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Back to the land: Friction as Somali exiles return home

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MOGADISHU (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In Somalia’s Raqayle village, life under al Shabaab Islamists can be brutal, with public beheadings, and bizarre – with edicts about wearing socks – but locals feel safer than when the government controlled the area and violently ousted them.

More than 70 villagers fled to nearby Afgoye town in 2014 when a dozen government soldiers and policemen forced them off a 128-acre farm, which was claimed by an exile returning from Britain.

“They were just terrorizing us,” said one villager, Hodan, describing how the man from the diaspora sped in with cars full of armed men who smashed in doors with their rifles, looted water pumps and filled a well with sand and debris.

“My sister, who was five months pregnant, was so upset she miscarried,” another villager, Warsame, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, which is about an hour’s drive southeast of Raqayle.

Both women declined to give their real names.

Similar stories can be heard across south-central Somalia, where better security is encouraging wealthy exiles who fled in the 1990s to return home – often igniting fresh land conflicts.
Since 2011, United Nations-backed government forces and African Union troops have pushed the militant group al Shabaab out of major towns and cities.

“The federal government is encouraging diaspora to come back,” Somalia’s information minister Abdirahman Omar Osman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation via email.

“The country needs their skills, knowledge, and expertise.”

Osman said conflict can arise when returnees start rebuilding on land which others have lived on for decades.

“There are special committees dealing with all disputes, and if there are serious cases then courts settle them,” he said.

RIGHTS BY BLOOD

Resolving tens of thousands of land disputes, some of which date back to the 1970s, is a complex task as the process is unclear, said Kenneth Menkhaus, a political science professor at Davidson College in the United States.

“It’s a mess,” he said, adding that side with the most firepower, money or influential clan connections usually wins.

“Armed settlers claims on land are illegitimate – they are just a form of land grabbing.”

Clans form the bedrock of Somali society and identity, and decisions about most aspects of life are made collectively within them.

“One’s claim to land is anchored pretty strongly to one’s clan,” Menkhaus said by phone. “This is rights by blood.”

In Raqayle, the returning exile belongs to a more powerful clan than the villagers, said Ubdi Omar Wallin, founder of the charity Women in Action Against Malnutrition (WAAMO), which took the land dispute to court.

“(He) didn’t come to the villagers and say: ‘This is my land’,” said Wallin, who has lived in the United States since she was 17, when her family fled that part of Somalia.

“He just did all the paperwork by himself and came up with soldiers to destroy,” she said, referring to the title deeds acquired by the new owner.

WAAMO had been supporting a group of poor widows, including Hodan and Warsame, who were given a three-acre portion of the 128-acre farm by its owner, who lived in the village.

The charity provided the women with irrigation and a daycare center in 2013, so that they could grow okra, cucumbers and peppers, selling the excess at a local market.

But the land lay idle after the government militia took over, carrying out regular patrols. They allowed the villagers to return home, but they did not feel secure enough to farm.

The court case stalled as the respondent did not attend.

The villagers of Raqayle only picked up their seeds and tools again after al Shabaab recaptured the area in 2015.

Few Somalis have faith in the judicial system, which is plagued by graft, or in the government, where both the president and the prime minister are diaspora returnees.

Menkhaus said the government should set up a land tribunal or a hybrid commission that included traditional authorities and land experts who are regarded as clean.

“That is where al Shabaab has far and away the greatest advantage on this land issue,” he said, as the militants are seen as less corrupt.

The Islamists often bring wrangling parties together to agree on a solution, asking elders to give testimony about the history of disputed plots, the women of Raqayle said.

The villagers now live under Sharia law, which includes decapitation of government collaborators and a fine of bullets and guns for chewing the narcotic shrub khat.

Women were even ordered to wear socks for modesty while washing in the river, until one slipped and got hurt and the edict was revoked, they said.

But, generally, life is peaceful.

“Now, there is no harassment by soldiers,” said Shemsa, one of the widow farmers.

“We don’t go to (al Shabaab), and they don’t come to us.”

Reporting by Amanda Sperber. Editing by Katy Migiro.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.

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Diaspora

Somali Man charged the deaths of 4 in fatal I-55 accident

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STAUTON, IL – A Colorado truck driver has been charged following an investigation into a multi-vehicle accident that killed 4 people and injured 11 others. Mohamed Jama, 54, of Greeley, Colorado, turned himself in to the Madison County Jail Monday.

The accident happened on southbound I-55 in Madison County on November 21, 2017.

The fatal accident killed 2 sisters, Madisen and Hailey Bertels and a friend, Tori Carroll, and an out of state woman, Vivian Vu in another vehicle.

Authorities say the accident occurred when a tractor-trailer driven by Mohamed Jama failed to slow down and stop for cars in front of him in a construction zone.

