Building peace at home — away from home

By Candice O’Grady

The compound is protected 24 hours a day by armed guards. Vans take workers from behind the tall gate, where their day ends, and out into the streets where their day begins.

Having been twice riddled with bullets and once taken over by a warlord, each man and woman in the compound knows the dangers that come with this profession.

Who are they? They are the journalists of HornAfrik, the first independent radio and television station in the conflict-ridden capital of Somalia — Mogadishu.

Facing threats from warlords vying for control of the city, these journalists provide the people of Mogadishu with impartial news and a safe forum to criticize the powerful.

The danger for journalists is tangible. The recent history of HornAfrik is marked by tragedy. One of their drivers was shot and killed one morning in the street.

Mohamed Elmi lives partially in the world of the journalist in Mogadishu. The other half of his life could not be more different.

The small Bank Street restaurant, run by Elmi and his wife, is busy all afternoon. The mosaic of patrons, stepping in out of the March wind, includes diplomats, regulars, friends, and any number of neighbourhood children underfoot.

Two men from the Indonesian embassy come in to appease their wives’ insatiable appetites for sweet bread and the restaurant’s namesake dish, sambuzas.

While good things are certainly cooking in the kitchen of Sambuza Village, a collection of newspaper articles dotting its walls reveal Elmi serves more than food.

Elmi and his two partners, Ali Sharmarke and Ahmed Aden, run HornAfrik. The three Ottawa men returned to their native country of Somalia in 1999 to take back the airwaves in Mogadishu.

At that time all of the stations were operated by warlords who used it to spread hate and propaganda, according to Elmi. Since the overthrow of military dictator Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991, Somalia has been plagued by violence and disorder. The country is still without a central government today.

For five years now Elmi, Sharmarke and Aden have lived double lives, spending parts of the year with their families in Ottawa,and dedicating the rest to healing warn-torn Somalia with freedom of speech.

“For the social well being of the country (the people) need to be able to negotiate,” Elmi says. “HornAfrik gives people access to information but it is also a peace building tool.”

The political climate in Somalia was not always so bleak. Born in a family of 12 children in the town of Dusa-Mareb, Elmi says growing up under the country’s early governments, and even the subsequent military dictatorships, was relatively peaceful. He felt that he could have anything, he says.

It was during his tender high school years that Elmi, 46, met his wife, with whom he now has six children of his own. When she stops in at the restaurant for a few minutes, he introduces her as his “better half.” The affection between them is still strong.

Educated in Somalia and then in England, Elmi was in Germany working on his master’s degree in engineering when Somalia descended into war. Afraid for the lives of his wife and children, who still lived in the country, Elmi and his family fled to Canada in 1991.

He began volunteering with the city’s social services, which eventually landed him a full-time job. Elmi worked as a social worker in Ottawa until 2000, when he left in order to concentrate on HornAfrik.

“We are the generation to fix the problem, to heal Somalia, and media is one way of doing that because we can change minds and perceptions,” says Elmi about why he left the government.

After drawing up a business plan and returning to Mogadishu, Elmi and his partners began broadcasting HornAfrik radio in December 1999.

The good thing about having a government with no teeth, Elmi says jokingly, is that there are no regulations for the airwaves.

“You can just stand there,” he says, standing up from the table in his restaurant, “and start using it!”

The station was popular from the start. Elmi says that HornAfrik is widely listened to. A few reporters have become so popular in the community that they have been dubbed, the “Larry Kings” of Mogadishu.

In March 2000 Elmi and his partners began broadcasting TV shows with digital equipment from behind the walls of their Mogadishu compound.

Their goals seem simple in words — to be a successful business and help rebuild Somalia. “(We want) to be a financially —viable business throughout the country and in the whole Horn of Africa,” says Elmi.

“We also want to contribute to the reconstruction . . . we charted into new territory with freedom of speech and freedom of the press and we are happy and proud to be part of that process.”

Ahmed Nur, a fellow Somali-Canadian, is a French teacher in Ottawa. He frequents Sambuza Village regularly and is eating with his two young daughters at a table by the windows. Nur says HornAfrik plays a crucial role in the Somali reconstruction.

“(HornAfrik) competed with the radio started by tribes, and the people needed something to help them know what’s going on in their city and in the world,” he says.

“If (free) speech is already on the inside and then the government is elected democratically, then they have each other. Both of them help and support each other.”

One of the greatest difficulties HornAfrik faced, according to Elmi, was initially attracting local journalists to work at the station. There are many former journalists in the region, he says, but recruiting them was difficult. Although some were afraid of retribution for their work, many of them were concerned about physically getting to work, especially if this meant crossing tribal lines.

“Part of our agenda and our philosophy is to break those tribal lines, those geographic lines . . . We broke those lines, we’re challenging the system,” he says, leaning forward on the table.

“We went to these journalists and we said, ‘You are professionals, help us to do this. If you don’t do it, who will do it?’ And they took the challenge.”

With journalists on board, HornAfrik began gaining worldwide attention.

“HornAfrik’s program has filled a void in information, education and entertainment for the Somali people,” according to a report by the United Nations Development Programme.

Faisa Duale, also a Somali-Canadian and an Ottawa business owner, stops in at the restaurant to chat with Elmi and the cook. She agrees the distribution of information is essential for Mogadishu residents.

“We’re really glad to have (HornAfrik), they did a good thing,” she says. “Back home they need to know what’s going on there . . . It’s important to know and to communicate with the rest of the world. People listen to it a lot.”

HornAfrik should be a voice for the people of Mogadishu, as well as providing them with information, according to Elmi.

“We don’t say anything, we just set up the stage,” he says. “We open the lines to the public and they are nagging and criticizing and wanting change . . . This is about the audience, the listeners, we are the invisible people,” he says.

Bringing Mogadishu and Ottawa closer together, the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression gave Elmi the 2002 Press Freedom award for his work with HornAfrik.

Joel Ruimy, the executive director says, “This year’s winners have overcome hardships in their careers and personal lives that most of us cannot imagine.”

Straddling two distinct lives on two different continents is another obstacle that many of us may find unimaginable.

“You get used to it. There’s always the hang over after flying 15 hours though,” he smiles widely and laughs.

This afternoon though, the fight for free speech is on the backburner. Although he speaks five languages, French is not his strongest and it takes Elmi a few tries to take down a phone order for 35 golden sambuzas.