The article ‘Agony and Struggle in Somaliland’ was first published in 1992 in the journal Race and Class, and it is about the civil war and refugee crisis in northern Somalia [now Somaliland]. The war that resulted in the restoration of Somaliland’s independence was triggered by the oppression and atrocities committed by the military regime of Siyad Barre against the northern clans, especially the Isaaq clan, which formed the majority of the Somali National Movement (SNM).  The author is Chris Searle, a British educator, poet, and activist. 

Agony And Struggle In Northern Somalia

By Chris Searle

First published October 1992

Volume 34, Issue 2

In May 1991, the Republic of Somaliland was established in what had been the northern regions of Somalia, with its first president, Abdirahman Ahmed Ali. But this attempt at creating a stable polity in a rapidly disintegrating situation is yet to be recognized by Western powers.

The creation of this new republic was a direct result of the civil war in Somalia. This had begun to tear apart the fragile state from 1982, when the first organized resistance to the tyrannical rule of President Siyad Barre had been mounted in the northern cities of Hargeisa and Burao.


By effectively redrawing the old colonial boundaries between what had been British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland before the brittle unity that had come with independence in 1960, the people of the new Somali- land have declared their final dissatisfaction with the economic and cultural bias, the political structure and inbuilt inequity of the former Somalia. They are also systematically rejecting the brutal overlordship they have suffered for twenty years from the Mogadishu government’s tribalistic policies since Siyad Barre’s regime took power in 1969. ’All the countries in the Horn of Africa could establish economic cooperation and work together in many fields’, declared the new president. ’But we want two separate Somali states. As far as we’re concerned, there’s no going back.’[1]

Agony And Struggle In Somaliland
Human skulls unearthed by a demining crew in Hargeisa, Somaliland. They were found in a mass grave where 200 locals were executed by Siyad Barre Government troops in 1988. Hargeisa, Somaliland. Somaliland declared independence in 1991 after 50,000 died in civil war. March 1992. ©Peter Menzel

The initial optimism with which many exiled Somalis have greeted the announcement of the new nation is grounded in the fact that it is being established not by an assertion of military strength by the Somali National Movement (SNM), which challenged and finally overcame Siyad Barre’s military stranglehold on the north, but by a process of rebuilding through peace and civilian order. Abdirahman has said: ‘We re-established law and order, disarmed all civilians, and withdrew our forces to barracks. The next step is the reconstruction of the country.’[2]

Cities in Somaliland have traditionally been centers of trade, administration, and education. Now they lie shattered. In Hargeisa, for example, 80 percent of the buildings have been destroyed, supply infrastructures like electricity and water have been smashed, the schools left roofless and ruined, the hospitals devastated and without the most basic facilities. ’Anti-personnel’ mines and unexploded shells lie buried in the rubble of the city, still deadly, forbidding the clearance of much of the debris. Such terrifying conditions in what had been stable and well-established cities symbolize the legacy of Siyad Barre’s disastrous years of power. As the Africa Watch Committee set down in its 1990 report on the region:

It is difficult to overstate the Somali government’s brutality towards its own people or to measure the impact of its murderous policies. Two decades of the presidency of President Siyad Barre have resulted in human rights violations on an unprecedented scale which have devastated the country. Even before the current wars, the human rights of Somali citizens were violated systematically, violently, and with absolute impunity.

