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An extract from a new book by M.M. Afrah to be published in Canada in the winter of 2002.


Tiffow gave Keynaan a furtive look and asked: "Do you have any idea about what had happened to Siyad Barre's ministers and party officials in North America and Europe?" He waited for Keynaan to say something nasty about the former ministers and party officials, but his attention and eyes were now on the shallow graves on both sides of the dirt road and started counting the smaller ones that meant babies and children.

Keynaan gave up counting the graves, and said: "Some of them had bolted off with millions of hard currency and the gold reserve in the Central Bank's vault and flew out of the country with their wives and children aboard the last Somali Airlines. I understand that many of them are now destitute living on welfare. The lucky ones are employed as security guards or taxi drivers with new names and clan affiliations. They duped immigration officials, claiming that they belonged to prosecuted minority clans and had lost everything they owned to the warlords. Only a handful have been deported by the Canadian Government for serving under a military dictator and were accused of torturing opponents of the regime at the notorious Godka torture chambers."

They were driving past a tarp-covered roadside-eating house when Keynaan ordered him to stop the car in front of the eating-house and to change the subject. "How is the food there?" He asked, pointing at the eating house.

Tiffow laughed, showing his tobacco-stained teeth and said: "Good, but no menu, utensils, table cloth or napkins as you might expect in a Western restaurant or peace time Mogadishu. Just boiled rice, fried goat meat and camel milk."

For some strange reason, the eating-house is called "5-Star Restaurant" and caters mainly to grave- diggers and road block "minders."

Farther down the road Keynaan observed a goat lying on its back, struggling against two men who are holding it by the legs and throat. They are about to slaughter it with little success because one of them is one-armed elderly man who continued to cough.

"At a banquet in Canada you would be at a loss as to which folk or knife to use when there were more than a dozen to choose from," said Keynaan with a sigh, recalling his confusion at a dinner party in Toronto. The dinner party was in honour of a Member of Parliament whose riding was in the Somali populated area of Lawrence and Weston Roads. This was the only candidate who pledged to help the Somali refugees in their impasse with the immigration authorities who kept them in legal limbo for several years in a row for the simple reason that they were undocumented.

"Every day the food gets worse. The cook, who is also the owner, joins the militia at night, which undermines one's confidence in how the food was obtained. He also sells guns and qaad on the side," Tiffow hissed into his ear.

Keynaan laughed and said: "It sure won't break your heart to eat whatever he puts on your table. After all there's no choice in the middle of a civil war and famine. During the Second World War people in Europe and Russia had nothing to eat. Thousands died of starvation. Many had survived on roots and salt grass. Others resorted to slaughter their scrawny pets, including dogs and cats, for food," Keynaan added.

Finally, they arrived at Keynaan's old residential area after a fearsome detour across the Argentina Market, skirting the Livestock Market, now deserted. His neighbourhood was located opposite the Lido Beach, where sun-starved European, American and Russian expatriates used to snooze on the snow-white sand like fat seals to compare notes. Keynaan and his friends used to play soccer there with a makeshift ball. One day he spied the CIA and the KGB Station Chiefs hiss into each other's ear at the height of the Cold War.

Somalia, then viewed as strategic gateway to the Gulf and Red Sea oil routes, Siyad Barre took advantage of the superpower rivalry when the CIA and KGB fought relentless battle for supremacy in the Horn of Africa. Determined not to let Washington succeed, the Soviets poured more money, modern weaponry and an estimated 6,000 Soviet military personnel "to train the Somalis how to use these weapons."

General Barre rebuffed the Americans and adopted Scientific Socialism with the blessings of the Kremlin oligarchy. The Americans knew they would never forget that, paying particular attention to dissidents. But opposition to the military regime in the 1970s and early 1980s was at a premium. Such things were never discussed at all. So the Americans played guessing games.

"We will outfox the red bastards!" exclaimed President Johnson, who had a nasty war in Vietnam.

"You are talking to yourself," Tiffow whispered.

