The Return of a Lost Son - Chapter 1
Updated: Nov 22, 2022
“Look beneath the surface. Things are usually very different from how they initially appeared, and ignorance, which didn't look beneath the surface, turns to disillusion when it penetrates to the interior. Falsehood always arrives first; it drags along fools with their endless vulgarity. Truth always arrives last, and late, limping along with Time.”
― Baltasar Gracián
Whether here or there — all of us come from somewhere. For some, the place of our birth is a source of great pride and we can't imagine living anywhere else. For others, the desire to explore the world and experience new cultures is so strong that they leave temporarily. Then there are those who must leave everything behind due to circumstances beyond their control. But no matter the reason for leaving, part of us always yearns for home. No matter how far we stray or how long we stay away, the pull of the homeland is always there, tugging at our heartstrings and calling us back.
So whether by choice or by chance, we all somehow find our way back to the land of our birth. I, too, found my way back this August, during the peak of summer 2022. After many years of yearning, I finally returned to the city of my birth, Mogadishu. It was destined to be this way for me and I had no choice in how things transpired. For I was only two years old when we fled Mogadishu during the climax of the civil war three decades ago.
With my mother and my younger sister, we fled the imminent demise of what had once been referred to as the 'Pearl of the Indian Ocean. In the days following our departure, thousands of rebel militiamen ravaged the city like locusts laying waste to farmland. It would take another 31 years for me to return.
Mogadishu during its golden age: 1970s to 1980s.
Since this was my first trip to Somalia, father and I decided we should travel together. In addition to learning from his experiences in post-civil war Mogadishu, I wanted to put context to his stories and see the country from his perspective. Thus we booked together: scheduled to fly from London to Doha and then to Mogadishu on a Friday evening, the 12th of August. It had been a sunny day in London with record temperatures, and we wondered whether or not it would be hotter in Mogadishu.
I booked an Uber XXL so that we wouldn't have to go through the stress of carrying luggage via public transport. Thanks to good planning, we reached Heathrow Airport 3 hours before our flight. As we waited to board our flight, I couldn't help but notice the Somali lady and her teenage son sitting opposite us. She was staring at my father with a kind face and warm smile. It wasn't long before she introduced herself, and began telling us her story. She recognised my father from his Somali TV appearances where he comments on local as well as global events. She was a natural storyteller and took us back to the early 1990s.
1992 was a year of great turmoil in Somalia. President Siad Barre had been overthrown, and the country was in chaos as different groups fought for power. After the USC rebels ousted dictator Siad Barre, they turned on each other in the infamous 4-month war between the USC-Aidid faction and USC-Ali Mahdi faction, dubbed "Afar Bilood". It was worse than the battle against Barre and saw the city divided into two halves. Amid all the violence and destruction, one young Somali girl - the lady opposite us - went through a near-death experience that would stay with her forever.
“The violence was relentless - every day there seemed to be another gun battle” she said. One day, while walking home from visiting her grandmother, she came across a group of armed men at a checkpoint, gathered around two dead bodies on the ground. As she got closer, she was stopped and asked which tribe she belonged to. Her narrations were so vivid and real that they gave me goosebumps. Eventually I had enough of the traumatising accounts. I plugged in my earphones and let her continue talking to father until it was boarding time.
As we boarded the plane, I imagined what the real Somalia would look like beyond what the media portrays. My father had always told me about his homeland with so much love in his voice, but he had also warned me of the dangers that came with it. "Be careful," he would say. "There are many things that can go wrong there." As we took our seats and buckled in, I looked out the window at the London skyline one last time. This was my chance to get to know my father better and to see a side of him that I had never seen before. Before the plane took off, he gave me a stare I could not decipher. “Maybe he wanted my neck-pillow”, I thought.
