The World

The Day Bekar’s Brothers Disappeared

Amid the migrant crisis, some goodbyes are too painful to say out loud.

A man walks through a market in the Dadaab refugee camp.
A man walks through a market in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya in 2018.  Sally Hayden/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Excerpted from Ty McCormick’s Beyond the Sand and Sea: One Family’s Quest for a Country to Call Home, published by St. Martin’s Press.

The sand burned hot on Bekar’s feet as he lingered in the backfield. Dusk had fallen over the barren soccer pitch in Dadaab refugee camp, near Kenya’s border with Somalia, but the heat was still oppressive. It radiated up from the grassless earth and hung thick in the air so that even shallow breaths threatened to overwhelm his lungs. From his position at center back, he kept the entire game in view, jogging forward when his teammates possessed the ball and falling back when they turned it over. Up two goals over rival club Al-Ahly, which drew its members from a section of the camp called Ifo, Bekar should have felt enthused. Instead, he was sick with worry.

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Bekar’s family had arrived in Dadaab nearly five years earlier, after fleeing the war in neighboring Somalia. They had watched the sprawling desert camp swell into the largest in the world, housing more than half a million people by 2011. A vast expanse of sand and thorn scrub and flimsy makeshift dwellings, the settlement was both a refuge and a prison: Its residents were forbidden to leave the camp or seek gainful employment in Kenya. Most survived on monthly rations from the United Nations—a few kilos of sorghum and maize, salt, and some cooking oil.

Bekar had enrolled in school in the camp in the hopes of winning a scholarship to study in Canada, but the rest of his family struggled to adapt to their new home. Two of Bekar’s half brothers, Abdirashid and Abdifata, had wives and children back in Somalia. They didn’t have the option of going to school, and their chances of finding informal work in the camp were slim. Their debt and anxiety mounting, they had begun to whisper about tahrib.

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It was a word Bekar had heard often growing up, one that carried both the promise of fortune and the fear of death. An Arabic word that was traditionally used to describe the smuggling of illegal goods, tahrib in the Somali context had come to mean migration in search of work, usually without papers and usually to Europe or to the oil-rich monarchies of the Gulf. Young men were said to “go on tahrib,” and they went in large numbers. The more desperate you were, the more likely you were to try your luck abroad, knowing full well you might never come home.

In Dadaab, there were thousands of desperate people, and a thriving network of smugglers who could navigate the treacherous journey from Kenya, through South Sudan, Sudan, and Libya, across the Mediterranean to Italy. On the day Bekar’s half brothers, Abdirashid and Abdifata, had said their goodbyes, his third half brother Zakariya also disappeared. He hadn’t come home at sundown, and he hadn’t turned up the next day. Unlike his two older brothers, he hadn’t breathed a word about tahrib. But after a week had passed, no one doubted where he had gone.

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His departure had come as a shock to Bekar, who had been closest with Zakariya. “He’s my brother. How could he keep this one from me?” Bekar thought. Unlike Abdirashid and Abdifata, Zakariya wasn’t married. Perhaps he thought his mother would forbid him from going with his brothers, since he didn’t have a family to support. The unanswered questions gnawed at Bekar. He wondered if he should have said something, raised the subject directly with Zakariya during the period his other half-brothers had been discussing it. Now Zakariya was probably hundreds of miles away, packed in a crowded truck or stuck in a migrant ghetto.

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Bekar had tried his best to keep his mind on other things. In the past week alone, he had done hours of algebraic equations, working his way through a thick red textbook he shared with a friend from school, a Somali refugee like him named Asad. During earlier periods of instability, he had found that the concentration required for mathematics had a steadying effect. Soccer offered another diversion. The match against Al-Ahly, he had hoped, would put his mind at ease at least for a few hours. But out on the pitch in the waning daylight hours, he felt himself transported across the desert to Sudan and Libya. The place he imagined was hot and harsh, even more desolate than Dadaab. It was teeming with the kinds of hazards he had heard awaited those who went on tahrib—wild animals, corrupt border agents, ruthless traffickers. He wondered whether Zakariya and the others could survive such a place.

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Bekar was no stranger to uncertainty. He was born in 1991, the year Siad Barre’s dictatorship collapsed after more than 20 years, plunging his country into war and famine. He was less than a week old when his father died of a mysterious fever. While he lived with his mother, his father’s other widow, and his 17 siblings in a squat four-bedroom house in Mogadishu, dueling warlords carved up the capital around them, laying much of it to waste and killing thousands of people. Fighters wheeled through the streets in pickup trucks outfitted with heavy machine guns, looting stores and homes and clashing among themselves. Food stocks dwindled and prices soared. Soon, thousands of people were starving across the country.

