Medeshi 16 Oct, 2008
Mahad Omar Abdi: "I cannot go back to Somalia"
CAPE TOWN , Mahad Omar Abdi, 33, from Somalia, owns a supermarket in the sprawling dormitory township of Khayalitsha, on the outskirts of the Atlantic port city of Cape Town. His shop was looted during xenophobic attacks in South Africa in May 2008.
"I belong to the Hawiye tribe, one of the main tribes in Somalia, and I lived in Mogadishu [the capital] before I left in 1994 because of the fighting. At that time I was only 18 years old and there was no hope or future in my homeland.
"If I stayed there I would have been forced to fight in the civil war by my tribal elders, like many of the other boys in my homeland. I did not want to get involved in the fighting so I decided I must leave my country - and my father, mother, brother and sister – behind.
"I decided to go by sea, so I went to the harbour in Mogadishu to try and find a boat that would take people away from the city. I gave the captain US$100 to take me to wherever he was going. I did not know the destination and I did not care, I just wanted to get out of Mogadishu.
"There were hundreds of us on board – men, women and children – and we were packed in so tight it was very uncomfortable. It was chaos from the very beginning because no one knew where we were going or what was going to happen to us.
"We did not starve because we were able to catch fish, but there were no luxuries. The biggest problem for many of us was the lack of water, so often we were very thirsty.
"The crew kept control of the people through physical actions. There was hitting with sticks and pushing and threatening to keep us in line; some people were even whipped. But the people were more afraid of staying in Somalia than the physical abuse, so they did not retaliate.
"We spent 28 days at sea and when we were finally put ashore I thought the captain of the ship had brought us back to Somalia, because the coastline of where we were looked similar to that of my own country.
"However, once we were on land people we met told us we were not in Somalia but near Maputo in Mozambique. There were no officials at the time because the country was just recovering from its own war, so it was okay to enter the country.
"I decided that the best place for me to go would be South Africa, once I knew where I was. We were lucky, because although I did not know the way to South Africa, bystanders were willing to tell me how to get there for a small price.
"I walked from Maputo to the border with South Africa, and myself and a few of the people from the boat journey just crossed over into Mpumalanga [Province] near Nelspruit [town in Mpumalanga] without any problems – there was no checkpoint.
"Once in South Africa I found out that I had a Somali relative who was a teacher in KwaZulu-Natal [Province]. He took pity on me and helped me. He even organised for me to go to college in Durban [a port city in KwaZulu-Natal]. I also started to work as a waiter, and began selling shoes to pay for my living expenses and get experience in business.
"After college I went to university, which I funded with odd jobs and by writing letters to NGOs [non-governmental organisations], asking for sponsorship to help me pay my basic rent while I studied.
"I also had a job with Pick 'n Pay supermarket [a national chain store] and it was here that I got the idea to own a supermarket. I came to the Western Cape [Province] because I heard some other Somali people were living there. I opened a small shop and I have been building up my grocery business in Khayalitsha ever since.
"Last May , during the xenophobic attacks, people from the township [Khayalitsha] came to my shop and destroyed everything and took all my stock from the shelves.
"The goods were worth a lot of money and for a time I thought I was finished, but I have managed to reopen because I have a good relationship with my suppliers. But I am very worried for the future because this could easily happen again.
"I bought a house in Bellville [a suburb in northern Cape Town] a few years ago, where many Somalis stay, so I was fortunate in that way during the xenophobic attacks. Most of the Somalis who lived in the townships came to Bellville when the trouble started, to seek help.
"I will never live in a township in South Africa again because of what has happened here. I have a wife and three kids, and I will never put them at risk. My situation is not good, but there is nothing I can do – I cannot go back to Somalia.