The decision to launch the battle of the cities

April 1988 had been a time of waiting. Ethiopia and Somalia, the major proxies of the two Cold War camps facing off in the Horn of Africa, had signed a long-awaited ‘peace agreement’. Of course, this had nothing to do with a strategic change of perspective or, even less, with a sudden flowering in human hearts of humanitarian sentiments. The 4 April 1988 Djibouti Peace Agreement had been a pressing necessity for adversaries who, in many ways, had reached the workable end of their previous policies. After the battle of Af Abet the Ethiopian Army witnessed a massive expansion of the military means available to its enemies. It now knew the extent of the potential catastrophe: the EPLF had grabbed, in perfect condition, nearly 80 per cent of the deliveries of heavy Russian weapons made to Ethiopia over the previous twelve months. This included numerous pieces of artillery of various calibers, from heavy D-30 122 mm howitzers to rugged B-9 82 mm mortars; BM-21 multiple rocket launchers fitted on trucks; and over 250 tanks ranging from old T-54s to state-of-the-art T-72s.

In the strategic thinking of the allied EPLF and TPLF, it was the latter organization which should inherit the mass of equipment. This was because its territory was positioned further south than that controlled by the Eritreans and, with some effort, it could put them within reach of the capital Addis Ababa. The anti-Derg rebels were now thinking in terms of ending the war through a total military victory, a previously vague idea which had now become thinkable. The Derg’s protector, the USSR, was by then bleeding as a result of too many battlefields or strategic involvements, from the war in Afghanistan to the massive support it gave to its Middle Eastern allies (Iraq, Syria, Libya), from its African allies (Angola, Ethiopia, Guinea-Bissau) to those countries that were not at war but were living in a ‘post-war’ economic condition (Cuba, Vietnam, South Yemen) and had to be kept alive by constant care. The USSR did not have an economy that could satisfy its own citizens, and extending its sparse resources to so many beneficiaries world-wide was becoming more and more untenable. The accession to power of Mikhail Gorbachev in March 1985 had begun the slow retreat of the Soviet Union’s global hegemonic dream. Within that context, Ethiopia was increasingly a disposable unit and Mengistu realized it. The Russians (and their allies) had gone as far as they ever would in protecting the Ethiopian communist regime from its rebel enemies.[231]

On the other side, the problem was different. Former Soviet ally Siyad Barre had abandoned the communist ‘Peace Camp’ when he attacked communist Ethiopia but he had not managed to have his bona fide accepted in the US-protected ‘Free World’. He was still suspect owing to his former association with Moscow, and Washington did not trust him. He benefited from a minimum guarantee from the US (‘we won’t let the bear tear you apart but do not expect more than that from us’) where titbits of (largely obsolete) military equipment were delivered, while privately engaged US allies such as Italy (and to a lesser extent Germany)[232] gave a much lower level of aid than what could have been expected from a Cold War superpower. Such aid could not be compared to the large weapons deliveries from the Soviet Union to Ethiopia. But for both countries—and much more so for Somalia—the main problem was economic. War is expensive, both countries were poor and their limited resources were drained no longer by a mutual conflict but by a series of internal conflicts, partly funded by the main adversary. During the 1986–8 period the weight of these little wars grew heavier and heavier, and the states—even Mogadishu, which benefited from its IMF status—could increasingly less afford to continue. This was particularly so for Ethiopia, where the EPLF– TPLF alliance had reached a level of military performance that their two Somali equivalents—SNM and SSDF—had never achieved, and was now in a position to seriously threaten the central government.


So the Af Abet defeat and the massive capture of heavy equipment by the rebels finally tipped the scales. Half abandoned by the Russians, Mengistu had no other option than the ‘total, absolute mobilization’ of his national forces that he had called for upon his return from Djibouti. The small SNM had no choice either: if it accepted the withdrawal from the border and the dismantling of its military structure, which the Ethiopians had promised Siyad Barre, it would have disappeared, like the SSDF before. But the SNM had one trump card in this increasingly dangerous game: the broad commitment of its frontline fighters for a war to the end. There were problems, of course, with some of the cadres of the movement, the assassination attempt against Sillanyo being a clear case of institutional blowback;[233] but these problems did not seep down to the level of the rank-and-file fighters. The process, demanded by the Ethiopians, of withdrawing first and negotiating later was not acceptable, not only for the soldiers themselves, but for a majority of their officers. These simple men had first-hand experience of the Siyad Barre–Somali Army–SRSP tyranny. Official measures could be announced but nobody believed in them and this discredited in advance any negotiating position.

When IGADD[234] was established in 1988, one of the prolific writers of the SNM called Said Ali Giir had written an article in which he predicted that the real objective of IGADD was conflict resolution rather than drought (what can be done about that?) or development. In fact, this was prescient because soon after we heard rumors and we saw articles in newspapers that said that the Siyad Barre government had agreed to bring northern government employees all to the north and to put them into local government positions. All prisoners were to be released and those who had fled the country were to be forgiven. The military in the north would be replaced by northern officers. We heard that 300 to 400 northern civil servants, businessmen and armed forces officers were going to be brought to the north.[235] But these were all rumors and lies. Siyad Barre and Mengistu had agreed to end the hostilities, terminate all opposition, and try to make it nice by announcing measures that would have assuaged the northern bitterness. We did not believe it for long. So the army developed a new strategy, from the bottom up. Three regiments—named Mecca, Medina and Central Front—would be prepared and aimed at attacking Adadley, Mandera and Berbera and then move on to capture Burao and Hargeisa. But the plan was changed at the last minute by the High Command.[236]

In fact, this change of plan, which favored the symbolic capture of the northern capital over a logistical blockade, was one of the basic reasons which added a year or eighteen months to the war. In spite of periodic light attacks, Berbera remained solidly in government hands till the end of the conflict and was used as a beachhead for receiving troops and supplies from the south or from abroad, unloading them and redistributing them to the whole region. Berbera, a key strategic point, was neglected for the symbolic benefit of temporarily holding (and later of besieging) Hargeisa.