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Aid workers tried to provide emergency relief to the sick and the hungry, but militants shook them down for cash and stole their supplies. U.N. peacekeepers eventually arrived, including thousands of American troops deployed as part of “Operation Restore Hope.” But the foreign troops only accelerated Somalia’s slide into chaos. When Bekar was 2 years old, U.S. forces attempted to capture warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid, triggering a two-day battle that ended with two Black Hawk helicopters downed and hundreds of Somalis and 18 Americans dead. At the time, Bekar’s family lived just a few blocks from Bakaara Market in Mogadishu’s Black Sea district, where one of the U.S. choppers had crashed and where the family ran a small shop selling cement and other construction wares. The market was the site of frequent skirmishes when Bekar was growing up in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as warlords fought one another and against militias allied to a new movement of Islamic courts—groups of Muslim legal scholars that had the backing of the business community—that was gradually gaining sway.

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Bekar managed to avoid most of the violence. But one day in early 2006, when he was 13 years old, he was at school, when the teachers abruptly dismissed the class. Rumors had circulated that fighting was about to break out between militiamen of the Islamic courts and one of the last remaining warlords. He thought about looking for his half sister Sadia, who was studying at the same school, but as his classmates rushed past him for the door he decided there wasn’t time. Bekar darted out into the street, zigzagging through the maze of narrow alleyways that led toward Bakaara Market. But everywhere he turned, roadblocks manned by clan militias had suddenly appeared, and he knew better than to cross them. Heart racing, he backtracked and tried several alternate routes, crisscrossing the city in search of a safe path home. Eventually, he succeeded in making a wide berth around the fighting and circling back from the rear. When he burst through the door into the cool of the sitting room, his mother, Khadija, and his late father’s second wife, Raaliyo, were both frantic.

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“Where is your sister?” they wanted to know. “Why isn’t she with you?”

Raaliyo’s face was stricken with worry, and her dark eyes searched his for answers. Bekar stood there speechless. There was nothing he could say to assuage her fear, no way to explain why he had reacted as he did. Before he could open his mouth, the door burst open a second time and in tumbled Sadia with one of her school friends. Raaliyo’s face melted as she swept Sadia up in her arms.

Not long after that, a federation of Islamic courts finally imposed order on the wrecked capital city. They were backed by powerful clan militias and ruled by a harsh version of Islamic law. They banned pornography and music and even declared it a crime to watch soccer, forcing Bekar and his friends to listen to the 2006 World Cup matches on the BBC’s Somali radio service. Thieves started having their hands amputated and women began to veil themselves in the style of more conservative Muslim societies. But the killing and the looting stopped, and for that most people were grateful. For the first time in more than a decade, the roads were clear of checkpoints. Commerce gradually resumed. It was among the only periods of sustained normalcy Bekar can remember, a time when he and his sisters walked to and from school without worry and the shop in Bakaara Market did well enough to put plenty of food on the table.

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But the Islamic Courts Union had powerful enemies. Neighboring Ethiopia viewed it as a threat, as did the United States, which in the wake of the 9/11 attacks was eager to prevent Somalia from becoming a terrorist haven. In December 2006, the George W. Bush administration supported an Ethiopian invasion aimed at toppling the courts and installing a more pliant, international-backed government. Thousands of Ethiopian troops marched on Mogadishu, backed by Russian-made tanks and fighter jets. They made quick work of the Islamic Courts militiamen, and within a few weeks they had taken control of the capital. Thousands of refugees streamed out of the city, headed for Ethiopia and Kenya.

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Bekar’s family had anticipated the devastation of the Ethiopian blitzkrieg and fled to Kenya in an earlier wave, escaping the city before it became an inferno and settling in Dadaab. As he adjusted to life in the camp, Bekar mostly stuck together with his siblings. He was closest with Zakariya, who was two years his senior. They were practically inseparable, joining soccer matches whenever they could and playing cards together late into the evenings. But as the months passed and Bekar began to internalize the strange rhythms of Dadaab, he found himself drawn to one of his new classmates in school, a quiet boy named Asad.

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His new friend had been born in the camp and had never left its confines. He had never seen a two-story building, never walked on a paved road. But Bekar could sense in Asad the same drive to escape his circumstances that was beginning to develop in him. Life had never been easy in Mogadishu, but here it was hard in ways he hadn’t previously imagined: the total dependence on others, the interminable waiting for everything. People lived as if they were saving a part of themselves for their real lives, which would presumably begin as soon as the war ended in Somalia or they were granted asylum in the United States. There were still weddings and births and funerals. People still laughed and loved and bickered. But to him, everything seemed halfhearted, diminished out of some shared subconscious need for self-preservation.

