An Interview from Exile with Abdalle Ahmed Mumin


Ella Raw speaks to Somali journalist and activist about surviving persecution, civil-wars, military dictatorships and prison, before ending up on a group of students' doorstep

Article Image

Image by @Cabdalleaxmed on X (Twitter)

By Ella Raw

Content warning:
Discussions of violence and conflict.

Sitting across from me is Abdalle Mumin, a man that I have lived with, eaten with, watched TV with, sat across from and laughed with when I burnt my toast and he could not cook pasta. I asked Abdalle to tell me about his childhood in Somalia and why he decided to become a journalist. I had heard fragments of the terror he had endured murmured around cups of tea and every 'how was your day?' Although, in the comfort of our university accommodation, it felt like the heavy doors before an ICU; better to stay on the safe, ignorant side and laugh about how different the weather is here, than in Africa. But, Abdalle has given his voice to newspapers across the globe, he is the voice of the Somalians he watched being murdered in his youth, of journalists unjustly persecuted and all those still fighting for freedom today. Now, he will have the students of York’s voice as well.

Abdalle was born in 1984 in Kismayo, Somalia. When he was four, his family moved to the capital city, Mogadishu, with the hope of providing him with a better education. However, these plans were abruptly cut-short. In 1991, the Somali Democratic Republic, a military dictatorship, was ousted from government by clan-based groups and a civil war broke out. Somalia now had no central government. Abdalle describes it as “lawless anarchy, complete violent anarchy”. His family’s hurried move to a nearby town, Qoryoley, was shadowed by “bombing, shelling, destruction” and traumatising events that still haunt Abdalle today.

Following the government’s removal, more clan-based militias formed and fought for control of Somalia, targeting communities disagreeing with their agendas. At seven years old, shortly after moving to Qoryoley, Abdalle witnessed several men being kidnapped from hiding, and murdered in the street. The men were innocent, killed because they came from a different community to the militia, the same community as Abdalle’s mother. He tells me, “it was not safe anywhere”; but the family must flee again.

In 1992, Abdalle’s family had moved in and out of the capital three times, attempting to survive the civil war. The second time they were forced to leave, in-fighting in the rebel group named United Somali Congress led to a bomb dropping on Abdalle’s home moments after they had left it. The third time, with no home to go to, his family joined a displacement camp in the city. Abdalle remembers when one stranger gave his family Somali shillings during their long journey, on foot, to the camp.

“It was big money for us at that time. Enough to buy food for days and days and days. So, I remember that man, I don't know who he was, I don't know, but someone with a deep sense of humanity...And he didn’t know us at all”.

It is now 1993, and intervention from the United Nations and United States task forces are attempting to combat the humanitarian crisis ensuing in Somalia. Somalians were dying and suffering due to seaport closures, drought, and the resulting famine. The UN mission opened up the ports and deposited US marines in the country. As well as, most importantly for Abdalle, opening NGO schools, where he learned how to read and write. But again, suffering seemed to crush the seeds of hope as they were planted. There was an Irish nurse who worked at his school. Abdalle ponders slightly, “I recall her name, Valeria”. The nurse was Valeria Place, who was brutally murdered by militia on her way to work. Her death caused outrage surrounding the lack of protection for aid workers, leading to the UN and US pulling out of Somalia in 1995.

“I remember all of these bad things, women being raped from the camp, people killed on the nearby streets.”

Abdalle continued his education at a private school. On 13 May 1998, whilst returning from school with his brother, militia began fighting in the street. Lowering his voice, Abdalle tells me this: “One militia was fighting another one, my brother, younger to me, next to me, was hit by the bullet. I was also hit. Some other kids died.” Abdalle was 12, his brother 11. With no ambulances, they were taken to hospital by civilians on the street. Abdalle woke three days later with his right arm amputated, receiving a blood transfusion, and was told his little brother was dead.

Traumatised and in pain, Abdalle lived his teenage years with unparalleled resilience, learning to write with his left hand and deciding to become a journalist. He describes to me how he rented newspapers with his precious lunch money, memorised them, and wrote out his own newspaper at home. This process introduced him to the political corruption in Somalia; and as he grew up, he became disillusioned with his community and angry at its suffering. He felt compelled to act.

In 2003, his mother died in hospital due to poor basic healthcare. As a result, Abdalle moved to Bosaso, in northeastern Somalia. The gruelling trip appeared to be worth it as Abdalle settled and began teaching at a school. Now he was married and a father, but this did not mean he would disappear into domesticity; he started a school newspaper for students and began working for radio stations as a writer.

Abdalle: “That was the year, 2007, when I started writing about politics.”
Ella: “Which you’re not supposed to do?”
Abdalle: “Yes.”

It was in Bosaso that Abdalle had his first of many experiences with Somalia’s severe suppression of free press. His radio station colleague conducted an interview with a local armed group, fighting against the regional security forces in charge who were not happy about this interview. “But we journalists want to just tell the story of both sides”, Abdalle says. His colleague was arrested, sentenced to six years in prison for the interview. Abdalle visited him, and describes the cell...

Abdalle: “40 people were put in a two-metre cell. All of them standing. No space to sit down.”
Ella: “How do they sleep?”
Abdalle: “They don’t sleep.”
“So, I was given five minutes to speak to my colleague and I interviewed him in those five minutes. And he told me everything...And I put it online.”

