Reports from Buroa on the violence and destruction in northern Somaliland.
TO UNDERSTAND why the people of northern Somalia have split from the south and formed an independent state, you must take a short ride outside this little town to a patch of thorn-scrub where goats and camels graze.The bones and rags of clothes are all jumbled together. It is not difficult to distinguish one skeleton from another as they lie across each other. When you look closely you can see rope bindings around the wrist bones.
There are about 30 skulls, though local people say 55 died here in May 1988 when troops of the Siad Barre government rounded up young men from the town, brought them here and shot them. One had tried to get away. His skeleton lies a few yards away, the legs splayed out in frozen running motion.
Tousmo Yusef took us there and told us what had happened. Her 20-year-old son, Hamed Mousa Ali, was one of the victims, dragged from his shop. She dabbed her eyes with the corner of her veil as she spoke.
This massacre was one of many which President Siad Barre’s forces carried out on the Issaq clan of northern Somalia in reprisal for an attack launched by the rebel Somali National Movement (SNM) in May 1988. Soon after, most of the town’s population fled to Ethiopia and only now are returning to their homes.
What they have found has driven them into such a fury that they have vowed never to be ruled by the south again. This week, the central committee of the SNM met in a wrecked building here. The people were so vociferous in demanding a separate state that the leadership had no choice. The Republic of Somaliland, based on the former British protectorate, was declared. Its slogan: ”No More Mogadishu”.
The pro-independence feeling in Hargeysa, the capital of the north, is particularly vehement. Again it is not hard to see why. If you fly over the town, once home to half a million people, there is hardly a roof to be seen. After the population fled the soldiers stripped the houses: roofs, window frames, doors, wire, piping and furniture were systematically looted and taken south or sold at the border with Ethiopia.
Between May and August 1988 the city was a battleground between the government and the SNM. Much of it resembles Beirut, with hundreds of houses blasted and shattered by shellfire and bombs. Much of the devastation was wrought from the air by six MiGs and Hawker-Hunter aircraft that took off from the airfield two miles to the south and bombed and strafed the rebel areas. They also attacked civilian refugees as they fled across the border into Ethiopia. Some say a quarter of a million people died.
The people are trying to move back, not least because insecurity in Ethiopia has caused the refugee camps to run out of food and water. Hargeysa is teeming with people, and their morale is high. Somalis are naturally resilient and resourceful. ”We are free. We have our country now. But first we must rebuild,” said one old man who had lost three sons in the fighting. Some are building nomadic tents in the ruins of their homes. There is little cement or wood or corrugated iron for rebuilding. Water is scarce because government troops wrecked the pumping stations as they moved through. The wells are also polluted. There is food for those with money but Somalis who have been in the camps have none.
Hundreds of nomads, whose livestock have died of drought in the east, are trapped in the towns or starving to death on the way. Those that make it to the hospital sit listlessly in the shade of thorn trees but the hospital has no food for them and many of them die.
The sound of gunfire still cracks around the city but only from the celebrations of the young fighters. There are, however, louder and more sinister explosions, about a dozen a day. These explosions, in particular, prevent the city from returning to normal, stop food being grown and stoke the fires of anger and hatred. As the government forces withdrew they planted hundreds of thousands of mines in the ruins: on paths, in doorways, under floorboards.
Sara Guled Ahmed, aged 15, lies on her hospital bed horribly scarred, with her legs in bandages and her right arm a stump. She and her brother were looking after sheep near the airport six weeks ago. Her brother found a mine the size of a tin of shoe polish and picked it up. He was killed and Sara mutilated. Dr Suleiman Abdi Guled said the hospital was seeing about four cases a day in February and March; now it is down to one or two. Most of the victims are children, he said.
The SNM has organised 240 volunteer mine-clearer into two teams. I watched three groups of five men, shuffling between the shattered houses prodding the earth with wire and sticks. Within a minute each group found a mine, picked it out and unscrewed the detonator. So far, one team has lost 15 men and the other 20.
Medicines Sans Frontiers Holland, which has a medical team in Hargeysa, has brought in two bomb disposal experts from Rim fire International, a London- based security firm. ”The ones in the town were planted as a terror weapon, not as part of a military strategy,” said Richard Bell, regional co-ordination of Rim fire.
Funded by the European Community, the mine-clearing project is at the preliminary survey stage. ”It is very difficult,” said Mr Bell. ”The fields are not mapped or marked and some mines have been lying around for years and are likely to go off just like that. Faced with that situation, if we were in Europe we’d probably blow it all up and start again, but you can’t do that here.”