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|The Mother Courage of Somalia|
|10/01/02 at 07:04:39|
Another interesting READ!
By Nora Boustany
Friday, July 19, 2002; Page A23
M ariam Hussein Mohamed, a Somali woman with skin as silken as dark honey and soft features framed by beaded locks peeking under her loose shawl, refused to circumcise her only daughter when she was born 16 years ago, defying that brutal tradition in her East African nation.
The widow of IsmailJumale, an activist, journalist and human rights lawyer who died in exile in Rome in 1990, is emerging as the mother courage of destitute Somalis. Battered women, orphans, displaced people and the defenseless tradesmen and artisans not protected by large, powerful clans and landowners have all become her charges.
Before her husband's death, Mohamed contented herself with visiting poor families on Fridays, laden with chocolates, halvah, sugar, oil and cardamom. But just before he gave in to an ailing heart, he asked her to continue his work and take care of abused minorities.
She was 35, but understood that the weaker elements of Somali society needed protection from the terror imposed by the elite tribes of herdsmen, Mohamed said.
" 'Promise me that after I die, you will follow in my footsteps,' he always urged me. He always talked to me about their rights," she recalled.
Mohamed, 47, moved by the suffering of women and children around her, has surpassed her husband's expectations. She is not only monitoring and chronicling human rights violations in her native Somalia but is also organizing awareness campaigns, workshops and festivals and standing up to ad hoc Islamic courts trying to serve up crude justice to a hapless, powerless citizenry.
Her recent protests and the rallying of human rights groups, journalists and elders forced a court to back down from severing the hand of a suspected thief, said Dave Peterson, the senior program officer for Africa at the National Endowment for Democracy. "She has been doing interesting and innovative work in resisting these Islamic courts," he added.
When a 10-year-old Ethiopian Christian boy had a cross branded into his arm, her group reported it to human rights organizations.
In 1998, Mohamed organized a peace march, bringing together women to walk over the so-called Green Line that divided Mogadishu, the Somali capital, into two hostile camps. Theater productions and festivals were held to promote peace and bring together young people from different clans. She got Somalis from all walks of life -- faction leaders, elders and young men -- to sign the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Since then, her center has held conflict-resolution workshops for police officers, members of the judiciary and even clan elders.
The heart of Mogadishu is broken, crumbled from years of civil war, drought and lack of resources. Mohamed's center, however, stands out as an island of peace for thousands of women seeking respite and sympathy following campaigns of rape and intimidation that continue daily.
"They come to my center and I interview them," she said. "Some girls who are raped are only 12 years old. They come with hatred and resentment toward all men -- those who rape them and their children and those who stand idly by and watch without even attempting to rescue them."
When Somalia was ruled by dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, Mohamed recalled, people did not dare complain or protest. "Now when something happens, I invite the media to our center and I use a loudspeaker to inform them. They come and write about it," she said. "Now we have the chance and opportunity to say what we like, though the government is still weak in the countryside."
Her most painful experience, she said, was the deaths of two pregnant women and their unborn children as she tried to help them deliver without anesthesia or medical supplies at her home in the middle of the war. "I can still see them. That image is impossible to forget," she said.
The impulse to begin an indigenous Somali human rights movement came after Belgian soldiers serving with a U.N. intervention force tied up a young boy and held him over a fire in 1993, and Italian soldiers inserted a flare inside a woman's vagina.
When Mohamed left Somalia for Djibouti in early July on her way to Washington to collect an award from the National Endowment for Democracy, a fundamentalist judge appointed by Somalia's weak transitional government summoned her to appear in court. "I knew that if I went back as instructed on July 4, he would have arrested me and prevented me from traveling," she said in an interview here last week. "I am not afraid. I am going back and I am still going to talk openly about what he is doing.
"I am not necessarily courageous, but I cannot remain silent if something is terribly wrong. If they do things wrong, I will say so, and if they do something good, I will also speak up. I have always been like that."
Mohamed said Somalis who claimed to back Osama bin Laden were brainwashed in some mosques and Islamic schools. "They don't know who bin Laden really is and what he stands for," she said.
One grocery store she often visited in Mogadishu, run by a woman, used to have pictures of bin Laden on the walls. "I went there recently and the picture was no longer there, so I asked the woman: What happened?" Mohamed said. The woman told her never to mention bin Laden's name, because he was going to "bring American planes to bomb us."
"The Somali people are victims, especially the women and children. There is no work for them, no food and no education," she said. "Shame on the world for leaving Somalia to suffer."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company
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