The cost is staggeringly high in any terms, with people dead, wounded, displaced, and impoverished and cities demolished. The bloodiest conflict, and the longest lasting, has been the war in the north against the Isaaq clan, the largest in the region.[3]

Agony And Struggle In Somaliland
A military parade of the Somali National Movement marches in a display of unity in Hargeisa, Somaliland. Forces usually stay outside town in barracks. Somaliland declared independence in 1991 after 50,000 died in civil war. March 1992. ©Peter Menzel

In Britain, the expatriate and refugee Somali community (many of whose family origins are with the Isaaq clan and whose homes were in the cities of Hargeisa and Burao), is working for the reconstruction of the country. Through their community associations in cities like Cardiff, Sheffield, Liverpool, and London, Somalis are constantly involved in organizing support and solidarity. This loyalty to their homeland has not been helped by Western governments, like that of Britain, which have refused to recognize the new state of Somaliland. This refusal has created a barrier to systematic relief and development aid, which in turn has encouraged the fissiparous tendencies of clan and sub-clan in Somali society violently to erupt – as they did in Burao and other towns in January 1992.[4]

British Somali communities strive to rebuild their cities in the Horn of Africa while facing blatant racism from both the central government and local racists in the streets and estates where they find themselves living. As the Sheffield Star reported, on 9 July 1992, the Manor estate in the city has become a new battlefield for Somali refugees and their families.

’For months now, there have been reports of verbal abuse, attacks on black people’s houses, and even sexual assaults’, reveals a leaflet published by the tenants’ association. ’Many of the families are refugees from a murderous civil war in Somalia and have had close relatives killed and injured in that war. It is wrong they should now be afraid of living on the Manor and feel that parts of the estate are no-go areas. The levels of stress for some black families on the estate have reached breaking point, with the result that some families have chosen to move out.’

John Major’s government’s attack on their rights of asylum through the introduction of new, exclusionist, and racist legislation (spearheaded by former Home Secretary Kenneth Baker) was accompanied by a vicious press campaign against refugees and asylum-seekers in Britain, led in particular by the Daily Mail.[5]

Thus, British-based Somalis face the struggle for survival on two continents. The interviews that follow are witness to this. The first is with two Somali activists and community organizers in Sheffield, Abdirasak Nur, and Ibrahim Gure, who are stalwarts of the Somali Community Association in the city. They offer their perspectives on the origins of the conflict in northern Somalia and map out the events that have followed Fozia Mohamed Awad’s account of her experiences in Burao during the most intense period of Siyad Barre’s oppression, her flight to refuge in Ethiopia and her family’s further experiences settling into a different life in Sheffield – dealing with local council bureaucracy and living through the resurgent racism boiling up again in the heart of British cities – are set down in the second.

Agony And Struggle In Somaliland
A 50-year-old woman being examined in Hargeisa, Somaliland, by Dr. Chris Giannou of the International Committee of the Red Cross, after losing her leg to a landmine while herding her cattle. March 1992. ©Peter Menzel

Abdirasak Nur and Ibrahim Gure on the origins of the conflict[6]

The roots of the conflict in northern Somalia go back long before May 1988, when the war broke out on a massive scale in the city of Burao. They go back three decades, when the Somalis in the north, in what was then British Somaliland, gained their independence and wanted to join their fellow Somalis in the south, who were under Italian trusteeship. The Northerners wanted the union because they thought that, by joining their people in the South, they could have a better chance of developing every aspect of national life.

But when it was set up, the union was hardly negotiated at all, being completed under terms laid down by the politicians of the South. During the first nine years of independence (1960-69), however, although the northern peoples were not satisfied by the nature of the union, they accepted the situation, thinking that, in the long term, it would be beneficial to them too.

On 21 October 1969, five days after the first president was assassinated, a military junta came to power under General Siyad Barre. During its first few years of power, this junta seemed to be more efficient than the previous regime. Although it began to suppress the rights of the people and deny free association and free speech, it seemed to be on the way towards developing the country in health, education, and other public services.[7] But its true face was shown after the war against Ethiopia in 1978 when Siyad Barre began to impose a new power structure across the country. At the top was Barre and his family.[8] below them was the Darod clan which constituted some 28 percent of the total Somali population. This section began to exert power in the country. The Isaaqs, the main clan of the north, were victimized – both at the level of government where, for example, the president and foreign minister (both of whom were Isaaqs) were removed, and locally in the north, where many prominent people (merchants, tribal elders, and professionals) were detained and executed. In our cities such as Hargeisa, Burao, Sheikh, and Berbera, some 60 people were shot, or thrown alive down wells.

