“Lafaha aasa idinkoon ku bikoon” “(Bury the bones without being poisoned by them)”– Haji Abdikarim Xusseen (Abdi Waraabe)
Psychological trauma was replayed in Somaliland as the skeletons of the victims of the 1988 civil war were unearthed in several sites in Hargeisa by a Peruvian Forensic Anthropology team in conjunction with the Center for Justice and Accountability and Somaliland’s War Crime Investigation Commission. Forensic anthropologists excavated a gully full of skulls, rib cages, femurs and other bones. They wrapped the larger bones in remnants of cloth and stored smaller pieces in cardboard boxes to be moved to a burial site. Each collection of bones was rewrapped with a white shroud (Kafan) and laid to rest in accordance with Islamic funeral rites.
Preachers, former guerrilla fighters and politicians lined up in rows and performed funeral prayers (Janazah). Shortly after the burial ceremony was over, Muuse Biixi, a former guerrilla fighter said, “The cause they fought for [Somaliland] must be upheld and
the perpetrators must be brought to justice.” These victims are believed to be members of the Isak tribes that were killed by the troops of General Maxamed Xirsi (Morgan), head of the Somali National Army’s 26th Northern Division. His forces routinely rounded up Isak tribesmen from various neighborhoods and imprisoned or executed them at the Pillar Site (Tiirka) near the Hargeisa Airport. Tiirka was a line of cement columns used for securely tying individuals to be shot by a firing squad. This was the most common place used by the infamous General for extra judicial killings. Bodies of the victims were dumped in various neighborhoods to incite and instill fear in the hearts of their residents. Sadly, this was a government at war with its own people.Members of the Isak tribe became a target of the state after the Isak tribes established the Somali National Movement (SNM); and sought bases and support from Ethiopia to overthrow the Somali government. Ethiopia took advantage of the opportunity to weaken the Somali state, and happily provided logistic support, weapons and bases to overthrow the regime. Ironically, at the same time, the Somali government was roviding safe haven and material support to Ethiopian insurgents.
SNM troops clandestinely crossed the border to assassinate officers of the Somali army, set landmines and kidnap aid workers. The rebels attacked non-Isak tribes in the countryside for not joining them in their efforts to topple the government. General Xirsi resorted to more brutal tactics against the tribe. He imposed a curfew on the city and set up check points along all arteries of the city. Everything required the General’s approval. Travel, commerce and the daily activities of residents were confined to a few hours. These ruthless measures caused more people to join the SNM at a time when the Somali Army was already hamstrung by nepotism, asertion, poor morale and fledging tribal insurgencies. The army was unable to keep the rebels at bay.
Siad Barre offered amnesty to the SNM troops but they refused to accept his offer—and called for his ouster. Barre was determined to expel the SNM from Ethiopia. He signed an agreement with Ethiopia to cease hostilities by expelling each other’s insurgents and exchange prisoners from the war of 1977-78. Barre and Mengistu, the Ethiopian head of state, met in Djibouti in 1986 to seal the deal.
Somalia and Ethiopia agreed to expel insurgents operating in their respective countries and terminate any future assistance to rebels. The SNM had no choice but to surrender or plunge into an all-out war with the Somali Army. Haji Hussein Abdi Warabe, a prominent Isak elder and ardent supporter of the SNM, recalls that the tribe met in the village of Balay Gubadle and decided to face off with government forces whether they succeeded or not. The order to move on with the decision was made by Ahmed Mohamud Silanyo, current president of the self-proclaimed Republic of Somaliland.
A battle between the SNM militia and government forces ensued in the heart of the city. In the government’s frantic effort to keep control of the north, civilians were swept out of all neighborhoods. Government forces conducted extra-judicial killings, torture and
imprisonment. According to a survivor of these mass murders, Morgan and General Gebyo (Adan Abdillahi Nur) took a group of twenty five individuals, tied them up with ropes, shot them execution style, and buried the bodies in a gully near the Makal-durdura neighborhood of Hargeisa. A survivor who witnessed this mass murder was released after being identified as the brother of a woman married to a member of the army and a relative of President Siad Barre.
As the government started to lose its grip on the north, it resorted to aerial bombing. The government drafted young men from poor villages in southern Somalia and dumped then into the battle zone to quell the SNM. The SNM rounded up deserted soldiers, as well as non-Isak men and women; and carried out summary executions and torture that are too gruesome to describe. Entire towns were depopulated while many civilians fled to Ethiopia, Djibouti and Mogadishu.
