In Somalia, an Exodus of the Educated

Many Somali professionals, who have left their home country because of fighting and instability, have decided that it is unlikely that they will return to Somalia.
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 16, 2009

NAIROBI -- Last month, Omar Hassan said goodbye to Somalia, a country so violently polarized that his job in the capital of Mogadishu finally became too controversial. He is a veterinarian.

Over the past two years, Hassan stopped making vaccination rounds at the animal market, for fear of being associated with the warlords who had taken it over. He stopped working with the government, for fear of being targeted by Islamist insurgents. He had confined himself to inspecting meat at places within two blocks of his home when a group of young Islamist assassins spotted him chatting with a Western aid worker -- a taboo activity.

"They decided to kill me," he said, sitting in the lobby of a Nairobi hotel recently. "To be famous, they have to kill someone with status -- especially professionals. I left that night."

In the past year, more than 100,000 Somalis have fled the conflict in the Horn of Africa nation, a figure that includes a crucial subset of people who have been deliberately chased away -- the professional class.

During the past several years, professors, lawyers, doctors, engineers, journalists, businessmen, and human rights and peace advocates have joined an exodus that began when Somalia's last central government fell in 1991 and has continued unabated. Even the newly elected president of Somalia's fragile interim government, Sharif Ahmed, has spent more time outside the country than inside, mainly because of security concerns.

Members of the educated elite have been hounded by all sides in the conflict. The government of former president Abdullahi Yusuf, backed by the military of neighboring Ethiopia, frequently accused them of supporting the insurgency. Young Islamist insurgents have accused them of backing the government or of being pawns for the United States and other foreign powers whose policies the insurgents often blame for wrecking the country.

The result is that the people considered central to preventing the country's total collapse are exiled in hotel rooms from Nairobi to Dubai, while others are joining the vast Somali diaspora across the United States, Canada, Sweden and other countries.

"At the moment I'm homeless, but I'll probably join my family in Canada," said Mohamed Nur Galal, a Somali general who was driven from Mogadishu two years ago. "Those people seeking power, they dislike professionals -- professional military people, police, bureaucrats, lawyers, all those kinds of people, because professionals will support an institution, not a person or an ideology."

"All the professionals are now outside the country," Galal said. "Who's left? Warlords and some Islamists. Mostly crazy people."

The exodus from Mogadishu has spawned a boom in Nairobi's Somali enclave known as Eastleigh -- a bustling neighborhood of honking horns, a thousand wooden kiosks and new cinderblock buildings full of the businesses the Somali capital has lost.

Mogadishu's biggest importers of everything from clothing to electronics are now located in Eastleigh. One of the largest Somali money-transfer companies recently moved its headquarters there. At least two Somali newspapers have begun circulating in the area, as conditions for journalists have become too dangerous in Mogadishu. Doctors targeted for treating wounded Somalis are setting up medical clinics.

Aden Ali, who runs a company called Eel Ali Cargo, said that these days, he mostly ships fleeing people, such as Mustafa Haji, who taught macroeconomics at the University of Mogadishu, or Hassan, who boarded a plane just hours after his life was threatened.

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