We lost a courageous colleague yesterday in Mogadishu, Somalia. Mahad Elmi was a 30-year-old radio journalist who had become an invaluable freelancer for McClatchy's Africa bureau over the past year. He was dedicated to telling the stories of civilians caught in the middle of what is looking ever more like an Iraq-style civil war in Somalia between pro-government forces and a fierce Islamist insurgency.
Mahad had become a friend. He'd call at least once a week with a cheery "How are you, brother?" -- despite whatever tales of madness and bloodletting he had on that particular day from Mogadishu, his hometown, one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
In the past 24 hours we've been reminded just how dangerous and senseless a place Mogadishu can be. Mahad, a father of two, was gunned down in daylight and in cold blood on the streets of his city, nine days before his wedding day, in front of the radio station where he worked to tell the stories of people suffering in the crossfire of the war.
Hours later, returning from Mahad's burial, the station owner, Ali Iman Sharmarke, was killed by a remote-controlled bomb. It was suddenly clear: these were targeted killings, aimed at getting journalists to stop doing what Mahad dedicated his life to doing, which was reporting the news.
At 7:30 a.m., Mahad was walking to work at Capital Voice, the FM station where he hosted a talk show called "Mogadishu This Morning." Two men approached him about 200 yards from the station entrance and fired three shots into his brain at point-blank range.
Around 9, my phone rang at home in Nairobi. It was the owner of the hotel where I stayed when I visited Mogadishu in March, calling with the news. "They took him to hospital," he said. "But no chance."
The news of Mahad's death was all over the city. I remember traveling with him in March and giving him grief about his minor celebrity. His radio gig might not have earned him a famous face, but his voice was -- how to put this? -- distinctive. (I think of a baritone Kermit the Frog.) In interviews we did together, whenever he opened his mouth, there was a flash of recognition and a suddenly warmer feeling in the room. Without him at his familiar place in the broadcast booth, Capital Voice briefly went off the air.
I immediately called Ali, a brave man who left a comfortable expatriate life in Canada several years ago with two friends to start HornAfrik, the first private media company in Somalia. I visited the station in March and was impressed -- it was as professional an operation as you could imagine in a place like Mogadishu, with smartly dressed young people busily working their cell phones or pecking at computer keyboards.
Ali told me the radio show had been Mahad's baby. "He was a character," Ali said. "No more than twice he missed doing his show."
Strangely, Ali said, Mahad hadn't taken a car into work on Saturday as he usually did. He'd stopped off for a coffee or something and decided to walk the last few hundred yards. That was when they got him.
The "they" was ambiguous. Lately, by telling the truth about civilian deaths and injuries in the fighting, Mahad and HornAfrik had angered both sides of the conflict. Ali, Mahad and several other reporters had been threatened by both sides, and Ali now felt he was in danger.
I knew Ali was busy preparing for Mahad's burial, which had to be done immediately according to Somali custom. I said I'd call him in the afternoon so we could talk more. When I dialed him a few hours later, there was no answer. It was then that I saw the story on the wires: Ali himself had been killed, Baghdad-style, by a roadside bomb that detonated under his car as he returned from Mahad's burial.
I couldn't even be shocked. He'd nearly predicted it to me.
I often asked Mahad about his safety. He usually brushed off my worries. "We are fine, really," was his stock response. Now I wonder whether I should have done more.
I knew the dangers he worked under, and I urged him to be careful. He was constantly in the hospitals of Mogadishu, talking to victims, hearing tales of government atrocities and insurgent brutality. He would return to the office in the late afternoon to dash off a report to me, so he could get home before the sun went down. In recent months he and Capital Voice had distinguished themselves as voices of the people. Perhaps that made him a bigger target.
But death can strike at any moment in Somalia, something that Mahad knew from all the interviews he'd done. I also knew that he wasn't likely to stop working. The radio show may have been his baby, but he took his work for us very, very seriously. He filed reports constantly, and after a while he developed the reporter's instinct for the stories and interviews I needed before I even asked.
In December, Somalia briefly became front-page news when Ethiopian troops invaded the country to topple a fundamentalist Islamist regime. I was home in California for Christmas. It was Mahad who covered the military operation for McClatchy, and my editors marveled at his skills.
A few days later, I was writing a story about what was next for Somalia. Mahad sent me the tale of a man who, a few months earlier, had sold the AK-47 he'd used to guard his home because the Islamists had brought peace to the city. Now he was back in the weapons market trying to buy his gun back, because he figured there was going to be a lot of fighting. I couldn't imagine a starker summation of the situation then -- and sadly, the man has been proven right.
Lately Mahad had gotten his hands on a camera and was playing around with it, eager for the chance to add to his journalistic repertoire. He managed to send only one photo before he died -- a scene from Bakara marketplace, site of some of the most serious clashes recently, now nearly deserted:
He was polished, unfailingly precise even in casual conversation, and I needled him about it. He always referred to "the capital Mogadishu," "Somali Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi" and "fighters loyal to the Union of Islamic Courts." Every statement was a first reference. He would have been great for someone with no short-term memory.
Once I nearly became exasperated. "Mahad," I said, "I know who these people are. You're off the radio now. You can relax."
He laughed, "It will help me if I ever get a radio job in America."
We'd enjoyed working together for a week in Mogadishu. I'd even say we had a good time. We sat together in the parlor of one of the city's most notorious warlords, Mohammed Qanyare, an interview that Mahad arranged. We drank bad instant coffee and he told me about how beautiful Mogadishu used to be (this is the national pastime of Somalia).
His dedication to his work took a toll on his life. He'd been separated from his wife, but two months ago he told me he was planning to remarry. The ceremony was set for Aug. 20.
We spoke on Friday, the day before he died. He was going to spend Saturday afternoon compiling some notes for me on an ongoing political summit. Thursday night had been particularly bloody, and I asked whether he really planned to go ahead with the wedding. "Why not?" he said. "We can't wait for the violence to be over."
Late on Saturday, I got an email from Abdi, a young Somali guy who'd worked us in March. I hadn't heard from him in months. He was stunned about Mahad. "He was cool man and excellent reporter," Abdi wrote. "The Somali people lost great man."
Abdi said he was back living in Sweden, where he'd emigrated as a child when Somalia first started getting out of hand. He returned to Mogadishu last year when the Islamist regime promised the chance for peace. He'd told me that his dream was to open a restaurant on the beach, and that he was going to stick it out for as long as he could.
In the final days of my visit, as clashes appeared to be escalating, Abdi seemed to waver. Last night he wrote: "I left Somalia one week after you left. I left when i understood that Somalia peace is far away."
Despite it all, Mahad was dedicated to keeping Somalia on the world radar. A place that's been so screwed up for so long naturally gets filed away in our minds into the "no-hope-in-hell" category. Guys like Mahad helped ensure the place wasn't forgotten.
Now, some journalists will no doubt leave the country. Others will censor what they say. Finding a reporter to cover Somalia in Mahad's place will be difficult. But finding anyone to match his passion, probity, courage and good humor in the midst of hell -- well, that may prove impossible.