This harassment and suppression took place all over Somalia but happened with particular ferocity in the north. Eighty percent of the people there are Isaaqs. They are a homogeneous and proud people, conscious of their rights and liberties. In the main, they are tradesmen and owners of livestock.

In 1981, Barre sent his cousin, Gani, to be the governor of northwest Somalia. His main purpose was to subjugate the people by putting military pressure upon them, to force them to obey the regime.

Then, in 1982, some young professional people in Hargeisa (called the ’Hargeisa Group’), made up of doctors, teachers, engineers, civil servants, began a movement to improve public facilities, which had deteriorated badly. They wanted our communities to become much more self-reliant. They worked hard – particularly to improve the conditions of hospitals, providing clean sheets, medicines, and clean water. All this work was voluntary, with the money spent coming from their own pockets. The government, instead of commending this, accused them of being part of a banned organization and arrested them – just for being patriotic and helping their own people. The people of Hargeisa were very indignant and came out on the streets to demonstrate – the school students, in particular, were very determined. Why should government soldiers arrest people whose only interest was to lift up the quality of life for their people’? In court, the members of the group were given no proper legal rights or defense. The students carried on with their demonstrations in Hargeisa, Burao, and Berbera; the government brought in their ’Red Beret’ troops, and fifteen people were killed.

So first it was the schoolchildren – like in South Africa or Palestine – who fought back with stones. Then the soldiers answered back with live bullets and shelling. After this came the years of direct military oppression, with hundreds of people being detained and killed. But, in 1981, the Somali National Movement (SNM) had been established in London and had gained the support of the Ethiopian government. The SNM began to carry out its first hit-and-run attacks soon after. The government responded not by confronting the guerrillas, but by targeting and attacking the vulnerable nomadic peoples of the north, many of whom were massacred by government forces. Then, as the SNM’s military action escalated, more and more oppression and revenge fell upon the civilians of the north, who were seen as part and parcel of the SNM and were attacked and killed indiscriminately.

After the 1977-8 war with Ethiopia, there had been an influx of one and a half million refugees into northern Somalia from the Ogaden. These Ogadenis were mainly from the Darod clan and had no links of kinship with the Isaaq people of the north. The government used these people to attack and unsettle the Isaaqs, to destabilize their lives – and also as a source of recruitment into the government army. So the Ogadenis were used as an instrument for suppressing the people of northern Somalia. They became like an occupying army. Officers or army personnel from the north were suspended, transferred to the south, imprisoned or tortured, and replaced by soldiers from the south or by Ogadenis, and also by Oromos from Ethiopia. So there were no military people sympathetic to the Isaaqs in northern Somalia. There was an alien force bearing down upon them in their daily lives.

Agony And Struggle In Somaliland
A young girl recovering the hospital after losing her leg to a landmine in Hargeisa, capital of Somaliland, an unrecognized Republic of Somaliland. The three leading causes of death in Somaliland are gastro-enteritis, T.B. and trauma, mostly from land mines, gun shots, and car accidents. March 1992. ©Peter Menzel

In 1985, for example, the governor of the northern region, an army colonel named Boole, went to a primary school near Hargeisa early one morning before the principal and teachers had arrived. He lined up the pupils and started to insult them viciously, calling them the sons and daughters of ’rotten people’ who opposed the regime. The youngsters shouted back at him, so the governor, his driver, and bodyguards all started chasing and beating them with their batons. Can you imagine such a situation, where the governor of a large region of the country publicly beats schoolchildren who are between 7 and 10 years old? This is only one example of the brutality of the regime that sparked off the events of those years.

