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A Radio Journalist Who Put His Life On The Line

Somali journalist Yusuf Ahmed Abukar used the radio to tell stories of the poor and suffering in Somalia — and to criticize militant groups and the government.
Farah Abdi Warsameh
Somali journalist Yusuf Ahmed Abukar used the radio to tell stories of the poor and suffering in Somalia — and to criticize militant groups and the government.

Here's a sobering number: Thirty-seven radio journalists have been killed worldwide in the past two years, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Somalia is one of the most dangerous countries for reporters. Last year, three radio reporters were killed there.

Somali journalist Muhyadin Ahmed Roble remembers one of them: his friend and colleague Yusuf Ahmed Abukar, who was 27 years old when he was killed in Mogadishu last June.

"He was one of the most influential reporters we had in the country," says Roble.

"Yusuf Keynan," as he was known on air and by his friends, was an editor at Mustaqbal Radio in Mogadishu and a contributor to Ergo Radio, a broadcast based in Nairobi that reaches people in Somalia and across the region. Roble was his producer there, as well as a close friend. The two spoke nearly every day.

In Somalia, a country with few newspapers and one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, radio is king, Roble says. And Abukar was widely known.

He was "a journalist who talked to everyone," Roble says. His radio stories drew attention to the suffering of the poor, displaced people, vulnerable women and children.

Those were the kinds of stories Abukar liked to tell for Ergo Radio. He seemed affected by the people in his stories every time he filed one, Roble recalls.

"He'd say, 'These people are just like me. These women are just like my mother,' " Roble says.

Abukar also criticized the militant group al-Shabab and the Somali government — coverage that brought risks.

Death threats are common, says Roble, something Somali journalists have to live with as they do their job. When they reach a personal breaking point or fear for their family's safety, many of them leave the country.

Roble himself fled the violence in Somalia for Kenya in 2007, which he called "one of the worst years Somali journalists have experienced." Eight Somali journalists were killed that year.

"[Abukar] was very brave. Most of the journalists left the country, it was just very few journalists who stayed," Roble says.

He says that Abukar worried that if he left there would be no one left to tell the stories of the most vulnerable people in Somalia.

"He was a very gentle man. A guy who could make you laugh," even joking about the increasing danger he faced.

Roble spoke to Abukar just a few days before he died. Abukar pitched him a story, proposing to investigate the underlying causes of Somalia's recurring droughts and famines. A good idea, thought Roble, and he approved it.

Then Abukar told him about the latest death threat: Someone had told him via text message they were coming for him one day soon.

"I'm still waiting for that day," Abukar told Roble. They laughed — one way to cope with the stress — and planned to talk in a few days. That was on a Wednesday.

Very early that Saturday morning, on June 21, Roble's phone rang and rang. Text messages dinged in one after another.

"Another message came, another message came, another call came, and they were all saying the same thing: 'Yusuf was killed. He was just killed. A bomb was planted under his car.' "

It was an awful shock, Roble says, and one he had to process largely on his own. He was advised not to travel or gather with other journalists at Yusuf's funeral because of security concerns.

So Roble mourned his friend and colleague privately, at his home, in the way he knew how.

"I prayed for him."

And then he got to work, writing a piece about how Abukar's murder would devastate the already ravaged Somali media landscape.

Yusuf Ahmed Abukar left behind a wife and two children, the youngest just a few weeks old at the time of his death. As in almost every case where a Somali journalist has been murdered, no one has been held accountable.

Now, eight months later, Roble gets calls from young Mogadishu journalists trying to break into journalism. "One thing good about Somalia is that people are not giving up," he says.

Roble tries to give them advice. Even though sometimes he doesn't know what to say, he emphasizes vigilance and safety.

Your life, he tells them, is more important than the news.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura Starecheski