On 27 May the Medina Front forces had carried out the plan and attacked Burao. But unfortunately the western Mecca forces were still behind in their preparation. As the Hargeisa attack had also been delayed, 300 men decided to attack Adadley to relieve the pressure on the SNM forces then attacking Burao.[237] Adadley hosted some of the biggest SNA defences in northern Somalia and it also held a large amount of equipment. On 28 May the Seyid Omer Brigade had reached a place called Debis, which is the mid-point on both the Hargeisa– Burao road and the Hargeisa–Berbera road. The aim of taking control of that road crossing was to prevent SNA troop movements between the three cities. On the 29th the Sayid Ali and Barkhad Brigades from Central Division attacked Adadley and secured the ground … But the Somali Army sent reinforcements from its First Division to Werarta to prepare attacking Adadley and retaking it … But we decided to take the battle to them in advance. We walked all night, arrived at dawn and attacked them suddenly. Many were killed and the others ran away. We captured a lot of their material … but then we received reports from Mandera saying the garrison there was preparing to kill all the prisoners so that we could not free them … Then we sent men and when we reached Abdaal we ambushed these reinforcement convoys sent from southern Somalia. The field guns and the jeeps we had just captured at Werarta were used there and we attacked Mandera to free the prisoners. We had gained a huge number of vehicles and heavy weapons, and we were in a position now to help the other forces in Burao and Hargeisa … It was at that stage that we discussed again the plan to capture Berbera or else send reinforcements to Hargeisa. And we decided to go for Hargeisa.[238]

Experiencing the violence of urban warfare

As soon as the operation was launched, it became fragmented battlefield by battlefield as it involved almost exclusively urban fighting, i.e. it was geographically quite focused and limited.

On 27 May 1988, after we refused to comply with the Ethiopians’ plans, Colonel Ahmed Mire and his forces entered Burao early on Friday morning, starting the first of the battles to seize the major cities of the north. After our unit commander was killed, I briefly became the commander. But the Brigade decided to send us an experienced officer, they sent us Mohamed Ali, and I became his second-in-command. Mohamed Ali was an experienced fighter and also a very religious person. He never missed a prayer even in the midst of fighting and it made me confident to be at his side. We got a warning from our command that government forces were leaving Hargeisa to come to Burao as reinforcement for their men. We had to stop them, so we left in the evening with five vehicles and enough combatants and organized an ambush on the Hargeisa–Burao highway. We spent the night there and the fighting with the reinforcement column started at dawn. It was bloody and we lost quite a number of our men because of the new M-16 rifles the Siyad Barre forces were now using.[239] M-16 were better than other guns and their wounds were often fatal. We won and the enemy retreated and went back to Hargeisa, leaving all their wounded behind. Many of the wounded claimed to be Hawiye. As usual we gave orders to leave them unharmed and the wounded soldiers were surprised because what they had heard from their officers was that we would torture and kill them. When they recovered from their wounds, we used to send them back to their villages and ask them not to join the government forces again. At times it happened that these soldiers, when they realized the SNM would not harm them, they even showed us places where guns were hidden and they would give them to us.

After the battle we continued our march and we reached the Omar Kujoog halfway crossing between Berbera and Hargeisa. At that point we saw a convoy of armed vehicles with government soldiers travelling from the direction of Berbera. Later we found out they were on their way to Mandera prison to execute the Isaaq political prisoners. We started shooting and we destroyed two of the vehicles. The other two managed to escape but they were quickly attacked by government planes which had received the information that SNM units were approaching Hargeisa. So they mistook their own force for us and their planes destroyed their own armed vehicles.

After this bit of luck, we continued our march until we reached the hill over Adadley, the strong government military base and depot. In Adadley, the Hussein Dheere fighters and those of the Sayid Ali and Barkhad units had attacked the government garrison from several sides. We could not see what to do, so we watched the battle for a while. But by midnight Salaan Abdi Shide had a lucky shot when he put an RPG-7 shell right in the middle of a warehouse where millions of rounds of ammunitions were piled up side by side with armoured vehicles and other military supplies. Everything exploded and then it went on burning all night long till dawn. The next morning our commander, Mohamed Ali, asked me to lead a patrol of four and go into the village of Adadley to see how things had developed. When we reached Adadley we were surprised to see our combatants sitting down with the villagers and enjoying breakfast. But they told us another strong government force was heading towards us from the south, with heavy artillery. So we went for the garrison, which was demoralized, and we surrounded them. They just ran away and we did not even try to stop them. As we entered the compound we found the dead body of the commander of the Adadley base, who had committed suicide by shooting himself through the head when he realized that his big military base had fallen into the hands of SNM.

