Surviving Displacement and Torture: A Somali Journalist’s Fight for Freedom 

For Refugee Week we spotlight University of York Human Rights Defender, Abdalle Mumin, a Somali journalist who endured displacement, violence, and government oppression to report the truth. Despite continuous threats and a period of detention where he was tortured, Abdalle persisted in his mission to support press freedom and human rights, ultimately founding the Somali Journalist Syndicate to aid fellow journalists in Somalia.

During the 1990s, Somalia’s government collapsed, and the country became divided into clan enclaves controlled by ethnic-based militia groups. NGOs operating in the area faced increasing pressure and eventually had to leave due to escalating violence and insecurity.

Abdalle grew up in Somalia in a displacement camp where his mother died, leaving him and his family dependent on food aid.  Amidst this chaos, his brother was killed in the camp, and Abdalle himself lost an arm on the same day. 

“Shortly before the civil war in Somalia 1991, I was brought into the capital, Mogadishu, as a young boy with the hope to start school. But that dream never came as fighting broke out in the capital. After fleeing from place to place, my family ended up in a displacement camp in the corner of the city. That is where I grew up and it shaped my life.

Growing up in a displacement settlement is not what everyone would choose. There was no running water, the shelter we had abandoned government buildings with ruined windows and no doors. No beds to sleep, just the bare concrete floor. There was no school and no health clinic. Children were among the victims caught up in the brutal war that ravaged the country, and more particularly the capital.  Armed ruthless militia controlled the streets, killing men at will, raping women and girls and even stealing the very small amount of food people had.  I still carry the trauma of hearing the voices of women attacked and raped by the militiamen. I still remember the incident where armed men attacked our neighbourhood during the early days of displacement and detained nine men from our building and all of them shot dead in a nearby open field just because they come from a different clan.  I always hated injustices and the criminality of the militia. I knew I had to do something and to do that was to grow up and go to school. Eventually, I started my first class at an NGO-run school in the camp in 1992.”

Despite these personal tragedies, Abdalle became a journalist, working first in local newspapers and then transitioning to radio. 

“My journalistic career began while in high school. Fueled by a deep-seated desire to combat injustices by exposing perpetrators and criminals, I felt a strong purpose to tell the story and speak out. 

For me journalism is important because it is a tool that holds those in power to account. Journalism gives people and communities the voice they need, the voice they want to raise, to speak up on different social issues, health problems or public services not working properly. Journalism to me is the voice of the communities, the voice of the people, the voice of the voiceless. We ask journalists to serve between the state and the general public; we try to bridge the gap of communication between these things, but unfortunately a lot of people don’t see that element or that perspective for journalism. For the world and other communities journalism is so important because simply without critical kinds of journalism politicians and state officials would try to abuse the power they are given in office; they would try to manipulate the system. We are there to watch, to witness, to keep guard on behalf of the community. That’s why I came into journalism, I didn’t want to just have a good day, that’s not what I was looking for. I was looking for a profession that would give me the voice I need to preserve and work for the interest of the general community and the public.

Following my training, I embarked on my journalistic career in 2003, securing an internship at a newspaper. Swiftly advancing, I transitioned into radio journalism at a local radio Banadir in the capital, before eventually working as a reporter for  international publications, including my most recent role at The New Humanitarian.

Over the years, I had the privilege of collaborating with diverse local, national and international communities. This provided me with the unique opportunity to witness and report firsthand on a range of issues, from the devastating impact of ruthless conflicts and human rights abuses to the challenges posed by famine and droughts that affected the lives of hundreds of thousands. Playing a crucial role in conveying the stories of those affected, particularly women and children, was a responsibility I undertook with pride.

Throughout the years, I also encountered challenges, threats, and pressure due to the nature of my work. Despite these obstacles, I never wavered and remain committed to my journalistic pursuits. The resolve to continue telling important stories remains unwavering, as does my dedication to the profession.”

In 2010, government authorities shut down his radio station and detained a colleague, accusing him of interviewing militia leaders without approval. This incident highlighted the difficult environment in which journalists operate in Somalia, with constant surveillance, arrests, and the threat of violence.

