By Rachel Pieh Jones
The twins were three years old when I got the phone call that changed our lives. My husband was at work, out of cell phone range. I don’t remember what the twins were doing. Maybe playing Duplos, maybe gathering limes from the tree out front, maybe chasing the neighbor’s sheep around the yard.
The result of the phone call: we fled the country. My husband rushed home from work, I threw a few items into a small bag, and we sped away from life as we had known it in Somaliland.
In the thirty minutes I had to pack, I walked the twins through the house. They chose their absolute necessities: a yellow fleece blankie and a pink fleece blankie. They chose a couple of books and a toy or two. They said goodbye to the rest: the dollhouse dad had built, their pink and blue mosquito nets, the pictures they had painted with home-made finger paint.
As we drove out of the village in northern Somaliland, I guided the kids through more goodbyes, this time to people: Goodbye Hala, goodbye Deeqa, goodbye Halimo, goodbye Geedi.
The kids had no idea what was going on and thought it was funny to say goodbye to toys and clothes and to people they couldn’t see. They thought it was a game, like ‘see who can pick up the most train tracks the quickest.’ See who can pack a suitcase the quickest. See who can drive over unpaved roads in a mad dash for the airport the quickest. It never crossed their minds to be afraid and that is one of the many things I’m thankful for.
They didn’t ask why we were doing these things, not until later.
Three days later I sat in the bathroom with my daughter. She was crying.
“I want to go home,” she said. “I want to play with Hala. When can I see her again?”
I started crying, too. “We can’t go home, honey,” I said. “And I don’t know if you will ever see Hala again.”*
I held her for a while, on the floor in a guesthouse in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. We didn’t belong in Ethiopia but we couldn’t go back to Somaliland and we weren’t ready to return to the US yet.
“Mommy,” she said, “what happened?”
What happened? How do you tell a three-year old what happened?
“Bad guys did bad things and so we had to leave,” I said. That became our answer. We told her brother the same thing. They heard it, mostly understood it, and forgot about it. I thought.
A few months later in the US I put the kids in the church nursery. When I went to pick them up, the teacher called me aside. She looked uncomfortable.
“Um, your kids told a story during class today,” she said. “They told us they used to live in Somalia but bad guys did bad things and so you had to leave.”
Her voice held the assumption that they were lying but also a question. What kind of 3-year-old comes up with a story like that?
“That’s the truth,” I said.
And that was the end of it. We moved on, physically and emotionally. We have now lived in neighboring Djibouti for over ten years.
About two months ago at lunch my husband and I were talking about a person who had been killed in Somaliland, one of the murders that sparked our sudden flight, and one of the twins said, “Who?”
With that one word, I realized that they had never heard more than ‘bad guys did bad things.’ They still didn’t know what happened. They didn’t know their own story.
I started to tell them about those weeks, back in 2003 in Somaliland. Lunch stretched into an hour, then longer. We talked about the people who had been shot and killed just weeks before we arrived, about how the start of the Iraq war affected our safety, about the woman who had been killed in our village. I told them about hiding out in a hospital for seven days, trying to keep toddlers entertained with no toys, clean with no change of clothes, and fed with no cooking supplies. I told them about the couple shot through the windows of their house, teachers like my husband, like Daddy. That last phone call, the scramble to pack, the goodbyes they thought were a game, crying in the bathroom in Ethiopia. I told them all the names, all the horrible things, all the things we still don’t know, like who shot the woman in our village and why.
I told them the things they didn’t remember or never fully knew. I put words and images to the blurriness of their memories. They asked questions and we followed each random trail to the fullest conclusion we could.
They were fascinated and I was fascinated by their fascination. It was a story of adventure and danger, of survival, of grief and loss, of starting fresh, of creating, losing, then rebuilding a sense of home, of old friends lost and new friends made. It was the story of their past, of what had brought them to this moment in Djibouti. But it was also the story of their present and of all those years in between.
Telling them the story that they couldn’t remember but which belonged to them was like cracking open a space in their self-identity and pouring in the backstory. This is where you came from, this is what brought you to this here and to this now. This is what we once feared and grieved and how we moved forward. This is your story, this is who we are.
*in the intervening years, through a photo I posted alongside an article about Somaliland, we have come into contact again with my daughter’s friend. Yet another thing I am so thankful for.
Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at:Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.