Then Mohamed Ali decided we had to march on Mandera prison. He feared that the prisoners would all be killed. So we marched through the hills on foot all night and at dawn we started the attack on Mandera prison. But we could not penetrate through the armoured metal doors, and since the walls were solid concrete and in spite of using all kinds of ammunition, we could not knock a hole through them. But Mohamed Ali, who was a former inmate, knew a place where there was a soft spot and we blew it with the Jeep gun [105 mm recoilless]. When we entered, the commander of the prison, who refused to surrender, was shot on the spot. Many prisoners were chained to the walls and there were at least one hundred of them, chained or not, in each prison cell. Some of the prisoners recognized us. The ex-mayor of Hargeisa, Barre Langadhe, was one of them. Mohamed Ali recognized some of the businessmen, such as Abdirahman Hassan Rakoub, who were imprisoned there. We released 664 prisoners, including 34 Ethiopians and people from south Somalia … We helped the Ethiopians by giving them a letter and a vehicle to transport them to Jijiga. We had lost ten combatants, including officers, and we started treating our wounded. We gave our prisoners the choice to go anywhere they wished, and those who wanted to join us were immediately given guns.

After the Mandera operation we returned to Adadley and we discussed our next plan. We had the option to join either the group fighting in Burao or the one fighting in Hargeisa, but Mohamed Ali suggested that we should rather attack Berbera because all the supplies and reinforcements for the government were coming through Berbera. But the rest of us rejected the idea[240] and proposed that we join the forces in Hargeisa or Burao … Mohamed Ali preferred then to join our men in Burao because the reinforcements for the government would come from the east. I agreed because he was my commander and he was experienced, and we changed our direction to Burao. We avoided the government garrisons of Oodweyne, Warabe and other strong points and we reached Burao to support our forces that had been weakened through losses. Our reinforcements were useful but the government also got more reinforcements from Oodweyne and we tried to push them back, and it was during that confrontation that our commander Mohamed Ali was killed in the battle. Then the government planes flown by Rhodesian mercenaries[241] arrived and they started to bomb the city.[242]

Due to the delay in the fuel supply, the SNM units attacked Hargeisa slightly later than they had attacked Burao.

Hargeisa was attacked on 31 May 1988 and I was among those who went in. We infiltrated everywhere, we captured the headquarters of the 26th Division,[243] we collected the ammunition from the Birjeex depot and we saw the SNA as they were running away and dropping their uniforms on the ground. Then we moved to the radio station where we wanted to announce that we had captured the city. But even though we had captured the headquarters of the 26th Division, Birjeex and the surrounding area, when we surrounded Radio Hargeisa we were faced with a huge resistance of the SNA who were inside the radio station perimeter. They bombarded us with heavy artillery and tanks, and so the force that was assigned to take the airport fell back and decided to go fight in Adadley.[244] Those of us who had invaded Hargeisa were estimated at 500 men, equipped with 84 vehicles. But we had left the vehicles parked outside and some were taken by those going to Adadley … So by the time we entered the city with our small force, we had only 14 vehicles left. The senior officials that were leading the invasion of Hargeisa were Mohamed Ahmed aka Dayib Gurrrey, Muse Bihi,[245] Abdirahman Aw Ali Farah, Adam Cade, Mahmood Haybe Goodhadh, myself, Mohamed Kosar and others. The fighting lasted 73 days and nights, with constant ups and downs. We had different brigades assigned to various parts of the city area. There was a lot of fighting around Dabada Caddaada, the section around the slaughterhouses, and there we had a lot of support from the Arap sub-clan. The Sa’ad Musa were fighting in the north and west and around Radio Hargeisa. But there was so much fighting that after some time almost all of our senior officers had been killed or injured and most of the injuries could not be treated right on the spot. Practically all the survivors had some injury or other. It came to the point that when the SNA got reinforcements and started to seriously push on us, we had to give up and we retreated to safe areas like Baligubadle, Gumar and other places that were free of an SNA presence. We survived and the SNA ended up trapped inside the cities, they could not get out because we had ambushes on all the roads.

We managed to improve our medical services to take care of our many wounded. Little by little we remobilized for the struggle once again, we fixed our 84 vehicles and carried our wounded combatants to the field hospitals. We mostly put our new facilities in Geed Debleh, we had lots of wounded. But we had a huge problem with the civilian refugees that were streaming out of the city. They filled the roads, they also had a lot of wounded, and we could not refuse helping them, but this made a great confusion for our combatants. We had wounded people everywhere. Since the planes were strafing us all the time, we had to try hiding the wounded. So we put them up on trees, hanging there, suspended between the branches. With the shade the planes did not see them. Otherwise they would kill anybody, they would even finish off the wounded …

But we kept attacking and harassing the SNA reinforcements that were coming from Berbera. The SNA began to panic and, when they were fleeing, they regrouped themselves on a clan basis. Those who were of the Hawiye clans went over to Birjeex while those who belonged to the various Darood clans went over together to another side. Ahmed Omar Jess was called to lead them, but this was before he properly became chairman of the SPM.[246] We allowed them to pass through safely, from Hargeisa down to Baligubadle and from there on, towards their final destination in the south. Those who supported General Aydid ran away from our cities and gathered in the south in the name of USC;[247] they had their armored vehicles and tanks, and we called them and told them to leave before we would murder them. Then Abdullahi Darawal led his combatants to the west and deserted from SNA.[248]

One thing that facilitated our fighting, even though we were most of the time numerically inferior, was the fact that most of us were from the very army we were fighting, the Somali National Army (SNA). We knew each other well, we knew their tactics and their positions, and as their morale was falling apart, it became easier and easier to fight them. They had no more morale, even committing all those crimes against civilians got them money but no heart and caused them in the end to be defeated.[249]

Actually in the general confusion of May–June 1988, the only people who paradoxically were quite clear about what side they were on were the refugees from the Ethiopian Ogaden.

