalia: the government in Mogadishu has collapsed, the president has fled the country. We have no option but to declare complete separation,’ I said.
‘After all, we gained independence five days before them, didn’t we?’
‘Yes, we did. I will follow the will of the people,’ he said.
‘This is not a new nation. It is rebirth,’ I said.
‘Rebirth, I agree.’
‘You’re running for president, aren’t you?’ I asked.
‘Yes, sorry to say. Your father was the founder of our struggle and if anyone were to lead us all, he would have been the right person,’ he said.
We reached Buroa at dawn, to be received by fellow rebel fighters at the gates of the town. General Hussein and I proceeded to a large building, in the centre, which had previously housed government offices including that of Mataan.
Mataan was the provincial commissioner, hated by the local people in Buroa. Young girls in their desperation would present themselves at his office, where he would give them money and small gifts in exchange for sex. The news of this corruption quickly spread across the north, and the rebel fighters carried out a meticulously-planned assassination. One night a young lady placed a bomb in his office, and the rebel fighters remotely detonated it the following morning, leaving Mataan dead. The regime reacted with killing, torture and mass arrests.
‘How have you been, son? said Lieutenant Adam as he shook my hand. The last time I saw you, you were a small boy. I am proud of you continuing to realise your father’s dreams. He was my best friend.’
‘It’s ironic that we’re occupying Mataan’s office, isn’t it?’ laughed Lieutenant Adam, as he showed me around the building, not excluding a basement once used as a torture chamber.
The building also accommodated the rebel leaders and clan elders, who had converged in the town ahead of the declaration of independence and the choosing of the new country’s leader.
General Hussein was the most prominent contender; but it was clear that he would face stiff competition from Lieutenant Adam, who believed that a Soviet-trained general should not lead a future country, for fear of his turning it into a new dictatorship.
Alongside a dozen rebel fighters, I slept on the roof of the building. Before sleep, we chatted about the situation in Mogadishu.
‘Fighting in Mogadishu has intensified, and General Farooq has declared himself president,’ Musa reported as he listened to the radio.
Musa was worried. His family was still in Mogadishu.
‘How could he declare himself president if he didn’t even capture the whole city, let alone the whole south?’ I asked.
Musa went on listening to the radio without answering me.
‘I hope your family returns safe,’ I said.
‘God willing,’ he said.
The night fell on a different world, as I drifted off into sleep. Suddenly my father appeared in his military attire.
‘I am proud of you, son, that our people are here to reclaim their freedom,’ father said.
My drowsiness quickly faded as he disappeared. Tossed and turned, I watched the star-lit sky well into the night.
A three-day conference was announced: all clan elders would gather by 31 December, in readiness for the declaration of independence, symbolically timed for New Year’s Day; the third day would see the election of a president for the new republic.
On the eve of the conference, I turned twenty five. Most delegates were in their fifties and sixties, but I wanted to represent Hargeisa. I was finally put on the list, the youngest delegate. I was not sure if I would have been included had I not been the son of General Mahmoud.
It was a sunny and windy morning in Buroa. The conference was highly anticipated. The separatist movement was viewed with consternation by many in the rest of Somalia.
The conference, under a large tree in front of the town hall, began with the recitation of poems and patriotic songs, some praising the armed struggle, others denouncing the ousted regime’s brutality.
‘With toil and bloodshed, we got back our country, we got back our country,’ ran one song.
‘I formally declare this gathering open,’ announced Sheikh Abdisamad after the preliminary ceremonies. Sheikh Abdisamad was from Erigavo, and had a big beard, his voice was soft. He sat composed in a large chair, and it was his privilege to lead the meeting, for he was the oldest delegate in the meeting.
There were over three hundred delegates in total. Each clan was to appoint its members to join the Council of Elders that would finally elect the leader. Some clans complained about the small number of slots given. But after some negotiations, an eighty-two-member Council of Elders was nominated.
The meeting was concluded a short while before mid-day prayer, after which there was a large feast: people ate camel meat, and drank its oily soup with vigour.
The next day would be the most important: the unilateral declaration of an independent republic. Side-meetings had been held all night long. This was an occasion I had waited for a long time, and it weighed more heavily on me than on any other person because – for the past two months – the declaration of independence had been carried in my pocket. The rebel leadership had decided to write it down when victory was in sight and, as the only law graduate among the rebel fighters, the final draft had been my work.
Dawn broke after a long, sleepless night for me. It was a morning rich with promise. I felt a new breeze blow. The place was refreshed with a sense of freedom reborn. It symbolised a struggle coming to fruition. People found their way into the gathering place very early. In less than three hours, members of the Council of Elders, other delegates and the rebel leadership were all represented.
The Council of Elders asked Isse to read the declaration. Isse was not good at public speaking, and had agreed only reluctantly. When the moment finally came, he could hardly step up to the stage. He shook uncontrollably. He gradually became inaudible and started to sweat as emotion overcame him. It was clear he could not deliver the important speech. I moved towards him.
‘Give me the declaration,’ I told him.
He passed it to me with shaking hand. I moved forward and faced the crowd. I was greeted with hesitant applause.
‘Rasheed Mohamoud, Rasheed Mohamoud!’ shouted a man at the back, as one woman ululated.
But that ululation sounded familiar to me, and I looked towards its source. There stood Khadija. Her beautiful eyes and smile seemed to instruct me to move on and pronounce the declaration. And somehow I shrugged off the thought of her, remembering the important proclamation I had to make before my people and the world.
I looked at the crowd. Silence fell. But this was my moment too, to serve my country at the hour of reckoning.
‘Over thirty years ago,’ I began, ‘our people achieved independence from Britain. But we recklessly surrendered it to South Somalia. Owing to the unfortunate events brought about by the union between the North and the South, the people of the North gather here today with the intention of reclaiming their lost freedom. They expressed their willingness for this move with the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion and with the supreme expression of their profound belief. And since the union was voluntary, we believe we have the right to abolish it as well.
As the crowd looked up to me, both the rebel and the new national flags flagged in the air as sand blew into their eyes.
‘This is not a decision we have taken lightly. Our people have been deprived of their basic human rights. We felt the right to take up arms against oppression, arbitrary arrest, torture, disappearances and persistent day-time curfews. General Idiris denied our people the right to justice.
‘Yes, yes, yes’ chanted the crowd punching the air with clenched fists.
‘Instead of building schools and hospitals, he stationed a large body of troops in every town in the North’.
‘To hell with Idiris!’ shouted an old man with a crutch.
‘To hell with Idiris’ shouted the crowd after him.
‘Women, children and the infirm are living in terrible conditions. It is these reasons -- and the awareness of the toil, blood and property it has cost us to prevail in our struggle -- which drive us to seek complete separation, such that Somalia will no longer claim jurisdiction over us’.
I felt my throat starting to strain but I collected myself and raised my voice so that everybody could hear it.
‘All the Somali territories, formerly under British rule, are officially ours. This new country will guarantee religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens’.
