Mohamed Barud was a 31-year-old newlywed when he was sentenced to life in prison in Somalia.
This was 1981. Somalia was ruled by a military dictator, Siad Barre. And Mohamed’s crime, if you can call it that, was writing a letter complaining about conditions at the local hospital, a complaint the government saw as treasonous. Mohamed was put in solitary confinement.
“It was strictly forbidden to talk to your neighbors. So you walk forward and backward.” Just three short steps.
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In the silence, Mohamed is thinking about his young wife, Ismahan. She was 20 years old, a teller at the state bank.
“I could not imagine how she is because there’s no news from the outside world.”
He started to wonder: Would she wait for him?
“The government was encouraging wives [of prisoners] to divorce their husbands.”
They’d only been married three months. And he was sentenced to life. In the dark, in the silence, he started to resent her.
“You think she’s probably enjoying herself. She’s living her life, and I am in this place.”
And then he’d tell himself, no, this is crazy to think about.
“Nobody can visit this prison. Nobody can get in touch. And, still, you blame her for not getting in touch with you.”
What did he think about her in those moments when he’s blaming her for not visiting him? Mohamed says, “I probably hate her at that particular time.”
Mohamed was shocked at his feelings. Was he going crazy?
“I was frightened of going to a certain area in my mind where I would commit suicide without knowing, without wanting to.”
Finally, one night, eight months into his prison sentence, as the guard is passing just out of earshot, an inmate in the next cell whispers to him. He says, “Learn ABC through the wall.”
“I did not understand,” says Mohamed. He looked at the wall between them. Then he heard some knocking.
It was a code.
Mohamed now had a way to talk and be answered. The person tapping back was Dr. Adan Abokor, the director of that hospital that Mohamed had written that letter about, the letter that got them both thrown in prison.
The doctor said he tried his best to ease Mohamed’s suffering.
“I explained to him through the wall that he’s not going to go mad and that he’s not going to die. But you can’t counsel a person through a wall.”
Two years into their prison sentence, the doctor is called into the warden’s office for his first change of clothes. Somehow, he catches the warden in a generous mood,…