Ihave known Abass Siraji since childhood. We grew up together in Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, in north-east Kenya. We went to the same school. He was more than just a friend, he was a brother with whom I shared dreams and goals in life.
After finishing university, Abass became an active member of the community, joining voluntary youth groups that helped advocate for the rights of refugees in Dadaab. He was a humble young man who always smiled.
Life in the camp was like a prison. We could not go anywhere – the Kenyan government does not allow refugees to move out of the camps – and we had no access to employment rights. In 2011, Abass decided to return to Somalia, where he could work, move freely and earn a decent living despite the insecurity.
At the time, Somalia was a no-go zone. Al-Shabaab militants controlled most parts of the country, including the capital, Mogadishu. But Abass defied everyone and accepted a job offer from the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation. He never looked back, working with the World Food Programme and other international humanitarian organisations and travelling throughout Somalia.
Already a hero to the refugees of Dadaab, Abass became a national symbol when he was elected as a member of the federal parliament last November. Somali leaders are predominantly elected through traditional clan elders, leaving young people little chance of entering politics. But Abass won the parliamentary seat, defeating a long-serving MP, and became the youngest minister in Somalia’s history in March, when he was appointed head of the public works and reconstruction department.
I called him when he was elected to congratulate him, but also to warn him of the potential risks. “Bro, you cannot change anything when you are not in the system, we have to be part of the government to achieve our goals but, inshallah, I will try my best and hopefully we will make it,” he told me.
On Wednesday night his life and dreams were cut short. Bodyguards of Somalia’s auditor general opened fire on his car near the presidential palace, killing him and wounding some of his security guards. He was only 31. His death was received with shock and horror across Somalia and across the diaspora.
I could not believe my ears when I first heard the news. I am still shaking now, as I write about the tragic death of my friend. He was a beacon of hope for us. The whole country is mourning today, but especially the young people who make up 75% of Somalia’s population. The killing of Abass was an attack on their hopes and visions.
We talked regularly on Facebook and he would encourage me to come to Somalia. When on leave, Abass used to come to the camps and tell us about opportunities in Somalia, how we could join him to be part of the recovery and reconstruction of our country.
In 2013, following his advice and encouragement, I decided to return to Somalia for the first time in almost 15 years. It was impossible to convince my family, but Abass was the best example I could give. Everyone knew him and could relate to his story. When I first arrived in Mogadishu, I was too scared to move out of my hotel room until Abass came and took me around the city.
“Really, you can easily drive within the city?” I asked him as he navigated through the narrow roads of the capital. “Yes, I told you, this is the reality on the ground, Mogadishu looks horrible from outside but life is normal when you come.”
He mastered the tactics of the city by driving slowly, giving way to the speeding military vehicles that often escort politicians. They would shoot civilians who didn’t clear the way. The same trigger-happy thugs in government uniforms shot him dead. Whether it is a reckless killing by the indisciplined security forces, or a targeted assassination portrayed as an accident, the death of Abass has broken our hearts. It will take time to raise the hopes of the millions of young people who looked up to him as a role model.
The president, who is in Ethiopia on an official visit, said he will cut short his trip and promised to hold those responsible to account. A state funeral is being organised, but this is not the first time a politician or an admired leader has been killed in Somalia. Often, the perpetrators are not brought to justice; I am afraid my friend, like many before him, may not get justice.
This time, though, it is different. The hopes and aspirations of millions of young Somalis have been damaged. We need reassurance, healing and tangible action that can reignite our hopes.
Two weeks ago, Abass agreed to speak at TEDxMogadishu and share his story with the world.
In his last speech, Abass emphasised the importance of young people in rebuilding Somalia: “It was only 13 young men who came together and initiated the liberation of our country during the independence. Today we have more power as youth. We have better knowledge, better technology and more opportunities than they did, so we have to use them to change this country.”
Before he finished the talk, Abass posed a very emotional question: “Everyone should ask themselves, what can you do for your country?”
My heart is broken and my hope for Somalia has dropped to the lowest point. But in trying to answer this question, I feel the obligation to rise up and fulfil the dreams of my dear friend, a childhood dream that we shared. Allaha kuu Naxariisto saaxibkay qaali: rest in peace, my dear friend.