‘freedom, freedom, freedom!’ chanted the crowd.
‘We the people of the north, therefore, solemnly declare that the Republic of Somaliland is free from Somalia; and that Somaliland is a free nation’.
The crowd burst into thunderous applause. That thrilling moment felt like the birth of a newborn baby which brings a smile that never fades away. Women ululated and chanted patriotic slogans.
‘God is great, long live Somaliland,’ chanted one youth.
Making the declaration of independence lifted a mighty burden from my back. It felt as if I had released a white dove from my hands, into the open air. Once again, I felt the touch of my father’s presence, as his mission was accomplished even if Captain Ali or General Idiris had not been apprehended, and I knew that he was indeed proud of me.
But the touch I now longed for was the touch of Khadija.
A long walk into a dark, barren no-man’s land started. Fatima, walking bare-footed with the other shoe in her right hand, got close to Rasheed to get a glimpse of the wound on Rasheed’s head. Rasheed told her not to worry
‘I already put my life on the line for a woman’ smiled Rasheed.
‘What!’ exclaimed Fatima.
She, for the first time, started to understand why Rasheed took the journey. They were joined by Jibril and Hassan who too had some scratches on their thighs from the border wire. Rasheed looked round the group and saw the migrants are less by half of they were before in the bus, either shot or caught. They passed through camel-rearing communities. It was increasingly getting cold as the hyenas cackled around.
Just before sunrise, they had reached Ad-amazinem, a small rural town that heavily relied on the money generated from smuggling illegal migrants. They were received by Saleh, a tall, dark man in traditional Sudanese white ‘Qamiis’ ‘Gown’.
‘Ahlan Wasahlan’ ‘Welcome’, you have come for Jaylani, he will be here soon. There is also another group waiting for him. He will take all of you to Khartoum’ told Saleh smilingly to the group.
They sat in a large hut lit by an oil lamp as they waited for Jaylani. Everybody understood the temporary stay in the hut will be charged too.
Not long after did they hear the humming sound of Jaylani’s truck, apparently the only car in the small town. Among them it was Rasheed who could speak Arabic. He negotiated with Jaylani about the fare.
‘We will reach Khartoum in the afternoon, I have to pay for all the checkpoints along the way because I am illegally smuggling you so please do not negotiate like a normal fare’ urged Jaylani.
They all paid and went into the truck. At around mid-day, they passed over a bridge over the Nile River. Rasheed watched the spectacular view of the gentle flow of the water where the White Nile meets the Blue Nile. The sprawling farms on either side of the river banks were beautiful as the ancient gardens of Aden.
‘How can a continent, as naturally rich as this, persistently suffer from drought and famine?’ asked Rasheed.
As the journey continued into central Sudan, the farm fields looked green and fertile. The truck took big sacks of fruits and vegetables to neutralize the image that could be caused by carrying migrants into Khartoum. Reaching the Khartoum checkpoint, it looked more formal than any other checkpoints they passed through along the way. There were more police and more patrol vehicles. Apparently looking anxious, Jaylani got off to talk to the officers. The bribe money negotiations looked somewhat unfruitful as one officer threatened to arrest Jaylani and confiscate the truck. Jaylani came back to the truck and ask everyone to pay more money or risk arrest. Everybody on the bus had been scared as the scorching sun intensified. Rasheed had always been disturbed by corruption that plagued Africa but he had no choice. He quickly stood up and told everybody to pay twenty Dollars more or face arrest. One migrant appeared not to understand Somali but could understand the situation. Jibril hurriedly started to collect the money and handed it over to Jaylani who went back to the officers. After the increase, they let the truck go.
The truck traveled up to a small old hotel on the Southern tip of Khartoum. Tired and hungry, they were served with a large traditional ‘Ful’ ‘beans meal’ as everyone checked into a room on the second floor. They went to a small pharmacy clinic by the hotel where Rasheed’s head wound was dressed and covered with a white pad. They came back to the hotel and found a fat, dark man with large moustache talking to the group with an apparent language misunderstanding. Rasheed quickly intervened and found out that he was the man who would transport them to the Libya border. After some negotiations, everybody went to their rooms awaiting tomorrow’s journey. Rasheed quickly fell asleep behind a green mosquito net separating him from the raging mosquitoes.
In the next morning, they were joined by more people waiting to cross the border with them and discussing about the trip to the Sudan-Libya border. In the evening, they all got into a big, old bus. Rasheed tried to sit with Hassan but saw Fatima’s expression ushering him to sit beside her.
‘You sit with Jibril, I will give Fatima company’ he told Hassan.
It was clear that Rasheed and Fatima had become friends under exceptionally challenging circumstances. They got the first opportunity to talk about the life they left behind and why they risked to take the journey. Rasheed was moved when he realized that her parents had died when she was still a little child. She told him about an arranged marriage with an older man living in England. She continued and said that she found out that this man had gotten married to another woman in England without her knowledge.
‘I lost the will to stay at home and practise my nursing career’ said sad Fatima.
‘By the way, I can see you are almost the same, but you must be over hills for the woman. Where is she by the way?’ curiously asked Fatima.
‘Oslo, she moved to Oslo three years ago’ answered Rasheed.
‘You must have loved her very much then’ laughed Fatima.
‘I really do’ smiled Rasheed.
The bus traveled all night long, morning and afternoon in the unforgiving climate with its brutal variations. As they entered the desert; everybody felt the heat and tried to reach out for a dark jerrican full of water near the driver to quench the devastating thirst as the small food supplies dwindled. At dusk, they reached the Sudan-Libya border manned by militias as the Gaddafi forces had withdrawn three months before. Although the militia looked more disorganized and rather frightening, they had no problem with the driver as the bribe negotiations went unexpectedly smooth. They then traveled deep into the world’s vastest subtropical desert with the desert storms hitting the bus from all sides. They reached Al-awaynat, which served as the headquarters of ‘Magafe’ ‘The Finder’ as popularly known back home, the smuggling ring that gained brutish notoriety for killing and harshly treating illegal migrants by often holding them for ransom.
‘Stop, come down everybody’ shouted a young Libyan man with a long hair as he pointed his gun to the bus while another car approached them in the opposite direction.
It was obvious the two groups were competing for who would take them hostage first like two twin hyenas competing for dead beast. Everybody got off and they were led to a large hut that provided shade which was already filled with about fifty people both men and women put together in terrible conditions. Now they had all known that the experience of sleeping between four walls ended in town. The heavily armed men running the informal detention camp numbered about a dozen. One man threateningly moved towards them and told to make a call back home for ransom.
‘Fifteen hundred dollars each otherwise we will kill you and you will not board the truck bound for Tripoli tomorrow morning’ threatened the man as he presented to them a long Thuraya phone with his left hand while holding the pointing gun in the other.
