An attempt at a quick snapshot of 1991

The flight of the dictator was of course a key marker in the fifteen-year-old conflict. But it was not the end of the war. On the contrary, the conflict festered. Paradoxically, this was because of the turning point represented by the ‘peace agreement’ signed in Djibouti in April 1988. The plan was to try making peace by insisting on an end to Somalia’s military pressure in the Ogaden borders through its support for SALF, the WSLF and even, marginally, for the TPLF, in exchange for a reciprocal Ethiopian disengagement from its support for SNM and SSDF. At the time, the SSDF had shrunk to a ghost of its former self but the SNM was hanging on steadfastly and represented a serious military threat. And while SSDF had little to lose—it was already lost in its own contradictions—carrying out the provisions of the agreement would have been political and military suicide for the SNM. This was what invalidated the deal. As we saw earlier, the SNM doctored the truth to retain local support for a policy diametrically opposed to the tactical withdrawal Mengistu had chosen. On the other side, SALF or WSLF, having very little autonomy and independent resources, remained largely appendices of Siyad Barre’s regime.

But the SNM was the key problem, the square peg that would not fit in the round hole. It had the means to carry on fighting and the collective will to do so. But it was far from Mogadishu and there was no realistic way it could get there. In spite of his rapid weakening—the press had nicknamed him ‘the Mayor of Benadir’[323]—Siyad remained the centerpiece of the international legitimacy game. This is why the USC and the SPM[324] played the key roles in the fall of the regime. Why them when the real military battering ram was the northern SNM? Well, exactly for that reason: the SNM was northern and Mogadishu was in the south. Both rebel organizations had had initial support from SNM, particularly in the case of the USC.[325] Both were based on clan families that had either been pro-Barre or loosely allied to the Darood clan cluster, which underpinned the Siyad political system. But these two organizations were ‘young’, and they had been quickly put together after the massive 1988 battle in the north began to show that the days of the regime could be counted. Siyad had reacted clumsily to the Isaaq threat. Instead of broadening the clanic appeal of his regime, he battened down the hatches, surrounding himself increasingly with men of his own Marehan clan and marginalizing Hawiye and Ogadeni allies. But given the peculiar nature of Somali society, which makes any fighting force a clanic tributary of the civilian environment in which it operates, the main rebel force—the SNM—could not go all the way to Mogadishu through hostile territories to deliver the coup de grace. And those who could—the USC, the SPM—were new to the rebellion, poorly organized and divided along sub-clanic lines.

The year 1988 and its massive slaughterhouse effect had broken open the clanic fault lines that lay under all the various armies involved in the civil war. Now it was every clan for itself. The SNA stopped being ‘the government’s army’, splintering into clanic and sub-clanic regiments. The SNM, through its initial success and subsequent failure, became highly visible, resulting in the massive recruitment of untrained Isaaq clansmen who naturally followed their traditional elders or their local sub-clanic ‘strongmen’ rather than the disciplined officer corps which had led the movement until the ‘battle for the cities’. For different reasons but with similar consequences, just like the ‘national’ army, the SNM morphed from a tight, professional war machine into a much larger but much more unstable instrument. In the more polite words of Horn specialist Patrick Gilkes, ‘it went from a small professional revolutionary movement to a larger group fighting a people’s war’. The overall result was that all competing forces ended with the same problems: weakening of hierarchical structures, increasingly clanic recruitment, a switch from global to local objectives, and a ballooning size. The only force that saw its numbers decline was the Somali National Army (SNA), as many of its men deserted to join the various rebel guerrilla groups and as it became itself one of the loose contenders for power, under the name of the Somali National Front (SNF).


So by early 1991 Somalia had literally broken asunder, with the former government itself having turned into a militia and with each local clan or sub-clan attempting to position itself in the free-for-all to defend its own group interests. It was a war of shifting alliances, where today’s enemy became tomorrow’s ally. But violent as this Hobbesian war of all against all had become, it was never meaningless in the narrow sense. Past history still weighed on the present, and logical threads—admittedly quite intertwined— were still being followed by the actors. This was, of course, a perfect recipe for absolute misunderstanding on the part of the international community because foreign states operating on the Westphalian pattern were almost completely blind to the Somali logic. This was not a case of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (even if these adjectives had indeed fields of applicability) but a question of cognitive perception, of different paradigms. And it was made even more complicated by the fact that SNM and the ‘Somalilanders’ were odd Somalis marching to a different beat, lying in-between the one common to all Somalis and the foreign one. SNM partook of both and belonged to neither.

