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COLUMN ONE

Death got his number

The Somalian reporter had confronted horrific violence and constant fear. But a phone threat after two colleagues were slain left him shaken.

October 29, 2007|Abukar Albadri | Special to The Times

MOGADISHU, SOMALIA — The voice on the other end of my cellphone was oddly calm, but intent.

"Abukar, I am calling to inform you that we have decided to take your life," the caller said. I glanced down at my phone to see the caller ID, which read "private."

"You're not worthy to live," the man continued. "You have three hours to tell your family and say your last words."

"Who is this?" I demanded.

"I am a man," was the reply.

It wasn't my first death threat. As a journalist in Somalia, I've received more than I'd care to count. In some, angry callers curse me as a "puppet" of the U.N.-backed transitional government in Baidoa and the Ethiopian troops that support it. Others accuse me of being a "terrorist" supporting the Islamic insurgents.

But this call came at the end of one of the darkest days of my life. Just a few hours earlier, I'd attended the funeral of a friend and colleague, Mahad Ahmed Elmi, a radio host gunned down that August morning. Then, as my fellow journalists and I drove back from the burial, a roadside bomb struck our convoy, killing Ali Iman Sharmarke, another prominent media figure in Mogadishu.

This month, gunmen shot another friend, Bashir Nur Gedi, acting manager of Shabelle Radio, who had been arrested and detained by government forces in September.

International journalist organizations say at least seven reporters have been killed in Somalia this year. No one has been caught or punished in any of these attacks.

After I hung up, dozens of questions ran through my mind: What am I guilty of? Who is my enemy? Why am I being targeted?

But for the first time, one question would not go away: Should I leave Somalia?

Many times I'd stood over the graves of friends. Now I imagined friends and family weeping over mine.

I began working as a journalist 10 years ago, at age 19, because I wanted to alert the world to the untold stories of Somalia. I had always admired an older cousin who had worked as a radio correspondent during the Mohamed Siad Barre regime, which fell in 1991.

As a journalist in the capital, Mogadishu, I've covered street battles, assassinations and public executions. I've had guns pointed at my head and I've stepped over twisted bodies on the road. I've been summoned to news conferences in the presidential palace only to be detained by corrupt officials who demanded a bribe.

Over the years, I've watched governments and authorities come and go. Warlords, Islamic courts, transitional governments. One thing stays the same: When new groups rise to power, they attack the media.

Today journalists who have dedicated their lives to telling the stories of Somalia find themselves caught between suicidal insurgents and the blazing guns of the transitional government's mad soldiers. Each is trying to make the media its puppet.

This year the government has arrested more than 50 journalists; eight remain behind bars. Officials have attempted to close media outlets and have imposed laws that restrict the activities of reporters. Somalia is the second deadliest country in the world for journalists, after Iraq, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

At the same time, insurgents have attacked and harassed us, distributing leaflets in many neighborhoods threatening to kill any journalist perceived as supporting the government. This summer we were flatly warned that we faced attacks if we covered the government's reconciliation conference.

I used to think that with commitment, dedication and a strong heart, I could survive. Now I'm not so sure. This job can be rewarding. But sometimes it feels like a curse.

During the reign of the Islamic Courts Union in 2006, I watched a guard tie a 50-year-old man to a stake after he was found guilty of stabbing another man to death. Then, in accordance with the regime's interpretation of Islamic law, the son of the victim stepped forward and cut the accused from his groin to his collarbone.

Some women began to ululate in support, but many spectators vomited or passed out. I turned away. The scene took place outside a primary school, as students peered over the wall. I thought to myself: What is happening to my country?

It got worse: In March angry crowds dragged the bodies of government soldiers and burned them on the streets. With bullets and missiles flying, I decided to take a couple of photographs, scrawl some quick notes and get away.

As I was getting ready to leave, I felt a gun at my head. A militiaman ordered me to drop my camera. I did. I emptied my pockets, raised my hands and pleaded for my life. He took my camera and cellphone, then turned to an angry, questioning crowd and declared me a spy. The crowd began cursing me and chanting.

"I'm a journalist. I'm a journalist," I shouted, showing my press card. Sweat poured from my body. I feared I would end up like the government soldiers.

The militiaman, however, had a different punishment in mind. He led me away to his leaders, eager to show off his captive.

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