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


"Marian! It's me. Keynaan!"
She put her bifocals on and her stomach turned and twisted. Suddenly she couldn't say anything. That face again, that thin, malnourished but smiling face with the bright brown face of a happy woman who had been made desolate by years of civil war compounded with famine, the face framed by brown hair with sprinkling of gray strands at the roots, stared at him, unbelieving. The eyes behind the bifocals widened, just the way their mother's did whenever an extraordinary thing happens.

"Keynaan! Alla waa Keynaan. Keynaan from Canada!" She sobbed and buried her face hard on his chest.

"Hooyo. Who is it?" The young voice came from behind the sack that served as a curtain. It was her daughter, Madina, who stared at Keynaan not believing her long lost uncle is back. Her face broke into sobbing. And then -

"Abti Keynaan!" The young face said finally.

"Abti! You are back!"

"Oh! Is it you, Madina?"

She cried, tears and sweat breaking out together all over her malnourished body. She stumbled over a pile of laundry she was hand washing on the concrete floor and she felt his hands on her shoulders. He drew her into his chest, his heart filling, swelling with pain. She was so thin that she looked like the living dead discovered by the Allies in the Nazi concentration camps. All her flesh had melted away. Only her skin remained, stretched taut over her bones.

"Oh! What had they done to you, Madina to all of you?"Keynaan began to sob for the first time in his life.

The smell of old clothes, dusty and malnutrition is every where. The fill of young body, knotted with joints destroyed.

"You have no idea how we suffered."

"But you are here now and alive. Where are the boys?"

"They are safe. They went out to scavenger for food and firewood. The old folks fled to the countryside. Perhaps they're still alive."

"What happened to your house?"

"One morning we fled to the countryside to escape the bombs, but when we returned my house was in flames and many people were lying dead on the streets. So we decided to move into your house."

"You did well," Keynaan said joyfully.

"Half of the people we knew have been killed," Marian said mournfully.

"Most of the others fled or turned into snitches for the warlords. This country has fallen apart," she added.

The sound of small fire arms and artillery thunder can be heard in the distance and Keynaan was wondering what to do in case the shootings come closer to their neighbourhood.

He looked at his sister who said: "I still don't know how we did get like this."

He thought for a moment, taking a leaf from Tiffow's philosophy of prudence. Tiffow wasn't a panic merchant. He took time to answer a question, especially if that question was sensitive.

Keynaan shrugged and said: "We let the criminals get away with it. We let thugs take over what was unbelievable became the norm," he said.

"The warlords and the petty politicians are liars, in office and out of it," he added with bravado.

It was incredible, impossible, that it should have come to this. His beloved native country rushes to ultimate disaster, that the law of the land could no longer be enforced. In fact, nobody obeys anybody any longer. Was this the end of civilization in Somalia? The dawn of a New Stone Age? Who had created this mess? Home grown villains taking orders from dark shadows? Stop whining, he told himself and get the family out.

Marian smiled and interrupted his train of thought. "Are Somali refugees still allowed to enter Canada?" She said.

This is a question that's in the minds of every potential Somali refugee these days.

"Before I left the newspapers said Canada is going to ban all refugees from Somalia. It is not just the war criminals they're refusing but the victims too." He reassured her that he would do everything to the best of his ability to take her and the children safely to Canada, saying that he had already sponsored them. "Trust me. I'll get us out of this quagmire before you know it," he said.

His main predicament is how to smuggle them out of a city in flames with a string of makeshift barricades every two miles manned by wild-looking gunmen.

That night after the boys returned from their errands, they all gathered around an old trestle table in his former den. The rest of the equipment, including his books, furniture, clothes and photo albums are gone. Only the wooden trestle table survived because looters could not get it out through the narrow door. How he put it there in the first place remained mystery, even to him to this day The mood was somber.

They had lived under tables covered and reinforced with mattresses and pieces of corrugated iron sheets for months on end, under shellfire day and night. All they had to eat was wheat and sorghum. Whenever the Red Cross and Red Crescent lorries arrived to distribute food and drinking water people run from their makeshift shelters to meet them, and this was how many were killed or maimed.

Just to venture outside was like playing dance with death. If you survived the artillery shells and mortars, snipers on rooftops shot at you for no apparent reason.