The south: Falling from the main battle into secondary ones

Siyad Barre’s flight was immediately followed on the next day by a clash among his victors, Mohamed Farah Aydid on one side and Mohamed Nur ‘Galal’ on the other. Both were Hawiye (but from different sub-clans). Aydid led the USC radical group and Galal supported the more moderate USC Rome/Manifesto group.[326] Four days later, Ali Mahdi was named (or named himself ) ‘head of state’, something in which not even the USC had a part because it was by then deeply divided into the two main clanic branches, the Ali Mahdi branch and the Mohamed Farah Aydid branch. Ali Mahdi is an Abgaal Waiisle while Mohamed Farah Aydid was a Habr Gidir Sa’ad. Both clans are part of the Hawiye clan family but they were deeply divided and the only thing the two branches of USC could implicitly agree on was fighting the Darood—and eventually even the Isaaq.[327] This had led the Omar Jess-led fraction of the SPM to occupy Afgooye at the beginning of February. The Ogadeni—Jess’s clan—were being killed systematically in the capital. Jess expressed dismay at having to keep fighting, especially against anti-dictatorship forces, but his ally in SPM, Adan Abdullahi Nur ‘Gabiyow’, told him: ‘Forget about any talk of negotiations. There can be no settlement, we will talk through the gun.’[328] Jess cut off Mogadishu’s water supply and stopped the selling of milk and vegetables, thus effectively starving Mogadishu.[329] So on 10 February a USC–Ali Mahdi force counter-attacked and pushed him out of Afgooye. He retreated south and went to Kismayo where he met with Mohamed Said Hersi ‘Morgan’ and joined forces with the man who had been his colleague, commanding officer and later enemy. They both received help from Siyad Barre, still holed up in Gedo.

Two weeks later Aydid, who saw himself not as part of the new government he wanted to create but as its leader, attacked Galkayo where remnants of the SSDF had been trying to set up some kind of regional authority. Because of geographical proximity, attacking Galkayo was a red rag for the Majerteen; but the Majerteen are close relatives of the Harti, who populate the coast between Benadir and the Lower Jubba. Incensed by this USC–Aydid attack in the north-east, the local Harti population turned against the USC occupiers of the south and retook the string of southern harbors (Marca, Brava, Gelib) which the USC had just taken. The Harti–Majerteen alliance then became de facto a former government ally. They kept moving and reached Afgooye, where the USC, which saw the danger, ‘reunited’ (even if this did not last long) and beat them back (at the battle of Afgooye on 20 March 1991). The USC being thus preoccupied, the SSDF counter-attacked and occupied Shalambot and El Bur.

What was the SNM reaction to all this confusion? First of all, it tried to assert itself in the north, but still without any explicitly secessionist agenda. Berbera had been occupied on 30 January and Hargeisa, Burao and Borama in early February. But even though secession was still on the cards, reinforcing oneself vis-à-vis the south was present in the minds of most men of the various Isaaq clans. There were constant contacts with the former Dhulbahante enemies and a preliminary meeting was held between SNM and Dhulbahante elders in Burao in February, stressing their common ‘Somaliland’ heritage vis-à-vis the southerners. Those who were still actively trying to support a unitary cause in the Ali Mahdi–Omar Arteh ‘government’[330] had a difficult job in this game of competing loyalties. In order to try to attract the northerners, Omar Arteh (himself an Isaaq Habr Awal Sa’ad Musa) had tried to get the Hawiye hardliners with whom he was now allied to accept some northern representatives. He managed to include Garaad Abdigani Garaad Jama and give him the position of Minister of Foreign Affairs. Garaad Abdigani was a Dhulbahante, i.e. a member of the Darood clan family, and Arteh hoped this would make him more acceptable—a dubious calculation given the ethnic cleansing of Daroods by Hawiye in the capital.