After his colleague’s imprisonment, Abdalle began writing about the inhumane conditions in Somali prisons, leading to campaigns by Human Rights Watch for the release of prisoners. As a result, Abdalle faced harassment from the police and was forced to go into hiding for seven days. Eventually, he decided to escape from one city to another, using local drivers to navigate through different checkpoints. He eventually reached Mogadishu, where he became an editor at a local radio station. However, even in the capital journalists faced significant dangers. In 2012 alone, 18 journalists were killed in Mogadishu, with Abdalle attending every funeral, wondering who would be next.

Abdalle’s work gained international attention, with articles published in The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal. However, this visibility also brought threats to his life. After reporting on a US airstrike in Somalia in 2014, he received threatening phone calls and fled to Nairobi, Kenya. During his exile in Nairobi, where he worked as a freelance journalist. Abdalle survived an assassination attempt in Mogadishu, where he stayed in exile for four years. While he was living here he decided to return to Somalia to co-found the Somali Journalist Syndicate, an organisation dedicated to supporting and protecting local journalists.

“The Somali Journalists Syndicate (SJS) was formed in 2019 to advocate for independent journalists, encompassing both those in employment and freelancers throughout Somalia. Its inception aimed to counter the escalating pressures and threats faced by journalists in the country, where journalism remains the most dangerous profession. Since 1992, the year I started my school, over 85 journalists have lost their lives, and this grim tally continues to rise unchecked, with perpetrators enjoying complete impunity.

Journalists find themselves targeted, threatened and detained by all factions involved in the conflict, making it a hazardous profession. SJS was established with the purpose of documenting these egregious violations, bringing them to the attention of the global community, and advocating for safety of journalists and accountability for crimes against journalists. I know this will not come without risks but, my colleagues and I remain steadfast in our commitment to pursue these objectives.”

Despite these efforts, the Somali government continued to target Abdalle and his colleagues. In 2021, he was detained twice for attempting to train minority journalists and for publishing an article online. In October 2022, after speaking out against a new directive that restricted media freedom, he was detained and tortured for 44 days. During his detention, he kept detailed notes, which he later used to expose the harsh conditions he endured. 

Released in March 2023, Abdalle faced further obstacles when attempting to leave Kenya; his name was placed on a no-fly list. Only after intervention from the US ambassador was he allowed to leave.

“Before the fellowship I was in the middle of a situation where I was not able to think properly. When you are in the middle of the ocean, the only thing you can think of is how you can get out of this ocean and back to the shore so that you can reflect, but the moment you reach the coast, you stare back to the ocean and you start thinking of the beauty of life and that is exactly what’s happening. A year and a half ago I was in jail, undergoing torture in underground cell. That situation made me feel so uncomfortable that I was not able to think of anything more than finding safety and security; I wasn’t able to strategize my advocacy. But now I am looking from afar to reflect, review and remember to make concrete examples of what happened to me so that I can find the solution for all of those things. Not for myself but also for other journalists and human rights defenders, who might face similar challenges in the future so I can help them from my lived experience.

The fellowship gave me the opportunity to network, to connect with different communities and understand the perspectives of universities, organisations, NGO groups and journalists – all sorts of professionals with regard to advocacy and human rights campaigning. It made me reflect, think, strategize, and re-energise. 

The fellowship was indeed life saving. I was in Kenya, near Somalia, facing imminent risk of being kidnapped and brought back to Somalia. The fellowship gave me the protection that I needed to operate, so that I was able to put together a case for accountability for what happened to me and other journalists. All of these things I wouldn’t have been able to do if I was in the same situation as two years ago. The fellowship is not just networking or advocacy; it is much broader and bigger than that.”

“Abdalle Mumin’s journey is a powerful testament to the strength of courage, resilience, and the human voice in the fight against inequality.  This compelling story challenges us to envision a fairer and more just world where human rights are an integral part of our communities. Abdalle’s narrative inspires us all, highlighting that every one of us has a role to play in creating an inclusive world. Ultimately, human rights are not a luxury but a vital cornerstone of our collective future.”