We arrived in Mogadishu the following Saturday around noon. The plane descended over the endless stretch of sand and sea. I strained my eyes for a glimpse of the city that once held my umbilical cord, but it was hidden by a veil of shimmering heat. As we came in for a landing, I finally saw her; my beautiful Mogadishu, with what remained of her whitewashed colonial buildings, ancient Islamic architecture and turquoise harbor. I felt a lump form in my throat as everybody rushed to prematurely untie their belts in joy.
Despite my tiredness, I took out my mobile phone to take aerial pictures as we were hovering over the Indian Ocean ready for landing. This was not just any old return trip, this was homecoming. After years of exile, I was finally back in the land of my birth. “This is my land” I said to myself. No one can tell me to piss off here. No one can say go back to where you came from. No one can dare to bother me here. Alhamdulilah. The speaker's announcement of the time and weather description sent waves of excitement upon us and we got off the Qatar Airways plane. The friendly and diverse flight attendants bade us farewell.
I've played that scenario of landing at Aden Adde International Airport in my mind for so many times. At that moment, I remembered a documentary I had watched back in 2008. It was called 'The Warlords Next Door' and featured the reporter Aidan Hartley making the dangerous trip to Mogadishu at the height of the Ethiopian invasion to crush the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). There was a scene in that documentary that really touched me. It depicted a group of diaspora returning home in the wake of ICU takeover and relative calm and peace in Mogadishu. A henna-bearded, diaspora elder made sujood on the ground after getting off the plane, wiping off the tears of joy in his eyes with a handkerchief.
I felt so jealous of him at the time, and maybe because of that, my imagination amplified how I would feel during my first footsteps back in the fatherland. As soon as I disembarked from the plane, all I could feel was the heat pressing down on me like a weight. I felt nothing else. It took all my willpower not to close my eyes. A sense of drowsiness and delayed reflexes became apparent to me as symptoms of a lack of sleep.
I ended up giving father my neck pillow in my foolish parental dutifulness. He had initially refused to take the one I bought for him before we left my apartment for Heathrow Airport. “I’m a nomadic warrior and not soft like you”, I could read from his eyes upon offering. Yet when we sat down next to each other in our aisle, I felt compelled to give up mine and suffer from sleeplessness. He should be the one to suffer now, I thought drowsily, as I surrendered to our Islamic values of filial piety. But then again, he let me take the window seat. Honestly speaking, when it comes to my sleep, I can turn into a tantrum-throwing diva whose beauty sleep has been interrupted.
As we came down the ramp, I was enveloped in a warm hug by a relative of mine whom I’ve heard a lot about, Abdi Dheere Mohamud Jaama’. Smiling broadly, he introduced me to his colleagues, several military officers, and the Head of Airport Security at Mogadishu Airport, who to my surprise was a young woman, exuding confidence and authority. It was clear that she was respected by those around her. "Her presence must be an inspiration to all the women that encounter her", I mumbled to myself. Women in leadership positions are sadly still a rarity in a male-dominated society such as that of Somalia.
The airport was busy and chaotic, but she seemed to handle it all with ease. I felt safe and secure under her watchful eye. She took our passports and escorted us through the VIP lane, normally reserved for government employees and foreign diplomats. I was surprised by how quickly the customs official stamped our passports. Father was handed his fairly quickly. However, I could tell from the face of the young officer in the booth that he had doubts about mine. He kept looking at me and the passport picture. “Is this you?” he asked. Mind you, the image was taken seven years ago. I had put on a lot of weight during lockdown and wasn’t as interested in grooming myself as I was back then. Of course there would be differences. But the overall facial features should be obvious to anyone. At least so I thought.
Father thought I would be upset about me being singled out and urged me to be patient. “Isn’t it amazing that there is order and rule in your home country?” he asked. It shows that Somalia officials are trying their best to implement the rule of law. The woman serving her country as Head of Airport Security returned a moment later and took me to an office room not far from the VIP lane. Two young men were working there sitting in front of computers. “Wiilkaan waa wiilkeenaa yaah” she told them in an authoritative tone. It meant that I was one of them lineage wise. But they were not fazed in the slightest.
