Look Homeward, Angel

updated 11/09/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/09/1992 01:00AM

WHATEVER NOSTALGIC FEELINGS IMAN might have had about her first visit in 20 years to her native Somalia, they were brutally shattered last month when the onetime supermodel arrived in Baidoa, a once lively, picturesque town where she used to spend her summer holidays. "It was always green and full of colorful bazaars and camels walking to market," says Iman, the new bride of rock star David Bowie. "Now it's destroyed. There's nothing, just skeletal men and women literally wearing sacks for clothes. It reminded me of the movie Mad Max. The cars have antiaircraft guns, 12-year-olds carry rifles, and all the houses are riddled with bullet holes."

In New York City to promote additional relief aid for her homeland, Iman Abudulmajid, 37, plans to meet with UN officials and members of Congress and will talk to CNN about airing a documentary about her visit to Somalia. She left her country in 1972 when her diplomat father, fearing persecution under a new regime, took his family into exile in Tanzania. But now that a devastating drought and a chaotic, four-year civil war have claimed more than a million lives in a country of only 7 million, Iman feels compelled to help her people. The world's most media-visible Somali, she began her impassioned effort last June, barely a month after her marriage to Bowie. "As soon as I came back from my honeymoon," explains the slender, stunning 5'9" beauty who quit modeling two years ago, "I approached the BBC and told them I wanted to do a documentary about my return and let the Somali people speak for themselves. People get numbed when they see picture after picture, year in and year out, of people starving. I wanted to show that they are not a nation of beggars—that culture, religion, music and hope are still there."

The BBC agreed, and last month Iman, now a U.S. citizen, spent 10 anxious, often dangerous days with a camera crew, traveling by plane and car from Baidoa, in the scorched interior, to the embattled coastal capital of Mogadishu, then north to another rural town. Admitting that Bowie was concerned about her safety, Iman says, "David was very supportive. He knew I couldn't live with myself if I didn't go."

Bowie's concern was well founded. Once, while driving with an armed escort on the outskirts of Mogadishu, Iman was caught in cross fire. "You never really expect it until it happens," she says. "At the lime there was a cease-fire in effect. But this had nothing to do with clans fighting or the war. This was just people who had guns, and when young men have guns, that's their ultimate power. From a little argument they had, they started shooting each other. The whole thing look four or five minutes. Just as we were passing, someone got shot and was dead on the road. That's when you start to focus."

At other times, Iman's insistence on seeing firsthand the effects of war and starvation led her to the emotional brink. In Baidoa, she met an uncle she hadn't seen since she was 12. "He recognized me right away," she remembers. "He said, 'Oh, my God. It's been 25 years. I never thought I'd see you again.' " Another time, while visiting a center for severely malnourished children, Iman was suddenly caught in the embrace of a sobbing young mother whose child was dying. "She had numbed her pain so she wouldn't feel and could survive and go on," Iman says. "I asked her a personal question—where was she from?—and that touched her in a particular place."

Another scaring experience occurred when she followed a bus that went around town collecting bodies. "You hear statistics all the time that 20 people died today when actually 200 died," she says. "There is no way of really finding out about what's going on unless you go and do the bag count yourself. For me, that was the worst part. I stopped because I couldn't go through the whole thing. The count was 70 dead that day, and most of the bodies I saw in the sacks were children under 10."

In Mogadishu, Iman silently walked through her family's former home, its bullet-pocked, graffiti-scrawled walls now sheltering three refugee families. It was from there that she fled 20 years ago. At 19, in Kenya as a beginning college student, she was discovered by fashion photographer Peter Beard. When legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland first saw the lanky young model al a party in New York City, she said, "Now, that's a neck!" It wasn't long before Iman became a favorite of designers Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, earning several million dollars a year. In 1978, at 23, she married pro basketball star Spencer Haywood. Divorced in 1986, they have a daughter, Zulekha, now 13, who lives with Haywood in Detroit and visits her mother at the Bowie home in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Several weeks ago, Iman wrote a $10,000 check to help Red Cross efforts in Somalia. But she also dreams of starting a business-supported foundation within the next year to educate Somali children. "There are no schools open now, and wherever I went the kids asked about the schools," she says. "How scary it must be for kids hearing bombardments and gunshots all the time. The kids are the ones who are dying, psychologically and physically. The world must not forget them."

RON ARIAS
TOBY KAHN in New York City

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