Abdalle explains: “There was an order sent from the President of the regional state against me, and he sent armed men to my house”. Abdalle fled his home once again, stopping a passing truck driver, asking, “can you spare my life?”. The driver agreed, and a 12-day journey proceeded to the capital city, where he had grown up. Here, Abdalle increased his journalism efforts, becoming a publication editor and writing for The Guardian and Wall Street Journal. But Somalia does not have free press.

Ella: “So, you’re doing this without the government knowing?”
Abdalle: “You do it without them knowing and you don’t seek permission.”
Ella: “You hope they don’t notice?”
Abdalle: “No, they will find it. But you have to be a fish in very poisonous water...I’m scared, I'm afraid.”
Ella: “But you still write articles anyway?”
Abdalle: “I do the articles anyway. Because that's what you are a journalist, your job is to do an article, to write, to speak...Even if that is a risk”.

Abdalle did just that. In September 2014, an American airstrike targeted the outskirts of Mogadishu. Its aim was to kill a top commander of the Al-Shabaab terrorist group in Somalia. Local journalists were terrified about reporting on the incident for Western media, a dangerous affiliation to have under the new federal government. This did not scare Abdalle, who wrote an article for The Guardian. Instantly, he received unknown calls from militant groups saying they were going to kill him, and they meant it. On January 26 2015, when driving home from work, the militia started shooting at his vehicle. The next morning, after escaping death, Abdalle and his family fled to Nairobi, and stayed there for four years.

Nairobi, though veiled in safety, brought its own disguised troubles. As an exiled journalist, from a foreign country, Abdalle struggled to get a work permit, whilst combating prejudice against migrant Muslims attempting to work. Eventually, he registered himself and his family as refugees.

It was also here that Abdalle became an activist for the safety of journalists and developed the idea for a book he would later be a part of, Hounded: African Journalists in Exile. The book collates the stories of journalists forced to leave their homelands for their “unrelenting conviction to tell the truth”, and Abdalle’s chapter is ‘Terror and Death in Somalia’, and is available to read as PDF download online.

In 2019, restless for change, Abdalle returned to Somalia. He co-founded the Somali Journalist Syndicate and began training young men and women to become journalists. His efforts eventually angered the government, and in 2021, whilst working in Jowhar, near the capital, he was ambushed in his hotel. The police demanded he hand over the names of the journalists he was training. When he refused, he was interrogated for hours. Once released, he wrote about the incident on Facebook.

Abdalle: “In the morning they came back and they said, You put down the article or we will kill you. I said, no, I'm not putting down the article.”
Ella: “Even though it was just the truth?”
Abdalle: “Yes, even though it was just the truth. I said no and they said we’re going to kill you. I said, do whatever you want. So they took me in a police vehicle and put me in a cell. They said they were going to kill me.”
Ella: “And they are supposed to be the police?”
Abdalle: “They are the police. The police are members of former militia groups.”

Numerous local media outlets had picked up his story and after a day in jail, he was released. However, despite tasting the consequences of speaking out in a freedomless Somalia, Abdalle continued his work for the Somali Journalist Syndicate as Secretary General.

On 10 October 2022, Abdalle conducted a press conference following a new directive from the Ministry of Information - attempting to restrict media freedom as the government fought against terrorists Al Shabaab. Abdalle explains that any media “can be deemed critical of the security forces if you say something bad about the police or the military. For example, the military were invading villages and raping women. You are not supposed to cover that. Killing civilians, you are not supposed to cover that...They say “we are fighting a militant group and the only way to win the fight is just to shut the media”.

As the clamp-down on censorship and free press became stronger than ever, Abdalle became a stone in the government boot. Consequently, following the conference, he was arrested at the airport whilst attempting to visit his family in Nairobi. But it was different this time. The cell was underground and extremely hot, other inmates were suffocating around him. Looking me in the eyes, he says,

“I thought I was going to die. I prepared myself. I prayed, and I remembered my family and said, God save my family if I die here.”

Abdalle was arrested and imprisoned four times in the following six months, beaten violently each time. Whilst detained, he befriended other inmates also unjustly detained, who offered him clothes, food and their stories. He tells me, “as a journalist, my role was not to complain while in detention, but be happy because I got a good story”. The government wanted him to break down, to surrender, and he would not surrender. His eventual release from prison, in March 2023, left him “completely deteriorated”. After much struggle to return to Nairobi, Abdalle is reunited with his family and hospitalised, but begins writing down the stories he had collected. It is here that he applies for The University of York’s Centre of Human Rights Research Fellow programme, through Amnesty International. Arriving on the 5th of May, to my flat.

One thing that struck me whilst Abdalle recounted his life was the goodness and humanity of others also suffering. From the stranger who gave his family money, and the truck driver who helped him flee persecution, to the detainees who, whilst in crisis themselves, offered him help. Despite the evil and pain that punctuates Abdalle’s life, his story also demonstrates how there is hope in the darkest darkness, because where there is humanity, there is a story.

Writer's note: If you would like to follow Abdalle’s continued efforts to fight for free press and journalists’ rights in Somalia and Africa, follow his X ( formally Twitter) page @Cabdalleaxmed.