Then, in 1986, Siyad Barre started to negotiate long-standing territorial claims with the Ethiopian government. By 1988, he had reached an agreement with President Mengistu of Ethiopia, in which he dropped all claims to territory that had been made over the previous forty to fifty years. His main aim was to concentrate his army on suppressing his own people, particularly the Isaaqs in the north. But they refused to accept this and started to fight back through the SNM. Their resistance brought on more and more vicious suppression of the civilian population. Then we experienced something really unprecedented – I don’t think anything had ever happened before like it in the history of war. The Somali air force planes, flying out of their air base in Hargeisa – where their own families lived – actually bombed Hargeisa itself. The same terrible thing happened in Burao too, with the planes actually taking off in the city to bomb the same city! These were planes bought from the people’s taxes, used to bomb those very people in those very cities! Nothing could have been more tragic than this. Most of the pilots were from the south, but some were mercenaries from South Africa and old Rhodesia. One pilot refused to bomb his own people and flew his plane to exile in Djibouti, landed there, and never returned to Somalia.

This initiated the terrible bombardment and shelling of the cities, the deaths and flight of so many thousands of our people,[9] their journey to the refugee camps in Ethiopia, and to their final sanctuary here in Britain.

Agony And Struggle In Somaliland
A de-mining crew helping a woman whose cow had stepped on a landmine. The injured cow was dragged to a “safe” path, but had to be slaughtered. Hargeisa, Somaliland. Somaliland declared independence in 1991 after 50,000 died in civil war. March 1992. ©Peter Menzel

Mrs Fozia Mohamed Awad’s story

Although in northern Somalia we felt the problems at different times and through many periods, I personally lived through the 1985 massacre, when fifty to sixty men were driven out of prison and shot by government soldiers. This happened in the city of Burao, and there were no trials or court appearances, they were just shot down.

After these killings, the government confiscated our property, established control posts at the entrances of our towns and along the highways and nothing could happen without them being bribed.

I was a trader by profession and, whenever I wanted to import materials, I had to pay large sums – not for taxes or customs revenue – but as a direct bribe to customs officers, otherwise they would take my goods and keep them. Then we also had to bribe the soldiers at every control point on the highway.

We had to suffer the curfew put on us from 5 pm until 6 am the next morning. People caught by the soldiers during the curfew were called ’non-sleepers’, and were either put in prison or had to pay a heavy bribe on the spot. Even the night was no protection as, during the darkness, soldiers would come and force their way into our homes and take traders, doctors, teachers, religious and tribal elders, as well as political activists, away to unknown destinations, and our houses were looted for money and valuables. When the women of the house stood their ground, they were attacked, and many were raped. When a prestigious person was taken at night, the ransom to get him back was always much higher.

Our only chance was to find the relatives of soldiers or government officers and implore them to use their influence. And, of course, you had to pay and bribe for all of this. Once, a relative of the police commandant of Burao took us to meet him when we were trying to get our relatives released. He only said: ’You know that once I was against the government and supported the Somali Salvation Democratic Front.[10] But you made us come back and ally with the government when you demonstrated against the “Darod” regime – which is our clan. Now you’ve seen nothing yet. You wait and see what we shall do with you Isaaqs!’

The constant suppression of the people led to the men leaving to join and fight for the Somali National Movement. They saw nothing else but to go to their training camps. There was no alternative for them in their struggle to find dignity and get peace back in the land. We asked God many times to help us, we begged him.

Our prayers were answered on 27 May 1988, on a Friday morning, between 6 am and 7 am. We suddenly heard volley after volley of shots and could only wonder if the soldiers were at their deadly work again. Or perhaps they were chasing SNM fighters, or harassing ‘Kat’ traffickers.[11]

When we opened our doors, we saw lorries covered in people, mud-covered jeeps full of crowds, shouting ’God is great, God is great!’ and waving SNM flags. All this shocked us, for we believed it would signal our end – once before, SNM soldiers had entered the city on their armored vehicles, attacked the central police station, then left, leaving us at the mercy of government soldiers. We thought this might happen again, and we were very frightened, thinking the government troops would take their revenge again on us.

