OUT OF MOGADISHU: A MEMOIR OF THE SOMALI CIVIL WAR IN 1991- A BOOK REVIEW

Reviewed by Prof. Lidwien Kapteijns

Book: Out of Mogadishu
Author: Yusuf Haid
Paperback: 166 pages

Out of Mogadishu_HaidOut of Mogadishu is a beautifully written memoir about the time when Somalia’ civil war shifted towards large-scale clan-based violence against civilians and regime collapse. The memoir represents what the author saw and thought during the chaotic time period between 26 December 1990 (just before Somalia’s capital city became completely engulfed in the fighting), and 16 January 1991 (when he, now himself a likely target of the clan-based violence, felt obliged to leave everything behind and embark on a journey “out of Mogadishu” to safety). It was not until 11 days after his departure, on 27 January 1991, that the hated military regime (1969-1991) would fall and that the large-scale clan-based violence whose chaotic beginnings the author witnessed would reach new heights in Mogadishu and sweep back out of the capital towards south and south-central Somalia.

What makes this book accessible and important to both Somali and non-Somali readers is the way in which the author weaves his vivid and moving description of daily events – a visit to a neighborhood market, violent events at a local mosque, dead bodies in the street, and conversations with his brother, the Egyptian military attaché, women selling tomatoes in the market, his wife, friends, and so forth – together with important analytical insights into the historical background and political context of these fateful weeks.

The author does not blame only one set of Somali political leaders but holds successive sets of them responsible for the developments that preceded and eventually helped produce the events of January 1991. For those events themselves he blames both the last-ditch defenders of the dying military regime (1969-1991) and the leadership of the armed front that played the leading role in liberating Mogadishu from that regime. However, in January 1991, when the fall of the regime created a long- and passionately awaited political opening, it was this armed front that, in the face of people’s hopes and expectations, bore a special responsibility – one it betrayed in the vain ambition of gaining control of the state by itself. Instead of bringing Somalis together and building a unity government, the leaders of this armed front, together with allied fronts that had emerged or were now emerging, incited their followers to attack ordinary Somali people irrespective of any political involvement with the regime and only because of their clan backgrounds. It was this clan-based violence, now targeting a vast portion of the Somali people, that claimed the lives of the author’s own brother and brother’s son. However, other kinds of violence, such as political violence perpetrated by associates of the regime, random looting, and violence by unknown actors are also chronicled in this memoir.

In January 1991, Yusuf Haid was already a mature and accomplished man. As a member of Mogadishu’s educated, professional middle class, a husband and father, he was well aware of complexities and contradictions that in the aftermath of violence are so often ignored. Therefore, and in spite of his personal losses, the author has succeeded in writing an account that is both personal and impartial, and both frank and balanced. It impresses with the power of its direct, unadorned, sometimes understated description of daily events at a moment of great uncertainty, political and social disintegration, and ever-increasing and increasingly senseless violence.

Some readers may regret that the story comes to an abrupt end with the author’s departure from Mogadishu on 16 January 1991, leaving them in the dark about further developments in the capital and how the author fared as he fled Somalia in the rising flood of people fleeing for their lives. However, one might counter that this memoir’s power lies precisely in the sharpness of focus and the emotional restraint with which its depicts the enormous sense of devastation that dawned on the author and many other Somalis in January 1991.

Written for Somalis who are growing up far removed (in time and often also place) from the events of January 1991, as well as for the general non-Somali reader, this is a book that is as accessible as it is informative. It is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the historical trauma Somalis are working so hard to overcome.

The book Out of Mogadishu: A Memoir of the Somali Civil War in 1991 by Yusuf Haid is available atAMAZON for $19.95

Lidwien Kapteijns
Wellesley College
Wellesley, MA, U.S.A.

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