General Siyad Barre and his regime used the Somali refugees from Ethiopia in many ways. They used them as security personnel to guard installations and they used them as SNA levies when the need would arise; the international agencies supporting the refugee camps were the main source of income, jobs and supplies, and the refugees monopolized 100 per cent of the available resources. The number of refugees living in the camps was inflated by the Somali Refugee Agency, and the rations and supplies supplied by UNHCR directly went to the Somali National Army. Therefore the refugees were not only a source of security for the government but they also fed the government’s army.

Another way of using the refugees was intelligence. All these refugees had relatives living in places like Jijiga, Dhagax Buur, Aware, and they could easily gather information on what SNM was doing in these bases on Ethiopian territory. The Ethiopians knew this and therefore they forced all refugees, from our side as well, to settle in Harta Sheik where there was no access to water. This was to push people away from Jijiga where access to water was easy. This forced UNHCR to supply the camps by means of water tankers. Before the battle of the cities, all refugees were from the Ogadeni, i.e. from the Darood clan family and therefore allies of Siyad Barre. Siyad Barre had circulated information among the refugees in the camps near Hargeisa that he would replace the Isaaq population from Hargeisa with refugees from Ethiopia after oppressing the people so much that they would leave. This is one reason why many people feared joining SNM: they felt that in their absence the government would take their houses and lands and give them to the refugees. Some of these refugees were assisted by the authorities to start small businesses in Hargeisa so that they would become permanent settlers. When the battle of the cities started, the refugees joined the SNA as they thought all the non-Isaaq would be chased away or killed if the SNM won.[250]

In fact, some of the immediate consequences of the SNM attack against the cities could almost be viewed in that light. It started, logically, with the army.

Even before the offensive, many Isaaq officers in the military, including the air force, were transferred to the south: well-known officers like Shaqale, Abdullahi Darawal and others too. But after the offensive, the lower-level ranks of the military—and also very many civil servants—were simply put in prison or directly killed.[251]

The SNM offensive immediately extended the policy of targeted ethnic repression which had been rampant for months, if not years:

Hundreds of men were arrested. They arrested anyone they feared could contribute money, experience or military knowledge to the opposition: in short, anyone they thought could provide some kind of leadership. They began by detaining all the people they had arrested in the past, i.e. a significant proportion of Isaaq men in northern cities. There was no escape. We thought of going to Mogadishu but we heard on the BBC that Isaaq men were also being arrested there. There seemed to be nowhere to go.[252]

The conditions of detention were completely contrary to usual practice because, when the mass arrests of Isaaq started, there was not enough space in the jails for all these human beings. So, in order to make room for the new prisoners, all non-Isaaq were released, including people who had been sentenced to death for civil crimes, people jailed for life, drug dealers, and so on. Many of those who were young enough were given arms and became the guards of the newly detained Isaaq. The others joined the SNA and participated in the ongoing war.

Another effect of the SNM offensive was the immediate looting of all properties by the army, the Gulwadaayal[253] and the recently released criminals from the jails.

I saw them go into a big shop in front of our house that belonged to Suleiman Amin, a wealthy trader, and empty the shelves of food, tins, clothes, everything they could lay their hands on. At least Suleiman Amin remained alive but many others were first looted and then shot.[254]

But soon the looting began to look like a lesser evil. The soldiers or allied militiamen started to break into houses, looking for SNM fighters who might be hiding there. If the occupants were slow in opening the door, the soldiers would start shooting and then would break into the house.

When the soldiers came to our house, there was a big group of us gathered there, family, friends and neighbors. They banged on the door. One of the men, Osman Jalle, panicked and hid inside a cupboard. They broke the door. They searched under the beds and finally the cupboards too. They found Osman and shot him. The soldiers were arguing among themselves to decide whether or not we should all be shot. But they decided to take us to the Hangash[255] Centre and there they decided not to kill us. So we requested an escort to walk us home and protect us from the other soldiers. The soldier who accompanied us back home was grumbling and telling us it was foolish for so many civilians to have stayed behind because we could not defend ourselves and in the end we would all be shot.[256]

The looting, arrests and executions were now taking place all over the northern cities, whether or not SNM had attacked. According to a man[257] who had been arrested on 29 May in Borama, where no fighting was taking place, and was taken to the regional military headquarters:

There were hundreds of soldiers and civilians detained there, mostly men, but there were a few women as well, who had been accused of cooking for the SNM or giving them water. There were also a number of mentally ill people who had been rounded up. I was there for eight days. Everyday there were executions of Isaaq,[258] both civilians and military. A number of CID officers (police) were also shot. The smallest number of people killed during any day would be 30 but usually it was much higher. In one day alone, 80 Isaaq soldiers were shot, 40 from Gabiley and 30 from Dararweyne, a base near Naasa Hablood[259] … and ten from Boqol Jireh, the headquarters of the anti-aircraft artillery. When there were so many to kill, they were put in a truck and taken to the banks of the dry riverbed because there was not enough room for the pile of corpses. The bodies were left outside.

