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The 29th of April was bad day. That day I was traveling to Mogadishu and Hobyo as part of my job for Somalia Report. My assignment was to visit these towns, research claims of toxic waste washing up on shore, interview pirates, and report on the lives of the Somali people.
Knowing the dangers of the places I was scheduled to visit, my family and friends expressed their concerns and urged me, specifically, not to go back to Mogadishu, fearing I would not return alive. I understood the reasons for their worries, as I knew Mogadishu well, having started my reporting career there at the young age of eighteen.
Despite their concerns, I departed for Mogadishu, arriving at midday on April 29th. As soon as I arrived at the airport, however, I was immediately fearful. The looks on the faces of the people I encountered reflected anger and hostility. Mogadishu itself reflected these emotions, with widespread poverty and dreadful living conditions everywhere I looked. My apprehension at this situation, along with the earlier warnings and concerns voiced by my loved ones, only grew stronger during my week long visit that followed.
Soon after my arrival, I traveled to Galkayo, via Hobyo, a small fishing village in the semi-autonomous region of Galmudug state – home to the infamous ship hijacking pirates of Somalia.
Hobyo was, at one time, popular among local Somalis due to the abundance of fish in the town’s local waters. In the last four years, however, everything had changed. Everywhere I looked there were abandoned wooden boats and other remnants of a formerly active fishing trade.
Today, almost everyone in the city is armed as pirates, independent and clan militias, or as soldiers for the Galmudug state.
During my second day in Hobyo, I was traveling with Sharif Wadad-Adde, the deputy chairman of the local administration, who was serving as my guide. We visited all the notable locations in the village, while I took notes and pictures for my report. He offered to take me to view an Iranian boat that had been shelled by NATO forces weeks earlier. I eagerly agreed and he contacted a local police officer to travel with us for protection. Along with our driver, Abdullahi, we then set out to investigate the damaged boat, so that I might take additional pictures to include in my story. Though I could not have known it at the time, this is where our tragedy began.
As soon as we arrived at the location of the Iranian vessel, at approximately noon, eight armed men began to shoot in the direction of our vehicle, forcing our driver to immediately stop. Four of the armed men ordered us to get out of the car, as they continued to fire bursts from their weapons into the air and the ground to make sure we followed their commands.
At the same time, however, the other four men, who were also shooting to ensure they had our attention, ordered us to turn around and leave Hobyo immediately.
These conflicting orders caused our driver to remain stopped, understandably terrified, as we were, not knowing which of the two groups of men to obey. He quickly moved to roll down his window to ask the gunmen what they wanted him to do. At that moment, one of the men fired his weapon in the direction of the driver, indicating for him not to move.
The policeman traveling with us got out of the car and walked over to one of the men, whom he knew personally. Despite this, the militia men refused to listen to him and the confusion over what was to happen continued. Soon after, however, we decided to exit the vehicle, taking advantage of the fact that the two groups of gunmen were now arguing with each other and ignoring us for the moment.
Seeing us leaving the car, however, we attracted their attention and they ordered us to lie on the ground. They moved quickly to search our vehicle while they searched the vehicle. I watched as they examined my personal items, including my camera. When they found the notebook I used for my reporting, one of them shouted that I was with the Puntland security forces, and told the men to kill me immediately.
At that moment, the men swarmed over me, pointing their AK-47 rifles and ordering me not to move. Our driver bravely stood up and shouted at them that I was not with a private security firm, but rather only a journalist. At this, one of the militia men struck him in the face with the butt of his weapon, knocking him back to the ground.
A man, who seemed to be the leader of the group, ordered me to stand up and for the gunmen to take me to a different, unknown location. I began to weep, thinking that they would kill me, and I tried to explain that I was not a security agent, nor a member of any armed movement or political group, including the Puntland forces. At this, the men began to laugh, accusing me of lying, and made motions for me to stand and go with them to the other location.
Our driver told me not to go with them, so I refused. When I did this, they grabbed me and began to drag me away from the car. At that moment, two vehicles approached some distance away, heading towards us. The man in charge ordered his men to stop the oncoming cars, with one militia man to stay behind to prevent me from leaving.
Even at this distance, I could see that when the two cars stopped, Sharif Wadad-Adde, the deputy chairman of Hobyo, along with his officers, got out of the cars and began to talk with the gunmen to find out what was going on. He and his men were outnumbered, however, and at that moment his words carried no power. The gunmen refused to listen. I then attempted to shout and run towards them, but the AK-47s fired in my direction and the shooters grabbed me, shoved me to the ground, and once again began to drag me away.
Soon they stopped dragging me and left me lying down, with one gunman assigned to watch me and prevent me from escaping. The man was preoccupied, though, with watching the argument between Sharif Wadad-Adde and the group of bandits. I took this moment to slowly take out my cellphone and call one of the officers at the Galmudug presidential house. I was fortunate – and hopeful - in that the officer I was hoping to speak with picked up the phone on the other end. I began to speak, but he could not understand me as I was speaking too quickly and quietly. I decided at that moment to end the call, fearing that my guard might turn around and become angry.
Hiding my phone in my clothes, I could hear that the argument between Sharif and the gunmen had escalated into an angry shouting match, despite the fact that the men were pointing their guns at him. He loudly said, “Muhyadin, do not worry, you will be freed,” then got back in his car, turned around, and drove away. I immediately grew more worried, despite his words, and remembered the warnings of my loved ones back home. They may indeed have been right, that I would not be coming home from this assignment.
Later that day, they brought me to Abdullahi, my brave driver. He was young, like me, but had experienced these kinds of events before in his many travels. He told me to remain calm and that nothing would happen to us.
Village elders, from the same clan as the militia men, came and left several times, attempting to secure our freedom, but had no success. The gunmen threatened that if Sharif returned, they would kill me. I remained silent, hoping not to anger them further.
Eventually, and much to my terror, given the previous threats, Sharif returned with a larger, armed force. The gunmen stood me up and pointed their weapons at me. Though I knew Sharif and his men had returned to rescue me, they could not have known of the threat to my life should they come back and it was clear to me then that my life was now at risk.
The two groups, the gunmen on one side and Sharif’s forces on the other, remained approximately one kilometer apart. The elders once again attempted to have me released, as they walked hurriedly back and forth between the two several times in their negotiations, though there seemed to be no progress. The militia men guarding me warned: if Sharif’s men opened fire, I would be the first to die.
It was at this time that I decided I needed to do something to try and save myself. I told the gunmen they could keep my expensive camera if they would let me go. They refused. At approximately 6:00pm, however, there was a change between the gunmen, Sharif’s force, and the village elders. The discussions between the groups became less angry and they seemed to be now having a calm talk, rather than the shouting arguments from earlier in the day.
It was the actions of the elders and the size of Shairf’s rescue team, it turned out, which influenced the militia to release me unharmed.
Luckily I was freed without any blood being shed. I will always be thankful for those who worked to make sure that I was unharmed and able to return home to my family and friends.