In Somalia, the mysterious case of Rahmo Abdulkadir

It seemed clear-cut and sadly familiar: A journalist was shot and killed while walking in Mogadishu, one of the deadliest places in the world for the press. Yet in the four weeks that have passed since those initial reports from international and local news agencies–accounts that were then amplified by the United Nations, CPJ, and numerous human rights groups–virtually everything about the case has been cast into doubt. Was there a murder, after all? Who was the woman said to have been targeted? Does she even exist, at least as she was described? What did the people described as eyewitnesses really see? And why, after telling local journalists early on that the case was actually being investigated as a false report, have police gone silent for weeks?

It was Sunday, March 24, around 9:30 p.m., when news reports said that two gunmen had fatally shot a young female journalist. According to the initial coverage and local journalists who followed up on those reports, gunmen shot the woman as she was walking with a friend to a relative’s house near Bacaad Market in Yaaqhiid District of the Somali capital.

A woman named Munira Ibrahim said in an interview with Radio Danan, and then in interviews with numerous other Mogadishu-based journalists, that she was accompanying a friend she identified as Rahmo Abdulkadir when assailants struck. Munira told reporters that they had left an Internet café that evening when two gunmen approached and shot Rahmo repeatedly in the head and neck. Munira said she ran from the scene and was unharmed. She told reporters that her friend worked for Radio Abudwaq in central Somalia. It was not clear whether Munira ever contacted police; the journalists who interviewed her initially said they believe she had not notified authorities at that point.

The director of Radio Abudwaq, Abdikarim Ahmed Bulhan, seemed to offer confirmation of Rahmo’s employment in remarks to at least four news outlets. He told Agence France-Presse, for example, that Rahmo worked at the station, and he expressed shock that anyone would have targeted her.

At least two news reports cited two people as having claimed to have seen the shooting. AFP quoted a person named Abdi Moalin Shire as saying he saw two armed men fire five times at a woman before fleeing. Another person quoted by AFP, Issa Mohamed, said the victim’s female companion was not targeted and ran away.

The reports had the ring of familiarity. Somalia is the most dangerous country in Africa to practice journalism and has one of the world’s worst impunity records in journalist murders, CPJ research shows. The initial news reports prompted major international organizations such as the United Nations, CPJ, Reporters Without Borders, and the International Federation of Journalists to issue follow-up statements of concern. The National Union of Somali Journalists was an exception. The group’s head, Mohamed Ibrahim, said inconsistencies in the companion’s account gave it pause.

Within days, police began telling local journalists that they had questions about the case. No body or other evidence corroborating a killing was found, police were saying. Munira was in custody and being questioned for possibly making a false report, they said. A public report, they suggested, was imminent.

Radio Abudwaq’s description of Rahmo’s employment also seemed to soften as time went by. In an interview with CPJ in April, Abdikarim said only that someone by Rahmo’s name had briefly trained as a journalist and technician in 2010 but that he had not heard from her since. Abdikarim began giving similar accounts to other journalists at about that time.

In fact, no local journalist, whether in the capital or the central town of Abudwaq, has been able to confirm further information about the reported victim, track down any family member, or substantiate any other journalism credentials.  “I’ve tried to find the parents. We cannot find a relative of Rahmo’s in Mogadishu. No one seems able to trace her,” said local journalist Abdirahman Warsame. Given Somalia’s tight-knit society, he said, it is normally easy to ascertain a journalist’s background. “But for this lady, nothing is clear, even what she looks like. It’s as if she doesn’t exist.” Ali Musa, AFP’s Somalia editor, said the absence of information has led to wide speculation “that Rahmo did not even exist in the first place.”

Police are still holding Munira at the Central Investigation Department for questioning, according to the journalist union. So far, police have not disclosed their findings publicly. Police spokesman Abdullahi Hassan told CPJ last week that the case was proving to be complex but that a report of their findings would be released. He declined to provide further details.

Some big questions remain: Did any of the events detailed in the initial reports actually happen–or was the entire account fabricated? And if it is a hoax, who is behind it and what is the motivation?