News from afar
ENCINITAS – For a moment, let's pretend we're somewhere else.
Distance provides perspective; for this tale, a better perspective might be gained if you imagine yourself floating through space, midway to the moon. To fully grasp the Hassan brothers' mission, let's glimpse Planet Earth in its entirety for just one moment.
That moment? It occurs on May 3, 2005, when the time is:
10:40 a.m. in Encinitas. Abdel Hassan, 39, focuses on his day job as Ecke Ranch project manager. By night, he's publisher of Wardheer News.
10:40 a.m. in Kearny Mesa. Ahmed Hassan, 44, examines San Diego County welfare applications. That's his day job. His night job: managing director of Wardheer News.
6:40 p.m. in London. Ismail Hassan, 42, is at his night job: newsroom chief for Wardheer News. He scours the BBC and other media for details on a big story. That day, an explosion had killed seven spectators at a Mogadishu rally for Somalia's new prime minister.
8:40 p.m. near the Somali-Kenya border. A reader who identifies himself as "Bashir" e-mails a fan letter to Wardheer News.
Fourteen years of civil war have destroyed Somalia as a nation; within its borders is no peace, no law, no order, and few professionals. A generation of educated Somalis has been scattered across the globe. They are isolated, unable to build the relationships that undergird most civil societies.
Or such would be their fate without the Internet. Cyberspace, the Hassan brothers and their readers have discovered, is an ideal place to meet, debate and organize.
Since 1991, Somalia has spiraled into chaos, with rival clans engaged in violent and seemingly endless struggles for power. A recently elected transitional federal government, headed by Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Gedi, remains in Kenya. The bloodshed that accompanied Gedi's brief visit to Mogadishu this month indicated that Somalia remains ungovernable, a patchwork of fiefdoms ruled by warlords.
Refugees from this civil war hunger for accurate, trustworthy news from eastern Africa. For the past six months, the Hassans have tried to meet the demand.
They are not alone. On the Internet, there's no shortage of media outlets peddling news from Mogadishu, Hargeysa, Berbera and other cities and villages on the Horn of Africa.
"But a number of these Web sites are clan-based, so they're tilted to one side," said Abdullah Said Osman, Somalia's last ambassador to the United Nations (1984-1991) and now diplomat-in-residence at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
"In my opinion, Wardheer News gives an unbiased, reliable reporting of events. That's what makes it popular."
Morally corrupt 'elephants'
Wardheer is the name of a village that has produced a surprisingly large number of Somali poets. But the word has two other meanings: "news from afar" and "news that goes far."
"I still call her every weekend," said Abdel, the dutiful son.
Ahmed came to the U.S. in 1987, to earn a master's degree in agriculture at Iowa State University. Abdel followed in 1992, to pursue his education – he's now enrolled in a business administration program at SDSU – and to escape the dangers of life in Mogadishu.
After two years of planning, the brothers christened www.wardheernews.com on Nov. 23, 2004. Their all-volunteer team includes brothers No. 4 and 5 – Yusuf Hassan, 49, the site's webmaster, and 37-year-old Abdirashid Hassan, an occasional correspondent. Another key staffer, Faisal Roble, is a family friend and a Los Angeles city planner.
Roble is a former contributing editor at the Ethiopian Review, and he may have been the first to sense the potential of Wardheer News. While San Diego County is home to 10,000 Somalis, one of the largest concentrations of East African immigrants in the U.S., Roble realized that this San Diego-based Web publication could speak to Somalis across the globe.
"Because of the power of the diaspora in Somali politics, we can be exerting some influence," he said. "We intend to play a role."
"We don't just write stories," Abdel Hassan said. "We take positions."
Abdel and Ahmed insist that Wardheer News does not back any political party. But they are pro-law and order, pro-human rights, pro-environment. A recent editorial backed a proposed ban on plastic bags in Somaliland, Somalia's semi-autonomous northern region.
Wardheer News is also anti-warlord, with a vengeance. Abdel's March 5 editorial, "The Elephant in the Room," accused the warring factions of being "thuggish looters," a pack of "morally corrupt" "career politicians" who "hold hostage the fate of the Somali nation."
In person, the brothers can be just as impassioned. Judging by the way they complete each other's sentences, on this matter at least, they are of one mind.
Abdel: "Mogadishu is the most important city in the country. There, some of the key warlords are against any solution."
Ahmed: "Any solution at all."
Abdel: "Because they are destroying ..."
Ahmed: "They are using ..."
Abdel: "The airport, the port ...
Ahmed: "The national infrastructure ..."
Abdel: "The national assets for their own private use."
Well beyond 'Wow!'
Like many Somali refugees, Ahmed and Abdel Hassan are well-educated and well-spoken. Their English is rapid, fluent, lightly-accented. Emotion sweeps across their faces with the speed of a desert storm: anger, humor, contemplation.
They also exude a gentle humility. Journalism isn't their game, and their low expectations for Wardheer News initially seemed justified. At first, the site averaged less than 90,000 hits a month.
"And that was 'Wow!'" Abdel said of his team's reaction.
These days, Wardheer News is well beyond "Wow!" By April, traffic had increased 10-fold. This month, they were on track to draw more than 1 million visitors.
Readers say they appreciate the site's even-handed treatment of Somalia's tangled politics and the reasonable tone of its op-ed columns and "Talk of the Town" articles by freelancers.
"This is a site where intellectuals can debate issues," said Abdiweli Heibeh, a San Diego police officer and an occasional Wardheer News contributor.
The site's news stories are supplied by an eclectic array of sources, from Al-Jazeera to the Pentagon, from London's Daily Telegraph to Agence France-Presse. This comprehensive, open-minded approach appeals to Mohamed M. Garad, a retired diplomat whose career included stints as Somalia's ambassador to Nigeria, Uganda and Qatar.
"Wardheer is a Web site of high quality for objective and balanced news," Garad said from his home in Maryland. "It is run by young, educated, highly dedicated Somalis."
Already a hit with readers, Wardheer News is starting to attract advertisers. The Web site is sprinkled with classified notices: "Meet Somali Guys & Girls," "Somalia Music News." And the brothers Hassan were approached by a potential advertiser, a company that wires money from the U.S. to Somalia.
Like media moguls everywhere, they continue to re-examine and refine their product. Lately, they've been mulling over a new feature, a column on health and medicine. They've already lined up a well-qualified author, an M.D. at the University of Minnesota Medical School.
"Our brother is a doctor," Ahmed Hassan said. "Dr. Mohamed Hassan."
San Diego Union Tribune
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