Everyone called at least someone whom they asked to send money. This went on as women who had been raped screamed in the back. Jibril had looked directly at Rasheed and put his index finger at his mouth communicating to Rasheed to bite his lip and not dare to challenge the dangerously armed men. He fidgeted but understood such move will only open a can of worms and jeopardize his goal. Another group of young smugglers came on a smaller truck. They had negotiated with hostage takers and finally gave a woman away. They took her and disappeared into the desert as she wept in a West African accent. Fatima listened to the screaming of the woman in awe. The man left them for another group in the right corner as a trembling Eritrean man made a desperate phone call. It was obvious the armed men wanted to be listened to unquestioningly.
Rasheed felt ashamed of asking his parents for the remaining six hundred dollars and called Ali, his friend for help instead.
‘I asked Ali to send me eight hundred dollars, six hundred to complete the ransom fee and two hundred for the truck to Tripoli. I told him that I will pay back if I survived’ Rasheed told Hassan.
‘And if you do not survive?’ asked Jibril.
‘You can only pay back when you are alive’ answered Rasheed as he watched the armed man threatening and kicking others often calling them with bad names containing a racial slur about their dark skin.
Hassan and Fatima said they had the money. Jibril, like Rasheed, had half of the money and waited for his uncle to send him more. They all sat waiting patiently as they listened to the gurgling croak of a raven flying overhead. Most of the people at the camp looked withdrawn and emaciated and being at the mercy of such ruthless smugglers, most of them had bruises on their faces due to the severe beatings. Some limbed while others had red eyes. Young women looked helpless and in absolute fear and shame. It was obviously a little hell in the middle of a vast desert. In the evening, they were served with dry pancakes as they sat around a camp fire. Everybody quickly fell asleep on the floor except Rasheed. He could hear a girl start screaming with a Mogadishu accent far behind. He stealthily stood up and tip-toed to the direction where the woman was mercilessly being raped. He saw one man rape her while another held the gun as he smoked a cigarette.
He moved towards the two men. The standing man quickly rushed towards him in a supersonic speed, cocked his gun and ordered him to go back or he would shoot him. Rasheed retreated back to his corner and slept feeling deep seated anger towards the two beast-like men. He wondered if she would have embarked on this hazardous journey had she known about the tormenting experience ahead.
‘They are inhumane’ he murmured as he had turned on the right side on the bed-bug infested mattress and fell asleep.
Early in the morning, a white old truck came as almost one third of the people got ready to enter. Rasheed, Jibril, Hassan and Fatima stood up. The group leader moved towards them and asked them to wait until he confirmed whether the money had been transferred to their account or not.
‘Hassan, Fatima, Rasheed, you three go, Jibril, you stay, we don’t have your money’ he thundered as Jibril looked at him restlessly.
‘We can’t leave him’ pleaded Fatima as Rasheed also intervened.
Jibril graciously asked them to leave and that he would meet them in Tripoli. The three joined the rest of the group, entered the truck which drove off leaving behind a cloud of dust. They felt disappointed of leaving Jibril behind in captivity, not sure of whether he would even make to Tripoli.
A two-day journey, on a very rough road deep into the desert, started. Under the baking sun, they saw human and animals carcasses along the way. Rasheed, first the first time, saw people who had lost their lives to thirst and hunger desperately trying to reach Europe and their remains lost forever in the desert sands. He felt sad to see vultures hovering around human remains as the desert foxes scramble for them too. He remembered horrific stories of strange beasts and animals attacking illegal migrants and regretted how African leaders were oblivious of the consequences of their misrule. The truck had a flat tyre bringing the journey to a temporary halt as passengers got off to relieve themselves. Fatima felt dizzy and threw up. The intensity of the scorching sun that baked the desert in the day was nearly unmatched on the planet.
He was mesmerized by the sheer expanse of the parched landscape of the desert from a small collection of sand to a large orange sand dune sculpted to perfection by wind under the perpetual clear sky. It was an architecture that naturally emerged from the earth. He had watched medieval buildings, camel caravans and wondered the slow pace with which life has changed little through the centuries. He was amazed by the resilience of people living in such harsh environment with extremely rare rainfalls.
At night, they came across a check-point manned by Tawarriq militiamen who were sympathetic to Colonel Gaddafi’s Pan-Africanist stance and support for black people. Despite their frightening look, their dark skin was of mild re-assurance to them. They told all migrants to get off and they started searching money from everyone. Rasheed and Jibril told Fatima to hide a folded five hundred dollars note. Fatima put the money in her pants. One Tawarriq man was particularly nice to them as he prevented a fellow Tawarriq man to strip search Fatima. The five hundred dollars survived narrowly. His gesture was as rare as finding flower in the vast desert. The truck was released and drove farther up to Tripoli. They feared of encountering another desert banditry along the way.
They saw destroyed tanks and vehicles apparently hit by NATO warplanes whch destroyed the Gaddafi’s ground force. It hastened his downfall following an imposed United Nations No-Fly Zone. Farther up, they reached the major highway leading to Tripoli with an apparently abandoned oil refinery, symbolizing the volatility of the Arab country’s wealth, insight farther afield.
Along the way, frequent scenes of destroyed heavy weaponry were evident all around. They saw large convoy approaching them from behind. They all felt anxious and tried, from a distance, to figure out whether it was the government or the rebel forces. Everyone feared the rebels, for they could be mistaken with a re-enforcement from the Tawarriq militias. The green flag of the apparently retreating Gaddafi army was visible which gave them a sigh of relief. They were quickly ordered to join the convoy to Tripoli and fight alongside the Gaddafi army. They could not risk questioning them, for there was an obvious feeling of defeat and frustration in the faces of the Gaddafi army that was on the back foot unable to stave off the Western-backed rebels. They desperately needed re-enforcement to ward off the advancing rebels and the intensifying air strike of the NATO war planes. The truck drove behind them carrying only twelve women and young girls including Fatima leaving behind the quintessentially disturbing Saharan experience. In less than an hour, they reached the Tripoli checkpoint where they were joined by another retreating unit. It was visible the Gaddafi regime was in its twilight. Over four-decades of iron-fist rule was crumbling right before their own eyes.
Rasheed and Hassan were forced to join the Gaddafi army manning the Tripoli check-point as Fatima along with other women and young girls were allowed to proceed into the city. Rasheed gave the contacts of his cousin, Mursal, living at the Jamahiriya neighborhood of Tripoli.
‘Call him and ask other Somalis there about him. You will find him, he has been there for over a year, don’t worry, we shall find a way out’ Rasheed consoled Fatima as their vehicle drove off.
Each of them had been given an AK-47 rifle and an army Jacket. They were told to fight alongside the Gaddafi army.
‘We will escape in the night, don’t worry’ whispered Rasheed to Hassan
More demoralized army retreated into the capital carrying wounded men. Hardly any convoy advanced into the opposite direction. The Gaddafi army suffered major military setback in the face of the increasingly more armed and organized rebels chiefly. The NATO airstrikes which crippled his ground forces were instrumental of the gains on the ground. It was obvious the regime wanted to hold to its last stronghold, Tripoli. An army officer, originally from Chad, offered them two cigarettes. Rasheed excused himself while Hassan smoked.