In many other towns—Erigavo, Sheikh, Arabsiyo—the same type of massacres took place even though there were no SNM forces engaged in combat there.

In terms of deliberate cold-blooded violence and civilian casualties, the worst happened in Berbera, the north’s second city, which the SNM had deliberately left aside to concentrate on Burao and Hargeisa. Most victims in Berbera had their throats slit and those who tried to escape were shot. Most of the killings took place at night at a site about 10 km out of the town, near the airport.[260] People were killed in batches of 30 to 40.

The overwhelming majority of the victims were seasonal labourers from Hargeisa or Burao or the nearby villages, hired for loading livestock for export and unloading goods at the port. We never identified most of them because they were temporary workers and they had no locally surviving relatives.[261]

The mechanics of destruction

As early as the third day following the attack on Hargeisa, and as soon as the SNA had regained control of the airport and could airlift supplies, Mogadishu started flying heavy artillery and shells into the north.[262] This new equipment, Russian, Italian and South African, was to have a frightful impact on the ongoing battles. Batteries of big-caliber artillery were towed up the Naasa Hablood hills overlooking Hargeisa, aimed at the city area and fired. The shelling was systematic and relentless. It was impossible to consider this use of artillery fire on a thickly populated urban space as anything short of a war crime. Given the situation, the SNA had to flush the SNM out of Hargeisa, for such are the needs of war. But heavy artillery used for street fighting is an absurdity. Armored vehicles, machine guns, mortars, howitzers and, of course, combatants on foot, yes. But a 122 mm gun aimed at three men hiding on a street corner three miles away is not only brutally cruel, but also rather ineffectual. It is more likely to knock down a whole residential building and kill a score or two of civilians while missing the trained fighters lying flat on the ground. But as a genocidal tool, massive use of artillery fire on a populated city is reasonably efficient.

Even though the ‘big g-word’—so easily bandied around since the Rwandan genocide of 1994—has not been used to describe what happened in northern Somalia in 1988, it is difficult to avoid.[263] In January 1989, Community Aid Abroad (CAA), an Australian NGO, produced the first report ever on the northern Somalia situation, commenting: ‘The government response to the attack has been particularly brutal and without any regard to civilian casualties—in fact there is ample evidence that civilian casualties have been deliberately inflicted so as to destroy the support base of the SNM, which is mainly comprised of people from the Isaaq clan. Following the SNM attacks on the major towns of Hargeisa and Burao, government forces bombed the towns, causing over 400,000 people to flee the atrocities across the border into Ethiopia where they are now located in refugee camps, living in appalling conditions … A scorched earth policy has been applied to the villages in the vicinity. There the displaced people are hiding in the bush without any adequate access to food or medicines … Genocide is the only word for it.’[264] But was it such a surprise? In the so-called letter of death dated 23 January 1987,[265] General Mohamed Said Hersi ‘Morgan’, the regional commander of the northern region (26th Division), had written:

We took punitive measures against the positions jointly occupied by the ‘Qurmis’[266] and the Ethiopians, resulting in losses for them and the obliteration of villages such as Dibiile, Rabaso, Raamaaale and Garanuggle … But unless the guerrilla opposition and its supporters are subjected to a campaign of complete obliteration, there will come a time when they will raise their heads again.

The 1989 SNM attack provided the government not only with an opportunity to attack the guerrillas, but to finally launch the ‘campaign of obliteration’ recommended by Morgan. The artillery was an obvious instrument but so were aircraft. The Somali Air Force still had the remnants of the planes it had used during the war with Ethiopia in 1977–8: a few Mig-17s, three Mig21s and the survivors of its one complete fighter bomber squadron of Shenyang F-6, the Chinese version of the Mig-19, assembled post-1978 when Siyad Barre was trying to find alternatives to the lost Russian connection. None of these aircraft were very useful, partly because lack of spare parts had grounded most of them and also because they lacked both pilots and mechanics. This is why the key air element in the brutal city war of 1988 had nothing to do with the flying archaeology inherited from Somalia’s communist period. A few of the Migs or Shenyangs still flying took part in the Hargeisa butchery but they had only limited airworthiness and the pilots had low morale.[267] The key squadron was made up of the eight Hawker Hunters which had been given by the United Arab Emirates after the 1978 defeat to help Somalia rebuild an air force.[268] But the deadly edge of the air attack was provided by South Africa whose Foreign Minister, ‘Pik’ Botha, had approved the recruitment (and paid the salaries) of a team of six (white) pilots and mechanics from South Africa and Rhodesia. There were later some discreet additions, such as a British woman who did observation and liaison work with a light Cessna four-seater and a couple of (black) Botswana pilots. There were enough parts to keep the whole flying circus airborne and operational for a few months.[269]

And it was fiercely efficient. ‘When it was the Migs, we were not afraid, they would fly too high and miss when they bombed. But with the Hunters, it was quite different. They were deadly. The best was Mr. John.’[270] ‘Mr John’ had a hellish tactic. After taking off, he would spiral upwards to gain a high altitude. Then he would turn off his engine and dive, pointing towards a place reasonably distant from Hargeisa proper. He would then level off and fly horizontally, silently, at a very low altitude. In this way he would come as a surprise and pick off his targets at his own pace, one by one. He would machine-gun columns of refugees heading on foot towards Ethiopia, knock off the odd vehicle, kill wounded fighters hammocked in the trees, and even slaughter cattle so as to increase the food shortages of his targets. When his momentum began to slow down, he would restart his engine and regain altitude. It was war of a very special kind. Strangely enough, the refugees I talked with had a certain grudging admiration for Mr John: ‘He flew very low and we tried to shoot him down. We hit him many times. But he never gave up. He kept coming back and killing us. He had courage.’ A very Somali kind of praise.

