Tormented mother grieves son who heeded a fatal call

Like many young Somali men in the Twin Cities, Burhan Hassan was drawn back to his anguished homeland, where he was slain.

In the dark of early morning, when heartache precludes sleep, Zienab Bihie grabs a pen and a journal and begins to write.

She writes of her youngest son's passion for basketball and soccer. Of his dreams of becoming a doctor or lawyer and possibly, attending Harvard. Of his love for the close-knit family he left behind.

"Sometimes, when I am writing, my tears are running into the book," Bihie said the other day, wiping tears from her cheeks in the tiny high-rise apartment where she lives in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis.

On Election Day last November, Bihie's skinny, bespectacled 17-year-old son, Burhan Hassan, unexpectedly slipped out of the family's apartment to return to his homeland of Somalia. In early June, after months of anguish and desperate attempts to bring him home, his mother's worst fear came true: One day before his Roosevelt High School classmates graduated in Minneapolis, Hassan reportedly was shot and killed in the war-torn land his family had fled more than a decade before.

He became the second Minneapolis Somali known to have died in the past nine months after returning to Somalia. The first, Shirwa Ahmed, 26, killed himself in a suicide bombing in October. On Saturday, Somali leaders reported that a third youth had also been killed after returning to his homeland.

The circumstances of Hassan's death are unclear. Friends in Somalia have told Bihie that her son, who hinted to his mother in the weeks before his death that he wanted to come home, was shot in the head because he refused an order, presumably delivered by religious extremists fighting for control of Somalia. But without a body, federal investigators can't confirm his death, an FBI spokesman said.

But the tears of Hassan's mother are certain. The pain of her loss has been unbearable.

Struggling for answers

Who or what persuaded her son and up to 20 others from the Twin Cities to leave? Did they return to fight as patriots or were they recruited by terrorists? Who stood to benefit from Burhan's sudden death?

For the past nine months, local Somalis have looked to federal investigators for answers. Dozens of them have been subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury in Minneapolis, and indictments may come soon.

For the relatives of those who have disappeared, the grand jury's work offers hope that the mystery may soon be solved and their loved ones will return someday.

But Bihie's hope is lost.

"No one can imagine what I am going through," she said.

A small woman with a round face, Bihie spoke publicly last week for the first time since her son's death. In a soft but clear voice, interrupted at times by silence and tears, she talked about "the disaster" of the past eight months.

Burhan had always been a good boy, a bookworm of sorts who, when he wasn't at school or home, spent nearly all his time at the Abubakar as-Saddique Islamic Center in Minneapolis, where he worshipped, socialized and studied.

Slight of build, he wasn't athletic, but loved basketball and soccer and played when he could. Once, when his mother asked him if he wanted to be a soldier, Burhan scoffed.

"I hate to fight," he said.

His sweet and caring spirit showed when, at night, he would tuck a blanket under his mother's feet to make sure she stayed warm.

All of which makes it hard for his mother to understand why he vanished Nov. 4, two months into his senior year of high school.

Two weeks passed without a clue. Then her phone rang. It was Burhan saying he was in Somalia and was fine.

But Bihie sensed something wasn't right.

"I heard voices," she said.

Someone on the other end was listening in. It wasn't safe to ask her son tough questions, she said. When she tried, he wouldn't give answers.

Burhan called again in December, and sometimes after that, his mother said, but he never talked about why he left Minneapolis, how he got to Somalia or who paid for the trip.

In early May, he called his mother and asked in a hushed tone: "If I come back to America, will they arrest me and put me in Guantanamo?" Bihie said.

She reassured him that he would be safe, and told him that she wanted to send money to bring him home. Before they finished the conversation, Burhan's phone went dead.

Burhan called again May 17, his birthday.

His mother again said that she would send money to bring him home.

"He was acting all happy," she said. "The last thing he said was 'Mom, how are you doing? I love you. I love my brothers and sister. ... I miss you a lot.'"

It was the last time she would hear his voice.

The morning of June 5, Bihie got a call from Somalia. Burhan was dead, a friend of her son said. Shot dead, he'd already been buried, she was told.

"I put [Burhan's body] in the grave," the caller said.

Looking back, Bihie said she thinks he was killed because someone overheard her son talking to her about coming home.

"Maybe these people, they hear these words and they kill him," Bihie said.

Although several stories have surfaced as to how Burhan died, Bihie said relatives and friends in Somalia have told her that Burhan, weakened by a swelling in the groin and hindered by the loss of his glasses, was taken to the capital city iof Mogadishu from another city in early June, and shot in the head.

"What they tell me is he refused an order," she said. "It was an assassination. They planned to kill him."

The toughest days

A woman of faith, Bihie has leaned heavily on the Qur'an and prayer.

It sustained her when she fled the bloodshed of her homeland more than a decade ago and again when her husband died in an accident in Kuwait.

The friendship offered by several other families with missing sons has also proved a weekly comfort.

She thinks of Burhan constantly, and writes often in the journal she keeps at her bedside. Sometimes, she writes poems about her son whom she lovingly nicknamed "Bashir" after his uncle, a doctor who delivered the boy.

She sobbed uncontrollably in April when someone at Roosevelt High called her to ask if she could return Burhan's schoolbooks.

A medical technology student at the time, Bihie was driving home from an internship in Glencoe, Minn., and had to pull off the highway because she was crying so hard.

"That was the toughest day," she said.

The days since haven't been much better.

She cannot bear to look at Burhan's clothes or see his backpack. Even photographs of her son bring her to tears.

"You can smile, but it is a false smile," she said.

Community divided

In the aftermath of Burhan's disappearance, Bihie's family and others asked tough questions of the Abubakar administrators. The mosque leaders have repeatedly said the mosque wasn't involved in the disappearance of the men.

But Bihie can't help but wonder, because Burhan spent so much time at the mosque, whether someone there influenced him.

The community finger-pointing, some of it rooted in longstanding clan rivalries, has often been bitter. That some have attacked Bihie and other families of the missing for speaking out and questioning the mosque has hurt her greatly. It stings even more that some say she has attacked her own religion.

"I don't know what's happened to my community," she said, shaking her head slowly. "How can they say we're destroying the mosque? ... We still are missing other kids. ... I was missing my son. I needed information.

"I don't know what is going on, but something is going on," she continued. "I need an answer ... the Somali community -- we need an answer."

richm@startribune.com • 612-673-4425 ashah@startribune.com • 612-673-4488

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