‘What will you do if the rebels advance into the city?’ Rasheed asked the Chadian man.
‘I will throw out my gun and uniform and melt into the civilian population. They would not have defeated us had there been no NATO air cover for them’ answered the officer in anger as he threw out his cigarette butt.
In the evening, they could see an approaching retreating convoy and before they reached the check-point, they were repeatedly hit by airstrikes as everybody terrifyingly ran in different directions for cover. The strikes violently shook the ground as heavy explosions lit the area. Rasheed and Hassan ran to the direction of the city occasionally taking cover behind some abandoned buildings. They then reached another highway with a fast approaching taxicab.
‘Stop, stop’ shouted Rasheed
‘Idkhila’ ‘Enter’ said the driver as he quickly accelerated the car fearing it could be hit too.
They had then reached Jamahiriya neighborhood and could see the sea from a distance. It looked darker and vaster than he imagined. The Tawaliyaha Area of Jamhuriya was filled with African migrants. Rasheed had seen two young men who looked like Somali and approached them. He inquired if they had seen three young women come to the area in the morning or whether they knew Mursal. They learned Mursal, for he was married to a famous Somali woman involved in the smuggling ring in the neighborhood. Rasheed was surprised to learn about it, for he knew that he left his wife and children struggling back in Hargeisa.
They walked up into Mursal’s apartment on the second floor of an old building overlooking the sea where many fishermen had abandoned their boats. Rasheed inquired about the three young women and discovered they were taken into the next building which had more vacant rooms.
They entered a small room in the same building where Fatima and other girls stayed. The airstrikes least affected this part of the city. The migrants living in the neighborhood were mostly from the war-torn nations. Somalis, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Sudanese made up the majority. Mursal later come to their building and told them about the situation in the country and any possible way out.
‘The Gaddafi regime appears to be falling soon and the rebels resent black people and may kill any dark-skinned person thinking he is a Tawariq. Anyway, two boats are leaving tomorrow night, you should call home for money. I will talk to Warsame he is my colleague in this’ advised Mursal.
It was obvious Mursal himself had become a smuggler too.
Everybody called home and, for the first time, Rasheed called Khadija and informed her about his planned trip to Italy by sea the following night. Khadija was shocked by the call and Rasheed’s precarious situation.
‘Pray for me darling, I hope I will make it to the other side of the sea’ implored Rasheed.
Rasheed also called his parents and other family members and asked them for their prayers. His parents were extremely worried about the dangerous sea crossing.
‘Please do not take a poor boat’ pleaded his mother on phone.
‘We do not have all the fifteen hundred dollars now but we shall borrow the rest from other people and we will send it to you in the afternoon’ said his father.
They all went back to their rooms and waited for money as they thought pensively about the final and the most dangerous part of the journey that lay ahead. Rasheed thought about Hargeisa and the long journey he had made to Tripoli. He saw his small diary book protruding from his jacket hanging on the window. He sat up and walked towards it. He then sat at the small table with the window overlooking the dark sea and started staring at the dark, vast and scary sea.
I left my beloved home and family, traveled across the Ethiopian Highlands and over the Nile River. I passed through a vast desert where no meaningful life existed. I witnessed horrendous crimes committed and ended up in the middle of a raging civil war in a foreign land; yet my love for you has never been stronger. I imagine the two of us living together happily ever after.I chose to take this journey not because I want to live in a good country but to live with the good person I have ever loved. Through the window of this room, the sea looks dark and scary, but your sparkling eyes across the sea and many miles away not only illuminate the dark sea but it gives me the courage to set sail and reach you. In any way it turns out, do not blame yourself of any fault, for its mine alone’
Fatima came to his room and asked about what he was writing. She smiled when she found out what it was about. He gave the letter to Warsame and told him to send to Khadija in Oslo, in case anything went wrong. Mursal, with a surprise look on his face, agreed. The following day, preparations of the sea journey was well underway as the money of all three had been sent which was later handed over to Warsame, who arranged the boat in the evening.
Working under the canopy of darkness, Warsame and his fellow smugglers organized the boat. They sneaked into the sea shore like denounced disciples boarding Noah’s Ark ahead of an inevitable flood calamity. Rasheed stood at the edge of the sea. His anxious eyes stared far out to the sea. The white foaming of the waves swept towards him bursting under his feet. The rumbling of the great voice of the sea felt indifferent of their long and uncertain ride from Hargeisa to the shores of Tripoli. Their attitude matched the water: dark, miserable and restless. The horizon rose and dipped so that it was difficult to identify where the sea and the sky blended against the unbroken darkness. None of them could measure the depth of the darkness.
The migrants’ number quickly swelled to over two hundred people comprising of men, women and children. Their nationalities varied greatly. Most of them were from war-torn countries. Each clutched a few cherished belongings or the hand of a loved one as they crammed onto the boat that would normally carry fifty people. Their vessel to the ‘promised land’ had neither name on the bow nor flag on the stern.
‘How could this small boat carry all these people?’ asked Hassan with an anxious whispering voice.
Rasheed sat beside Hassan and opposite Fatima on the lower deck of the boat. It wasn’t quite a seat at all. Calling it such would be an overstatement as the passengers were so packed that their knees interlaced so much that one man’s leg was in the crotch of the person opposite. The three became inseparable. They cultivated comradeship under exceptionally challenging circumstances of their treacherous journey.
Saleh would act as the new captain of the boat, for human traffickers did not travel with illegal migrants. He was young, tall and strongly built. Although he was also a migrant, there was an authority in his bearing.
They set out with hope. It was a one-way ticket- with only two possible destinies- Europe or drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. It was like sailing into the city of no return. This was the most perilous part of their northerly journey. The lights of Tripoli vanished into the Southern horizon and all that eyes could see was the dark sea all around.
A cold wind blew fiercely against their faces. It was the beginning of winter. Their dominant thought was a better life on the other side of the sea and they felt driven by the breath of their big dreams. They thought of life in Europe as bereft of hardships, this singular expectation filled the mind of every man and woman to the exclusion of all else. For some, the sea was the separating line between hope and despair. For others, it was between persecution and freedom. No price could therefore be deemed too great for the ultimate prize.
They sailed on, their eyes shining like a somber candlelight vigil in honor of the deceased. The eerie surrounding was silent and looked deceptively calm. In such a setting, the mind loses its perspective, time and space become trivial and unreal. It was not a journey for the faint-hearted.
By the half-a-meter thick gunwale which separated him from the sea, Rasheed watched in fascination a swarm of fish swimming following the pace of the boat. Their bright green skins were visible even in the dark water. One fish oddly wandered off. For Rasheed, who was never fond of reading bad omens, did not give thought to the symbolism of a lonely fish parting ways with its peers in the perilous water below. Yet he felt the pulsation of sea in his heart.
