From Somalia to Malta: one journalist's perilous journey

From Somalia to Malta: one journalist's perilous journey

Somali journalist Ahmed Nuur Ibrahim was forced to choose between continuing his profession and being forced to flee his country, or facing death threats at home
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By Mohamed Garane and Peter Townson

A passionate love of journalism and an extreme and dangerous working environment are the reasons that combined to lead Ahmed Nuur Ibrahim, a journalist working in war-torn Somalia, to decide that he had to leave his country.

Faced with the choice of working for extremist group Al Shabaab or confronting the threat of death, Ahmed decided that fleeing Somalia, the second most dangerous in the world for journalists, was his only option.

However, the perilous journey away from his country brought an entirely new set of challenges for the journalist to endure.

The birth of a journalist

Ahmed Nuur Ibrahim first began his work as a journalist at the age of 16 when he became a trainee at Capital Voice, a sister radio show of the HornAfrik media centre in Mogadishu.

He was dedicated to learning from an early age despite immediate difficulties, having to borrow schoolbooks because his family was unable to afford the resources he needed.

Growing up in a media environment in which opinion is all-too-often presented as fact, Ahmed developed a commitment to pursuing real journalism, and managed to find work at a number of media outlets, including the position of news editor at Radio Daljir and as a reporter for the UN humanitarian news agency in Irin.

Ahmed also worked as head of programmes at the Somalia Broadcasting Company (SBC) and as a reporter for Somalia Report, an online news portal funded by the US.

However, after witnessing some 18 of his colleagues in the media being murdered with impunity in Somalia, and experiencing problems of his own, he decided that he would have to leave the country.

Getting into hot water

“My problems began after the war in Galgala in 2011 between the Puntland armed forces and Al Shabaab,” explains Ahmed.

Reporting on the burning of farmland by the Al Shabaab militias, video clips and quotes from residents about the actions of the group garnered unwanted attention for the journalist.

“I was immediate called by Ismail Istila, a former journalist who worked for Al Shabaab to hunt down journalists,” he explains, adding “he masterminded the killings of journalists and threatened that I would be dead within the next 24 hours.”

His caller told him that his only option to avoid being murdered was to work alongside Al Shabaab.

"I told them that I would continue working as a journalist and would not leave this profession nor join them.

“I was shocked and scared, and that night I slept at a police commissioner’s home in Bosasso,” he notes, adding “it was then that I decided I would leave in the morning.”

A dangerous quest

With the support of his mother, a street trader, Ahmed took the heartrending decision to leave behind his family and flee, first travelling to Ethiopia for the beginning of his extremely dangerous journey.

However, his hopes for a life of safety and relative peace were quickly dashed.

He proceeded to Sudan, where he ignored a friend’s advice and decided to continue his journey across the Sahara.  However, this nearly proved fatal, as he was kidnapped in the desert by smugglers, known as Magafe (the ‘unmissable’)

He was beaten, and forced to pay a ransom of around $3,500, an amount which proved insurmountable to his family.

“I remember speaking to my mother on the phone, and telling her that if the amount of money was not paid, I would be killed,” he recalls.

Making a run for it

One night, Ahmed and a fellow detainee stood by a window on the fourth floor of the building in which they were being held, and decided to make a run for it. 

Jumping from the window and running along unknown streets, they eventually found an Ethiopian construction worker who helped them rent a pickup truck to take them to Tripoli in Libya.

In Libya, Ahmed was finally able to board a ship to make the next difficult step of his journey, across the ocean to Europe.

However, this also proved to be difficult, as he was picked up by Tunisian security at the border.

“There were 85 of us in total, and were we taken to the border between Libya and Tunisia,” he says, adding “here I was thrown into a prison cell for the second time, by Tunisian coastguards.”

He managed to escape once more, and with the help of the last of his family’s money – around $800 - sent by his mother, he was able to board another boat.

“I was lucky this time,” he says.

New life in Malta

Ahmed’s final boat journey ended with him being detained by the Maltese navy, who rescued Ahmed and more than 120 other refugees from the boat after two days.  Ahmed was then handcuffed and taken to the Hal Far detention centre.

After five months imprisoned at the centre, Ahmed eventually walked out a free man.

Thanks to the help of a security guard who allowed Ahmed to use his cellphone, the journalist was able to inform his mother that he was alive and had made it to Malta, months after he last spoke to his family.

“My mother cried and cried – she thought I had died and kept asking why I hadn’t called for so long,” he remembers.

Immediately after gaining his freedom and relocating to an open centre for refugees in Marsa, Ahmed began looking for work as a journalist.  However, this turned out to be a major challenge, as no one seemed to be willing to offer him employment.

“This was a very difficult time – I had no income and it took me days to submit applications, but even though I kept knocking on the door, no one was willing to open it for me,” he said, adding that he felt racism played an important role in this experience.

Ahmed met a group of journalists in similar circumstances, having travelled to Malta from Gambia, Libya, Sudan and Somalia, like him.  They rented a room together and decided to establish the African Media Association in Malta, which received funding from NGO SOS Malta and the US embassy.

Ahmed and his colleagues began to reach out to refugees in detention centres, entirely cut off from the rest of the world, with a message of hope for a better future.

The association’s first project, Somali Media Malta, is headed up by Ahmed, and includes a number of Somali journalists producing a weekly online one-hour radio show for fellow Somali-speakers.

The platform was conceived as a means to provide guidance to living in Malta for migrants, and help to disseminate useful information to the community to help them to integrate.

Ahmed’s show, “The Voice of Immigrants” aims to bridge the gap between migrants and Maltese society at whole, addressing the challenges facing immigrants who face issues such as discrimination, detention and other obstacles to integration.

Challenges in a new home

However, this mission has brought further problems to Ahmed, who regularly receives threats and abuse on social media platforms, reflecting an element of hatred and prejudice towards Somali immigrants in Malta.

Mustafa And, a Somali asylum seeker was one of the listeners to benefit from the show.  He said that he felt extremely grateful to have found the radio programme online through Facebook, and used it as a resource to find help when he emerged from the centre looking for a place to live and other assistance.

He is just one of many refugees to have benefited from the work Ahmed has carried out after his own incarceration. 

This desire to provide assistance to others who have lived a similar experience to his own, pushes Ahmed on to try and combat the racism he now encounters: “If my life was not in danger I would never, ever have come here, but as I am now here, I will continue to speak for the rights of my fellow migrants in Malta, our new home.”


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