“I need to go to Mogadishu.” I was in the kitchen washing dishes when I first put this thought into words. “I can’t write a novel about Somalia if I don’t see it for myself.”
My wife—my best friend and longsuffering companion on what has become a seven-year journey of writing novels about human rights—looked at me and blinked, but she didn’t object. She knew my process. My fiction isn’t fantasy; it is reality translated into story. I have to live the story before I write it.
“Can you find someone to go with you?” she asked. I understood her concern. For my earlier books, I had ventured into Mumbai brothels and Zambian slums. But Somalia was different: it was the land of al-Shabaab. I promised her I’d work on it.
In late 2013, I boarded a flight out of Nairobi with Jay Bahadur, a journalist who knew Mogadishu. The aircraft was an old DC-9 with fading brakes and holes for air vents, but it still knew how to fly. Ninety minutes later, we touched down in Somalia within sight of the most devastated city on the planet.
I took out my iPhone and tried to connect to a cellular network. At once, I received a text from a Somali number. “Ku soo dhowow SOMAFONE Please Call 101 for help.” I hesitated, but called anyway. A man answered in broken English; halfway through my explanation, the line disconnected. Then my phone rang and a different man greeted me, his English precise: “Your phone is working now. You are American?”
Warning lights flashed in my head. “I have an American SIM card.”
“Where are you staying? Who are you working with?”
My heart began to race, and I ended the call. The thought struck me—al-Shabaab has informants everywhere. He was probably one of them. As the plane taxied to a stop, I looked across the tarmac toward a sandy beach framed by a tropical sky. If this place weren’t the poster child of the postapocalypse, it could be a beach resort.
The rest of my day was a run-on sentence of surreal conversations. My next collocutor was an immigration official who seemed certain that letting me in the country would lead to my death. Then came Yusuf, a security contractor, who refused my request for an armed escort to Hawa Abdi Village—a 20-year-old refugee camp founded by Hawa Abdi, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee. Hawa’s book, Keeping Hope Alive, had inspired my trip. Her daughter, Deqo, had invited me to come. Yusuf, however, thought I was insane: “You show your face outside the city and word will get out. You will have 40 minutes before they come for you.”
Undeterred, I went to speak to AMISOM, the African Union’s military mission to Somalia. There I met Fatuma, a Somali-Kenyan information officer, who offered to help. She arranged a convoy for the next day and agreed to come with me. My spirits were soaring, but my nerves punctured the balloon. I pictured my wife and children in Virginia. I knew the risk I was taking, but I couldn’t turn back now. For humanitarians laboring in conflict zones, visits like mine are exceedingly rare. I couldn’t make life easier for Hawa’s team, but I could tell their story.
The next morning, Fatuma and I donned bulletproof vests and climbed into an armored personnel carrier, flanked by attack vehicles. Our convoy traversed the city and then headed west into the desert. Outside Mogadishu, the road turned into a dirt track pitted with craters. When we reached the village, Deqo met us at the gate. She took us to the hospital first—a brightly painted building pockmarked by bullet holes. Then we went to the schoolhouse and greeted the students. Eventually, we made our way into the camp, a vast collection of makeshift shelters shimmering in the heat. The children smiled, but the adults stared at me suspiciously.
We stopped in a grove of mango trees and chatted about Deqo’s work. Suddenly, her phone rang. She listened carefully and her expression changed. “That was my chief of security,” she said. “You must go.”
We found the convoy waiting for us at the gate, all guns manned. We had been at the village only 45 minutes.
“Thank you for coming,” Deqo said earnestly. “Please do not forget us.” I assured her I wouldn’t.
There is an expression in Somali: nabad iyo caano—peace and milk. It is a reflection of a culture of wisdom and brotherhood that belies the bloodshed of the civil war. It is the heart of the Somali people, and a starting point for their healing. My promise, too, is a beginning: I will not forget you.
Corban Addison’s novel The Tears of Dark Water—about Somali pirates, kidnapping, and the destruction wrought by al-Shabab—is out in October from Thomas Nelson.
A version of this article appeared in the 09/07/2015 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Making Fiction Real