Rasheed’s head bowed in reflection, a myriad of thoughts and feelings rushed through. His mind was already crowded with the horrific tales of countless numbers of people who had died in the desert. He could imagine the anguish of those lost in the vast Sahara Desert like needles in a haystack. He thought of those drowned trying to reach Europe. He felt guilty for having left Jibril behind at the mercy of traffickers in the middle of the desert, for he was not able pay the ransom.
‘Rasheed, are you thinking about what lies ahead?’ asked Fatima with a slight smile as she pushed back a stray curl that had escaped the confines of her headscarf.
‘No, I am thinking of the path we trod and what we went through to board this boat.’ said Rasheed blinking away the unpleasant memories of their voyage.
This was their first opportunity to talk about the life they left behind. Rasheed was moved by Fatima’s story. She told him how her parents had died when she was still a little child and about an arranged marriage with an older man who lived in England.
‘I found out that he had married another woman in England. I lost the will to stay at home and practise my nursing career.’ said Fatima biting her lip.
‘I can see you are following after a girl, tell me about her?’ asked Fatima,
‘Her name is Khadija. She moved to Oslo three years ago to re-unite with her family whom she was separated from during the civil war’ he rubbed his arms to combat the chill.
‘You must love her very much’ said Fatima laughing.
‘I really do.’ said Rasheed smiling.
‘You are two broken hearts.’ interjected Hassan.
‘I never loved anybody yet. Maybe I will find my love on other side of the sea.’ said Hassan as he playfully pushed his elbow against Rasheed’s flank.
Rasheed was sustained by his love for Khadija which was deep and vast like the sea. Even living far apart did not dispel the thrill. He hungered for her company, her beautiful smile and her clear innocent eyes. His love was like a light in the darkness only visible to him. It made everything seem less brooding. But he knew he wasn’t the first man to embark on such a quest. He was following in the footprints of old romantic legends that had crossed vast oceans before him. Some had made it and found their love while others had died in the attempt. Those were Rasheed’s heroes and heroines.
Undeterred by the cold and with a tone oblivious of the surrounding, Tedesse sang a patriotic song which evoked memories of the homeland in the voyagers. He sang with zeal like a man who was certain he was sailing to freedom. Rasheed felt something stir in him as he listened.
There was a sudden bolt of light followed by a quick heart-wrenching roar of thunder which sent tremors of fear and trepidation to every heart. It sounded like the first menacing whisper of a rising storm. A storm was brewing behind the layers of the dark sky.
The cold pierced the skin. Within the confines of their heavy clothing, the travelers shivered. As the gathering storm howled its mournful melody, tranquility vanished.
The rain came down in violent torrents and the waves became ferocious. The boat had insufficient stamina to sail against the raging winds. In the minds of the passengers, the faces of their loved ones raced through their minds. The timber of the windswept and sea-battered lower deck creaked and groaned as her hull broke through each on coming sea.
Rasheed looked down and saw water engulfing Fatima’s ankles.
‘Water, water, water is entering the boat!’ shouted Rasheed as they rushed to aide in stopping it.
‘Don’t move to one side, the boat will lose balance!’ shouted Saleh.
He did not want them to surge to one side of the boat amid the growing terror. They nailed a piece of wood over the hole to avert disaster. The water was contained. For a moment, they all believed their fates were intertwined and the turbulent sea was a force set against them. The experience had made all the migrants to realize how much loyalty they owed one another. Comradeship was now more than a mere realization of their shared destiny.
Rasheed stood on the deck trying to gauge the strength of the storm. He was horrified by the strength and height of the waves. He raised his hands in prayer to the only God that could still the waves. He looked back at other migrants apprehensively. There was a competence in his hands and a gleam of challenge in his eyes. Fatima and Hassan looked at him. They thought it was unwise to stand on the bow of the boat on a stormy night. Saleh came out and stood beside Rasheed. He was buried in deep sadness but his determination to beat the storm was strong as the one that hangs on even in the seemingly unstoppable disaster.
‘We will get ashore safe.’ affirmed Saleh.
He rushed back to the cabin and sharply turned the boat to keep the sea, rising menacingly over the gunwale, from breaking into the boat.
The mighty tempest grew stronger. Rasheed felt himself on the edge of the world, peering over the rim into a fathomless chaos of an eternal night. Through his terror ran reminiscences of his wonderful time with Khadija.
Saleh steered the packed boat through the giant waves. The dreams of the migrants started to falter. At first the winds seemed to be arising from every quarter but as they continued, they swung the boat southward away from the desired northward direction. The force of the storm was so great that it broke the mast half way up.
When in the depths of the troughs she buried her bow into the next sea so deep the migrants thought, she would never raise bow again. Time and again she rose to the occasion and shook off the seas that were trying to sink her. At each wave she rose defiantly like a wounded tiger. The waves and the wind seemed to be competing for them like famished wolves.
Rasheed wiped his face clear of water. As each crest came and swashed into the boat, the ice-cold water drenched them anew. The migrants removed water from the boat. It was like pouring grains of corn into a bag full of holes.
‘Do you think we can make it?’ Rasheed asked Saleh as he struggled to remove the water that swirled in over the stern along with other migrants.
‘Focus on the wave ahead.’ advised Saleh.
More water gushed in from all sides. It was an incredibly wearisome business. The reflections of the migrants were mixed. There were growing regrets, longing to see the beloved, powerless disgust, surrender and anger. Their spirits were high but their strength dwindled as did their hopes of beating the sea. None of them understood why they should drown and be deprived of the chance for a better life in Europe yet they had come this far. Death lurked in the air and in the water, yet they sailed with might and main.
Some migrants were swept overboard and thrown to their deaths like stones thrown from a sling. Rasheed moved up to the upper deck only to discover that some of his companions had disappeared.
The boat moved over the furrowed sea to deeper water. It was as if the boat was sailing in a dark trench. The migrants were silent. Saleh breathed with open mouth as he looked at the monstrous wave ahead that appeared from nowhere. It was an incredibly tall, black wave much higher than the mast of the boat. It seemed to be the culmination of many waves. As it approached all who saw it, knew this was to be the end, for no boat, no matter how well built could survive the pounding that was imminent
Rasheed felt how precious the last moment of life was. He reflected upon the innumerable flaws of his life, he wished for another chance that he would be a better man. He heard the boat’s last groan like an old man on his death bed. The waves crashed the boat and span it almost upright veering it out of control. No man’s effort was strong enough to keep it from being overwhelmed. Despite their efforts, the fate of the boat was already sealed.
It capsized in the mighty tempest. There were a few life jackets and only one inflatable life-raft aboard that could carry a dozen people. There was no ‘women and children first’ rule to observe. Everybody struggled to get hold to the closest piece of wood for buoyancy as the better part of the boat sank farther into the bottomless sea. It was a journey that never saw day light
Rasheed resurfaced looking around for his companions. He saw Fatima in the distance and swam towards her. He noticed she did not know how to swim. He pushed her to a panel of wood buoyant enough for two people.