By the time it was all over, 7 vehicles were damaged and the people inside them injured or killed.

The sisters attended high school in Staunton.

The deaths deeply touched Staunton where people knew the young women or knew people who were their friends. Many in town were still grieving the loss. Matthew Batson said, “I’ll hear stories about them all the time, even though it’s been five months? Yes, it’s a lasting effect.”

The Madison County State`s Attorney Tom Gibbon said if convicted of all the crimes Mohamed Jama could spend the rest of his life in prison. With summer coming on and more construction zone Gibbons says there`s a warning for all of us.

“Each of us out there in our cars we really need to pay attention, watch out, slow down you never want to see something like this to happen again it so terrible for all the victim I’m sure that no person would want to be the cause of something like this.”

Jama is charged with 4 counts of reckless homicide and 8 counts of reckless driving. He`s being held in the Madison County Jail without bond.

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Books

CANADA: Edmonton author aims to boost diversity in children’s book publishing

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EDMONTON—Two years ago Rahma Mohamed’s then four-year-old daughter saw an Elsa costume, complete with blond braids, and pleaded with her mother to buy it so she would look “beautiful.”

That’s when Mohamed decided her kids needed more cultural inspiration than the blond princess from Frozen.

After a year of work, the first-time author published Muhima’s Quest, a children’s book that tells the story of a young African-America Muslim girl who wakes up on her 10th birthday and goes on a journey.

Now, Mohamed’s at work on her second book, which is due out at the end of the month. She’s on a journey of her own, she said, to boost diversity in children’s publishing.

“I wanted to create a character who had African descent and is a Muslim in a children’s book because I just found out that there were none that were available in the mainstream,” she said.

Her books show kids it’s OK to be different, she said. Take her first book: some Muslims don’t celebrate birthdays, she explains, and the little girl in the book struggles with her faith and questions why she doesn’t celebrate like her classmates do.

“The overall message is that we do things differently, but that part is what makes us beautiful,” Mohamed said.

She said she felt it necessary for her kids to see themselves represented in the books they read in order to “enhance their self-confidence, as well as bolster their sense of pride.”

Mohamed, who writes under the pen name Rahma Rodaah, self-published her first book and since last summer, has sold 200 copies locally.

“It does take a lot of resources and you have to self-finance, but I believe in the end it’s worth it,” she said.

She hopes to go bigger with her second book, which focuses on the universal concept of sibling rivalry, and features a young girl who plans on selling her little brother because she believes he is getting all the attention.

“My overall goal is to portray Muslim Africans who are basically a normal family.”

Mohamed says her previous book was well-received by parents at readings she had done at public libraries and schools.

“Most of them who are Muslims really loved that the kids could identify with the characters,” she said.

The books also acted as a conversation starter for non-Muslim families, she said.

She said, for her, the most exciting part of the journey is knowing that she is making a difference in shaping the minds of young Black Muslims.

“We are underrepresented, misunderstood and mostly mischaracterized. It is time we paint a different picture.”

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Minnesota

When radicalization lured two Somali teenagers … from Norway

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Mukhtar Ibrahim

In October 2013, two Somali teenage girls named Ayan and Leila shocked their parents by running away to join ISIS in Syria. Their radicalization story is unusual in that it happened in Norway.

Acclaimed Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad spent years researching what happened. Now her book, “Two Sisters: Into the Syrian Jihad” is available in the United States.

Seierstad, who discusses her book Monday night at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, said she didn’t go looking for the story.

“The story actually came to me,” she said. “It was the father of the girls who actually wanted the story to be written.”

His name is Sadiq, a Somali man who worked for years to bring his family to Norway. He hoped for a better life. He thought things were going well, then everything collapsed when Ayan and Leila disappeared.

When the girls left home, their parents were in shock, Seierstad said. “They hadn’t understood what was this about. Why? And then as months went by and they got to learn more about radicalization, they realized that all the signs had been there. That the girls were like a textbook case of radicalization. And he [Sadiq] wanted the book to be written to warn others, to tell this story to warn other parents.”

It is a perplexing story. Ayan and Leila were bright, and opinionated. They didn’t put up with being pushed around.

“And that is somehow part of why they left, in their logic,” said Seierstad, adding that the girls were convinced Syria and ISIS offered a chance of eternal life.

“They believed that life here and now is not real life. Real life happens after death. And this life is only important as a test. So the better your score, the better you behave in this life, the better position you will have in heaven for eternity. So isn’t that better?”

Seierstad is known for her in-depth reporting. Her book “One of Us,” about Anders Breivik, the gunman who killed 77 people in Norway’s worst terror attack, is an international best-seller.

When published in Norway Seierstad said, “Two Sisters” became the top-selling book for two years running. What pleases her most is the breadth of her readership. She gets email from young Somali girls, and also from government officials who want to prevent future radicalization.

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