Garad was a clever man and he quickly realized that his position was symbolic, not real. So on 3 February he discreetly left and became the Dhulbahante representative at the big shir of the northern clans in Berbera. That shir was in fact the venue where representatives of the various Somaliland clans began discussing publicly the issue of the possible independence of the former British colony. It was, of course, a move of northern self-assertion but it was certainly at least as much a reaction to the madness of clanic war in the south. This was a policy of ‘small footsteps’ but a reasonable one, in view of the mess in the south, if a similar anarchy was to be avoided in the north. The lurking danger could swoop down at any time.

On 9 February SNM units skirmished with the USF on the Djibouti border and the SNM leader Suleiman Mohamed Aden ‘Gal’ felt it necessary to warn both Djibouti and Rome about non-intervention in the post-Siyad Barre conflict.[331] On 27 February the SNM called a meeting of Isaaq, Gaddabursi, Warsangeli and Dhulbahante elders, which issued a communiqué criticizing ‘the unilateral creation of a non-representative interim government’ and demanding that a big shir be held at the national level on 27 April. The SNM declaration also asked for a re-examination of the 1960 Act of Union. In the same communiqué the SNM refused in advance to take part in the so-called Conference of National Reconciliation which was due to be held on 14 March.[332]

Meanwhile, in the south, the clanic war situation was becoming more and more confused. After the Harti–Majerteen offensive against the capital and its failure in Afgooye at the hands of the USC, for the next two months the two armies were toing and froing along the southern coast, with minimal strategic results and maximum numbers of civilian casualties.[333] Then, superimposing itself on this catastrophic situation, the two branches of USC started to fight each other in the streets of the capital, for purely clanic reasons. The Hawiye had emerged as city bosses following the ethnic cleansing war in Mogadishu, and now their two main branches, Abgaal and Habr Gidir, were fighting it out for control of what was left of the capital.

Omar Arteh, the man who was still officially the Prime Minister, was then permanently stationed in Djibouti for fear of being kidnapped and held hostage by one faction or the other. He kept visiting all the capitals of the Arab world in the vain hope of securing a viable mediation. In this confusion Siyad Barre managed to put together a broad Darood coalition and to counterattack in the direction of the capital. In early April he came close to reoccupying Mogadishu, reaching all the way to Afgooye before being defeated by the USC, which again briefly abandoned its internecine quarrels to fight its reemergent former enemies (3–13 April 1991).

Seen from the north, the whole thing looked like madness. This was the moment the Italians chose to send a military delegation to Berbera in a bid to marshal the SNM into the broad ‘unitarist’ conference they kept trying to promote; but the Italian delegation was politely refused entry. The day before, in fact, Mario De Sica, former Italian Ambassador to Mogadishu, had been strafed at the Kismayo airport by a USC Mig (he escaped unharmed) while conferring with the Darood forces of the former dictatorship. This Darood alliance—representing in fact the surviving forces of the fallen dictatorship— could sense they had the support of the international community because, in the Westphalian perspective typical of the West, they seemed to represent the only resistance to the dual forces of catastrophe in Somalia, viz clanic anarchy on the one hand and secession on the other. These forces behaved as if, in a way, they still had some form of legitimacy and, by force of habit, the regional authorities seemed to follow them. The Darood forces, operating under the organizational label of Somali National Front (SNF), were based in Gedo, buying their fuel and their ammunition in Kenya. Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi declared: ‘It is impossible to say who runs that country (Somalia) since anybody you talk to says that he is in power.’[334] Fighting continued in Nugaal and in the Lower Jubba, with USC fighting both the Darood alliance and the regrouped remnants of SSDF.

On 3 May 1991 Mario De Sica and Sami Heiba[335] flew to Hargeisa, asking Abdirahman ‘Tuur’ to participate in a recycled version of the now-mythical Cairo National Reconciliation Conference. Both men knew that a large Somaliland shir was about to take place, and they both rightfully feared that this meeting would have on its agenda the unspoken but predictable question: independence. Tuur did not want it and his close associates did not want it either; but what was the alternative? The south was still a hornet’s nest where the fighting clans had nothing to offer, except more violence and an aim of renewed domination. The northern ‘unitarians’ were directly at odds with their own public opinion, with their own political base and with the rank and file of their military forces. The question was bound to be tabled and remained controversial.

