One is a Somali widow. Another is a teenage Somali orphan. They were neighbors in Mogadishu’s Bakara market, until fighting and intimidation by Islamist militants such as the Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabab took away the men in their lives, and with them, the women's sense of security.
Now alone and unprotected in a safer but still hostile adopted country, they work together to sell tea on Eastleigh’s busy streets, and cling to each other like sisters, a family of women.
“We are like turtles without shells, completely unprotected,” says Istiqlal Harian Farah, a 35-year-old Somali mother of three children, two of them now dead. “We have no male relatives here, nobody outside in Europe or America to send us money, nobody in Somalia who can look after us. When someone pulls our dress in the street, you can’t even shout out to complain.”
She stops, her eyes filling with tears. “But when we come home and we combine our cries, there is a glimmer of hope. At least there is the confidence in having each other. We can go to the shops, and together we can protect our children.”
Two decades of instability and war in Somalia have destroyed countless families in that country, displacing 1.55 million from their homes into internal exile, while forcing another 440,000 others to flee to Kenya, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Yemen. More than 80 percent of these families fled because of insecurity, and many have lost family members. But the most vulnerable of these are women, who lack protection against sexual exploitation and abuse, and increasingly, forced recruitment into the dangerous front lines of Islamist rebel groups.
Statistics are hard to gather, particularly in conservative Somali societies where personal matters are kept quiet, and especially in refugee camps, where pro- and anti-militant Somalis live side by side. But if the women streaming into United Nations-run displacement camps in the northern Somali city of Bossasso are a gauge, then sexual exploitation and gender-based violence have become frightfully common. At the Bossasso camp, more than 300 survivors of gender-based violence were identified by doctors and referred to treatment centers.
One woman's ordeal with Al ShababAside from tragedy, desperation, and a roof, Ms. Farah and her housemates share little in common.
Farah was a basketball player on the Somali national women’s team who spent the past decade and a half as a government official, urging young Somali girls to continue in school and to participate in sports. Her activism attracted the interest of the Islamist militia, Al Shabab, who had taken control of the Bakara market in late 2008, when US-backed Ethiopian troops retreated from their occupation of Somalia. Al Shabab militants wanted her to use her skills to recruit women for Al Shabab.
“I refused,” she says, still defiant a year later. As a devout Muslim, she disagreed with what she saw was the alien version of Islam being preached by Al Shabab, a theology that cast aside Somali traditions of tolerance and negotiated settlement of disputes, in favor of quick and violent justice.
But while she disagreed with their theology, she preferred to practice her faith quietly at home, knowing that Al Shabab had supporters in the community, among the younger neighbors and even members of her family. “My attitude toward the mujahideen is that I see them as inhuman; I don’t see any hope of their being civilized,” she says. “But they are not people who can be picked out of a crowd. This is a movement inside the people among us. What identifies them is how they react inside their community. One day, they will slaughter people in the market. They chop off arms because of some crime. This is how they create fear and make us their hostages.”