Haweya and I left Mogadishu in mid-November 1990, crammed onto wooden benches with about thirty others in the back of a pickup. We were accompanied by Qubqac, Ibado's nephew and our second cousin once removed, who had some family over the border in Kenya. It was going to be a very long detour. The road to Kismayo on the coast of Somalia was already in the hands of the Hawiye rebels; it was far too dangerous to traverse. The only way for us Darod to make it safely out to Kenya was the long road up north to Baidoa, in the hills, and then west, across the desert. Even on this road, there might be bandits or stray members of the rebel armies, looking for adventure and crazy with qat.

A few hours' drive out of town, we got to Afgoye, one of the main market towns of southern Somalia. The landscape became suddenly green. Along the river were fields of rice and orchards: papayas and guavas and plantations of bananas and mangos. The street stalls overflowed with food, and the meat was wonderful.

The people in Afgoye looked different, more like Kenyans. These were the descendants of slaves and peasants, the outcast Sab. They lived in the arable land that feeds the rest of Somalia, and yet these people were supposed to be inferior to us. They stepped off the pavement to let us by. One highborn Darod man from our pickup actually pushed aside an old Sab woman who didn't move out of his way fast enough. It made me glad I was leaving. The open bigotry was one of the things I hated about Somalia. I had thought that belonging to a higher clan signified a higher morality. I didn't see it as a justification for mistreating people on the basis of their physical characteristics and the quality of their blood. Yet whenever I protested about the blatant prejudice against people of the Sab clans I was called a communist.

When I thought about it, the attitude of the Sab themselves also exasperated me. In places like Afgoye and Baidoa they were in the majority: Why did they obey like this? What were they waiting for? Did they fear the airplanes of the higher clans, and the bombs? Or was it that they were dependent on the northern Somalis for money? Could they have truly internalized this idea of their own inferiority, this daily humiliation? Why didn't they rise up?

We spent the first night in Baidoa, a hot, dusty market town about 150 miles northwest of Mogadishu and about two hundred miles from the Kenyan border, where we arrived just after nightfall. Then we got on another ramshackle bus to drive to Luuq, an old trading post on the Juba River. As we left Baidoa, the countryside emptied out: there was only sand, scrub brush, thorn trees, and one or two baobabs. This was the kind of land in which my grandmother had grown up. Occasionally we'd pass a young boy herding camels, who would squint at us in the sun, or a woman with a cloth tied around one shoulder and a baby tied to her back, walking into the distance with a stack of firewood tied to her belly.

In Luuq, the people were thin. Refugees were sleeping in the streets, and the houses were pockmarked with bullet holes. The hotel's tiny rooms were as hot as ovens, so everyone slept outside, the women all on mats laid out in the inner courtyard, the men in the outer yard. There was no running water or electricity. Everyone washed out of a jug and mocked Haweya and me for using the foreigner's instrument, a toothbrush, instead of rubbing an acacia twig against our teeth. Breakfast was goat liver with garlic and onion; I couldn't face it so early, but the others tried to induce me to eat it before we entered the hungry places. There would be less food farther down the road.

The pickup droned through the sand in the fierce sun, probably following some kind of path that we couldn't see. We had no shade; we simply sat on wooden benches.

We spent the next night in Bulo Haawo, a small village on the Somali side of the Kenyan border, with a few thatch-and-stick huts and a shop that had a cupboard with some ice in it. But just a few hundred yards past that shanty village we crossed the border, and there we found the Kenyan town of Mandera, with buildings made of concrete, a paved road, and electricity. Electricity had become a rarity in Mogadishu; we were startled to see it here. We went through an official checkpoint, where people were openly bribing the uniformed officials. (Since Qubqac had a Kenyan ID, and Haweya and I spoke perfect Swahili, we could get into the country without having to pay any bribes.)

Once in Mandera, Qubqac took us to the home of his stepmother and stepsisters, to pay our respects; they had electricity and running water. Mandera had shops and a school, even a district council office and a police station. In every way this little town in Kenya, a country Somalis considered inferior, functioned far better than almost anything in Somalia, just a few miles behind us.

Mandera is inhabited by Sejui Somalis (otherwise known as Kenyan-Somalis), who speak in singsong voices and mix Swahili words into their Somali. The only "native" Kenyans were the police who kept order and the army who manned the border. Events in Somalia had a way of spilling over into Kenya, however. There were frequent cross-border raids on property and cattle, and smugglers brought qat and all sorts of goods and people across the border.