The issue of secession was not part of the SNM ideology and it was not written in its constitution. But it was a hidden agenda for some SNM leaders and for some Isaaq sub-clans. The central goal of the SNM was to overthrow the dictatorship of General Siyad Barre and to liberate the country from oppression. The leader of the SNM during the last phase of the liberation struggle in the north was Abdirahman Ahmed Ali ‘Tuur’, who was strongly against the secession of the north from the rest of Somalia. He rather supported a loose confederation like the Emirates in the Gulf. The ex-chairman of the SNM, Sillanyo, on his part, supported a union where the Isaaq and the Hawiye would form an alliance.[336] But the announcement of the presidency of Ali Mahdi in Mogadishu in 1991 without consulting the SNM gave a boost to those in the north who supported the secession of Somaliland. This is one of the factors that influenced strongly the Burao conference in May 1991.[337]

The north: Trying to manage a fragile peace

Thus the Burao conference with its proclamation of independence was neither a foregone conclusion nor a careful plot of—(here insert your choice of villains, from Israel to Ethiopia and from enemies of Islam to the CIA), as Somali nationalists or international supporters of the Westphalian state system would have it. It was a complex convergence of historical, political and cultural circumstances to which we will have to return. But first we have to describe how the ‘day after’ (i.e. after the flight of Siyad Barre) looked from the north’s perspective. The most painful question was vengeance.[338]

There were two trials of SNA and NSS personnel, but one of them is not known to the public. There was the official one which sat in Berbera later and another one which took place in Abdaal village in the last days of the war. During the four days we spent in Abdaal before we attacked Berbera, we had captured many prisoners belonging to the regime. The court that was formed was basically illegal and ordered the execution of many people. My estimate is that 50 to 60 people were considered guilty and given death sentences, which were carried out by the SNM. The judges were only two men, one of them a school teacher, and their judgment was based on this question: what would these accused men have done if they had captured us? … But I believe it was a wrong sentence.

The real court in Berbera later had a legally appointed judge who was an SNM commander, called Abdul Hakim Sumuni. There was a proper prosecuting process and there were many witnesses who attested to the innocence or guilt of the prisoners. Each conviction was based on hearing at least ten witnesses on each case. Those who were recognized as innocent were treated well and escorted to a safe place. We took some of these to very far places, like the Ogaden or Gedo for the Marehan. All the Warsangeli prisoners were also taken to their clan territory and escorted there by Isaaq clan elders. I know that some people were killed illegally outside of court. But we were in a war situation. This is why we had to escort those who were not guilty, to protect them.[339]

So there were executions, but not many, and almost none for members of the non-Isaaq Somaliland clans. But there was a special problem for the Ogadeni, who are not ‘native Somalilanders’ but who reside part-time in Somaliland’s Hawd region and who were massively involved in the war after 1978.[340]

The Ogadenis fought against us very hard in the areas they occupied. But a few of them had joined SNM so we told those: ‘Anyone who surrenders to you and hands over his gun to us, let them get out without suffering any harm. But if they don’t surrender, let’s crush them with artillery.’ They fought as long as they could, but when they saw the government declining, they got away, went back to Ethiopia … After we captured a lot of them as they fled, we had this conflict among us about whether or not to release them. This was in Jijiga.[341] But when we let them go, remnants of the SNA army even robbed these poor fleeing people. Our only targets were those with guns. We never killed those with no guns and we ordered our young fighters not to kill those without weapons, but in some cases they did not tell their officers and they killed them anyway. But if we captured them, we gave them some clothes and medicine and released them. Also we never tortured them, even if we suspected they were spies. But the SSDF, they tortured anyone they captured.[342]

Right after vengeance—less compelling but more important in the medium term—came the question of security and organization.

The SNM had no program when it took over the country. There was also disorganization and chaos among the SNM members themselves, who were weak and unprepared for the situation they were faced with. On the other hand, the aid brought by foreign NGOs was well meant but it added to the chaos because it caused competition and looting. This is how the port of Berbera became a bone of contention because it was overflowing with goods when nobody had anything.[343]

This was the moment when the Mogadishu ‘government’ chose to send a delegation to the SNM in a bid to use diplomatic means to keep the country together.

