Black Hawk Down, and on Display

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Mayank Bubna

The "helicopter woman," a popular figure in Somalia, is still awaiting compensation from the U.S. government for damage caused by the Black Hawk helicopter that fell on her house, killing two of her children, during the 1993 battle of Mogadishu.

"Close the door," shouts the lady sitting in front of me. One of her grandchildren quickly obliges and the metal-sheeted door is shut with a squeak. It is mid-day in Somalia's capital Mogadishu, but there is little activity on the usually bustling streets of the neighboring market. Ethiopian soldiers are busy rooting out alleged al-Qaeda terrorists and members of the Islamic Courts Union, which held sway over the city and most of the country until the end of 2006. At the smallest hint of trouble, the soldiers are quick to respond with bursts of gunfire in all directions. The last thing my interviewee wants is lead pouring in through her front door.

Her name is Hawo Hussein Adan, more popularly known as "The Helicopter Woman." She resides in a squalid two-room house with bullet-riddled walls but she prefers to live in its tiny courtyard amidst the chicken that scurry about at her feet. She hasn't budged from this spot for 17 years. But despite a foot injury and her relatively run-down lifestyle, the helicopter woman is renowned here in Mogadishu as a symbol of defiance and resilience for many Somalis in the city. The Somalis who visit the helicopter woman today see her as a symbol of nationalism — and her guardianship of the relic that provides her nickname resonates with Somali belief in their own courage in the face of foreign encroachment. Says one neighbor, "She is a strong woman."

Adan won her strange appellation when one of the U.S. Black Hawk helicopters fell on her house in October 1993, in the middle of a U.N. humanitarian intervention gone disastrously awry. Adan managed to retain a part of the helicopter's remains before everything else inside the aircraft was destroyed or looted. The piece sits in a corner of the courtyard as proof of what she has gone through and her small but emotional part in the country's history.

During my visit, she recounted the fateful afternoon in October, 1993 when she lost her home. "We were 20 people inside the room when the helicopter fell on our house. Militia first attacked [it from the] Bakara market. It came down and fell among our houses. When the chopper fell, a wounded American jumped away. He along with others ran from the back of our house to the front and stood near us. When he came to the front of our house, he stopped there and he killed several people. He killed one man there, there and there," she says, pointing around the neighborhood. "Everyone was afraid and ran away from him. When he did such a thing, some of our Somali men came from behind the trees and hiding, they caught the wounded man. When he was captured, some of the Somali men fought with each other about what to do with him. They said, 'We should kill him'. Some said, 'We should not kill him because some of our men are taken by the Americans. We should keep him to help us release them.'" The American, pilot Michael Durant, was held by the Somalis for 11 days.

Adan managed to escape from the conflagration unscathed but two of her children were killed under the falling debris. (She also lost 100 kilos of food and 11 of her goats). Her house was among several in the neighborhood consumed by the ensuing fire. "It was very troubling. I was afraid. We were afraid, all of us because our houses were destroyed, our people were killed, our land was captured, so that's why we were afraid."

Like many she sees what's happening today as a continuation of the crisis from the early '90s. Since the beginning of this year, Ethiopian troops have taken over the city in an attempt to rid the capital of remnants of the earlier Union of Islamic Courts. But Adan, again like the rest of her countrymen, sees nothing positive in this."I'm praying to God to take those Amharra and Christians away from us," she says. Amharra is a reference to the Ethiopians; Christians refers to all Westerners. "I don't need any Amharra or Christians." The best solution to all of Somalia's problems, she feels, is in leaving Somalis alone. Declares the Helicopter Woman: "Allah can give us everything we need."