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|ISSUE 52 January 18, 2003||
Justice For the Atrocities of the 1980s: The Responsibility of Politicians and Political Parties
Rakiya A. Omaar
Like so many other Somalis, my life in the 1980s was marked profoundly by the terrible human right situation under the regime of Mohamed Siad Barre. I was one of the very lucky ones. I did not live in Somalia at the time, and no-one in my family was killed or maimed when the government unleashed a genocidal frenzy in Somaliland, then the Northwest region of Somalia. Being lucky implied a responsibility: to let the world know what was happening, so it could exert pressure to halt the atrocities. Fortunately, I had just begun my career in human rights as director of the US-based group, Africa Watch. This position gave me a platform from which I could speak and make my contribution.
I am, in particular, proud of one book I researched and wrote while at Africa Watch, A Government at War With Its Own People: Testimonies About the Killings and the Conflict in the North, published in New York in January 1990. Unfortunately, the Ethiopian government of the time refused us permission to interview the refugees in the Ethiopian camps. So the research took me to Djibouti and to various cities in the UK, which housed men, women and children who had fled Siad Barre’s tactics of terror. I spent months listening to harrowing testimony about a well-planned campaign to eliminate an entire people. It is not possible to do justice to their stories in an article, but this is the picture that emerged. I am writing about this book now, 12 years later, because it has, once again, entered the political arena.
Arguing that all Isaaqs were supporters of the Somali National Movement (SNM), the guerrilla movement that sought to drive the government out of the Northwest, life, as we know it, was denied to them in their own homeland from 1981 to May 1988. It became, instead, a succession of human rights abuses. Murder, detentions, torture, unfair trials, confiscation of land and other property, constraints on freedom of movement and of expression, a strategy of humiliation directed at family life, at women and elders, the denial of equal opportunities, discriminatory business practices and curfews and checkpoints became a daily affair. Both urban centres and rural communities were targeted, but it was the nomadic population, regarded as the backbone of the SNM economically and in terms of human resources, which suffered the most. Their men and boys were gunned down, their women raped, their water reservoirs destroyed and people, as well as livestock, were blown up by landmines.
In late May 1988, the SNM attacked the towns of Hargeisa and Burao. It was the start of a savage war against Isaaq civilians, which drove most of them into exile in the inhospitable desert of Ethiopia. Instead of engaging the SNM militarily, the government used the full range of its military hardware against unarmed and defenceless civilians, thinking perhaps that the SNM would be too preoccupied with the chaos of mass civilian casualties to fight back effectively. The assault knew no bounds: residential homes were bombed, fleeing refugees were strafed by planes and men, women and children perished by the thousands.
Mohamed Said Barre is not alone in his guilt for these crimes against humanity, for which no-one has yet been prosecuted. Some of the other key architects of this policy of annihilation, men like Mohamed Sa’eed Morgan, Mohamed Hashi Gaani and countless other collaborators, continue to wreak havoc in Somalia. Others, including Mohamed Ali Samater, live in comfortable exile in the United States and elsewhere in the world. And then others are right here in Somaliland. And they include President Dahir Rayale, who was head of the feared and powerful secret service, the National Security Service (NSS) in Berbera. President Rayale is named in A Government at War With Its Own People.
The town of Berbera saw some of the worst atrocities of the war, even though the SNM never entered Berbera in 1988. Elders and businessmen were immediately arrested en masse after the SNM attack on Hargeisa and Burao; between 27 May and 1 June, they were transferred to Mogadishu. The killings, which were exceptionally brutal in Berbera, began shortly afterwards. Many of the victims had their throats slit and were then shot. A series of massacres, which have been mentioned again and again, took place, mainly in June, in Buraosheikh, close to Berbera, when about 500 men were killed in groups of between 30-40. Some of the victims were from Burao, Hargeisa and surrounding villages who had come as temporary laborers to the port of Berbera. Others were asylum seekers who had been returned from Saudi Arabia. The names of some of these men are listed in the book. As head of the NSS in Berbera, Dahir Rayale bears a heavy and direct responsibility for their fate. Witnesses who are alive also recall Rayale’s contribution to the war against civilians. One of the people I interviewed in Djibouti in August 1989 and who is cited in the book is Abdifatah Abdillahi Jirreh. He was only 14 at the time, but he remembered Dahir Rayale.
One day in mid-August , Dahir Rayale, head of the NSS, came to our ice plant and took my father away. They also arrested one of the watchmen, an old man, Farah Badeh Gheedi. They were detained in the police station, accused of talking about the prospects of the SNM coming to Berbera. Rayale is not the only man who has held a senior political position in Somaliland whose conduct of human rights has been questioned. Many former Isaaq members of the NSS and the HANGASH, the military police that came to exert formidable power over civilians, today occupy key positions in Somaliland in the NSS, re-established in 1995, and the Criminal Investigations Department (CID). The people they tortured, interrogated and spied on, and the people whose loved ones they killed, will, one day, no doubt give their own account.
So the issue is not one of clan and community identity, but of individual responsibility for grave injustices. These men, whether they are Isaaqs or non-Isaaqs, must answer for what they did in their political and professional capacity. And the political parties to which they belong must investigate these accusations thoroughly and objectively and respond accordingly. The three political parties who will contest the forthcoming presidential elections-UDUB, KULMIYE and UCID-must ensure that they do not recruit, let alone put forward as candidates, human rights offenders. Since the accusations in the book became a matter of public debate, "witnesses" have gone on television to say that Rayale actually saved lives. That is not the point; he may well have saved some people, but that does not prove that he did not commit the acts of which he is accused.
The case about President Rayale is especially serious because he is a candidate in the first free presidential elections that the country has known in more than 30 years. He became president, not through the will of the people, but appointed by the House of Elders on the death of the late President Mohamed Ibrahim Egal. But now it is a matter of choice. If he wins, he will remain in power for five years. Justice for the victims is at stake. But so is the future of Somaliland. The crimes of the 1980s are the very reason why Somaliland decided to secede from Somalia in May 1991. The fact that men like Morgan and Gaani retain considerable power in Somalia is a major issue for people in Somaliland. Only a leader whose own hands are clean has the legitimacy to speak for Somaliland on such major questions as the prosecution of war criminals and to represent his people effectively regionally and internationally.
The question will be asked: why has it taken so long for this information to be widely disseminated and known, despite the fact that it was documented as early as 1990? There are many factors, the most important of which was the decision taken in May 1991 to pursue a policy of reconciliation in Somaliland. But even then, the leading perpetrators of war crimes were excluded and a committee named to pursue their case. But settling the internal conflicts of the 1990s drained energy that might have been devoted to that task. So justice took a back seat. But with the prospect of electing a president who faces such serious accusations, Somaliland cannot afford to remain silent. Keeping quiet means that tens of thousands of people died for nothing. It means that an entire people became impoverished and stateless refugees for nothing. It means that Hargeisa, Burao, Berbera and other towns became roofless ghost towns for nothing. And it means that any attempt to pursue the likes of Morgan and Gaani will be laughed out of court. It is time to speak out and set the record straight.
* Rakiya A. Omaar is the director of the international human rights organisation, African Rights.