The struggle to protect human rights and create a peaceful future for Somalia suffered a huge blow on November 20, 2019 when activist Almas Elman was shot and killed in a heavily fortified compound near the Mogadishu airport.
Almas belonged to a family defined by its activism for peace and justice – and by tragedy.
She was a child when Somalia’s civil war broke out in the early 1990s, and with her mother and siblings, Almas fled to Canada. Her father, Elman Ali Ahmed, sometimes called the Somali Father of Peace, stayed behind to continue his advocacy for peace. In 1996, he was assassinated, a crime that was never solved.
A decade later, her mother, Fartun Adan, returned to Somalia to help sustain a tenuous peace. Fartun also founded the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center, which ever since has worked for peace, human rights, the reintegration and rehabilitation of former child soldiers, and women’s rights. Its achievements include the creation of Mogadishu’s first rape crisis center – an enormous step forward in a country where sexual assaults were common but victims, fearing reprisals and stigma, rarely spoke out.
“The Elman Center talked about sexual violence at a time when it was a completely taboo issue and the government was in complete denial,” recalls Laetitia Bader, a senior researcher for the Africa division of Human Rights Watch.
Almas’s sister Ilwad Elman returned to Somalia as a young adult as well, to work alongside her mother. Her activism earned her a place on the Nobel Peace Prize shortlist and in 2019 Ilwad was named one of Africa’s most influential people.
While her mother and sister became public figures, Almas, based in Nairobi, took a quieter path. Her diplomatic work included serving as First Secretary in the Somalian embassy in Kenya and as liaison with diplomats from the European Union. According to Laetitia Bader, while Almas was an involved and passionate advocate of the Elman Center, “it seemed to me that she chose to stay slightly out of the limelight. She was smart and committed but humble and self-effacing.”
In 2016, Almas married tech entrepreneur Zakaria Hirsi, who also had left Somalia as a child. “Her mother told me how excited she was for the next chapter of Almas’s life,” says Shukri D’jama, a community activist and founding director of the Ottawa Somali Women’s Organization. Compounding the tragedy, Almas was pregnant when she died.
Almas had traveled to her home country to continue her efforts on its behalf, attending the Social Good Summit, an annual gathering of humanitarians, development actors and private sector companies. Just days before she died, she happily tweeted that “One day trips to Mogadishu are never long enough.”
Mogadishu, which regularly suffers bombings and assaults by the extremist group Al-Shabaab, remains one of the most dangerous cities in the world, and Somalia’s legacy of structural inequality, genital mutilation, domestic violence, and pervasive rape make it especially dangerous for women.
“Generally, it’s a context that’s hostile to women’s public engagement, especially on issues that are controversial,” says Laetitia Bader. “Women receive threats from all sides – both the authorities and non-state actors including Al-Shabaab.”
This danger is not at all abstract. Musician and Member of Parliament Saado Ali Warsame was killed in an Al-Shabaab drive-by shooting in 2014. In July, 2019, Somali-Canadian journalist Hodan Nalayeh, who had returned to focus on writing “positive, uplifting” stories of the Somali people, died in an Al-Shabaab attack on a Kismayo hotel. She, too, was pregnant.
Official statements in Mogadishu have suggested that Almas was killed by a stray bullet rather than a targeted attack. Her family has asked to see “her murder thoroughly investigated and request it be done so jointly by the Somali and the Canadian Authorities.”
Meanwhile, a world that needs all the hope it can get mourns the loss of Almas, a woman described as “among the brightest lights in the Horn of Africa.”
“Our hearts are broken,” her sister Ilwad tweeted. “We feel an emptiness that can never be replaced.”