‘Hold on to this!’ he screamed as he swam back towards a drowning child and drew him to the floating wood.
He saw two people clinging to the vessel’s upturned hull which stuck out of water in the distance. The air was alive with wailing voices with the shrill of the most acute agony and despair. Their tearful eyes added water to the sea. The cries were gradually drowned out by the waves.
People were scattered everywhere like autumn leaves, some floating with their life jackets, others on their own. Some cried as their life jackets were shredded. It was hard to breathe with the high crashing waves and the freezing cold. Rasheed realized how the sea was bereft of sympathy and how his love for Khadija offered him no shield from the wreck. His mind momentarily turned to the tragic heroes of old that had lost their lives in their quest for love. May be I will join their ranks, he thought.
He saw blood in the water. At first he thought a shark had come to feast on the carnage. But soon he saw the source of blood was a mortally wounded man bleeding from the head and a hand beckoning for help. Rasheed sighed with relief that it was not a shark attack, but feared the smell of blood could attract them. He then saw a mother clutching her baby above the water to save him from drowning.
Fatima saw floating bodies of a child and a woman.
‘They are dead’ she screamed.
More dead bodies mostly women and children floated in the water. The bodies were pale like ghosts. Rasheed saw a drowning woman screaming for help in the distance. He swam through floating corpses and debris and led the woman to the wood without knowing whether the wood was buoyant enough to hold four people. Some survivors clung to their comrades' corpses for buoyancy. It was a flotsam of humanity.
A huge wave rolled over them taking everybody down. As he resurfaced, Rasheed could not see any of them. A moment later, Fatima bulged out water but the boy and the other woman had drowned. He took her to a piece of wood. Fatima gripped it but she lost momentum and could hardly hold on to it any longer. She was becoming hypothermic. Rasheed tried to encourage her not to give up.
‘I am the daughter of Farah Gamute, if you survive just remember Gamute’ Fatima told Rasheed with her head about half out of the water and her breath puffing out in thin mist.
She did not want her family to feel distraught over her unknown fate. No one wanted to be lost in the vast and unsearchable sea that bore no mark of passing feet.
‘We will make it Fatima, do not give up, we will all survive.’
‘Fatima, are you OK?’ asked worried Rasheed.
She seemed to have emerged from deep hibernation and gained lucidity. She talked as if the words were being torn out of her by some magical force.
‘Rasheed, you told me you took this journey for a woman, if you survive please do not hurt her. I took this journey because I was hurt by a man’.
An Italian navy helicopter had flown over the wreck site. It threw a flare.
‘Help!, help!’ yelled a man.
‘Do not give up! The rescue team is already here’ Rasheed assured Fatima.
But Rasheed’s joy of imminent rescue was short lived as the helicopter flew away.
The rough weather proved relentless. The waves drew them down under the water again. When Rasheed resurfaced he looked desperately around for Fatima but he could not see her.
‘Fatima, Fatima’ shouted Rasheed.
He dived back in the water and saw her lifeless body drifting underwater. Her face was stony and frozen. He swam after her, but she sank faster than he could swim down and her body disappeared. He watched her body vanish in grim and silent valediction.Fatima was gone, forever. She could no longer wrestle with death.
A merchant ship passed in a distance apparently oblivious of their presence or their cries for help. Rasheed watched the light disappear in the horizon in disbelief. He felt very sad.
‘Too many bad things had already happened and now this!’
He could not understand why the ship did not spot them and come to their rescue.
He felt that dying in the Mediterranean Sea was not a triumphant death. He thought it was a shame if he drowned without seeing Khadija and prayed for one chance to set foot upon dry ground.
He became exhausted and looked at the stars in the sky where the souls of the perished ascended. His body was numbed into submission as was his mind. Slowly he drifted into a delirium.
All had fallen dead calm and there wasn’t even a breath of wind or a ripple upon the water, only Khadija’s beautiful face. She offered a hand to him to draw him out of the frigid waters; he struggled for it but her hand was just beyond his reach. He saw himself reaching the gates of Oslo. He was on horseback breathing so fast as his breath nearly masked the thudding hooves of the horse. He urged more speed out of the animal. His Khadija was visible but at a distance and he must not lose sight of the apple of his heart. She was waiting; her arms open to welcome him in a tender embrace. He dismounted and hugged her as she melted into his arms in the middle of a narrow, deserted, windblown street lined with yellow-leaved trees as birds chimed a romantic melody in the background. Her embrace tightened and for an instant he felt a violent joy that threatened to burst the floodgates of his emotional being. As suddenly as it had started, the dream faded. He was still adrift in the vast waters of the sea.
As he looked around, his eyes chanced on a tiny light on the distant dark horizon. He thought he was still dreaming. He waited for it to melt into nothingness but it did not. Rather the illumination grew larger until there was no doubt in his mind that it was a ship. What he could not know was whether it was a merchant ship or a rescue vessel. The light got bigger as the ship drew closer. Now he could see the lighting outlook over the horizon, the Angioletto. The assurance of an impending rescue shone in Rasheed’s eyes, his spirit soared as did those of other survivors. His salvation had finally arrived. It felt good to be alive.
‘We are here, help!’ screamed one man waving at the ship.
The rescue vessel finally arrived. Rasheed clung to one of the rubber dinghies that were thrown on to the water. In a momentary flash of vigor, he held on to a rope and managed to get aboard. Once he reached the safety of the deck, he looked back at the sea, not sure who he hoped to find. It was too late to save most of others. He was saddened by the large number of bodies floating all around in the water. The Mediterranean water had turned into a vast cemetery.
He stared at the sea hoping Fatima’s body to float back up. It did not. The rescue team scoured the waters for more bodies. Rasheed watched a tearful paramedic pronouncing a pregnant woman dead. In a momentary relief from his anguish, his other companions in the tragic voyage, Hassan and Saleh had been rescued. They came up towards him, still distraught.
‘Fatima?’ asked Hassan looking back at the floating bodies.
Rasheed couldn’t answer. There was a heavy lump in his throat. Finally, as though to himself, he whimpered, in deep sorrow and with a downcast face.
‘She is gone’ said sorrowful Rasheed.
Her death weighed heavily on him. He lamented bitterly for not being able to save her. Hassan sat on the deck absorbing the sad news.
About eighty migrants were rescued and fifty bodies were recovered. Over a hundred, including Fatima were unaccounted for. The chance of getting any more survivors was getting vanishingly small. The salvage operation was over. The rescue vessel headed back to Italy.
Rasheed sat in a corner of the deck. He was wet, scared and exhausted. He was unwilling to accept Fatima’s fate. Others lay motionless on the deck as if they were dropped from a rooftop. Wracked with sores and strained muscles, the survivors felt they were lucky, despite being on the grave-edge for a long time. They had stared into the belly of death.
