In Somaliland’s capital city of Hargeisa this month, forensic experts are opening 38 boxes of human remains. The men inside died in the late 1980s, victims of a brutal counterinsurgency campaign launched against the separatist Somali National Movement by Somalia’s Siad Barre.
Somaliland ultimately declared its independence from Somalia in May 1991, after Barre was overthrown and the victorious alliance of rebel groups fell apart. Since then, the Somalilanders have pushed unsuccessfully for recognition as a sovereign state. For nearly 23 years, they have self-governed, printing currency and issuing passports, providing social services and security. While Somalia descended into anarchy, Somiland transitioned to a peaceful multi-party democracy. But the 3.5 million Somilanders are still nominally citizens of Somalia.
Hargeisa continues to lobby for international recognition. If they get it, one of their priorities will be to pursue accountability for the atrocities committed by the Barre regime.
Siad Barre seized power in a military coup in 1969, nine years after the Somali Republic was formed through the merger of the newly independent Italian and British Somalilands. Barre renamed the country the Somali Democratic Republic, and set about implementing scientific socialism and eradicating tribalism. Things began to go south for Barre in 1977, when an ill-conceived effort to reclaim the Ogaden region from Ethiopia led to the loss of Soviet military support.
Following the disastrous Ogaden war, dissatisfied military officers from the Majeerteen clan launched a coup attempt. Barre responded with a vicious crackdown, deploying his presidential guard, the Red Berets, along with the Victory Pioneer militia. Together, these forces were responsible for terrible abuses in Majeerteen territory, including mass rape of clan women.
A brutal repressive apparatus was thus firmly in place when members of the Isaaq clan formed the Somali National Movement and began attacking government installations from bases in Ethiopia in the early 1980s. A state of emergency was instituted, and a policy of “Isaaq extermination” announced. A mobile military court known locally as “Guilty or Innocent, You Will Be Found Guilty” (!) was set up to try suspected dissidents, while a newly created secret police force, the HANGASH, terrorized the population. Arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, rape, and extrajudicial killing were widespread. Mass graves uncovered by heavy rains in 1997 provide evidence of the systematic execution of civilians suspected of supporting the SNM.
Despite the heavy toll exacted on the Isaaq civilian population, the Barre regime was unsuccessful in undermining the insurgency. However, in 1988, the Somali and Ethiopian governments resumed diplomatic relations, issuing a joint communique in which they agreed to stop committing “acts of destabilization against each other”. The SNM read the writing on the wall and exited Ethiopia, moving to seize Burao and Hargeisa. The government’s response was swift and merciless, beginning an indiscriminate aerial bombardment campaign that killed thousands of civilians in Hargeisa alone.
Africa Watch (now Human Rights Watch) estimated in 1990 that 50,000 to 60,000 unarmed civilians were killed by the state security forces between May 1988 and March 1989. Somaliland’s War Crimes Investigation Commission now claims that approximately 200,000 civilians were murdered by the Somali government during the 1980s. Although more conservative estimates put the total in the tens, rather than hundreds, of thousands, no one disputes the occurrence of mass death, or the deliberate targeting of civilians.
In 2012, a U.S. federal court awarded $21 million in damages to Isaaq victims of the Somali regime in a lawsuit against former Minister of Defense / Prime Minister Mohamed Ali Samantar. The case, which was brought by the Center for Justice and Accountability under the Alien Tort Claims Act (a U.S. statute that allows aliens to sue in U.S. courts for human rights violations committed abroad), is the first time that anyone has been held accountable for the abuses of the Barre regime. Unless and until Somaliland’s statehood is recognized by the international community, it may be the only time.
*Photo of Hargeisa’s memorial to the victims of the 1988 bombings from Wikimedia Commons.