“I love you” were the quick last words Sarah Formosa said to her father, Paul Anthony Formosa, who was shot and killed by Somalia’s al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab extremist group on Monday while working for a Dubai government-owned port operator in the country’s semi-autonomous Puntland region.
On Sunday, the day before his killing, Paul called the father of Sarah’s boyfriend, who was like a brother to him, and just before they hung up, Sarah managed to get in those final words. She says that knowing she left him with those three words is “a major comfort”.
The last proper conversation Sarah had with her father was on Friday and, as usual, he asked her what she would be eating that day. Paul, as his daughter describes him, was a major ‘foodie’, loving his time in the kitchen and also filling his stomach. His dream job, as a child, was actually to become a chef.
He would sometimes spend months away from home, working, but always found the time to call his family. Daily phone-ins to his wife, Marica, when he started his day, were a norm. “They were each other’s strength and his love for her knew no bounds,” Sarah says of her parent’s relationship.
It is no wonder that Marica’s world was shattered when she received a call on Monday morning from the secretary of the CEO of the company where her husband was working. She was told that the CEO would call her within five minutes and she should have someone with her when she took the call. Sarah was taking an exam at university, at the time.
Sarah’s mum was with her sister when the CEO called telling her that there had been an accident at the port, about two hours earlier, and that her husband had passed away. No more details were given at the time.
Once Sarah had finished her exam, still knowing nothing about her father’s death, she read about it in a report in one of the local news portals. Her mother tried to stop her from driving home, trying to calm the situation by telling her that he was only injured. Sarah is, in fact, rather upset that a news outlet knew of her father’s death before she did.
Sarah says, in a brittle voice, that a journalist was outside her home before she had even finished her exam, just half-an-hour after her mother had received the call.
As I speak to her, I hear a strong, young woman who is dealing with her grief in the only way she knows how: sharing with the world the memory of a father she so clearly loved.
So it is no surprise that, when I ask Sarah to describe her father, she replies simply, without any hesitation: “a hard-worker, a family-man and a joker.”
Apart from the love he had for his ‘princess’ – Sarah, he had just as much love for his first-born, his other daughter Maria, of whom he was infinitely proud. Paul was also a father figure to Sarah’s boyfriend, Nicholai. “In him, my father found the son he never had,” she says.
Her father knew the danger he faced when working in places such as Somalia but he was courageous and never backed down from a challenge. Being a work-horse, if work brought him to those places, then he would face it with defiance.
Sarah says kindness simply oozed out of him – he was always willing to help people out when they needed him. “If anyone asked him to move a mountain, he would do it for them. Even if he didn’t know how too, he would try anyway,” Sarah fondly says of her father.
Paul was also an avid story-teller, recounting stories of his travels and work experiences and all the people he had met around the world. He also loved travelling with his family and, in fact, they had a holiday booked for next month.
Sarah recalls that when she told her father, the food-lover, of the breakfast they would be serving in the hotel they had booked, he had said: “In a week I’ll eat it all!”. In Somalia he was deprived of certain foods, such as bacon, which he so loved to eat.
Sarah will not have to wait until March to see her father again, as his body is being repatriated. His return brings about mixed emotions for Sarah but she says: “He is finally home.”
She does feel a sense of guilt, however, that he was not with his family when he died and says that her family is grateful that a colleague had spent the last few days, since Monday, in Somalia with her father.
Sarah is dealing with her grief minute-by-minute, as she says that one second she will be doing relatively well and then she thinks of something and sadness comes flooding back. What angers her the most, however, is that her father’s name is being used to fuel racist comments.
“I can’t stop people making comments about anything: gender, sexism, politics – I can’t stop them. But do not use my dad. My dad isn’t justification for your racism.” Sarah is happy to counteract the racist comments, but that was simply a positive and it was not her intention to try to bring about a social change.
Even Paul himself said of the Somalis that they are good people. Sarah quotes him as saying: “You could get 10 of them. Eight would be really good people but two would be bad. Only those two would cause trouble, but the bad were really bad.” In fact, she adds: “We know how bad they can be.”
She says that the majority of Somalis are nice, hard-working, ordinary people and compares the bad ones to racists in Malta: “It’s like in Malta: some people are racist but not everyone is. But when we are racist, we are really racist.”