But this time, by 11 am, the SNM had captured the entire city, before withdrawing back to a front line in a prominent part of Burao. We raised our own confidence by ululating loudly and shouting ’God is great!’, but we were still afraid and also suspicious that some of our neighbors would inform us.

At night, the government troops came back to some areas of the city and they slaughtered everyone they could round up, including women, children, and elderly people. They smashed water cisterns and swore at everyone: ’We know you were shouting out your support for the SNM and the enemies of the Somali government!’

As the bullets came without stopping, many people ran from their small houses – made of natural materials, they gave no cover, and the bullets came through the walls. They asked for shelter in the homes with stone walls. Our house sheltered ten families, which included a lot of children. We couldn’t refuse – we were all relatives, all suffering under the same terrible pressure.

Later, when houses began to collapse under the ceaseless bombardment, people had to run openly in the streets to try to escape the guns and had to flee and evacuate the war-torn city completely. As we fled, we saw dead bodies lying in the street and beneath the rubble of the broken and ruined houses.

The fugitives were town-dwellers, they had no idea where to go. There were mothers with their babies, pregnant women, old people, and sick people. Most of them were bare-footed, they had had no time to find their shoes or wore simple, thin sandals which were soon destroyed and torn to pieces when they stepped through the thorny bushes. There was hardly any food and drink, and some pregnant women actually gave birth when they were on the run. They all had to move fast to escape the government soldiers, but they also had to find places where there was water. The armed forces were in pursuit and started to catch and kill some of the people, even though they were innocent civilians. They didn’t see us as any different from the SNM fighters. They were only interested in massacring us – the Isaaq people – on the direct orders of the government.

In our own house, the artillery bombardment had badly damaged the roof. Then, my brother-in-law said we must get out. He pulled the hands of my daughter and I ran after him, pushing a wheelbarrow which contained food, clothes, blankets, and drinking water. After a terrible journey across the country, we came to Wadhan, a water point. We began to settle down there under the trees, using sheets to shelter from the sun. Nomads were also there and had brought their animals for watering. Then, in the early morning, the government army arrived, approaching from a dried-up river bed on the other side of us. They opened fire, killing all they could see – people and animals. They killed my mother and two other women relatives. In all, sixty people were killed on that occasion at the water point. Then they went to the nearby village and killed everybody there, except a few who fled into the bush.

Then they looted all our valuable belongings and those of the villagers. They smashed everything left behind, including cooking pots and water containers. And this did not only happen in Wadhan, but in other places all over northern Somalia.

Of course, we had to defend ourselves, and many of the men carried guns for this, to protect themselves from this genocide.

It took us nearly two months to reach Harshin in Ethiopia. We had fled northwards from Burao at first and, for a long time, we were just wandering aimlessly around, going in all directions, only intent on avoiding the government soldiers. Then, eventually, we crossed the Ethiopian border. All the way through we were helped by the nomadic tribesmen. They always offered us food. Without them, we would have surely perished through starvation. When we finally reached Harshin, we found our people, who had fled from Hargeisa before us, and could give us food and welcomed us in their compounds, offering to us their accommodation for sharing.

At that time, the refugee camps were unorganized and conditions were very miserable. So I went with my two daughters to Djibouti, with the help of some close relatives – and left my other children in the camp with my 60-year-old mother-in-law. There I heard how some European countries were accepting Somali refugees, and I had a maternal uncle in Sheffield, who managed to secure me a visa – and also sent me the happy news that my husband had already arrived there.[12]

Agony And Struggle In Somaliland
Food distribution in Ethiopia’s Hartisheik camp, which hosted more than 250,000 Somaliland refugees in the late 1980s. © UNHCR/B.Press

So, when we eventually got to Britain, we were met by my uncle and husband at Heathrow, then taken to Sheffield. Then we had to go to Leeds two days later, to fill in my application for asylum in England, which had to go to the Home Office in London for approval. At that time, I was pregnant and my husband was sick, but the British government gave us every assistance and temporary accommodation, income support, medical attention, as well as education for our children.

