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Somali poet Abdirashid Omar braves wrath of al-Shabab

25 January 11 07:38
Abdirashid Omar

Abdirashid Omar, 28, is in hiding after writing a poem criticising the Somali Islamist group al-Shabab, which controls much of southern Somalia and is fighting interim government forces for control of Mogadishu.

Somalia has not had a functioning national government for 20 years.

Oral poetry, sometimes performed with music, plays an important role in Somali cultural life.

Poets are often highly respected and a message recited in verse can become viral and carry great sway.

Abdirashid Omar told BBC Focus on Africa why he wrote the poem:

When I started doing this poetry initially, the aim was to tackle the social problems, then in December 2009 there was that attack - the Shamo Hotel attack in Mogadishu.

I was in a hotel in Eastleigh [a predominantly ethnic Somali inhabited suburb of Kenya's capital, Nairobi] that night watching television and I saw the bomb blast that killed several people who were graduating from medical school.

That night I could not sleep because it was so painful. It took me some four hours to make the poem Fatwo (the Decree).

The next morning I recorded the 10-minute poem and a week later I recited it - chanting it - to an audience in the border town of Garissa [where many Somalis in Kenya live].

By the next day, it was in circulation in Somali society.

It was that hideous, cruel act that provoked me, just made me write this poem.

'They use fear to control'

In Eastleigh, I knew that I was living in a society where close to 50% of the people were agreeing with al-Shabab and what they were doing in Somalia, but for us to correct the wrongs of society we must brave the situation.

I knew it was dangerous, but I had to say it because someone, somewhere had to talk about this.

I realised my message had reached them from the calls I was receiving.

Then it was I think on 15 May last year - the day I wanted to launch my poetry album, which included Fatwo that was already posted on the YouTube - I was given 15 days to repent, to "come back to God".

If I did not repent within that time then they said: "You shall know that you will no longer live in this world, we'll kill you."

I was supposed to withdraw the poem and write another to counter it - with a poem praising them.

A person who contradicts his own poem will never be taken [seriously] again in Somali society - something they knew because they are Somalis.

The police advised me to move out of Eastleigh for my safety because I refused to retract the poem.

As a poet I will talk about the social ills. If there are people who are pushing this society towards a dangerous zone - like al-Shabab are doing - I will be writing poems about them.

When you look at al-Shabab, they are people who are between the ages of 12 to 20.

What makes them tick is the silence of the society - we let them use fear to control the society.

Anger gives me the kind of drive I have, because this society, at the end of the day, has to solve its own problems.

The international community will not solve its problem.

We have to have voices among the people who will defy the kind of threats and dangers that are there, who will say: "No it's enough."

I fear no-one if I feel I can do good through the power of my pen.

Listen to a special hour-long BBC Focus on Africa programme marking 20 years since the fall of Somalia's leader Siad Barre on Wednesday 26 January 2011 at 1500 GMT.

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