The boys said they spent their time crawling on their hands and knees through gutted buildings, waiting to catch their breath before their next sprint toward the food trucks and water tankers, their lifeline.

They spent hours and even days in the line-ups - sometimes only to find out that the food had run out just as they made it to the front of the queue. Some mothers came with several children, each person gets rice, lentils and cooking oil while they lasted, no questions asked.

"Today was a good day, there were no snipers and there was plenty of lentils and rice for everybody. One man gave me his rice in exchange for a packet of Nutra-biscuits because he said he had no stove for cooking," Yonis, the younger one said with a smile.

"It's often a battle who gets to the food and water trucks first. Some shady characters with guns bring several boys to the line-up and then sell the food at the makeshift kiosks at inflated prices," Madina said, shaking her head with a dogged bewilderment.

"It's disgusting. Red Cross and CARE officials sent a whole bunch of people away last week after chaos erupted at the morning line-up. Most of these people have been there in the blazing sun for several hours, waiting for food and water for their hungry and thirsty children," Marian said with bitter irony.

She said the aid officials drove away in disgust only to return after the few surviving elders, with the help of young volunteers, promised to police the area and to protect the food aid from the freelancers and war-profiteers.

The price of rice had gone through the roof at the makeshift market. Food items clearly marked: "DONATED BY THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES. NOT TO BE SOLD" are openly sold at the Bakaaraha at prices beyond the reach of most people.

"To reach the Bakaaraha, miles away from here, was a journey into a shear horror. If you are lucky enough to survive the endemic gunfire between the Habar-gedir and Abgal clans, gangs of marauding robbers took advantage of the internecine and robbed the hungry poor. And to bypass the string of barricades is even more frightening," Madina chimed in exhaustedly.

"Then there is the deadly landmines planted by Siyaad Barre's soldiers during the insurgency," Marian chimed in.

After this calamitous tales by his sister and her children, they all waited for Keynaan to say something, to cheer them up, but he couldn't find the words. So the five of them sat in shuffling silence.

He brought presents for them all and began distributing them as his sister tried to clear the table from the colourful wrappings; Hersheys and granola for the boys, and fruitcakes, almonds and dried apricots from Loblaws for his sister and her daughter.

Over cups of steaming tea, he told them about video games, snowboarding, ice hockey, curling, and basketball and how boys and girls go to summer camps. He told them about the Raptors, the Blue Jays, the Maple Leaf and the fledging soccer teams in which young Somali--Canadian teams have been competing for the first time in Canada.

"It takes me an hour to get to work by streetcars and subways," he said.

The boys and their sister glared at him and the novelty of the story hung in the silence between them. Keynaan explained the working of the Toronto Transit system.

"They always arrive in time," he said.

"Do they all drive underground?" Madina wanted to know.

"No. Only the subway trains operate under- ground."

Later, when the children went to bed, his sister joined him in his old den, now served as his temporary bedroom. She is the travesty of the woman he remembered. She always looked like a princess. Now, like her daughter she looked like an inmate of one of those concentration camps in Nazi Germany.

There is no electricity anywhere in the city. A smoke-blackened hurricane lamp stood by the door.

The nights are crushing hot. On a neighbourhood rooftop someone is firing a machinegun into the air, non-stop.

"I am very glad that you are here after such a long time," Marian said.

The Red Berets killed her husband, a former bank teller, when he refused to stop at a roadblock as the fighting against the military regime gathered momentum. His bullet-riddled body was dumped in front of their house. She buried him in front of her doorsteps, with the help of some neighbours.

She left the den after Keynaan explained his plans to smuggle them out.

Keynaan wondered if Lt. Franz Verra of the Luftwaffe (the German Air Force) had felt like he felt now when he made his several escape attempts from a Prisoner of War camp in Britain in 1944. Lt. Franz Verra was a Nazi ace pilot who was shot down in England during World War Two. He was captured and made a Prisoner of War. In the course of his stay in the allied war camps he repeatedly tried to escape but to no avail. Undaunted in his efforts, he finally succeeded where others failed and survived the long trek back to Germany for another combat duty.

Keynaan believed that Somalis were also made of sterner stuff and had survived under very difficulty circumstances. He slept soundly that night for the first time in a week. Reality was a pleasant change from Alice in Wonderland world of the Somalia debacle in the past few years, he thought.

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

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