We spent two nights in Mandera before Qubqac agreed to get back on the road. We took a country bus to Garissa, a large town 350 miles farther south, which had asphalt roads, hotels, a bus station, traffic lights, a mosque. There, we bought bus tickets to Nairobi. We were almost home.

As we finally drove into Nairobi, about a week after our departure from Mogadishu, and made our way through the smells and colors of Eastleigh, everything looked exactly as we had left it. Even the pungent odor of sukumawiki was welcome: it meant home to me now. I was looking forward to seeing my mother again, but as we neared our neighborhood, I found I was also dreading the fights and emotional scenes that we would inevitably endure.

A few days after we arrived in Nairobi, at the end of November, open warfare broke out around Mogadishu. Siad Barre's army still held the center of town, but the outskirts were completely encircled by the Hawiye rebel forces. Gunmen rode around in pickups, high on qat, shooting at whatever they felt like and burning down farms and orchards.

To split the opposition against him, Siad Barre had been playing on the clan hostility that is always latent in Somalia. His forces staged attacks on the Darod as if the attackers were Hawiye: they left their scenes of murder daubed with slogans like "Cleanse the Darod from Hawiye land," and "USC," the initials of one of the Hawiye militias. They did the same to the Hawiye, with slogans like "The Hawiye are inferior and deserve to be wiped out."

So, as Siad Barre went down, he took the country with him: the fight to oust him became a full-fledged civil war. The Hawiye were no longer just demanding Siad Barre's head: they wanted ethnic cleansing. 

The Darod were caught by surprise. They had expected that the Hawiye would seek revenge from Siad Barre's subclan, but not that they would attack all of the different clans of the Darod. Mogadishu fell into chaos, with looting, wanton killing, and destruction of property. Fighters suddenly swept into neighborhoods and burned houses; children were left behind as their parents fled. Any Darod who could escape drove, walked, or crawled as far as Afgoye, Baidoa, to Kismayo on the coast, and to towns and villages all the way to the borders of Kenya and Ethiopia.

Some of the Darod fought back, and in these battles both the Darod and the Hawiye died in large numbers. Siad Barre's army had shrunk to the soldiers who guarded his presidential palace. On January 27, 1991, in the midst of this mayhem, Ma, Haweya, and I learned from the BBC Somali Service that Barre had been flown out to safety—to Nairobi.

One evening, as we listened anxiously to the radio in our apartment on Park Road, there was a knock on the door. I was startled to see Abdellahi Yasin, one of Mahad's best friends in Mogadishu, on our doorstep. Accompanying him was the son of his older sister, a young man whom he introduced to us as Osman Abdihalin Osman Yusuf Kenaidiid, a grandson of Osman, the man who had taught my father to read and write, and a great-grandson of the king whom my grandfather Magan had served. We were simply awed. It was an honor to take this man into our home.

Abdellahi and Osman told us that Mogadishu was virtually paralyzed. Only armed cars were on the streets. In areas that the Hawiye already controlled, gunmen were going door to door rounding up Darod men. Mahad left the city before them, heading for Bari, which was now solidly under the control of the SSDF. My mother became almost hysterical with fear, and Haweya and I were terribly anxious.

Abdellahi and Osman moved into our living room, and they were sleeping on mattresses there two weeks later when Mahad arrived at our door. Ma, Haweya, and I were weak with relief to see him. He had wanted to go to Bari, but the clan had insisted he return to safety in Kenya. He took the same route out of the city as we had, and only just in time: the day after he passed through Afgoye, the town fell to the Hawiye rebels.

Mahad was accompanied by our cousin Warsame, the son of Ma's twin sister, and by two of Warsame's half-brothers. We now had six men, all of them more or less family members, sleeping on mattresses in the living room. 

Next to arrive was Qsman's older brother, Mahamuud. Again, it was a great honor to offer him hospitality, but Ma's face crumbled in terror when Mahamuud told us that Mogadishu had all but fallen when he left the city. The Hawiye had Siad Barre's palace under siege, and there was rape and looting everywhere. Hawiye gunmen dragged Darod women and children into the street and murdered them, he said; they even burned down houses with people still inside. 