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Asad didn’t appear to live that way. He had thrown himself into his studies, grabbing tight to the one possibility without clear limits and using it to launch himself toward a future that, while still uncertain, had to be better than this. Bekar was determined to do the same, and their budding friendship revolved almost entirely around that shared goal. “In fact, we had one ambition. Our target was just to finish primary school and get good marks and then go to secondary school,” Bekar recalled. “And once we got to secondary school, we had one target again”—a scholarship to study abroad in Canada. “Because when people stay here in Dadaab, when they finish school, we could see they had nothing to do. … We decided, let us do something different from these other people.”

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Bekar’s older siblings had taken the flight from Mogadishu even harder than he had. There were odd jobs to be done in the camp—running deliveries, cleaning shops, digging pit latrines. But even the worst of these jobs were hard to get without clan or familial connections, and the line to fill them was long. Even harder to get were the “incentive worker” jobs at the international aid agencies and the U.N. Those were virtually monopolized by the powerful clans.

Time and again Abdirashid and Abdifata failed in their efforts to find work. In the meantime, the calls from family back home grew more and more urgent. The Ethiopian invasion had shattered the fragile peace that took hold under the Islamic Courts Union and ignited a new insurgency—this one led by a militant wing of the ICU calling itself Al-Shabab, or “the Youth.” Al-Shabab targeted Ethiopian troops with suicide bombers and assassinations, turning Mogadishu into a war zone once again. They also press-ganged young men into service as fighters and religious police, enforcing an even stricter religious code than the ICU’s. Soon the group controlled the bulk of southern Somalia and all but a few square blocks of the capital city, where the embattled transitional government was hunkered down. Al-Shabab’s fighters were ruthless, and their tactics—including blocking foreign shipments of emergency aid—helped fuel the famine that by 2011 was forcing thousands of new refugees to flee to Dadaab.

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Abdirashid and Abdifata were running out of options. Al-Shabab had begun to terrorize Dadaab as well, forcing many of the big aid agencies to scale back or pull out. As a result, the brothers’ chances of finding work were growing slimmer by the day. And so Abdirashid and Abdifata talked their plan over with the family. “They said, ‘Instead of staying here not doing anything, let us go on tahrib. We either die or we get something,’ ” Bekar remembered. Khadija and Raaliyo—“the two moms,” as Bekar called them—listened quietly as his half brothers made their case. Neither woman tried to dissuade them. With no good options, there was hardly a counterargument to be made. But he could tell they were worried, that they were holding something back when at last they nodded and said, “All the best.”

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Bekar had resigned himself to the loss of two of his half brothers. He understood why they were willing to risk everything to provide for their families. But why Zakariya had gone with them—that he couldn’t fathom. Just the other week, the two of them had watched Manchester United play at the cinema in the main market in Ifo, an improvised establishment that consisted of a projector and an old sheet housed under a rusty tin roof. Afterward, they had hoofed it back home in the dark, half giddy, half scared, when a hyena emerged from the shadows, its eyes glowing green in the night.

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Now instead of laughing, Bekar imagined Zakariya weak with exhaustion in the desert. Bekar’s anxiety mounted with each passing day, pooling in the space between his ribs where his appetite had once been. He could see that the two moms were also worried. They whispered to each other more than usual, and they said little to anyone else. Every once in a while, Raaliyo would check her mobile phone, thumbing the translucent rubber keys to light up the small yellow screen. He recognized the look on her face each time she did it. He had seen it before, on the day Mogadishu had erupted with violence and he had run home without his half sister Sadia.

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Six weeks after Zakariya disappeared, Raaliyo’s phone finally rang. All three brothers had made it safely to Europe, three of roughly 62,000 migrants whose arrival in Italy by sea that year would coincide with the first wave of refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria. It was an early harbinger of the coming crisis in the Mediterranean, unleashed by the collapse of strongman regimes across the Middle East and made more dangerous by the fortress mentality of many European countries. As record numbers claimed asylum on the continent, the European Union scrambled to secure its borders, shoring up remaining dictatorships like Sudan and Ethiopia with aid in exchange for promises to crack down on human smugglers and earmarking billions for development under the theory that it would deter migration. Little distinction was made between economic migrants and refugees. The goal was to stanch the flow.

In Dadaab, people measured the crisis not by numbers of refugees or even deaths at sea, but by the silent disappearance of loved ones. Friends would simply stop showing up for school. Neighbors would vanish without a trace. But as the years wore on and more and more of their journeys were documented on social media, it became clear just how lucky Zakariya and his brothers had been. Everyone had seen the videos, posted to Facebook and shared on WhatsApp, of shackled migrants, often bruised and bleeding, pleading for relatives to send money to their torturers—often the very smugglers they had paid for safe passage. Evidence of extortion and even slavery was everywhere, but still more people decided to go. Either we die, or we get something, they must have thought. Bekar never considered going on tahrib, but he didn’t disagree with the logic.

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