A pregnant woman went into labor. She was lucky to be in the hands of paramedics. The cry of the new born baby was piercing. Everybody was spellbound.
‘It is a boy’ shouted a paramedic.
His arrival generated a brief happy look on the faces of the rescue team. The dazed migrants did not know whether the child was indeed born in African or European waters. But they did not care, for he was already an illegal migrant in his first night of life despite having no say in the circumstances surrounding his birth.
They sailed past an opulent cruise liner leisurely sailing with an elderly couple on the deck with the ladder slung from the stern. The couple watched the migrants on the rescue vessel. Rasheed, with dropped jaws, watched the enormity of the liner. It was his first glimpse of the presumed wealth of Europe. He knew it was a different sort of odyssey. He was struck by the stark contrast of the Mediterranean Sea as the graveyard for many young Africans while it was also a luxurious destination for the privileged.
At the crack of dawn, they sighted the lights of the Italian island of Lampedusa glittering in the distant horizon. This was southern tip of Europe. Rasheed stood up to gaze out the lights like Moses watching over the promised land. Few surviving migrants could stand up on their own volition and effort. His eyes dwelt on the lighthouse and the lights of many ships lying abreast in the distance. To him, the lights represented the calmness of nature amid the toils of the individual or perhaps the unconcern of the universe. It filled him with acute sense of wonder.
As they got closer, slowly the land arose from the sea. The jagged contours of the island became more visible. They watched the wide stretch of island ridges that lay before their eyes. The rising sun obscured the lighthouse. It was the sun, the sea and heaven on earth. On-shore winds blew their faces. Shorebirds flew high overhead.
The survivors were helped to disembark. Setting foot on European shores was not exciting and momentous as they imagined. There was no mirth in their hearts.
People on the island held their breath as heaps of bodies in gray plastic bags piled up on shore. A woman survivor wiped tears from her face to ward off grief. Her son drowned.
Tadesse survived but his cousin had died. Rasheed walked to him.
‘I wish we could all have reached here safely listening to your song.’ Rasheed told him.
He nodded his head in agreement while uttering no word.
At the migrant centre, Rasheed walked out. Wrapped up in a blue blanket, he stood on the cliff overlooking the sea that had swallowed up Fatima. He imagined Fatima’s body washed up ashore. He thought of breaking the sad news to her family.
He was not sure if telling his melancholy story and tragic end of his fellows, whom he partnered in affliction, would deter others from such disaster. But the suffering was more than a mortal tongue could recount.
Rasheed saw his extra-ordinary survival a vindication for his true love, a love interspersed with immense human loss. He thought the only villain and tormentor was the cruel sea that unleashed its fury on them at their most vulnerable moment. His mind was now set on the long journey to Oslo to finally meet Khadija.
The situation at the migrant centre was dire. Most guards and staff were hospitable obviously migrant-weary. The migrants thought about leaving the island and the unpredictable life in Europe. Although they were grateful to have survived their ordeal, they were obviously in bad mood. The guards solicited for sex in exchange from poor migrant women in exchange for their entry into mainland Italy.
In the following morning, Rasheed, wrapped up in a blue blanket, walked out to the outskirts of the migrant center and stood on the cliff overlooking the sea with an angry look at it implicitly blaming it for swallowing up Fatima. Despite mortality being the greatest unfixable reality of human nature, he was hurt by watching the sea that had robbed Fatima of her young life and cut short her medical career. He thought of how her pursuit of a better life came to an abrupt and tragic end and how she lost a chance to meet someone else who could love her and rebuild her life with despite the fact that back home, her journey will only be seen as a monumental error of judgment. He knew young people with a great temptation of a better life in Europe would continue making the dangerous journey and wondered whether it was indeed worth dying for.
He thought about the continent he left behind and the trip to Norway. He was worried about how the guardsmen would allow him to travel to Rome. Suddenly he heard people screaming and a smoke pillowing out of migrant centre which quickly turned into a hellish inferno. An accidental fire started in the camp as confusion and panic quickly gripped the centre. This was a perfect opportunity for the migrants to escape into the nearby town.
Rasheed and Hassan ran into a neighborhood outside the burning centre as they heard the whirring sound of the firefighters. After walking several miles, they came across a railway station and boarded a train to Rome. They sat together in the far back, the first modern train they had ever traveled on. When they reached Rome; Rasheed called Khadija and told her they would on the way to Oslo. Khadija told him that she would send six hundred Euros to him which Rasheed reluctantly accepted. Hassan had called a cousin in Germany and asked for money. As they waited for the money; Hassan told Rasheed, he wanted to go to Germany. It was time they would part their ways. After they received the money, they took a taxi to the Termini rail station. Passing by the Vatican, he watched the old statues and the institution that served as the centre of the world’s catholic faith. Hassan traveled to Germany; Rasheed’s route to Oslo was much longer.
He traveled through France, Switzerland, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and finally to Norway. Going through these countries, Rasheed was confounded by the scale of the development of infrastructure and the level of wealth he saw, but Oslo was big in his mind than anything else. He then crossed into the Norwegian territory.
He was relieved to have finally reached the train station in downtown Oslo. Believing his problems were over, he came out of the train and moved towards a small restaurant not far from the train station to eat as he felt hungry during the long trip. Coincidently before he reached the restaurant, there was a bank robbery underway. Immediately more police arrived at the scene and started rounding up anybody they could suspect and incidentally he was the only black carrying a bag at the scene. Handcuffed and bundled into a police vehicle, he was taken to a police station where he was detained for suspicion of robbery and illegally staying in the country. He was taken to a small room for questioning.
‘Did you participate in the bank robbery?’ asked a policeman.
‘No, sir, this is my first day in Norway, I do not know where the banks were located let alone meticulously plan a robbery, this was a mistaken identity’ answered nervous Rasheed.
‘So, you are illegally staying in the country, go back to your cell, you will appear before a court tomorrow morning to answer those charges’ ordered the policeman.
Rasheed was allowed to make a phone call and called the only number he knew in Norway, Khadija’s. She was surprised by the arrest and said she would come to him and stand by him. Rasheed could not afford an Attorney and decided to represent himself. As he sat in police cell, he pondered on the travails he went through and why trouble seemed to follow him. He never expected to spend his first night in Oslo in a police cell.
At nine O’clock in the morning, he was taken to court. As he was led to the dock, he saw Khadija and her parents seated in the public gallery and smiled to them in appreciation. Khadija smiled back. He told the judge that he would speak in English and defend himself. The judge, who understood English, agreed. Rasheed started challenging the court to produce any evidence linking him to the robbery. He had admitted that he was in the country illegally and asked for asylum.
He started narrating to the court about Africa and the multitude of problems ranging from instability and famine to dictatorship and wars. He stressed the lack of freedom of speech and intolerance to dissent, the hopelessness and widespread unemployment affecting the continent’s youth. He told the court about the scarce resources concentrated in the hands of few elites not prepared to share it with the people they serve and that the senior government officials were the richest, for they embezzled public wealth. He talked about the mass dissatisfaction that prevailed and reminded the court of the tyrannical regimes falling one after another like leaves falling off from an ancient lifeless tree as revolutions swept the continent’s north in what was dubbed the Arab Spring. He then started to explain what personally prompted him to make the journey.