Water was scarce, and people were already so weak from the lack of food that they could not fight or flee. Later we would learn that our Aunt Khadija had made it out to Kismayo, where she fell ill. Eventually we received word that she had died there.

Ibabo Dhadey Magan, whose mother was Hawiye, gathered a number of kinsmen into her compound to keep them safe. But the Darod were beginning to move out of the city, in vehicles or on foot, fleeing the disaster. They were making their way down to the coast along with people running from the burning farmland south of Afgoye. There were now hundreds of thousands of people on the move. The massive exodus from Somalia to Kenya, Ethiopia, and beyond had begun.

Mahamuud told us he had left his wife and children in Kismayo with family members; he had made the journey to the Kenyan port of Mombasa in a boat crammed with other refugees, in order to find a safe place for his family to stay in Nairobi. Now he needed to return to the border and bring them to Nairobi. 

He calculated that they had enough gas to make it roughly to the Kenyan border, to a place that refugees were gathering, about a hundred miles into the desert. Everyone called it Dhobley, the Muddy Place.

Every day for a whole week, Mahamuud pleaded with Mahad, who had a proper Kenyan ID and spoke Swahili and English, to go with him to the border to fetch his family. The border was chaos, and the Kenyan government was trying to stop more refugees from crossing into Kenya; Mahamuud would need help.

But Mahad procrastinated. Every day he waved Mahamuud aside: tomorrow they would begin the trip to the border. We could all feel Mahamuud's anxiety. Finally, one night, at dinner, he announced that he would leave, alone, the next day. I couldn't stand it anymore and said, "I also speak Swahili and English, and Haweya and I have just traveled from the border, so I know what to do. I'll go with you."

My mother said no, a young girl should not be allowed to go to a war zone. But I told her I would stay on the Kenyan side: How bad could it be? The conversation lasted for several days. Everyone took sides. Mahad kept promising to leave, then he would head out the door saying he was going to the mosque and stay out until nightfall. It was clear that Mahamuud would have to go with me or go alone.

Finally, at the end of January, we left. I had been home two months.

After a night or two on the road, we arrived at the Kenyan border town of Liboye. Mahamuud was so nervous he could barely speak. He had a leather pouch under his shirt, full of U.S. dollars to use as bribes, but it would be up to me to negotiate with the police at the border post. I had never tried to bribe anyone before; I didn't even know what a dollar might be worth so far away from the capital.

At the border, soldiers in green uniforms were everywhere, with machine guns and ammunition belts slung across their shoulders. We found an army officer who said he was the commander. I took a deep breath and told him, in Swahili, "This man is looking for his family. They just went on holiday to Somalia and they've been trapped there. All we need to do is cross the border and get them."

The officer looked me over and asked, "How many people will you bring in?" I answered, "One woman with four tiny children. Just one woman, really, because the kids are so small they hardly count."

He looked at me quizzically, and I reckoned that now was the proper time to give him money. I turned to Mahamuud and said, "Do you have something like five hundred shillings?" I was guessing wildly. It was about a week's rent on our flat in Nairobi. Mahamuud pushed a banknote into my hand and I handed it to the officer. He looked down and told me "Two more." We gave it to him and he said, "So, go."

I asked the officer for his name. He said, "Mwaura, " which is a common Kikuyu name. But I didn't think this officer was Kikuyu: he was too tall. I told Mahamuud that I didn't trust this man. We had absolutely no guarantees. Even if we found Mahamuud's wife and children, there was no way to be sure that we would find this officer again, or that he would really let us all back into Kenya. We hadn't received a piece of paper or even a handshake. All we had was this dubious name Mwaura and my Swahili, but we had no choice.

We headed into the border zone alone, walking down an empty hill. It was a scene of utter desperation, with refugee tents and ragged shelters strung out as far as the eye could see. It looked as though the entire population of Somalia was camped there. Somewhere beyond this desolate zone was the settlement of Dhobley, erected suddenly by the refugees; and somewhere in Dhobley, Mahamuud hoped to find his wife and children.

It was very dusty, and there were absolutely no trees, no shade at all. The United Nations refugee agency had set up camp on the Kenyan side of the border, at the bottom of the hill. Dozens of bright blue plastic tarps clustered near a large, well-made tarpaulin tent where people were lining up in the sun to register. We passed a health center—really just a place where you could report the dead—around which were thousands and thousands of tents.