The delegation of five members arrived at Berbera airport, which was controlled by the SNM combatants. The delegation was immediately arrested and kept in a room at the airport, where they were called traitors who conspired against Somaliland in favor of Mogadishu. After an intervention from the SNM commanders, they were released and booked in the only decent hotel left, the Hotel Shide. In the beginning Chairman Tuur refused to meet the delegation because he knew them all very well and he knew their agenda did not agree with what the SNM believed. Tuur asked his executive committee to meet with the delegation but the delegation refused to talk to the committee. So he went to meet them anyway. The delegation informed him that everybody in Mogadishu was looking towards Hargeisa for leadership and that the SNM could announce Hargeisa as the new capital of Somalia, for nobody in Mogadishu would object.

They concluded that the SNM had a blank cheque and that it could demand all they had missed in the thirty years of unity with Somalia. Abdirahman ‘Tuur’ did not disappoint them but promised that the issue would be presented to all the clans living in Somaliland during the coming conference, though he was not very much convinced by all that information. Therefore Tuur and his administration decided that they needed to hold a consultative meeting to discuss the future of the north and the relationship with southern Somalia.

In March a consultative meeting for all the clans of Somaliland was organized in Berbera in the absence of the chairman, who was still in Addis Ababa. But the meeting was stopped by a number of SNM insurgents, not because they wanted to prevent the conference from taking place but simply because they wanted to loot. They stole all the vehicles belonging to the delegates of the Dhulbahante and the Warsangeli. In the end, the meeting finally took place and issued two key conclusions: first, the fact that the non-Isaaq accepted for the time being the authority of the SNM in the country; second, that a period of peace and reconciliation was planned, with the establishment of two committees, one for the western region and another one for the east. Sanaag region, in the far east of the country, was the last region to be liberated from the forces of Siyad Barre. The situation there was conflict-prone because during the years of unity the Isaaq who lived in the east had been deprived of their lands and now they wanted revenge. So Ahmed Mire, the SNM commander in Sanaag, had a big problem. The Dhulbahante and the Warsangeli had sent their elders to this Berbera conference to present their case to the participants in the meeting, and when they came, they had been robbed.[344]

The proposal of the delegation from Mogadishu was both symptomatic and impossible. The delegates did not even want to challenge the SNM position but, on the contrary, made fantastic propositions that they knew were unrealistic. There was both a recognition of the situation and a complete lack of realism in trying to deal with it. The contrast with the situation of the March conference in Berbera was striking: then there was no pretence—everything was a mess and everybody knew it. And so it began on a real basis, with looting, rebellion and theft in the foreground. The only way clanic catastrophes could be avoided in the north was if they were acknowledged from the start as a high-risk possibility.

This possibility almost became reality with the battle of Dilla, in the west, which is populated by non-Isaaq clans.

Dilla is on the highway to Borama and the SNM forces reached there first. The Siyad Barre forces, which had fled Hargeisa, had reached Dilla but of course the people of Dilla were not defending them but rather they were defending themselves and their properties. Dilla was a cattle market and densely populated. At the same time the people were well armed and prepared to resist any external force. The battle of Dilla was bloody but in the end most of the population escaped to the Aw Barre refugee camp, just over the Ethiopian border. As a result the town was looted and the people of Dilla accused their bitter enemies and neighbors, the Isaaq sub-clan of the Jibril Abokor, of having carried out the looting.

During the SNM struggle against General Siyad Barre, the clans living in Awdal had fought against SNM on the government’s side. Therefore, when the SNM forces reached Awdal in early 1991, local people were concerned that the Issa and the Gaddabursi would come to fight the Jibril Abokor clan of the Isaaq since they were neighbors and the Jibril Abokor wanted revenge. In fact, it was not so bad because the SNM unit that first reached Awdal was the Koodbur regiment.[345] Abdirahman Aw Ali, the SNM commander, was later accused of being responsible for the looting even though he was not even there. He came later when he heard that the Koodbur force had met with difficulties. And in addition, he is not even Isaaq, he is a Gaddabursi of the Rer Jibril Yunis subclan. But he is from Borama, so the people of Dilla say he protected his kinsmen but not them.

The difficult situation in Borama was exacerbated by hunger and lack of food. When Abdirahman Aw Ali reached Borama (after the battle of Dilla), the people saw the SNM forces as the best solution to the unbearable situation in town. Abdirahman Aw Ali, in collaboration with the elders, ordered the merchants to reopen their stores and sell their commodities at a reasonable price. Before, they had closed in the hope of raising the prices of the dry rations.

Everybody was armed and ready to fight. There were militants of the SDA,[346] of the Oromo,[347] of several Gaddabursi sub-clans. But Abdirahman Aw Ali called the heads of the clan militias to a meeting in Goroyo Cawl to negotiate a peace deal with the SNM. Finally all the participants agreed that the SNM should pull out of Awdal and the SNM agreed since their man, Abdirahman Aw Ali, controlled the situation in Borama. The number of people who died during the confrontation in Borama (actually Dilla) was 300. So this allows the Gaddabursi to respond to the Isaaq when they talk about genocide by the Siyad Barre government and also claim that they have been massacred by the Isaaq and that they also have their mass graves. But the numbers have nothing in common.[348]

This was the situation in the west. The other non-Isaaq area of Somaliland was at the other end of the territory, in the eastern region of Sanaag.

When I reached Erigavo in March 1991 the town was in the hands of two Isaaq clans, the Habr Yunis and the Habr Ja’alo. The two local Darood clans, the Dhulbahante and the Warsangeli, had retreated to their territory for security reasons since it was their side which had lost the war. The clans were separated by a thin band of people called Sharubo Libaax (the lion’s whiskers) There was also a group called Gaadishi, armed men who moved in the bush and attacked their enemies by surprise. They came from all clans and had no political aims. Their purpose was only looting. Some SNM regiments also took part in the looting because they said now it was their turn. But the Isaaq elders did not want this to continue. They maintained that since Siyad Barre and his supporters had committed crimes against us and we had consequently taken up arms, therefore this was the reason why we should not be committing the same crimes against them after we defeated them in the war …

The communication system was mostly through HF radios, which were available in most villages. The women were also the ambassadors who connected community leaders on all sides. It was the community leaders who continued the communications to keep the peace and monitor the ceasefire situation. At times the women carried written messages. Later on frontier committees were established on both sides of the demarcation line; this was to monitor the ceasefire and maintain peace when violations were taking place. The other reason is that the rangelands having been neutral for a long time, the grass grew and this attracted livestock, something which made all sides want to get closer to the red line and ready to cross it. The need for these permanent monitoring committees was essential. The committees from both sides used to meet in some villages and this was very scary (I know, I was part of the process) because all sides had negative and hostile perceptions of each other. However, starting with these committees, the sides gradually gained confidence and slowly the trust increased. Everyone was armed and there was no active police service. We were the police. The two sides agreed to keep the peace and to inform each other if there were unsanctioned activities posing a threat to the security of the other side. This included the movements of the Gaadishi (bandits). We might also tell the other side that a few days ago, some young men had disappeared from our side and we did not know now where they were and what their objectives were. Therefore please stay alert and watch out for them because they might intend to harm you. A basic reason also for these committees was that on both sides there were politicians who were not happy with the ceasefire and were not in favour of improving relations with the other side. Some units of the SNM were even sabotaging each other in order to compete for economic and political power. But the elders rose to the challenge, given the visible weakness of the SNM. The elders organized peace meetings in Berbera and other locations. They supported the agreements with the non-Isaaq clans and convinced their own clans to forget and to reject plans for revenge.[349]

This careful handling of the situation must be seen against the background of a near-total destruction of every material structure and the mass confusion of the civilians.

After I heard that the refugees had begun to move back, I went to a village called Waribraan and the local people helped me with whatever they had to survive and help my three children … Later, when the Somaliland government was being put together, I travelled back to my home town of Burao. Everything was devastated, houses were destroyed and those that still stood had been looted and their walls were pockmarked by bullets. There were still dead bodies lying around and decaying. For those who didn’t flee and had stayed in the town, you could see the pain and effects of the war showing in their faces. For that reason, it took some time to adapt to the town.[350]

The return to life of normal society was made more difficult by the fact that social structures, even if they had not been as damaged as the physical infrastructure, were far from having been untouched by the nearly ten years of violence.

