What is it like to know that you must leave your home this instant? What would you take with you? Where would you go? These were the questions that I asked my cousin, my aunts and former neighbors, but to be precise, I asked, "What was it like? What did you take with you? Where did you go?", because all of these women had been forced to flee the Somali civil war in the late eighties. My cousin was separated from her parents on the first day of fighting, my aunt carried three very young boys to the Ethiopian border, while it took the war for a family friend to realize that her husband of many years had lied about his own background. The stories that emerged were of heroism and cowardice, despair and hope, a violent normality disturbed by abnormal violence.
I left Hargeisa in northern Somalia as a child but was born in a hospital that symbolized the brutality of the regime; my mother was nearly turned away from the labor ward as I had the temerity to want to arrive after the curfew, doctors who tried to improve the hospital were arrested on trumped-up charges and given life sentences, and during the war it became the site of unimaginable abuses. To return to this world of sadness was no easy act but one story kept leading me forward, demanding to be told and that was of my grandmother, my namesake, Nadifa. An apparently stern and no-nonsense kind of woman, she had been born a nomad in 1908 and had eloped at the age of seventeen with my grandfather, for the rest of her life she traveled where she wanted as free as any man, from the borderlands of Eritrea to Mecca, she pushed aside whatever barriers stood in her way. On her return to Somalia, she wanted to live a quiet life tending to her orchard, reading fortunes in coffee cups, and singing the songs a lifetime of adventure had taught her. It was not to be. A traffic accident left her bed-bound and when the bombardment of the city began she was left abandoned, as were many of Hargeisa's elderly and disabled residents. I reflected on her fate with guilt, sorrow and most of all anger. The seed of The Orchard of Lost Souls was sown from that reflection, what does war mean when you strip it of machismo and romanticism? What does it mean for elderly women? The disabled? Street girls? What would it have meant for me if we hadn't left?
That I made the story of the Somali civil war one of women doesn't mean that it is solely one of men against women; the dictatorship of Siad Barre had a much vaunted policy of sexual equality and many Somali women supported the regime and took part in its abuses. From the local espionage networks to the Women's Auxiliary Unit in the army they wielded power over perceived enemies of the state. These individuals have been completely overlooked, as are most female perpetrators of violence, but when we are forced to confront them, as we were by Lynddie England's smirking face in the images from Abu Ghraib, we feel a particular hatred and maybe even betrayal. Although male combatants often return home from war with trophy photos and engage in sexual humiliation of both men and women, the sight of her doing the same enraged people, and it was hard to tell if the condemnation was based on the idea that women are above these cruel acts or if we were unsettled by seeing a female exert that raw power over men. I wanted to investigate that discomfort and ask if women are in essence different to men when it comes to violence, if that desire is present in us however submerged or if, in fact, it's just another power that we are denied?
The lasting impression I will have from those conversations with my female relatives is that there are no medals for women who show courage, ingenuity, or who sacrifice themselves for others. In the end, my grandmother was rescued by a niece, who braved the bombs, bullets, and mortars falling on their small, provincial city, and brought my grandmother to a place of safety and kept her alive until she was reunited with my uncle in Ethiopia.
Nadifa Mohamed is the author of the new novel The Orchard of Lost Souls [$26.00, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux].