Counterterrorism units, bin
Laden’s chauffeur and gin and tonics in Cairo turn into an
urgent ten-hour journey to Nairobi to help a colleague tell the story
of a Toronto woman wrongly jailed in Kenya. It’s both
exhausting and exhilarating, and Toronto Star reporter Michelle Shephard figures she has the best job in the world.
Okay, I confess. I was really enjoying the gin and tonic. I was in Cairo, sitting at a bar on the Nile with Toronto Star photographer Lucas Oleniuk. It was warm, the gin was cold, and we had left Yemen hours earlier after two weeks of exhilarating, if exhausting, interviews. We talked with Osama bin Laden’s former chauffeur and chief bodyguard, shadowed the country’s counterterrorism unit and stumbled upon an Islamist scholar on the U.S. terrorism watch list who signalled our interview time was up by smacking the shins of our translator.
I had bought a new dress in Egypt because all my clothes were filthy. I’d had a lovely hotel hairdresser massage my head. Oh, and did I mention it was my birthday? My 37th. It was one of those moments where I thought I had the best job in the world. I knew I had the best job in the world and although I was eager to get home, not being able to get a flight out of Cairo for a day or two wasn’t a hardship. We hadn’t slept in about 36 hours (and hadn’t slept much for the two weeks prior) so we talked about how great it would be just to get back after dinner. Maybe in the morning we’d see the pyramids.
The Blackberry didn’t work in Sana’a, but it did in Cairo. And around 10:30 that night I decided to check – alarmed to see almost a dozen “URGENT” emails from our foreign editor, deputy foreign editor, photo editor, executive assistants for both departments, the city editor, the deputy city editor and the assignment editor. Where were we? Could we get to Nairobi? Now? They’d arrange the flights.
The story of Suaad Hagi Mohamud had been brewing for weeks, pushed to the national agenda by my tenacious Star colleague John Goddard. Mohamud, a 31-year-old single mother, had been stranded in Nairobi for three months, ever since a KLM ticketing agent had decided she didn’t look like her passport photo, and Canada’s High Commission in Kenya agreed. Her lips were different – bigger – and her glasses had changed.
Goddard had talked to Mohamud daily and broken numerous stories until the rest of the media jumped on board, as did a Toronto lawyer, Ottawa’s opposition leaders and columnists who derided the “Kafkaesque” (an overused term in post-9/11 cases, but fitting in this bizarre story) nature of the case.
On Aug. 10, Goddard got to break the good news to Mohamud that DNA tests – cross referenced with samples taken from her 12-year-old son in Toronto – proved who she said she was.
“Oh my God,” she told Goddard on the phone from Nairobi. “Thank you very, very, very, very, very, very much.”
Mohamud was due in court on Aug. 14, and with the time difference and flight routes, Goddard could not get to Nairobi in time. But we could, if we got to the airport within two hours. Our 10-hour journey would take us through Khartoum, Sudan (tarmac for 45 minutes, although due to sleeping pills we missed the landing and saw approximately 15 seconds of the country through half-raised eyelids as we took off again) and then a change planes in Ethiopia. We would arrive around 1 p.m. the next day in Kenya. We could get our visas at the airport.
My first email was to Goddard. I had been there before when a reporter’s dogged work was usurped by someone else. John, however, was incredibly gracious and said he would give a heads up to Mohamud. We would meet him at the airport in Toronto if all went well.
When we called Mohamud, she was happy to meet, largely due to her loyalty to the Star and Goddard. About three hours after landing, we were sitting with her. She was incredibly articulate. She looked tired. She coughed a lot. And when I asked about her son, her long-held composure broke and she began to cry. I felt awful.
Not knowing much about the case except what I’d read in Goddard’s stories on the plane (when my head wasn’t bobbing from the sleeping pills), I immediately liked her and felt sorry for what she had been through. It was another moment when I thought I had the best job in the world – being here to tell her story.
That night we filed until midnight and were in court the following morning to meet Mohamud. It took almost the entire day, with some tense moments running between courtrooms, but in the end the case was thrown out. She would return home that night and we booked seats on the same flight. To make sure we didn’t miss her, we had our cab follow the Canadian High Commission’s car to the airport, but were eventually forced to separate as she was taken through a side entrance. With just 90 minutes until the flight, we still needed to file.
We finally found Mohamud again when we discovered she was flying first class and therefore would be in the lounge with her Canadian escort. Luckily, a crowded lounge entrance allowed us to slip in unnoticed (we were not in first class), talk to Mohamud, and file with the airport’s only Internet service, without missing the flight.
We would stick with Mohamud throughout the journey home. In Amsterdam, we filed quick updates just before our midnight deadline (Toronto time) and Mohamud decided she would rather spend the eight-hour layover with us than in the KLM lounge, where she had access.
Toronto was a media frenzy, but Mohamud got to hug her son and well-wishers chanted “Wel-come, Wel-come, Wel-come.” Before she emerged into the arrivals area I was touched to watch Somali baggage handlers shyly ask to shake her hand and offer their services for free.
Goddard would not meet her for another couple days, as she was whisked away by her lawyer and relatives. He once again doggedly kept the story in the news and it remains a national scandal. The findings of an internal government investigation are pending.
The pyramids would have to wait for another day.
Michelle Shephard is national security reporter for the Toronto Star and author of Guantanamo’s Child: The Untold Story of Omar Khadr.
See also “Disgusted with Foreign Affairs: The Mohamud ordeal Part 1” by Toronto Star reporter John Goddard.