The SNM had no effective plans or resources to avoid the rush of refugees, those coming from the south and from the bush back to the liberated towns, which were basically rubble. The people were emotional about the liberation and everybody was looking forward to the promises liberation evoked. Hence, the discrepancy between the expectations and the reality faced by these dispossessed and deprived people was shocking to them. This situation created chaos, resentment and competition among the people for the meagre resources that were available at that time. This was the basic reason for the civil strife that developed later. There was an intense competition for any resource or even the hope of some. It was to get at these resources that people competed for control over the seaports, the airports and the limited flow of international aid that was coming into the country. The more the competition, the more hardened the positions of the various clans, sub-clans and even individuals became. In the absence of adequate resources and of an effective administrative system, the people were basically reduced to being scavengers. The other social change that was created by the consequences of the conflict was the fact that men lost their position and role in the families and that women became the breadwinners of the households. This had a profound effect on the conduct of men. Men became disoriented and lost, something which became a basic ingredient of violence.[351]

In this post-apocalyptic landscape, it was not (yet) possible to deal with the situation as a whole. In any case, the SNM had no ‘grand plan’ for a real peace process and the clanic nature of Somali society made such an approach—later favored by the international community—unrealistic. What could be done was one conflict at a time, one peace deal at a time. And it was a delicate process, with material arrangements and a step-by-step follow-up being crucial.

I remember the peace meeting between the Warsangeli and the eastern branch of the Habr Yunis at Jidali in 1992 when I was the secretary for the meeting. The Habr Yunis were the hosts and I was therefore responsible for three things: food, lodging and security. Some of the regional leaders (including our own local SNM commanders) were not happy with the peace process. These fellows stayed in Erigavo and did not even come to Jidali. After the meeting concluded with the peace agreement, our team[352] was worried about trying to keep our side of the agreement since the SNM commanders were not happy with our participation and might want to spoil the deal.[353] Firstly we were relieved when we saw that the other side had reached their territory safely after departing because we were worried that they could be attacked by anyone, especially people from our side, while we were responsible for their security. So our group which had signed the peace agreement decided to work hard to implement the terms of the arrangement. Our action plan included promoting public awareness of what had been signed, debating with our own people opposed to it, and a continuous monitoring of the situation in order to be able to warn the Warsangeli in time. This proved to be successful because the people genuinely wanted peace in spite of the spoiler individuals.

But the most difficult meeting was the one in Dararweyne between the Habr Yunis East and the Dhulbahante. I was also a secretary for that meeting. First, convening the meeting was in itself a big challenge. There was a basic lack of trust between the parties. There again the Habr Yunis were the hosts, but then the Dhulbahante were not sure they were really ready for talking peace. A basic reason for the difficulties was that there were two Isaaq sub-clans among the Habr Ja’alo in Sanaag which had started to fight each other, and this led the Habr Ja’alo to make an alliance with the defeated Darood clans—both Warsangeli and Dhulbahante—to fight each other and to keep the Habr Yunis from making another peace deal. The three clans—Habr Ja’alo, Warsangeli and Dhulbahante—held a number of meetings in Garadag and Shimbirale and agreed to attack Erigavo or the Habr Yunis together. But we were lucky because although they wanted to attack us, they could not trust each other deeply. The Dhulbahante had this commitment and had difficulties in making a decision about participating in the Dararweyne peace meeting that we were trying to organize. There were hard-line members in each of the clans and there were constant quarrels between those who wanted to continue the confrontation and those who supported the conclusion of hostilities.

It took a long time for the Dhulbahante peace faction to win the day and get their fellow clansmen to come. Eventually they arrived at the venue. It took us one month and seven days to conclude the peace agreement. We had to endure the conditions in this barren land where there was a shortage of water, and whatever water there was of poor quality. It was a very isolated and difficult place to stay in but we had to tolerate these conditions because peace was the more important issue at the time. The overall strategy during the holding of the peace meetings was to initially let the two sides and the aggrieved individuals talk as strongly as possible and relate all their grievances. Thus the attitude of the speakers who took turns showed hostility and appeared heated. At times there were occasions when Mr. So-and-so blew up and left the meeting. In the early days, it was all very negative and aggressive. But this was to let people get the opportunity to say whatever they wanted and therefore to find relief. There were also informal sessions that would take place all night. This gave the participants time to get to know each other and to learn each other’s backgrounds. Thus there was a chance to improve trust and build individual relationships which could help healing the war injuries.