The international community was largely blind to the drama then unfolding—the mass protests in cities around the U.S. against an executive order that would block millions of people from entering the United States blind to the point of culpability. On 28 June 1988, in the middle of the fiercest fighting then taking place in northern Somalia, with massive killings of civilians and 400,000 refugees trekking over the border to Ethiopia, the Pentagon delivered 1,200 M-16 rifles with two million cartridges. In addition, the shipment included 300,000 .30 cartridges and half a million .50 for heavy machine guns.[271] The MAP delivery had been approved in November 1986, during a somewhat quieter time. But then, two years later, somebody in Washington who probably never read press dispatches decided to fulfil the requirements of the agreement without any concern for what was actually going on at the time—and without any idea of how that gift would be used. Since Siyad Barre had (reasonable) doubts about the reliability of his troops,[272] he immediately laid hands on the American shipment and passed the booty to five of the fourteen Ogadeni refugee camps: Gallikar, Bihin, Adi Adeys, Dam Sabad and Arabsiyo. The President knew he would have no problem with them: they would kill as many enemies as they could, without bothering unduly whether they were ‘civilians’ or ‘combatants’; in either case, they were all Qurmis.

But just as the Pentagon was absent-mindedly pouring oil on the fire, the Refugee Bureau of the Department of State was busy digging up another halfforgotten problem, the repatriation of the Ogadeni refugees. There had been a ‘peace treaty’ signed on 4 April, which included resettlement of the Ogadenis in Ogaden, although right now this seemed to be the last concern of either the refugees themselves or of their host, President Siyad Barre. Actually, far from wanting to head home, the ‘refugees’ were fighting fiercely and the President was hanging on to them, pretending there were 840,000 of them, a figure the UNHCR did not consider realistic. In May 1988, UNHCR had stopped food deliveries, then resumed them at the end of June, only to stop them again in February 1989 with a phasing-out scheduled for June of that year. By that point the Somali government’s relationship with the UNHCR had become so stormy that on 2 August 1989 the agency’s High Commissioner was expelled from Somalia.

In the meantime, this had not stopped the State Department’s Refugee Bureau from recruiting a very experienced researcher, Robert Gersony, to go out to Africa and investigate. Since the man was a realist, he wrote about what he saw and not about what he should have seen. After spending about ten weeks in the field in rather rough circumstances, he emerged with an explosive report that shook the complacency of the United States and, indirectly, of the rest of the international community.[273] So just as the weapons deliveries were exacerbating the crisis, the counter-logic of the US bureaucratic and information systems began to expose the massive violence in northern Somalia. The Gersony report was a first step and it was followed by the report of the US General Accounting Office. But both were administrative documents with a very limited distribution and circulation. Nevertheless, they both contributed to the wider impact of the Africa Watch report, which was published in their wake.[274] This was the beginning of the mediatisation of the Somali problem, a regional crisis which has continued periodically to grab the news for the past forty years and which still refuses to go away.

In the short term, the focus of the emergency moved from the violence itself to its consequences. And the main consequence in the short run was the one present in Gersony’s title: ‘flight’. Huge human streams issued from the gutted cities and converged towards the Ethiopian border.

The Isaaq refugees began evacuating the cities of Hargeisa and Burao by the end of the first week of the fighting (early June) and it appears that the evacuation was completed by the end of the month … They gathered by the thousands on the outskirts of the cities, assembling their families and relatives. A number of the refugees indicated that while gathering their families, they were strafed by Somali military aircraft.[275]

Actually the air attacks were a lot heavier than the coy mention in the GAO report conveys.

When the people fled the towns, they went after them in planes as they could not chase them all by foot. The planes used were British-made Hawker Hunters, Chinese-made Mig-19s and Russian Mig-17s and 21s. There were also slower Italian-made planes for observation. The smaller Italian planes identified the long caravan-like rows of people and located them. Then the warplanes came and would drop their bombs. The Hunters made nine to twelve rounds every day and the Migs would come five or six times. They would fly very low because they knew the civilians did not have any anti-aircraft guns. Some days the planes were at it non-stop 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., hitting some areas again and again. They also killed the livestock so we would have nothing to eat.[276]

When the aerial bombardment started, we decided to escape. We had no idea where we were going but we had to escape the bombing and the shelling. We went towards Geed Debleh, about 10 km from Hargeisa. We arrived there after a seven-hour trek. One had the impression the entire city was there. But then the shelling started as well, although the SNM was nowhere to be seen. Real pandemonium broke out. People were even more desperate than they had been in Hargeisa. It made them feel they could never escape. Many people were killed, some by the bombs dropped from the airplanes, others shot by the machine guns they were firing, even more by the shelling and some by being trampled underfoot by the panicky crowds. Family members lost each other and some parents were separated from their children. For me I lost my mother-in-law and I only learned much later that she eventually got to Djibouti.[277]

Two weeks after the fighting broke out in Hargeisa, the conditions became unbearable and we fled to the north of the city and trekked to Annayo. We lived there under the shade of the trees on the river embankment … There were several air raids a day in this little place. The shortage of food was such a serious problem that people were forced to sneak back into Hargeisa to find something to eat. Each time we went back, we would see additional dead bodies and more homes destroyed. In late July we decided to cross into Ethiopia. We tried to cross to the west of Hargeisa, at Abudleh. There was a contingent of the Somali Army stationed there, and if they got you, that was it, you were dead. Five times we tried crossing but we were forced back when the soldiers fired at us. The army was in all these places to prevent us from crossing into Ethiopia, and this in spite of the fact we were unarmed civilians who had nothing except our barest possessions. They killed many and then robbed the bodies. I witnessed the killing of many women and even children, I even witnessed the shooting of an old man who was nearly blind.[278]

The lack of resources available for the fleeing people rapidly became a nightmare.

