No Place Like Home

Thousands of Somalis fled when their country committed suicide a decade ago. Now the local INS office has found a way to send them back.

The state prison at Rush City is one of the facilities in which the INS warehouses immigrants it plans to deport. There are, at present, 20 other Somali men awaiting deportation within its walls, some of whom have been convicted of felonies and some who, like Hassan, are merely victims of fortune. Most do not speak the same dialect. Some have never set foot on American soil; they were intercepted by INS agents at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and taken directly into custody. According to Hassan, one man who has been in custody for two years has lost his mind while in jail.

Hassan passes the time like any other prisoner. He keeps to himself, plays cards, and reads pulp mystery novels when he can get hold of them. He worries sometimes about his car and his apartment, though he's arranged for a friend to look after both while he's away. Mostly he mulls over his uncertain future.

Even in the baggy prison garb, Hassan's carriage is stalk-straight. He speaks in a lilting, unaggressive voice, with the exacting grammar of the self-taught. His eyes are agile, and, though he is soft-spoken, there is also something fiercely independent in his demeanor--the same something that might drive a young man halfway across the planet and into permanent exile. It's also this, in all likelihood, that has allowed him to endure his increasingly tangled legal troubles. "The perception people have is America is free, everybody has money," he muses. "I never thought I'd get this kind of treatment in America. I never thought in all my life I'd be in prison. I never committed a crime. I lead a decent, honest life with a good professional job. This is a mental war they are making. You see these walls staring at you 24-7 and you wonder if you're going to lose your sanity."

Hassan speaks about the past in an unaffected, matter-of-fact way, like a man describing a dream or something he has seen on television. In December of 1990, he begins, Hassan and his family began to hear reports that troops from the USC--the United Somali Congress, a heavily armed Hawiye-led insurgent militia based in the northern part of the country--were encroaching on Mogadishu. Throughout the month, house-to-house fighting erupted sporadically, moving ever closer to the center of the city and the palace of Siad Barre, Somalia's corrupt dictator. "Artillery started shelling randomly," Hassan recalls. "Everybody was shooting with small arms everywhere. Everybody was running every direction. They were dying like bugs."

In January, under pressure from the USC, Barre fled the capital, and the last vestiges of civic authority collapsed. The USC itself split into two factions according to clan affiliation, and both sides began shelling each other from the outskirts of the capital. The civilian population was trapped in between. By the end of 1991--as the U.S. debated military intervention and the United Nations balked--14,000 civilians in Mogadishu had been shot dead. The violence had spread to other areas of the country, as well; Hargeysa, in the north, had been virtually flattened by artillery in late 1988, with a death toll estimated at as high as 50,000. Elsewhere, death squads emerged by night to hunt and summarily execute members of rival clans. For three eerily silent nights in December 1992, residents of the port city of Kismayu listened to the echo of gunshots on the outskirts of town. On the fourth day, they began to find the bodies of more than 100 prominent local men who had been dragged from their homes, blindfolded, and shot in the head.

Hassan remembers his last days in Mogadishu as a chaotic blur--a tsunami sweeping through the city and washing away the ordered life he'd known. People whose homes had been destroyed or looted were pouring into the streets, he recalls, while gunmen from both USC factions and Siad Barre's retreating army peppered the crowds indiscriminately with machine-gun fire. "I didn't know what was going on," Hassan says, "The whole thing was tribe-based--Hawiye going north and east, and Daarood going south. You tried to find people who could hide you till you were fortunate enough to get out. You go to places where people were meeting, find a place of safety. Then, later, you found out about your family."

In mid-February 1991 Hassan's family abandoned its clothing boutique to looters, and scattered. Along with thousands of other refugees crowded into pickup trucks or traveling by foot, Hassan made his way south, where makeshift squatter settlements had sprung up along the mountainous Kenyan border. He was lucky; he made it into Kenya, where a former business partner of his father's gave him shelter. Only then did he learn that his mother and two brothers had not escaped.

Here Hassan stops abruptly. In his original asylum application, he'd said that his mother was killed by a USC mortar that fell on her home. In fact, he is not sure how she died; he'd already fled, and he'd only heard the details secondhand. He will not elaborate on them now; his mother and brothers are among the unnumbered dead, and there is nothing more to say.

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