The farther we walked, the shabbier the tents became. At first, most of them were blue tarpaulins strung onto branches and twigs, with whole families sheltering under them. A little farther on, the tarpaulins ran out and thin branches and twigs were just shoved into the soil, with cloths arranged over them, women's shawls or a shirt, so the children could sit in the shade. The tents were clumped around little waterholes in the sand, some of them no more than muddy puddles. The smell of recent rain was still in the air, but the puddles were already evaporating in the heat.

We walked on until we got to a huge parking area where there were a number of pickup trucks and Land Cruisers. Everyone here was Darod— Macherten or Marehan or Wersengeli or Ogaden, but all of them Darod—so we felt comfortable around them. Though there was tension between the subclans, there would not be a massacre here. Mahamuud explained that we needed to drive to Dhobley, which was eighteen kilometers (about twelve miles) away. He negotiated the price for a little while and found a Macherten driver who agreed to take us, but we had to wait for him to fill his car with more passengers.

It was about four in the afternoon when we arrived in Dhobley. There were people everywhere we looked. Under every high thorn tree a family squatted, most on mats, a few just on the dry white sand. Sometimes they had tents, but these were even more shabby and decrepit than the ones closer to the border; they were made of cloths, twigs, and rags.

As we left the car we walked past two men who were arguing about a jerry can of water. One of them lost his temper and pulled a gun, and my heart thudded. Suddenly all the men around us had guns—pistols or rifles. My eye caught a series of spent bullets on the ground, nestled in the sand. Three or four older men walked up to the man with the gun with their arms out and said, "Take the water. It's yours—go," and gave it to him. He sat down on the sand and put his hands over his head and cried. His clothes were torn; his toes poked out of his broken shoes; he looked wretched.

The older men tried to take his gun away but they couldn't get him to give it up. They gave the other man another can of water. Everyone badly wanted everything to stay calm—suddenly everyone was an expert in conflict prevention. I crept up to Mahamuud and said, "These people are dangerous." He looked at me and said, "They are dangerous. They are hungry and thirsty. They have been walking for a long time. They have nothing left to lose. They feel like they are dead already."

He was right. The people all around us looked like ghosts. They were gaunt. They had been moving away from their homes for weeks, and had lost everything along the way. Babies had died; there were listless children in almost every mother's arms. They had been attacked by bandits, and they had crossed all kinds of battlefronts. When I looked into people's eyes, it was disorienting. They looked as if they had been to Hell and back.

I felt totally helpless. I had come to help one man find his family, and there was a sea of desperate people around me. 

Among them I stood out as the only one who seemed rested and well-fed. I looked like almost the last hope of every woman, every family, under every tree. Many people came up to me begging, "Will you talk to the border guards, can you take me there? I have family." And I had to say "No. No I can't, there is nothing I can do." I was there with Mahamuud, and he had only one aim, which was to find his family.

We pushed on, asking everyone if they had seen a woman named Si'eedo Mahmud Osman Yusuf Kenaidiid; Mahamuud's wife was his cousin, so they shared the same grandfather names. As we walked on, people asked our names, of course, and it was natural to answer with the long version: "I am Ayaan Hirsi Magan Isse." It was like a massive clan gathering: your name was your identity card.

Someone said, "Under that tree, over there, are some Jama Magans," and when I walked over I saw them: Ainanshie and Aflao, and Amran and Idil, from Mogadishu. When I had last seen them—the day I left Mogadishu myself, barely ten weeks before—they were rich people, with fat, powerful legs and arms. Now they were gaunt figures in clothes that hung loose and huge on their bony frames. Their faces were familiar, but these weren't the same people at all. They were so thin. With them was Abdiwahab, another second cousin of mine, who worked in Aflao's espresso bar. Abdiwahab had been enormously fat and tall; now he was like a skeleton, and appeared even taller. His eyes bulged out of deep sockets, and his cheeks had caved in so that his head resembled a skull, with skin that seemed only barely to stretch across his bones. It was like looking at a zombie.

They came up to me and hugged me and started to cry—we all cried—and the two girls, Amran and Idil, began pleading, "Please don't leave us here, take us with you," and I knew I couldn't.

I had no money of my own. Mahamuud had only enough to save his own family. I had told the border official we would have only one woman with us, and we hadn't even found her yet. All I could do was tell them that I would go back to Nairobi and we would raise the money for Mahad to return to the border and somehow get them out.