One of them called me up and asked me to take a seat in front of his desk. He looked through my passport and flipped all its pages. “So you are a German national?” he asked curiously. “Yes, what is the problem with that?” I replied. “There’s no problem at all, this is merely a security check”, the officer exclaimed. He then played a German recording on his computer and asked me to translate what the voice was saying. I was able to understand and translate the recording without difficulty. The officer subsequently returned my passport and let me go.
Being a dark-skinned Somali, I’ve had to explain my German passport numerous times in my travels across the world. Literally everywhere in Europe, the US, the Middle East and now it happened in my own country of birth. Though it was a bit of an inconvenience, I welcomed the thoroughness of the security check. I’ve never encountered this language testing scenario before, it was quite interesting. In a way I was impressed by it. All the airport staff conducted themselves so professionally, displaying a strong desire to follow proper protocol. In today's world, it's important to be vigilant about safety and security. “If only they were as thorough at the road checkpoints throughout the city, fewer suicide bombings would be reported” I thought to myself.
At any rate, once all our paperwork was processed, we had to pay a small fee for the visa and subsequently went to the VIP lobby. Surprisingly, the local politicians present - MPs, Ambassadors and other dignitaries - were quite friendly, greeting me as a stranger and shaking my hand. I had only seen these characters before in the news.
While we were waiting for our bullet-proof pickup truck meant to take us to the hotel, we took remembrance pictures together. Abdi Dheere honoured us with exemplary hospitality, which he was not obliged to do as a military commander who has better things to do than hang around with some diaspora tourists. Despite the gravity of his job, he was always quick to crack a joke and make us laugh.
The drive to the hotel was not so pleasant. My first impressions were a mix of delight and disgust. The city's arteries - i.e., its road system - were a complete and utter mess. Although there were skyscrapers, malls and modern buildings everywhere, the streets were full of potholes and chaos. Cars, armoured military vehicles, donkey carts and even cows from the countryside fought for space on the roads. Heavily armed soldiers lined up major junctions and checkpoints, sometimes shooting bullets into the sky to regulate the madness. Scenes I would experience almost everyday for the next two weeks. Once a thriving metropolis more orderly than many cities in Europe, Mogadishu was little more than a shadow of its former self.
We reached our hotel in the heart of the city after a half an hour drive from the airport. I welcomed the homely vibe of the hotel as we pulled up to it. Once a private villa belonging to one of Somalia's most notorious businessmen, it had been repurposed as a hotel. I could only hope that its location near Zoobe junction - a busy intersection that had been targeted by terrorists in the past - wouldn't be an issue. Thankfully, our stay there passed without incident. But I couldn't help but feel uneasy every time I walked past Zoobe junction, knowing that just yards away from where I was standing innocent people had lost their lives. As a survivor, my father insisted on taking me there. Only a small monument with 14 October on it reminded one of the horrific incident.
To my surprise, the hotel owner turned out to be a kinsman of ours. Abdirisaaq Calaafhuur had fled to Germany as a teenage boy when the civil war broke out, and ended up becoming my father’s flatmate before we arrived. He welcomed us warmly and showed us to our rooms. The hotel was clean and comfortable, and we soon settled in for our stay. I desperately needed to fix my sleep deficit and zoned out for a few hours. As eager as I was for adventure, I had to surrender to the fact that no vessel can function without vital energy and a full battery.
It is said that we can never really go home again, that once we leave our childhood homes, we can never recapture the past. And yet, there is a part of every person that remains tied to the land of their birth, no matter how far they may roam. Perhaps it is the memories of our childhood, or the comfort of knowing that our ancestors are buried in the same soil. Or maybe it is simply the fact that we will always be shaped by the place where we took our first steps. Whatever the reason, there is an undeniable pull that brings us back to the land of our birth. And while we may not be able to go home again, returning to our roots can help us to find our way in the world. It has certainly done so for me. In this travel log series, I want to share these experiences.