Soon after we arrived at Annayo, we ran out of food and out of money. In any case, there was nothing to buy. The only food available was either what the SNM could give us or what was brought by car by people who were daring enough to steal back into Hargeisa at night. So we decided to go to Ethiopia before we died of starvation. But we did not have transportation and there was a fierce struggle over the vehicles. When a truck agreed to take people, they would spend the entire day guarding it. Families with adult men were in a stronger position, they could fight for them. But we only had two young boys. So much of their transport had been destroyed by the warplanes that the SNM was reluctant to let all the vehicles they had left cross into Ethiopia. Even though we were so hungry, our fear of the bombings was such we were even prepared to try to walk. Finally, the SNM provided 40 trucks when they realized how bad it was. There was havoc as people scrambled for space. They put goats or bags on top of you, but it did not matter as long as you had a place. People were hanging out the sides of the vehicles. All the trucks were in a bad state and the terrain was rough. In order not to attract attention, the headlights were turned off and it was dangerous on that mountainous road.

The shortage of water was terrible and we had to fetch water very far and in secret to avoid the soldiers. We stayed six days. Food was scarce and children and babies were very weak by then. We divided food into tiny portions so as to give them the illusion of being fed regularly. But their hunger was obvious and it was painful to watch your children getting weaker and weaker from hunger. The bombings continued but hunger made us less and less concerned for our safety. The only thing that mattered was reaching the border. As trucks broke down, more and more people took to walking. They kept a hand on the mouth of children so they would not cry. Many didn’t make it and some groups were killed by soldiers as they tried to cross. The SNM escorted the bigger groups, but they could not escort everyone because of the size of the fleeing population. Finally, we got to Ethiopia, one by one in some cases because of the broken-down trucks.[279]

One of the strongest testimonies available about that time of horror is that of a man who saw it from a very special perspective, that of burying—or rather removing—the dead.

One day in the evening I returned to my house and on my way I met a tall military captain from the Issa Musa Habr Yunis,[280] who gave me a lift. But then we met a well-known officer, Colonel Mohamed Alin, who told me to come with him without explaining anything. We arrived at their military camp, and the colonel told me to take one of the bulldozers and bury the dead at the Malka Durduru site. There were a few dead bodies and I buried them. Then the colonel took me to the soldiers who were there and he said they had to guard me; if I disappeared they would all be shot. I was so precious to them because I was the only person who could handle a bulldozer … Then I parked the machine properly but they would not let me go. I argued with them, so they accompanied me to my home and they did not leave. They stayed to guard me and in the evening I could hear their footsteps, they did not trust me and they remained awake all night.

The next day when I came back to Malka Durduru, I saw dead bodies stretching for almost 150 or 200 meters. Most of the people massacred at first were soldiers and officers of the Isaaq clan. So I started to bury these dead bodies near the dry riverbed. I lifted the dead bodies slowly and lowered them into the hole slowly, trying to avoid dumping them like trash. I usually left the scene exhausted. But I had to finish my task on that day otherwise, if I left the bodies behind, they would have been a feast for the hyenas and the roaming dogs. They would shoot the people in the late afternoon, till sunset. I could hear the machine guns when they were shooting and I worked that way for many days, burying men in uniforms and also civilians. The officers had their pens in their pockets, their watches and their boots, and strangely enough those who shot them did not loot their property. It was an impossible mission and I felt pain beyond normal endurance. My only consolation was that by burying the dead I was doing a good deed. In Islam burying the dead is a good deed and a responsibility for any grown man. In any case I could not escape because they would have killed me immediately as they were watching over me day and night.

One day, near the Somali Armed Forces headquarters in Hargeisa, I was burying some dead bodies shot in the evening. While I was moving the dead to the mass grave, an officer from the Ogaden clan called me and told me to bury a dead body which was lying away from the rest of the other bodies. I told him to bring the body to the area where the mass of the dead bodies were lying so that I can bury them together. He became furious and started abusing me and calling me names like “Qurmis” and “son of a filthy father”, asking me how do I dare bury this soldier who was from his own clan and loyal to the government, with this SNM filth. I replied and told him that for me there was no difference between the dead bodies. Hearing my answer, he pulled out his pistol and shot at me. I was lucky, the bullet only grazed me and went through my shirt, but there was no blood. Colonel Mohamed Alin, who was close by, threatened the other officer that he will shoot him if he tries to kill me.