They started to cry desperately. Amran and Idil were only about seventeen and eighteen years old. They said, "You're here with this man to save his family, and we are your family, but you won't save us—we thought you came for us." They were hysterical. Haweya had once called Amran and Idil the Barrels, they were so fat; now they were malnourished, frightened, and desperate.

Aflao's wife had miscarried a baby on the road, and Ainanshie had had to leave his wife and their tiny baby behind in Mogadishu, because she was Hawiye, from the clan of the enemy, and she would have been killed on the road by the other Darod refugees. Ainanshie told me that he had fought with the Darod against the Hawiye in Mogadishu, and had killed people. He said it felt good to do it, to take revenge for all the slaughter. "There was one man with a knife. I shot him and cut his throat from ear to ear," he said with something like satisfaction. I started to shake—the whole thing was impossible, it was a kind of hallucination of horror. I remember thinking, "This is Hell: this is the beginning, the first gate of Hell."

Mahamuud was pressing me to move on, to find his family before nightfall. I promised to return on our way back to the border, and painfully detached from Ainanshie and his family. We walked on, inquiring under every tree. Under the tallest trees were the families with men who had guns. Women who were alone were trying to shelter their children under bushes that were barely more than scrub. Mahamuud began meeting people whom he knew—business partners, neighbors—and they kept telling him, "Farther back. They are back there."

Mahamuud spotted Fadumo, the wife of his older brother, Mahamed. Fadumo was also the sister of Mahamuud's wife. She grabbed Mahamuud's arm as if she would never let go. Her husband came running, barefoot. He still had his mustache and bushy eyebrows, but the rest of him had shrunk into cavities of bone. He looked like a corpse running. Mahamed and Fadumo had four children with them, who looked up at me as though an angel had just come to them from heaven.

Mahamed told us that Mahamuud's wife was just a short distance away, and their children were well. He'grabbed his brother's arm and we started walking. Mahamuud's wife caught sight of him from far off and began running to greet him. When she threw herself at him she began to sob.

It was the first time I had ever seen a Somali couple display affection to each other like that. They were clinging to each other and stroking each other's faces, both of them crying and not letting go. The children came running and clung to the two of them—there was a moment of pure joy and tears which was very private, and Mahamed and I turned away out of respect.

Still grasping Mahamuud's arm, his wife, Si'eedo, took us under the tree where she was camped. Sitting there was Mahamuud's younger sister, Marian, and her two children. Marian's three-year-old daughter was the most beautiful child I had ever seen. But when I looked at Marian's baby, it seemed almost as though there was no baby in there—just a tiny, crumpled-up human form, a few days old, clinging to the dry breast of his starving mother. A malnourished baby has horrifying physical proportions, his head seemingly bigger than the rest of his body. I thought it was the most terrifying thing I could ever see.

At the same time, I saw in the child a sudden pull of life. It was being extinguished, but it was there. I said to Marian, "We have to save this baby. It's alive—we must get it across the border." 

She looked at me and said, "Allah has given me this child, and if He wills it, Allah will take him away." She was one of the real Brotherhood people and seemed completely passive. She felt that she was being tested by Allah; she had to accept that the child would die if Allah wanted it to be that way. To show bitterness, or despair, would be to fail the test of faith. In fact, everybody seemed to be patiently waiting for this baby to die in her lap. And why not—after all, other babies were dying. Mahamuud's youngest child, who was about a year and a half old, was sick, too; his little bottom was flaccid and wrinkled from dehydration.

I said, "We have to leave tomorrow. We have to save this baby." Everybody thought I was being sentimental, that I was dazed, that this was my way of dealing with death and the horror that was all around us. Perhaps it was. There was no way this child was going to live. We boiled water for tea, and I cooled some of the water and handed a glass to Marian to give to the baby. When she held it to the baby's lips they started moving.

That night we slept on mats and thin cloths spread on the white sand, all near each other. Si'eedo cooked a kind of watery sorghum porridge with dirty water. There was no nutrition in it, not even any salt. Then we fell asleep where we'd eaten, wrapped in shawls. It was comfortable in a strange way; the sand was soft, and the wind smelled like Mogadishu. But everyone had scabies and lice and warned me I would catch them, too. The children had lice visibly trailing along their necks, and there I was with my sporty little duffel bag, with a toothbrush and toothpaste and a change of underwear and clean clothes. It was surreal.

