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Encino Resident Prepares for an Exile's Return to Somalia : Reconstruction: Former diplomat Omar Mohallim spent years in prison as an enemy of the dictatorship. Today, he flies back to provide aid.

February 04, 1993|JOCELYN Y. STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Each day he awakened in a prison cell in Somalia, Omar Mohallim wondered if this would be the day he would die.

The repressive government of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre had confiscated his land, taken his money and accused him of betraying the state in 1969, all without filing formal charges or presenting evidence, he recalled this week.

"With this kind of regime you don't ask the charges," said Mohallim, who became the first Somalian ambassador to the United States in 1960. "They can invent anything. Once you fall out of graces with the regime, your days are numbered."

When he was finally released in 1975, Mohallim and his family left the country and spent the next 14 years in self-imposed exile.

But the 68-year-old former ambassador, who has been living quietly in Encino the past four months, plans to board a plane today to help rebuild his chaotic homeland--now partially occupied by U.S. and other United Nations military forces. He realizes, however, that Somalia is even more dangerous and devastated than when he left 15 years ago.

He hopes to join with fellow veterans of the political opposition to form a force to combat Somalia's problems or help in any way he can.

"It's a national responsibility," Mohallim said, explaining his reasons for returning despite the danger. "If I could just contribute one seed to the flourishing of Somalia, my life has been worth living."

Mohallim's decision to return is significant, not only on a personal level, but because journeys such as his may ultimately help determine whether the country is rebuilt or remains in chaos, said Edward A. Alpers, an African history instructor at UCLA.

"What this individual is doing is a courageous act," Alpers said.

"There's an impressive Somalia intelligentsia, and most of them are outside of the country. They're in exile in the United States, in Canada, Italy, the U.K. That's a big problem. There's going to have to be a great many more individuals going back because the country needs them."

Mohallim's personal story chronicles the history of the nation itself, from colonial rule to democracy to dictatorship and, finally, anarchy.

In the early 1960s, as ambassador to the United States, Mohallim helped usher in a new chapter in African history, a time of renewed pride and unabashed hopefulness.

One by one, beginning with Ghana in 1957, African nations were winning independence from colonial rulers. Somalia, like other nations, reveled in its newfound freedom.

"People were euphoric," he recalled. "They were very, very happy--like independence would bring miracles."

During the administrations of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, Mohallim was the voice of his people in America.

Among all his interactions with diplomats in Washington, Mohallim was most struck by Kennedy, he said, and his "special gift" of ingratiating himself with those he met.

"He made you feel like you were as important as the Pope," Mohallim said. "After him, I met many heads of state, but Kennedy was special."

During his tenure in Washington in the '60s, "discrimination was still rife" and black ambassadors fared no better than blacks in general when it came to Jim Crow laws and other discriminatory practices, he said.

"You couldn't go to certain quarters and rent a house," Mohallim said, and an attempt to get a haircut at a white-owned barbershop led to the State Department getting involved.

In the barbershop, "somebody suggested that it would be easier for them to cut my throat than to cut my hair," Mohallim recalled. "They didn't know I was an ambassador. I was a black man just like anybody else." After the State Department complained, the shop operator apologized, Mohallim said.

Syndicated columnist and professor Chuck Stone met Mohallim during those early years and has been friends with him since.

"When I met him, I was White House correspondent for the Washington Afro-American and he was the first Somalian ambassador to the U.S," said Stone, who teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Stone and his wife, Louise, befriended Mohallim in the early '60s, beginning a relationship that has lasted decades. The two have shared aspects of their culture--from pinochle to Ray Charles--a tribute, Stone said, "to the universality of negritude."

"One night we were playing Ray Charles and Omar said, 'Who's this?' " Stone recalled. After listening to the soulful strains for a while, Mohallim proclaimed in his Italian-Somali accent, " 'I like this Ray Char-les!' " Stone said, laughing. " 'He's a real brother.' "

But for the next several years, Stone and Mohallim would not see or hear from each other.

A military coup in 1969 brought Siad Barre to power, marking "the beginning of the end" of freedom in Somalia, Mohallim said.

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