Another day while I was burying more dead, a truck stopped near me with eight bodies. I looked closely because these bodies looked different from all those I had buried since I started working on the mass graves. They were the bodies of teenagers in secondary school uniforms. There were no bullet wounds on their bodies nor any other type of wounds. I asked the truck driver whether those had been strangled with ropes. The truck driver was crying and could not answer my question for some time. He finally replied and told me that their blood had been drained completely till the last drop and showed me the medical plaster on their arms where the blood had been drained from. It had been taken out for transfusing the army soldiers. The faces of those dead children looked different from those of adults who had been shot to death. They looked as if they were in a deep sleep because they had not died violently.

Another day while I was burying the dead, I saw one man lying among the dead, crying and asking me for help. He was still alive and was asking me to untie him. Without hesitation I took my knife and got down from the bulldozer and moved towards the man who was calling for help without realizing the risk I was taking. Immediately the soldiers ran towards me and stopped me, with their guns pointing at me. They lifted me up in the air and threw me under the bulldozer. Then they all turned towards the man who was crying for help and they started shooting at him from different sides, they were crazy with anger and they shot so many bullets that they set a large patch of dry grass on fire. I got back to my seat, feeling depressed and demoralized, and went to the garage to park the bulldozer, and I left the place in a terrible mood.

I kept moving the dead that way for 28 days straight and then the number of the massacred people decreased because many people had escaped from Hargeisa and moved to the outskirts and the rural areas. The number of dead soldiers and officers decreased and I started to bury more civilians. I used to dig the mass graves starting in the morning, after the morning prayers, and I started to get bodies from different areas of the city to the three major graves. There was one near Malka Durduru, another one near Abu Sita milk factory and the third one was in Sinai. The dead were transported by trucks from different areas and they were dumped in the mass graves I had started to prepare in the morning. Some of the dead fell in the graves while others would fall outside, and it was my duty to make sure they were all buried properly. I remember one area called Doqonmawaaye near the head office of the telecommunications and the old bridge of Hargeisa where heaps of dead bodies had accumulated and the soldiers used them as a shield against the fire of the SNM fighters. Among the dead I saw a child who was hanging to the body of his mother, and I believe the child must have died when the mother was breastfeeding him.

In the end I was burying less and less people because all the civilians had fled the city and the fighting was between the SNM and the armed forces. I used to collect the military dead from the Hargeisa Group Hospital. After the war, I was interviewed by many foreign agencies and human rights activists, and I usually told them that what I am telling them is the truth and I asked them what they were going to do about it. They did not know what to answer and they spoke in general terms.[281]

‘In general terms’ the battle of the cities had mostly petered off during July 1988. There were still sporadic skirmishes in Hargeisa and around Berbera. The Somali government was then calling on the Arab countries for help, with the discreet underlying message that this was a ‘fight for Islam’. Egypt, the UAE, Libya and Kuwait all responded with dribbles of military aid and a bit of cash. In spite of (limited) Ethiopian support for the SNM offensive, the pretense of respecting the 4 April Djibouti Agreement continued. On 26 July 1988 the Ethiopian Minister of Defense, Mesfin Gebre Meskel, went to Mogadishu and proceeded to exchange 3,507 Ethiopian prisoners for 229 Somali ones.[282] On 17 July the SNA recaptured Burao, but this did not stop the relentless air attacks on the refugee columns by the Hawker Hunters. Nevertheless, if the ‘war of the cities’ had been a clear tactical defeat for the SNM (with the civilians paying the highest price), it began later to turn slowly into a strategic victory.

This happened in two ways. Firstly, the exhausted SNA was in the process of breaking down into its clanic component units, with parts of regiments not fully deserting but rather breaking ranks and rejoining their clan brothers in order to reconstitute clanically coherent units, where the soldiers felt safer because they were shoulder-to-shoulder with people they considered relatives.[283] These new, increasingly autonomous units held out in the northern towns they had reconquered but were surrounded by a hostile countryside. Secondly, those military clanic elements that felt ill at ease with the new quasigenocidal developments originating from Mogadishu began to divorce themselves from the ‘national’ army. This was the case in Somalia proper for the Majerteen, for the Hawiye and even, in the end, for large segments of the Ogadeni. In the ‘Somaliland North’, the Issa and Gaddabursi in Awdal (west) and the Dhulbahante in Togdheer (east) began to chart their own course, distinct both from those of the government and the SNM.

This clanic disintegration was a complex phenomenon. There were, of course, feelings of moral disgust towards the crimes perpetrated by the illnamed ‘security forces’. But more than anything else, there was a growing fear that the regime was now on a course of accelerating collapse, progressively losing control of more and more areas of legitimate authority. The economy was a wreck,[284] the army was dissolving, and the very clan structure on which Somali state politics had been precariously perched was beginning to wobble. The implosion of pan-Somalism, which had been triggered by the 1978 defeat, started to impact on its initial component factors. After 1988, ‘Somaliland’ was back, even though many of its actors were neither aware of this nor willing to adopt this course. But the May–July 1988 northern horrors had dealt a death blow to what we called earlier ‘the Dream’. How could the Somali ‘dream of unity’ survive a situation in which genocidal violence had rolled over the land like a torrent of blood? The SNM leadership was still largely united. But by then the ordinary northern population had entered into a quiet divorce and the next few years were only going to deepen the divide. As for the rest of the country, the clanic scramble, which started in the wake of the northern ‘war of the cities’, soon began to turn into a free-for-all. As the national government started to slide into a slow-motion collapse, the various clans began to look for clanic safety nets, each territory turning itself into a protective zone. The unraveling of Somalia had begun.

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