The next day, as everyone was collecting their stuff, I decided to walk back to the tree where Aflao and Ainanshie and their family were camped. As I was headed there everyone asked me who I was. I answered, "I'm Hirsi Magan's daughter," and someone asked, "Which wife?" I said, "The Dhulbahante wife, Asha Artan." They told me to go over under another tree, where I found another cousin, whom I had never met: Zainab Muhammad Artan, the half-sister of Mahmud, whom I had secretly married in Mogadishu just three months before. When I heard who she was, I started. I felt as if that life had been eons ago.

Zainab told me she had taken the coastal road out of Mogadishu, to Kismayo. When Hawiye fighters attacked Kismayo, she and her husband left in panic, and they had had to bring another woman's children with them—two boys who had been playing with Zainab's children when the fighters came, and whose parents must now have no idea where they were.

She pointed them out. I recognized them. They were Ahmed and Aidarus, the two youngest sons of my mother's youngest sister. They were about seven and five. One of the boys ran over and clutched my right hand and the other my left, and they looked up at me. They didn't even plead—they didn't have to. I had to take them. These children were mine—my responsibility.

I took the boys back to Mahamuud and told him the story and he just nodded. He, too, knew we had to take them.

We had to get back to the Kenyan border as quickly as we could before our army officer, Mr. Mwaura, forgot about us. We looked around. We had told him that we would return with one woman and four little children, but now, in addition, we had Mahamuud's brother and his family his sister and her two children, and my two little boy cousins. On top of that, both the wives had young women relatives along with them. So now we were accompanied by one man, five women, and twelve children. Instead of being a party of seven, we were now a huddle of twenty human beings.

We decided to try to make it together, even though we knew that we might not have enough money to get everyone through into Kenya. 

Mahamuud paid for a pickup to transport all of us back to the parking lot near the border. It cleaned out all his Somali money. Now he had only U.S. dollars on him, and if he showed those here, with all the guns around, he would be killed. When the truck dropped us off, we were in the no-man's-land between countries. There was a sea of people between us and the riverbed where the UN High Commission for Refugees had its tent, even more people than there had been the day before. We settled down in the sun to wait for Mahamuud to arrange matters.

It was late when Mahamuud returned to us, and he was being carried by four men, who dumped him on the sand by our mat. He had been stung by a scorpion and was nearly paralyzed with the pain. We lay him down on zguntino cloth and tried to make him comfortable; there was nothing else to do. His leg was swollen and black.

Now it was up to me to walk back into Kenya, to talk to the border guards, and to try to find some food for us all while we waited here on the Somali side for Mahamuud to recover enough to move. If he were to die, which can happen from a scorpion bite, our situation would be even more desperate.

The guards let me into Liboye with my ID, and I managed to buy some milk; my grandmother always said camel's milk counteracts scorpion venom, but cow's milk was all I could find. When I returned, I saved some of it for the little baby, though the others grumbled that it was a waste, and I gave Marian some to help start up her own breast milk. But when I told her to give the baby a name she refused; she didn't want to get attached to the child because she had prepared herself for him to die.

We waited for days in the shadeless zone full of tarpaulins and desperate people. Mahamuud developed a fever. When it rained we gathered water from a pothole that was coated green with algae. We crushed maize flour into the water and I gave some of it to the baby.

All the children cried all the time, a constant moaning wail. The youngest of my cousins had some kind of respiratory infection. Everyone had diarrhea. The baby was so small and bony and vulnerable that I was too frightened to hold him. Marian kept the child tight to her chest, wrapped in a cloth.

The UN began to distribute food; basically they handed rations to people who claimed to be clan leaders, and these people either kept it for their own families or sold it. You could get rations only if you registered at the main tent, but hundreds of people were lined up there. There was a water tank, but I never managed to get close to it: water was the scarcest commodity of all, and there were constant fights over it. People were dying all around us. The UN had hired Kenyan and Somali guards to help bury the bodies.

The place was crawling with scorpions and snakes, all kinds of reptiles, and I had no idea which of them were dangerous. I tried desperately to recall my grandmother's lessons as I tried to figure out what we needed to do to keep us all alive. Everyone else had become so passive; it was as if they were stunned, just waiting to die. Everywhere I went, people looked at me as though I could somehow save them. In my shoes, with my toothbrush, walking to and from the border to buy maize flour and bananas, I looked like an emissary from another world—the world of normal life, which still existed somewhere.

