Asha Hagi Elmi is a humanitarian activist, internationally recognised for her work helping to build peace and defend the rights of women in Somalia. Witness journeys with Asha to the refugee camps of Mogadishu, swelled to bursting point in 2011 by tens of thousands of Somalis fleeing drought and the threat of famine.
Asha, her sister Amina and other women from the NGO she founded, Saving Somali Women and Children (SSWC), distribute food, clothing, medical and practical aid, lend an ear to the refugees’ stories and, most of all, attempt to restore dignity to the lives of the often traumatised and extremely vulnerable women and children they meet in the camps.
By Mags Gavan & Joost van der Valk
We met Asha Elmi Hagi in August 2012. We had tried to film in Somalia with Asha and the NGO, Save Somali Women and Children (SSWC), for almost half a year before we were actually able to go safely.
We had no idea what to expect in Somalia, but prepared for the worst. Mogadishu was a very dangerous city, meaning we had to get in and get out as quickly as possible. But we wanted to be able to show the very real situation on the ground in Mogadishu and especially from the viewpoint of the women and children living in displaced peoples’ camps across the city. Practically, this was going to be a difficult film to make; we would have to shoot the complete film in no less than three days, with only a few hours per day in which to do it.
On arrival at Mogadishu Airport we were first struck by the beauty of the coastal area. But the reality of being in conflict-ridden Somalia soon hit home. We were informed about a shooting that had happened at the airport just before we had arrived and we were told to be on guard. We had booked ourselves into a hotel and the owner, Bashir, came to collect us at the airport. He arranged our security and ensured that we were taken care of from the moment we stepped off the plane.
The reality of a country that has been at war for 20 years was apparent from the moment we left the airport. On exit our vehicle was joined by a pick-up truck filled with no less than 12 heavily armed security guards who were to be our escort during our stay. In the high-octane ride to the hotel, we soared past burnt-out cars and buildings riddled with bullet holes.
The hotel was a pleasant surprise in every sense. In the lobby, an old lady sold Somali football shirts and old postcards of Mogadishu, featuring Italianate buildings. We bought a few postcards, but had no idea if those buildings still existed or not.
We had arrived early and were to meet Asha from SSWC and her sister at lunch time. She would also be staying at the hotel with us as it was one of the safest places in town. We had already read so much about Asha and SSWC’s work and had spoken many times to her on the phone, but we had not expected such dynamic, fearless and beautiful women. They were all fasting for Ramadan but still adamant that it would not affect our schedule.
The first trip was to ‘Zone K’, an area that was still very dangerous and tense. We were told that we should try to go in and film as quickly as possible so that no “enemies of life and peace” would be alerted to our presence. It was our first time travelling through the city and Asha was also travelling back to areas she had not been able to visit for a long time. On her face we saw the pain of someone returning to a place they had once loved. Asha was experiencing the absolute devastation that had taken place. It was really emotional hearing stories of what the city was like, and how people thrived before the war. We still had the postcards of old Mogadishu in our pockets; now, all we could see from the windows were destroyed buildings, people with guns on the streets and intense poverty everywhere you looked.
Asha took us around the camp and explained the terrible conditions the refugees were living in. She was especially concerned about the security issues and the number of rapes against women. At one point it became very tense and we were suddenly ushered out by security.
Even though we had filmed some seemingly hopeless situations, the team at SSWC believed that peace was on the horizon and told us they were determined to help their people and their country, even if it meant they would have to die for this cause. They took us to the huge camps where thousands of people were surviving. It was overwhelming to see such tragic conditions, people living in little more than makeshift tents, hungry and desperate.
We heard so many tragic stories, but it was really the children’s faces that affected us the most. The depression and trauma of losing family and friends was written all over their faces. When Asha’s sister Amina handed out a very basic dignity kit with soap, underwear, a headscarf and some sanitary products to the women and girls in the camp, it was clear just how such a small thing could mean so much. It was even more touching to see the women in the camp smile, not just because of the dignity kit but because Asha, Amina and the SSWC team took time to talk to them and to let them know they cared. And we were also struck by how funny and friendly people were, despite the tragic stories we heard.
On our last night, the dinner menu in the hotel offered a daring combination of lobster and camel meat bolognaise. We left the next day, hoping to be able to return one day to a city of peace, where we could feast on lobster and camel meat and be able to surf the rolling waves we saw as the plane took off.
And now, in 2013, the future seems brighter. The first formal parliament in 20 years has been installed and, after the withdrawal of extremist groups, men and women are again together on Mogadishu’s beach, enjoy the sea and the sand.