Colleagues gather to support Hassan. (CPJ)
Colleagues gather to support Hassan. (CPJ)

Exiled Somali journalists rally around wounded colleague

Hassan Mohamed, nicknamed “Jaeyl” by his colleagues, used to be a jack-of-all-trades for Somalia’s first independent broadcaster, HornAfrik. He was a journalist, a producer, and a librarian. He was even a dramatist. His most powerful professional role was keeping HornAfrik running when most senior staff members fled the country, fearing for their lives.

Despite the bullet wounds he acquired in Mogadishu, it was in Nairobi where Hassan lost his right leg. First, the veteran journalist’s belongings went missing, including identity papers, during the haphazard journey from Mogadishu to Nairobi. Then, found himself penniless in Nairobi, a diabetic who could not afford medical treatment. Ultimately, his condition worsened until surgeons had to amputate Hassan’s right leg last week due to an infection. CPJ and partner organizations have supported Hassan since learning of his case. Hassan may have been felled by illness but one of the key culprits in his decline has been exile itself.

Hassan’s struggle started when Al-Shabaab militants, an insurgent group with links to al-Qaida that controls nearly two-thirds of the country, turned on his station, HornAfrik. They considered the radio station to be an anathema to their movement. They targeted its journalists. Suspected Al-Shabaab militants killed the founder of the station, Ali Sharmarke in 2007 and the station’s director, Said Tahlil, two years later. “We had what we called the Board of Survivors after these attacks,” Hassan told me last year. “Basically, there were five acting managers of the station so the Al-Shabaab could not know who was running the station and therefore not target the individual.”

In the face of these obstacles, Hassan still believed in the power of radio. He was well-versed in Somalia’s oral-tradition and literature and was famous in Mogadishu for his radio dramas and for running a program called “Family Links” that helped people relocate family members that they had been separated from during the war. His radio dramas were often morality plays about Mogadishu society: He created a character named “Doctor Famous” who preferred fame and admiration to actually helping his patients.

Al-Shabaab raided and took over HornAfrik’s station based in the southern town of Kismayo in 2008. Two years later, they raided the main station based in the capital, Mogadishu, and tied up all the staff in the archive room. Hassan had for years managed that room that contained the station’s vast library of audio recordings. A young man who the station trained to use the radio equipment turned out to be an agent of Al-Shabaab and helped the militants abscond all the station’s equipment.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Hassan told me. After stealing the equipment and burning down Hassan’s beloved audio archives, the militants released the staff.

Like most Somali journalists working in Mogadishu, Hassan had multiple encounters with young, armed insurgents. Two gunmen shot at Hassan after he left the office in December 2009, wounding him in the back and hand. Hassan had already sustained a bullet wound in his leg–he used a cane after coming under that crossfire. After his release from HornAfrik, Hassan thought his days were numbered. Like many others, he reluctantly fled his country to Nairobi, Kenya.

Escaping Mogadishu, many exiled Somali journalists find themselves facing a whole new set of challenges in exile. “Somali exiled journalists here [in Nairobi] lead a lonely life. The exile lives in a country where he has neither the skill set nor the support network he would normally have back home,” journalist Mohamed Garane told me. A former HornAfrik reporter himself, Garane now also lives in exile, working as a producer for the UN Integrated Regional Information Network Somali radio program. “It pains me when you see so many of your former workmates running around in Nairobi, not even able to afford a cup of tea,” Garane said.

Garane remembered Hassan as a very senior journalist in 2009 that helped him with his career. After fearing for his condition, he and a group of Somali journalist colleagues sat down at a local café last week in Eastleigh, Nairobi to see what they could do to help Hassan.

“Personally, I am very concerned about the conditions some exiled journalists face,” said Reuters reporter Sahra Abdi. “So we all just banded together to see what we could do to help.” An impromptu fundraiser for Hassan managed to raise over $2,000 to help Hassan cover his medical expenses, Mohamed Osman–who was appointed treasurer for the fundraiser–told me. “He is improving day to day, but there are still outstanding hospital bills and we want to make sure he gets ongoing treatment,” Osman said. A former Somali journalist living in exile, Osman now runs the Al-Imra training centre for exiled journalists on a voluntary basis in Eastleigh.

A group of Somali journalists visited Hassan at the hospital last Thursday. It was a different scene from the one I often had with Hassan, where I spoke to a man in intense pain. This time, he smiled as his colleagues stood by him.

Hassan was discharged from the hospital over the weekend but there is still a lot of work to be done before he fully recovers and he needs more support. His struggle is also an example of the kind of struggle exiles here face. Encouraged by their fundraising, the Somali journalists here in Nairobi hope to organize further and help other colleagues. CPJ will be standing by and, hopefully, partnering with them.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mohamed Garame’s name has been corrected to Mohamed Garane.