One morning when I went to get water with all the throngs of other women I heard that a woman had been attacked in the night. She had arrived alone, and she was from a small subclan; she had no men to protect her. Kenyan soldiers had taken her out of her hut in the night and raped her.

I went to see her in the tiny rag hut she had made for herself. She was one big wound. Her face was swollen and covered in dried blood, her clothes were torn, there were marks all over her legs. She was shaking uncontrollably. I touched her hand and asked if I could help her but she didn't talk. All she could say was Ya Allah, Ya Allah, "Allah have mercy on me."

I went to get her more water, and all the people nearby told me, "You shouldn't be seen with that woman. She is impure. People will say you're the same." All I could see was a human being who had been abused, who was on the verge of death, but to them, she was an outcast.

I knew she would die soon. I walked all the way to the UNHCR tent and found a Sri Lankan woman and told her, in English, that there was a woman alone who had been raped. I explained that Somalis would leave this woman to die. She came to the tent with some guards and took her away. I told Mahamed and the others about it and they said, "Of course it is not the woman's fault, but you know, there are so many problems. You can't save everyone here." I did know that, but we could have taken care of each other. 

Two days later, again there was a story of another woman who had been raped. It began happening all the time: Kenyan soldiers came at night to rape Somali women who were alone without protectors. And then all these women would be shunned and left to die.

This is what my grandmother had meant when she warned me: if you are a Somali woman alone, you are like a piece of sheep fat in the sun. Ants and insects crawl all over you, and you cannot move or hide; you will be eaten and melted until nothing is left but a thin smear of grease. And she also warned us that if this happened, it would be our fault.

It was horrible. Everyone in that camp called themselves Muslims and yet nobody helped these women in the name of Allah. Everyone was praying—even the woman in that hut had been praying—but no one showed compassion.

Mahamuud's fever had already begun to abate when Mahad arrived in this no-man's-land, straight from Nairobi. He had Kenyan shillings with him; he had raised money from the Osman Mahamud to come and rescue as many people as he could. I told Mahad he must go to Dhobley and get Aflao and Ainanshie's family out to safety, and he said he would do it.

My brother was now acting as though he were commander in chief, though to me it seemed as though he had arrived after the battle. He loudly expressed concern for my well-being in this appalling place. He ordered me to head straight for Nairobi with Mahamuud's wife and children; he said he would return to pick up Mahamed's family, and Marian, with her two kids. But I knew Mahad: his intentions had a way of not corresponding with reality. So I told him I would stay. I couldn't leave these two families, especially the little baby with no name.

Mahad left for Dhobley. He was gone for two nights. Two days after he returned, together with Ainanshie and Aflao and everyone else, Mahamuud finally stood up. The fever had gone. Everyone was still alive, even the baby. 

The money that was supposed to pay for bribes and transport had severely diminished as I bought food in the Kenyan border village, and the people camped around us were beginning to eye our stocks hungrily. Now that Mahamuud was well enough to move, it was time to try to cross the border.

It was now Mahad and me, Mahamuud and his family, Mahamed's family, Aflao and Ainanshie's family, Marian and her child and baby, and my two little cousins: fifteen adults and sixteen children.

We decided to separate. Mahad would wait for a day or so with Aflao and Ainanshie's family. I would leave now, with Mahamuud, with two men, three women, the two young girls traveling with them, and twelve very young children.

First we had to find Mwaura and renegotiate. I walked with Mahamuud along the path into Liboye. Every time soldiers stopped and questioned us, I spoke to them in Swahili. We finally tracked Mwaura down in the empty lot where hundreds of refugees were massing and trying to negotiate with Kenyan men with pickups and buses. Mwaura looked at me and said, "Ah, the girl who speaks Swahili." He was friendlier now. I bribed him several thousand extra shillings to let us all get through. It had become an easy transaction, adult to adult, eye to eye. He was not a bad man, and I later realized that I had vastly overpaid him. Mahad made the same trip after us for far less money.

