Somali writer Nuruddin Farah went to Mogadishu in the summer of 2006 with the best of intentions. He wanted to help broker a peace accord between the Somali Transitional Federal Government and the Islamic Courts Union, which had conquered the capital city by ousting its warlords.
His failure to do so, and his subsequent exile from Somalia, have led to a fixation on the country and, ultimately, a series of novels.
Farah's latest, Crossbones, is the final installment of a trilogy about the Somali experience. Its main characters get to do what Farah himself longs for: They return to Somalia. Traveling from North America, they, too, are trying to promote peace, but the peace they seek is within their own families.
"Jeebleh, who is a character in the first part of the trilogy, returns with his son-in-law called Malik, who is a journalist," Farah tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "Because many journalists had been killed, and because no foreign journalists [were] based in Somalia for fear of their lives, he braves it and goes to Mogadishu to write about it. It's during his visit to Somalia, in fact in the first three or four days, that Ethiopia invades Mogadishu — a very good time for a journalist to find himself in Somalia."
Farah also portrays the country through the eyes of Malik's brother, Ahl, a professor in search of his stepson, whom he believes has gone back to Somalia to be trained as a suicide bomber.
"There are a number of young Somalis who are said to have left Minneapolis, Minn., to go to Somalia and to volunteer as draftees for [the terrorist group al-Shabab]," he says.
'You Don't Know Who Your Enemy Is'
As the novel opens, Somalia is on the brink of war with Ethiopia, and the tension is palpable.
"The journalist lives in a place that's secure," Farah says, "but when he goes into the market — one of the biggest markets in Mogadishu — or when he goes to interview someone or watches as some young thugs burn the corpses of some of these Europeans who fell in the war for Mogadishu, then he runs into problems."
One of Farah's characters says that when you've lived in a civil war and have not known peace, you become distanced from your natural self. These characters, some of whom have been friends for a long time, are fundamentally changed by their experience.
"You don't know who your enemy is," Farah says. "You can't tell who your friend is. You can't tell [who] you're going to trust, and you become a neighbor to death. You live close to death, and you're always on the edges of your nerves. You don't know what you're going to do next. It's a very, very difficult situation."
'The Unfortunate Side' Of Somalia's History
In exile, Farah says he has learned how much he misses Somalia; he's discovered that every time he visits his homeland, he returns with a mix of anger, anguish and sadness.
"People are dying, starving," he says. "Nobody seems to care about Somalia. That's the unfortunate side of our history."
Farah says he hopes to wake up one day and hear that the International Criminal Court has opened an investigation of Somalia, as well as those who have contributed to its current condition.
"What gives me hope is that probably the Somalis will live abroad, will be able to pull themselves together, live a better life in Minneapolis, in Ohio, in Toronto, in Nairobi and other places," he says. "And then somehow, more and more of them will go back to Somalia and help."