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The Importance Of Preserving Hargeysa’s Mass Graves
By Tara Lee
News reports have called last month’s violence in Mogadishu the worst in Somalia’s history. I was in northern Somalia last month, and I saw evidence that suggests this isn’t so. Mogadishu’s recent violence -- including the mass deaths of civilians and the heavy artillery shelling into residential areas -- merely echoes what most have forgotten happened in the city of Hargeisa, in the north of Somalia, in 1988.
For a lot of Americans, awareness of Somalia and its violent history begins with “Black Hawk Down” and the humanitarian crisis that followed the fall of the Siyad Barre regime in the early 1990’s. But preceding that period of lawlessness, the Barre regime, Somalia’s last recognized government, subjected its citizens to an internationally-recognized, well-documented pattern of human rights abuses, arbitrary detentions, and extra-judicial killings. Those abuses reached a violent peak in June of 1988, when the civilian population of the city of Hargeisa was decimated by a month of indiscriminate aerial bombardment and artillery shelling. Neighborhoods were leveled, schools and hospitals destroyed. Hundreds, maybe thousands, were killed in the bombing, and hundreds of thousands fled, creating a refugee crisis in Ethiopia. During that same month, hundreds of civilians in Hargeisa were rounded up and shot, their bodies dumped into mass graves around the city. Human bones from those gravesites are now literally washing away with each seasonal rain, for lack of enough international interest or local funding to build a protective wall.
I traveled to Somalia as pro bono co-counsel with the Center for Justice and Accountability, to collect evidence of the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in and around Hargeisa in the 1980’s. I knew that I would tour the mass gravesites. I expected to see mounds of dirt, solemnly marked and reverently kept. But at each site I visited, the only markers are the memories of those who miraculously survived and the briar bushes locals drag to cover the mounds. Every few days, they reposition the briars to help protect the sites from animals that might drag away the human remains.
My last stop on my final day in Somalia was the Malko Dur-Duro mass gravesite, located near the former Barre Army regional headquarters. Locals had described to me how the rains wash away layers of dirt each year, exposing and sweeping away bones. I had also interviewed survivors of the mass executions, men who somehow didn’t die when they were lined up with their friends and brothers and shot in tight groups. Despite these descriptions, I was unprepared for what I saw. Exposed human bones litter the ground at Malko Dur-Duro. The last rains were especially destructive at this site, deeply churning the soil. Without any barriers, walls, or markers, people and vehicles often cross the area. Tire tracks had freshly disturbed the mounds of dirt on the day I was there.
All around me, white bone fragments jutted out of the dusty earth, through the tire tracks and in the gullies left by rainwater. Many of the bones lay loose and apart, unrecognizable at first as human remains. In places there were so many, and I was so unsure of what I was seeing, that it was hard not to step on the bones before I realized what they were. And then, from twenty feet away, one was unmistakable. A human jawbone lay half-covered in the dirt, many of its teeth still intact.
I visited Malko Dur- Duro mid-morning on Wednesday, April 25, 2007. In Mogadishu that day, Ethiopian-backed forces of the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia lobbed artillery into residential neighborhoods, killing hundreds more civilians and striking the SOS Hospital. By Friday the civilian death toll from the shelling had risen to over 1000. By all accounts, the violence of the past few weeks has driven hundreds of thousands from their homes, creating a new Somali refugee crisis to mirror the one in 1988. In Hargeisa this April 25th, while history repeated itself to the south, I steadied my hand and took a picture of the jawbone. I walked a few more feet and saw two femurs, a collarbone fragment, a spine.
Those bones will be gone by the next rain.
A committee appointed by the self-declared independent Republic of Somaliland works in Hargeisa to preserve the mass gravesites. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has recommended that they try to preserve the sites. But, with no funding, their preservation efforts are limited to moving briar bushes and taking pictures when they can. They hope that soon, before too many bones are lost, an objective international committee will come and properly exhume and document these sites. Recognizing that their own count will be subject to accusations of bias, they wait for some neutral agency to come and count. They hope only for an accounting, before the evidence is gone, before everyone forgets.
Meanwhile, it seems that many in the international community may have already forgotten. While they wait in the north of Somalia, hoping for help from somewhere just to be able to build a wall and count the bones, the rains come, and the violent cycle repeats itself in the south.
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Tara Lee is an associate in the Litigation department of Cooley Godward Kronish LLP.