In Somalia, an Exodus of the Educated
Violence, Instability Force Thousands of Professionals to Flee

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.

In Eastleigh, Hassan said he found life oddly familiar.

"Everyone I used to work with is here," said Hassan, who often spends his afternoons sipping tea with his exiled colleagues at Eastleigh's Andalus Hotel. They talk politics, exchanging their views on a conflict that Hassan says is more dangerous than the clan-based fighting of the '90s, because religion is involved. The Islamist ideology has united disparate Somali clans but also divided clans internally, as young people put religious loyalties above all else, shunning the advice of elders or more educated clan members.

In Hassan's view, Somalia's conflict also has class dimensions. The civil war of the 1990s brought with it an influx of rural clan fighters who began to taste power for the first time. That conflict and the current Islamist insurgency, he said, are essentially revolts against the elite.

"The Somali war is a revolution -- the uneducated against the educated, the rural against the urban," he said. "That will not be easy to stop."

The country he left behind, he and others said, is barely recognizable.

Abdi Kadir Ali, who earned a political science degree in London, returned home to Mogadishu hoping to run a think tank to promote peaceful dialogue. If nothing else, he figured, Somalis love to talk. So he sat in cafes for hours trying to orchestrate conversations about democracy, globalization and their application in Somalia.

Then the Ethiopians invaded in 2006, replacing an Islamist movement that had begun to take hold with the fragile transitional government led by Yusuf, a warlord. The U.S.-backed policy sparked an insurgency that has only strengthened since, with the capital becoming an apocalyptic battlefield where people's ideas, associations and even words mark them for death.

"People became so suspicious -- they'd say maybe you're a spy or you're promoting Western ideologies," Ali said. "So I started talking about bottom-up economics instead of globalization. Instead of human rights, I'd say 'Islamic human rights.' "

Soon, it became too dangerous to show his face at the usual cafes. Across the capital, the five main universities were all but shutting down as professors fled -- not just because of fighting, but because they could no longer teach Western civilization, for instance, without becoming a target. One by one, Ali's colleagues were being forced into hiding or assassinated.

"I decided maybe I'm next in line," he said, explaining why he left. "These religious people think you don't need intellectuals -- they see them as the enemy."

Ali was sitting on the terrace of the Andalus, where Somali government officials, journalists, businessmen and others sometimes greet one another with a knowing "When did you get out?" or "So, you decided to give it up?"

One of them was Galal, the former general, who recalled a vibrant if not always easy life in Mogadishu before 1991. The capital was one of the most picturesque in East Africa then, a city of palm trees and imposing Italian architecture -- columns and colonnades that are now monuments of rubble. He went to movie theaters to see John Wayne films with subtitles in Italian, the language of Somalia's colonizer. He dined with friends at 54, a restaurant on the white shores of Lido Beach along the Indian Ocean, and discussed politics.

By the time he left in 2006 -- he blames Yusuf's forces for bombing his house -- his city was gripped by a paranoia and repression he found contrary to Somalia's culture of poetry, music and artistic self-expression.

"They are losing Somali culture," he said of the young men who have never known a functioning government, or even the simple pleasures of a carefree evening at the beach. "When I left, there was nothing to enjoy anymore. It had become an unfamiliar way of life."

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