Professor Kiran Trehan, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Enterprise, Partnerships and Engagement

Abdalle’s journey eventually brought him to the UK, where he arrived in Manchester and then settled in York to take part in the University of York’s Protective Fellowship for Human Rights Defenders at Risk at the Centre for Applied Human Rights.

“Home is a place where someone can feel safe, not only physical security but mental security. In reality that’s not what a lot of people are getting and that is what forces migration from place to place for many people, including people who are coming to the UK and other European countries on boats. Home is where a young woman can look into her future, where a young man can go to school and university and seek employment, where a mother and grandmother can feel safe that they can go out, no matter the time of day, and get back home safely. 

Home is not necessarily where you were born, or where you originated, or where your grandmother or grandfather came from. Home is a place where you can feel you have privacy; you have the protection you need; where you think that you can sleep with peace of mind during the night, knowing that you will wake up safe and you can have a cup of tea or coffee in the morning, not having any worries or concerns about safety or security. Not having the concern that someone will break down your door and snatch you in the middle of the night. That is exactly what is happening to many people just because they come from different communities, they are a minority or they are doing journalism or are human rights defenders – they are simply being attacked for that. Home is not whether you live in London, or whether you come from Syria, or whether you are from African descent or Arabic origin, or whether you are a Muslim or Jew or Christian. That is not necessarily important. What is important is where you feel mentally and physically safe – that is where I call home.

In York I wake up in the morning and can walk the streets without looking over my shoulder because I feel deep inside me there is something telling me that nobody is watching or coming after my trail in the morning. For the first time in a year I don’t walk in the morning thinking that someone is coming after me from the college. That is the culture I came from. When I arrived here in May 2023 the first four or five weeks were tense for me, because every time I left my house in York, I would feel uncomfortable if someone was walking behind me down the street. It’s not because that person is bad, but because of what I have gone through in the past. I thought that everyone who was running or walking behind me, or even just looking at me on the street corner wanted to do harm to me. That was for the first four or five weeks when I arrived in York. 

Imagine –  a year later now, I’m losing that kind of feeling. I feel that nobody is coming to harm me. Everything’s fine. I’m not looking back anymore. I feel a peace of mind that I can go to the cafeteria, drink a coffee, have a talk with people, walk in the afternoon or go swimming. That kind of sense is something I didn’t have before and what feels like home to me.”

Despite the constant threats and persecution, Abdalle continues to fight for press freedom and human rights in Somalia. His story is a testament to the resilience and courage of journalists who risk their lives to expose the truth in the face of extreme adversity.

The agenda is very clear: never give up, do the work of human rights defending that I have been doing. The next 5-10 years will be crucial to further transform into a broader mission that will take me from a simple man doing advocacy or campaigning for human rights and improving the lives and the safety of other communities into someone who can lead a whole movement. What I’m thinking, together with other colleagues, is to create the movement we need for change. That will take us to look for a broader assignment, where we will be able to advocate through political systems, both internationally and locally. This is what has come out from the fellowship and what I’m doing right now and will be working on for the next 10 years. I know it’s not simple; I know it’s not safe; I know my family is still reluctant – but this is what I’m committed to go on to achieve and the journey is really promising.” 

“The contributors to the Sanctuary Fund turn the idea of a University of Sanctuary into reality, providing the finance to give shelter and support to people like Abdalle Mumin. Hosting them here gives us the privilege of meeting such extraordinarily brave individuals and hearing about their work first hand.”

– Professor Robin Perutz, donor to Sanctuary Fund

“Life goes on and if you embrace opportunities, new things will take you to a much better place. You have to be very open to multiple options and scenarios. That’s why I’m not sure whether I will stay in York, the UK or go somewhere else, but what I’m sure of is that the mission is important and the future is bright.”

With Refugee Week fast-approaching, we are reflecting on the meaning of home and community to our alumni. We are currently asking graduates to submit memories of how York made them feel at home and share recipes that remind them of home via the memory map.

Together, with your support, we can make a difference. Find out more and how you can support the York Sanctuary Fund to help individuals who are fleeing conflict, war or persecution.

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