But then it took several days for Mahamuud to negotiate our transportation from the border. Again and again he trudged back to the Somali side of the border, where we waited for him, and told us "Maybe tomorrow." There were simply too many of us, and the prices were too high. All the Somalis who still had money, as we did, were also bribing the police and offering huge sums to anyone who would drive them closer to Nairobi. Finally Mahamuud told us he had made a deal. He had found a bus driver who would take us—but he had agreed to pay him almost all our remaining money.

The bus took us to a place in the foothills of Garissa, where we spent the night. Then we took another bus to Garissa, and yet another one to Nairobi. By this time, the children were no longer even crying; they were almost motionless.

We walked into my mother's house at 10:30 in the morning at the end of February 1992. I had been gone for three weeks. She had been so desperate about us—she, too, looked thin and haggard. She was stunned to see me walk in, filthy and crawling with lice, with a huge crowd of starving people.

We ate and drank clean water; then, before we even washed, I put Marian in a taxi with me and told the driver to go to Nairobi Hospital. We had no money left and I knew Nairobi Hospital was expensive; it was where I had been operated on when the ma'alim broke my skull. But I also knew that there they would help us first and ask us to pay later. Saving the baby's life had become the only thing that mattered to me.

At the reception desk I announced, "This baby is going to die," and the nurse's eyes went wide with horror. She took him and put a drip in his arm, and very slowly, this tiny shape seemed to uncrumple slightly. After a little while, his eyes opened.

The nurse said, "The child will live," and told us to deal with the bill at the cash desk. I asked her who her director was, and found him, and told this middle-aged Indian doctor the whole story. I said I couldn't pay the bill. He took it and tore it up. He said it didn't matter. Then he told me how to look after the baby, and where to get rehydration salts, and we took a taxi home.

Ma paid for the taxi and looked at me, her eyes round with respect. "Well done," she said. It was a rare compliment.

In the next few days the baby began filling out, growing from a crumpled horror-movie image into a real baby, watchful, alive. One evening at dinner I said, "Now we must give this baby a name." He must have been about six weeks old by then. Just as I said that, there was a knock at the door and yet another refugee arrived, the eighteen-year-old younger brother of Osman and Mahamuud and Mahamed. His name was Abbas Abdihalin. "Let him be named after me, after the great Abbas!" he crowed. So the child was named Abbas. He must be a teenager now.

Little Abbas was everyone's favorite. A child with no father and no future—a child who could so easily have died, but for the grace of Allah—he was a gem, winning and lively, cooed over and protected by us all. 

The house was full and everyone was jubilant just to be alive. The two cousins I had brought with me became my mother's children. She was gentle with them and cooked separate meals for them. Ma was oddly happy for a while with this huge tribe around her. Ramadan came—the time of families—and our flat was like a clan meeting of the Osman Mahamud.

People began sending us money from abroad. Somalis living all over the world, in Canada, in Europe, sent us money by hawala. 

The hawala system is a fine example of Somali ingenuity. You go to see a man in Toronto or Stockholm or Kuala Lumpur. You give him cash. He calls a grocery store in a Somali neighborhood in Nairobi, or Birmingham, or anywhere else, and arranges for your friend to pick up the money. There's a commission, but no paperwork. The whole thing takes a few phone calls and just a day or two; it's based entirely on trust within the clan, or within the Muslim Brotherhood, which runs the cheapest and most reliable systems of all. The same thing was happening for Somali families sheltering refugees all over Kenya: money was coming in from the clans.

But even though we had enough money for food, the apartment was still a madhouse. The noise alone was insane. Order was barely maintained by the men leaving the house all day. The scabies and lice drove us mad, too—scabies especially. We bought crates of lotion at a time at the clinic, but the lotion only works if everybody uses it at the same time and washes everything; in our apartment, people always forgot, or just didn't bother, and more people were constantly arriving. At one point there must have been thirty-five or forty of us. We were constantly reinfested; it was like a plague.

One afternoon Mahad came home with two Hawiye men he had known in Mogadishu, friends of his, who had nowhere to go. He couldn't leave them on the street in Nairobi, but our flat was full of Darod—full to bursting of Darod men who cursed the Hawiye butchers from day into night. Mahad walked into the house, stood straight in the doorway, and introduced these two men. He explained that they had nowhere to go and nothing to reproach themselves for, and told everyone, "We are not going to say anything negative about the Hawiye." Everyone was frozen with shock but obeyed. They stayed a week..........








Keith Hunt