In the end the government lost the war and the SNM made successful forays into Gadabursi, Issa and Dhulbahanta, and Warsangeli territories. Emboldened by their victory they pillaged and razed Gadabursi villages along with Gabiley and Dilla. Xalimo Muxumed, a disabled woman unable to walk due to a broken hip was abandoned in her hut in Kalabaydh. She dragged herself from the hut and came face to face with a fighter aiming at her with a bazooka. Before he clicked the trigger another fighter yelled, “War ka daa Islaantu waa Isaaqe” (Don’t shoot the elderly woman; she is an Isak). She said the militia fighters were searching for Gadabursi men. They were
chanting a poetic epithet “Hadaan Saw iyo Sogsoglay isku gayn.”(I will sweep up the Gadabursi and gather them under Saw Mountain). Earlier her son was killed by the SNM as he was fleeing from Hargeisa. They killed him as he was crossing the dry Arabsiyo River bed between Hargeisa and Gabiley. When I interviewed her in 1995, she was still overcome with grief. She lamented, “If my son had told his assailants my tribal genealogy, he would have survived!” (She said this because her husband was Gadabursi, but she is Isak.)
SNM troops depopulated towns and pursued survivors to Borama and beyond. When they reached Borama, they massacred more civilians and ransacked both shops and houses. Cawale, an eye witness of the attack, slept in a bier at a mosque feigning death. He said when the SNM militia besieged the town they were chanting “God is great!” as they decimated homes, markets and coffee shops. Bodies were strewn all over and many survivors were unable to identify their relatives. Mohamed Hassan Maafo, former mayor of Borama, was fleeing with his family when a jeep mounted with a large Russian gun (known locally as “Zu”) blasted the vehicle into pieces, killing everyone except a young girl that survived the blast. The remains of that family are buried at the Borama livestock market. The Daray Macaane refugee camp on the outskirts of Borama was being used to house Somalis who fled from the Ogaden region. The camp was shelled with tanks from every direction. It is estimated that 764 Gadabursis were massacred in Borama.
The Gadabursi—unprepared, overpowered and forced away from their towns—hastily put together a militia to resist further incursions of the SNM. The newly formed Somali Democratic Alliance (SDA) did not accomplish much as it never gained the full backing of the elders.
Abdi Warabe said as soon as the SDA began to form, “we as [Isak] elders reached out to Sheikh Muse Godad and Abdillahi Sheikh Ali Jowhar [two prominent Gadabursi] elders with a request to dismantle the [SDA].” The reason was that the movement would cause more unrest. The two elders agreed with him, and were active in dismantling the SDA. The Gadabursi elders had their own motivation for dismantling the SDA. Sheikh Abdillahi said the Gadabursi tribe faced three options with the incursion of the SNM. The first option was to vacate their land and never return; the second option was to fight back and cause more mayhem. The third option was to seek mutual peace. The elders sought the latter option, understanding that the future of these tribes’ was inevitably closely inter-twined and inter-dependent.
They disarmed the SDA militia and other armed groups, and sought a political settlement. The elders were to travel to Berbera and Bur’ao to call for reconciliation and forgiveness. All human and material loss of the war was to be forgiven and forgotten. A new course of history was to be chartered in the Grand Borama Conference of 1993. Abdi Warabe sarcastically said that the Isak elders selected Borama as the site of the conference because they knew Gadabursis had underground granaries with the means to feed five hundred tribal delegates. A year after the conference, two armed, rival, branches of the Isak tribe—the Garxajis and the Habar Awal—fought over the revenue from the Hargeisa Airport and the port of Berbera. President Maxmed Ibrahim Cigal was appointed in the Borama Conference to consolidate Somaliland, build a state, and take over the airport and the port with a more neutral force. The Garxajis confederation of tribes saw him as a Habar Awal president after their revenue. After endless and fruitless negotiations with the tribes, President Cigal declared war against the tribes and set out to remove them from the airport by force. That unleashed two years of intra-tribal feuds. The feuding tribes destroyed what was left of Hargeisa and killed hundreds of people. After two years of battle a settlement was reached by the elders to end the war.
The conflicts of the civil war had many overlapping levels. There was the state versus the tribes; tribes versus other tribes; and there were internal tribal wars. Every tribe has a mass grave to unearth. The atrocities of the civil war left no tribe unscathed.
The question of who is responsible for the genocide is clear. Those responsible for genocide cannot be “cherry picked.” Every tribe has perpetrators, and no tribe is willing to prosecute its own. If Somaliland tribal relations are to improve, Somaliland must adhere to its covenant, the Borama Peace and Reconciliation Charter. In that charter five hundred elders from Somaliland agreed that the only way forward was not prosecution, but a commitment to forgiveness, clemency and moving forward. This blanket amnesty got the SNM off the hook. The creation of the so called “Somaliland War Crime Commission” is in violation of the Borama charter. The exhumation of victims’ bodies only sows the seeds of discord and memories of bloodshed in every household. As Sheikh Hassan Daheye (a Gadabursi leader) said, “If Somalis from different tribes cannot forgive each other after thirty years, I, too, will exhume my victims. I have more bones than those of all the Isaks who perished in these battles.”
By Jaafar M Sh Jama