Brush with death forces Somali journalist to flee his homeland

NAIROBI, Kenya — Late one night in December at my home in Mogadishu, Somalia, my brother and I had just finished watching a DVD — "More Than Enough" with Jennifer Lopez — when my cell phone flashed with a text message.

The message came from a number I didn't know, and it read: "We know what bad things you are doing. You have to stop it within 24 hours, otherwise you will be killed anywhere you go."

As a journalist in Somalia, death threats are part of the job. Dozens of my fellow journalists have received threats recently, and at least nine have been killed since February 2007, according to Amnesty International, which says Somalia may be the most dangerous place in the world to be a reporter.

For the past year, as Islamist-led militias battle government forces in and around Mogadishu, journalists who tell the truth about the conflict and its massive toll on civilians have been targeted by both sides. One of them, Mahad Ahmed Elmi, a popular radio host and freelancer for McClatchy, was shot dead outside his office one morning in August by an unknown gunman.

Despite the dangers, I remained in Mogadishu — until that threat, and what happened the following day, forced me to flee.

I am 22 years old. I had replaced Mahad as McClatchy's reporter in Mogadishu and was working as a newscaster on a private FM radio station. My wife, a naturalized American citizen, left for the United States a few months ago after we learned that she was pregnant with our first child.

It was impossible to know where the threats against me and others came from. Anything you wrote or said on the air could get you in trouble. Government forces had raided our offices several times, shut down the station and arrested journalists.

In a February report, Amnesty wrote that the attacks on reporters "appear to be part of a systematic attempt ... to hide from scrutiny violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict."

When I received the text, I called back. A man answered. "Salaam aleikum," he said softly. I replied, "Wa alaika salaam.

"Why was this threat sent to me?" I asked. "What bad things am I doing?"

He answered: "I don't know. My bosses told me to send you this message. Wa salaam aleikum — and never call me again." He hung up.

That night I didn't sleep. In the morning, I decided to walk to work as usual, hoping to talk things over with my colleagues. As I passed through Bakara, the main marketplace in Mogadishu, there was a scuffle a few feet away from me. Two men with pistols shot a man point-blank and left him for dead in the middle of the road.

People fled. Some whispered that the gunmen had killed a journalist. But I recognized the victim; he wasn't a journalist. I knew the killers had come for me and missed their target.

Accidental killings aren't unusual in Mogadishu. Killers take orders from their bosses to assassinate people they don't know and have never seen before. I was saved by a mistake.

With the change in my pocket — 30,000 Somali shillings, about $1.50 — I jumped in a minibus taxi bound for Afgoye, a refugee encampment 20 miles from Mogadishu. A few hours later, I received another text message. "You were very lucky to survive today because of our mistake," it read. "So you have more time still to live. But be aware that you are still our target."

I stayed in Afgoye for a month, living among hundreds of thousands who had fled Mogadishu, in a three-room house made of sticks that housed a family of nine. The United Nations has called the situation in Afgoye the worst humanitarian crisis in Africa.

My mother and father in Mogadishu were able to collect some money from relatives living abroad. With about $220, I bought passage on a minibus to the Kenyan border, where I hoped I would be safe.

About 20 of us, including a mother with a baby who was about 8 months old, squeezed into the bus. We drove along dirt roads through empty towns and forests controlled by Islamist militias, which rule most of the country south of Mogadishu.

In two towns, Afmadow and Young Hargeisa, we were stopped at checkpoints to make payments to young fighters. They wore long white robes or camouflage, and their faces were covered — sure signs of Islamist militiamen.

On Feb. 25, I finally reached Nairobi, Kenya. I share a tiny room with three other refugees in Eastleigh, a sprawling Somali enclave, and I feel safe. But there's no work, and I'm in Kenya illegally. Once already, police officers have stopped me and demanded to see identification. I had to pay a $3 bribe so they'd leave me alone.

Every day, I use a cheap calling card to phone my wife, who's now living in the Midwest with her father, a taxi driver. Our son is due in May, and he kicks my wife's belly constantly. I miss her.

I hope our families can somehow bring me to the United States — or anywhere else. Things in Somalia are terrible now, and the country needs journalists, but I cannot go back.

(Ali, whose full name is being withheld for his protection, was a McClatchy special correspondent in Mogadishu from September to December 2007.)