So we could relax a little. But the English language was a huge barrier for us. We needed an interpreter for everything, even for shopping. We felt entirely dependent. We were offered a temporary flat, so we went to the Sheffield housing department to sign the tenancy. I asked the area housing office not to put me into that tenancy, but they insisted, telling me that I could apply for a house later on. Then we applied to the DHSS for a community care grant to furnish the flat. After a long time, we were told we weren’t eligible, so we appealed. Meanwhile, our children had got colds, and two of them became sick and were hospitalized at the children’s hospital. I had become very depressed, thinking about all these new problems with the bureaucracies.

Finally, we got a grant and moved to the other tenancy. But then we got a letter from the council about a ’double rent’, telling us we owed them from the first tenancy. When we said, ’But we couldn’t move into the first tenancy, it had no furniture’, we were told: ’That is not our problem.’

Apart from all this, we were hearing continuous bangs at our door – even at midnight, which made us very nervous. On another occasion, a letter arrived from someone telling us to get out of the place, and we found graffiti outside, which really increased our tension and made us feel humiliated. My husband tried to fight back physically against these people, but I reminded him he shouldn’t look for trouble as we weren’t there to cause conflict. It is only a matter of time. When our country becomes free again, we will go.

Sometimes, children outside make what sounds like cartridge explosions, and it makes me think back to the bombardment in Burao. I stand up immediately because I am so startled, but then I remember I am here, not in Somalia.

At least the council rehoused us to another part of Sheffield, which is a little calmer. But the housing department still deducts money from the income support, and this makes a depressing situation for us, a family of six. But we have the Somali Community Association to help and support us, and I am also gradually learning the English language here. I have still got some of my children at refugee camps in Ethiopia, but during my stay in Sheffield, I have managed to bring over a daughter and son to be with my other two daughters who came into Britain with me.

About the Author

Chris Searle is a writer and teacher working in Sheffield. His most recent book is A Blindfold Removed: Ethiopia’s Struggle for Literacy (London, Karia Press, 1991).

Published In

Race and Class CoverRace & Class

Volume 34, Issue 2

Pages: 23 – 32

Article first published: October 1992

Issue published: October 1992


[1] See the article by Peter Biles, Guardian (31 October 1991).

[2] Ibid.

[3]Somalia: a government at war with its own people’, Africa Watch Report (Africa Watch Committee, London 1990).

[4] Amnesty International, Somalia: a human rights disaster (London, July 1992).

[5] Daily Mail (31 July 1991 and 3 August I991).

[6] Interviewed at the Somali Community Centre, Sheffield, August 1991.

[7] Significant advances were made towards the eradication of illiteracy, for example, through a national literacy campaign. This aided the development of a Latinate script for the Somali language, which became the official language throughout the nation. See H.S. Bhola, Campaigning for Literacy Report for the International Council for Adult Education, and also the introduction to Faarax M.J. Cawl, Ignorance is the Enemy of Love (London, 1982).

[8] Siyad Barre’s clan were the Marehan. They were recruited in large numbers into the national army and also occupied the most powerful positions in the civil service. See Africa Watch Report, op. cit.

[9] Africa Watch reported that, between May 1988 and the end of 1989, 500,000 fled Somalia.

[10] Democratic Front for the Salvation of Somalia: an armed opposition group based in Somalia which resisted the Siyad Barre regime from 1978.

[11] ’Kat’: a mild, chewed stimulant which is very popular in the northern regions of Somalia and plays an important role in its economy.

[12] There has been a Somali community in Sheffield for fifty years, originally made up from Somali men who arrived to work as laborers in the steel industry, later sending for their families. See also the article by Jane Stapleton, ’Escape to Sheffield’ in the Sheffield Telegraph (8 February 1991).

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