"I am only reminiscing. That's all," Keynaan retorted.

There was, surprisingly, little damage, and that by misguided artillery shells and mortar rounds. It is early in the evening and the few souls who did not join the exodus to the countryside, to escape the carnage, began to creep out into the garbage strewn streets. Some to the mosque for evening prayers, others to the makeshift food stalls, not far from the notorious Sniper Alley. Keynaan ordered the old driver to wait and started to ask questions. There were few, infinitesimally few old nodding acquaintances that still lived in the places they had always lived, but there was little information they could give:

"My sister? Her children?"

"Now living in your old house. Theirs have been blown up."

"My father-in-law and his family?"

"Vanished with others. Probably they are still in Bal'ad."

"My cousins Dhagey and Omar?"

"Vanished but not quite. They joined the militia."

"My neighbour Ibrahim?"

"Fled to the countryside after one of his sons was killed in crossfire."

Keynaan thanked them profoundly.

If his sister and her children were still alive and living in his old house, he would not ask for more. It also means his house was still intact, or at least what was left of it. He directed Tiffow to an alley behind the old gun emplacement opposite the mosque, with half of its minaret missing. Apparently it was hit with an artillery shell. He paid Tiffow his fare, leaving a generous tip. The US Dollar goes long way in war-torn African countries, and Somalia is no exception. He told Tiffow to switch off the engine of the kettle-shaped FIAT, because he thought that the sound of a car engine could attract unnecessary attention in his old neighbourhood.

"Everything all right?" Tiffow asked.

"It will be all right when I get the family out of this ordeal," growled Keynaan. "How they put up with it for years on end is beyond me," he added.

Tiffow thought for a moment and said: "As people who do not know where their next meal would come from, or wondering if they would still be alive in the next few minutes, they had no other option, but to live with it. It's like second skin."

"I must say I don't envy you." Tiffow commented. "To take the family to the dreaded airstrip requires a superman."

"I've seen worse," said Keynaan, recalling the day he escaped from Mogadishu by the skin of his teeth. Fighting between Government troops and the rebels gained momentum and all arteries to the airport and the road to Afgoi were closed by the Red Berets and the security forces. The city was in flames and fighting continued at all hours.

"Well, I thank you very much for everything and I sincerely hope that life would return to normal," Keynaan whispered.

"Insha-Allah," (God willing) said the wizened old taxi driver.

But before Keynaan opened the door, Tiffow had a message to be delivered: "Please tell your friends in North America that we in Somalia are at the end of the road." Keynaan laughed and pledged to spread the message to anyone who wants to listen.

"Mahadsanid walaal," said Tiffow and started driving the car in low gear, whistling "Somaaliyey Toosa", the national anthem of Somalia.

Keynaan turned into a dusty yard filled with old tires, car batteries, empty ammunition boxes, spent artillery shells and scrapes of metals.

With his carryall bag slung over his shoulders, he walked towards the familiar dwellings. The bomb damage was worse here - piles of rubble covered with heavy dusty and several rows of building have been ripped open like dolls' houses. An emaciated old man with pieces of timber under his arm, for firewood, hurried away from them, down into a lean-to close to the gutted buildings. Few frightened faces peered from doorways of several lean-tos. Then sacks and blankets were hastily dropped over the various openings. These are the internally displaced people from the hinterland. There are mountains of garbage in the area with flies and rats having a field day. The inhabitants were not in the cleaning business. They were on survival.

Finally, he reached his old house with great apprehension. There's still the gapping hole the tank shell hit five years ago, but the remaining walls were still whole. The windows were boarded with iron sheets. The main iron-gate was pitted with shrapnel wounds. Someone had piled up pieces of stones to form part of a wall in the yard. The makeshift wall obviously kept falling, because that someone was trying to rebuild it, filling a basket with broken stones and trying to block up the holes.

He knocked on the door quietly and he heard a dead bolt being drawn back.

He succeeded! He had found his sister and her children!

To be continued.
By M.M.Afrah 2001 All rights are reserved

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