‘I wanted to get a job and get married in my home country. That was not possible, for there was no job and the person I wanted to marry had already moved to this country to re-unite with her family who fled from the civil war two decades ago. I also felt ashamed of not being able to help my parents and younger siblings. So I decided to take this long, tumultuous journey to reach here’ he told the court.
He then talked about the journey, the tragedies that befell migrants and the stories of immense loss and extra-ordinary survival of young people making such voyage. He talked about the very many miles he traveled to get there by land and sea and how his life was in danger on numerous occasions along the way. He then spoke about the harrowing experience of how he had seen people die in the desert and at sea just because they wanted peace, freedom and better economic situation. He expressed that he had no inhibitions of daring such risk in the least bit. He conveyed his admiration for Norway for nobly advancing peace around the world through the Nobel Peace Prize.
He concluded his statement by expressing his interest in legally living in Norway.
‘At any difficult moment, I still imagined being here and meeting Khadija in person and alive. I want to stay in this country, become a law-abiding citizen and raise a family here. That is a promise I make here which I will always strive to keep’ he finished.
The judge had been moved by his statement and declared that the court did find the accused guilty of the robbery charges and ordered the authorities to move Rasheed to a temporary camp pending his legal resettlement in Norway. There was a sigh of relief as Khadija had run towards him and hugged him so hard as her parents watched with amazement from behind. He introduced himself to her parents. Rasheed was granted legal settlement in Norway and was given a house where he would stay for several months and welfare money to survive for several months.
A few days later, Khadija invited Rasheed over to their house to talk to her parents and get to know each other better.
‘Ok, I want to meet them and tell them why I came all the way from home searching for their daughter’ teased Rasheed.
The family made a delicious meal befitting the would-be son in-law; the best he had for months. They asked him about the long journey and told him they were happy that he was finally in Oslo safe and sound. Both her parents talked to him in a respectable manner. He told them that he had loved Khadija since their childhood and that his love for her only grew stronger through the years. It was clear to him that neither of them was willing to stand in his way to marry Khadija. He thanked them for the meal and the warm reception. After the rendezvous with Khadija’s parents, she saw him off to the taxi on the street.
‘I think they are already my in-law parents’ Rasheed told Khadija smilingly.
‘They surely are’ smiled back Khadija as he had decked into the taxi and waved good bye.
The country’s wealth was very visible to him but he found migrants not realizing the paradise they imagined
Khadija was a regular visitors in his new house. Rasheed would also return visit her home over the weekends. She took him to different places in the city as life was becoming more exciting. They visited the Munch Museum in Oslo and the Frogner Park near the city centre. They then walked down a small bridge. Rasheed watched the water and remembered Fatima. For the first time, he told Khadija about the lamentable drowning of Fatima in the sea. He told her that every time he remembered her, he asked himsel if he might have done better to save her. Khadija had immediately intervened and told him not to blame himself for it, for she knew he he had done his best in trying to save her. Rasheed quickly changed the theme, unwilling to dwell on the sad story. and talked about getting a new job. He was looking forward to getting a job and marrying Khadija. He also thought of helping his parents and siblings back home.
Rasheed had already gotten used to life in Oslo as months rolled by. He started work at part-time jobs often menial ones, despite being a university graduate, just to stop living on the welfare money and earn better to also save for the wedding cost as well as send some money back home. At night he started attending Norwegian language class.
Both of them were ready to take their love to the next level. They both informed their parents and agreed on the preliminaries. Both parents understood Rasheed’s motivation to come to Oslo was merely his deep love for Khadija and standing in their way was not an option. The long, treacherous journey he undertook must not be in vain. The preparation for the wedding started in earnest. As a religious requirement, Khadija and Rasheed appeared at a local Imam office of a mosque to obtain approval. After getting formal consent from both sides, they went to register at the Town Office.
‘I cannot believe, we both signed it after all’ said Rasheed smilingly
‘Me too, it has been so long, hasn’t it?’ asked grinning Khadija
‘Of course’ replied overjoyed Rasheed as they both laughed wildly as they descended downstairs hand-in-hand.
Rasheed wished his parents and siblings would be present just like Khadija’s, but that was not possible, for he had not yet acquired official passport which usually took five years to obtain. Rasheed was not very much bothered of being alone on the day of his marriage, for he had already traveled alone all the way from the Horn of Africa to Oslo.
The wedding night at the Aavet Hotel was the most exciting moment in both of their lives; a night they had waited for a long time. The exhilaration and elation were palpable. Accompanied by his new friend in Oslo, Farhan, Rasheed went for suit fitting. Khadija, with her best friend Najma, went for the beauty salon and gown fitting too.
‘For many years, you told me of how much you loved Rasheed, tonight is your night’ joked Najma as she assisted the hairdresser.
‘Do you think I will stop talking about him after tonight?’ grilled Khadija looking herself in the large dressing mirror.
‘Perhaps more often than before’ Najma joked back .
In the evening, the guests started pouring in and were served with refreshments. Rasheed eagerly waited to get a glimpse the beautiful sight of Khadija in her wedding gown. Soon the hooting sound of the car was heard as the ululations of women intensified. Khadija, followed by bridesmaids, entered the wedding hall as guests stood up and craned their necks to see the bride.
With a gentle smile she walked towards Rasheed. In a beautiful dark, grey suit and light pink tie and utterly stunned by her astonishing beauty, he walked towards her, held her by the hand as they moved up to the seat.
They enjoyed watching beautiful wedding party continue before them with people dancing to traditional Somali songs.
‘You look very beautiful’ whispered Rasheed
‘So do you’ whispered back elated Khadija
They rose up to have a brief dance surrounded by family and friends and later walked out of the hall, arms linked with identical smiles on their faces. They retired into their bridal chamber and spent their first night together as husband and wife.
‘I can’t believe after all those years, the long risky journey you took, we are finally married’ said Khadija as her head gently lay on his chest.
‘Yes we did it’ said Rasheed as he recalled the shadow of sorrow and death, his tried love for her, had walked. Rasheed got an everlasting happiness and joy from the marriage to Khadija which came so close to being shattered by the boat accident in the middle of the Mediterranean. He thought his survival story was exceptional and so was his love. To finally have Khadija as his wife was the most wonderful thing in his entire life and the couple lived happily together ever after. Rasheed had learned that for life to be meaningful, a man had to have something he dared to live for. His audacity was to follow his heart and Khadija, the object of life’s affection.
Name: Hamse Ismail
Address: Hero-awr Street, Goljano
Phone number: 002522-4073983
Date first published: February, 2015
Word count: 12,000
Qalinleyda I © Weedhsan Corporation