After some time we got to the more technical phase and subcommittees were set up to deal with specific issues. If the subcommittees reached a deadlock, we used the sultans to unblock these issues at a different level, solve the issue and take the process forward. Some issues were particularly sensitive, especially the question of landownership. Sanaag had a tradition of private rangelands owned by families, and these rangelands had changed hands during the war. The Habr Yunis, being with the SNM dominant force, had captured lots of rangelands which were claimed by the Dhulbahante. Therefore it was a big challenge for the Habr Yunis elders to convince their own clan members that they had to evacuate these rangelands they occupied, even though they had won the war and the Dhulbahante had lost it.

The other approach that facilitated the success of the meeting was the common agreement that no reparation or blood money would be paid for all those people who had died on both sides during the civil war … This peace meeting helped allow the movement of trade and of people beyond their clan territory. It re-civilized the people and reduced the militarization of the communities. The clans agreed to hold a Sanaag-wide peace process in Erigavo in 1993. Although there were some international NGOs present that supported the conference (Action Aid, Oxfam UK and others), this was basically a locally owned and managed process. The slow pace of negotiations is part of the Somali traditional culture, which allows all individuals (in fact mostly males) to participate and have their say. The other reason is that there was a need to account for the events which were not always commonly agreed upon. And revisiting the past was necessary so that all finally agreed on what had happened. The Erigavo grand conference was held in 1993 and lasted for four months. Some of the agreed terms were:

  • A peace charter that brought all remaining hostilities to an end and recognized the right of all individuals to move freely across the boundaries of all clans;
  • The return of all the large assets (houses, vehicles, some animals) which could be identified;
  • Forgiving the losses of the war, including those killed in the conflict;
  • Creation of a committee to oversee the implementation of these agreed terms; and
  • Heavy sanctions against the peace violators.[354]

The Grand Sanaag Conference was the penultimate peace conference in the north.[355]

Paradoxically, the problem for peace in the north did not come so much from former adversaries. Both in Awdal (west) and in Sanaag (east) there were non-Isaaq, non-SNM clans with their fighters and, as we just saw, clear-sighted men managed to organize meetings and conferences where those who had fought each other managed to agree on processes to bring about, first, a ceasefire and, later, reconciliation. But the core problem came from the broader Isaaq masses, from people who were either members of SNM or its sympathizers. The key words were misery and anarchy.

The civilians and the veterans were running alongside each other. Looting, robbing and killing because of ordinary arguments were very common as there were no resources and everybody had guns. The veterans commonly robbed qat. The doctors had no salaries and no direction. We started self-organized ‘food-forwork’ for doctors at a house behind the presidential house in Hargeisa. The doctors used to sleep in that house and to go to hospital every morning. The hospital had several wards, including two wards that were for people of the fallen regime. Everything was looted, including the shipments of food arriving from Berbera that were destined for those at the hospital and for the wounded. When I received a message at seven in the morning that the veterans’ and the patients’ food had been hijacked, I had to send a group of armed injured veterans to Awbarkhadle with a vehicle, so that they would bring the shipment back to the hospital. The food had been taken by other veterans. But since they knew each other, they talked and they managed to bring back the looted supplies.

The logistical problems were massive. There was a lack of trucks but also a lack of fuel. We used to ask some of the injured veterans to go out and stand in front of the hospital to collect fuel from their fellow veterans driving military vehicles. Since they all knew each other, they would manage to collect a couple of litres from each vehicle to make up twenty litres and run vehicles during the next night.’[356] [357] The word ‘insecurity’ hardly captures the situation. ‘Things were out of hand. Everyone was armed and there was no respect for any government or law. I once saw a young boy of nine or ten carrying a gun the same size as himself and ordering us to give him money at the checkpoint he was managing. I felt devastated by that incident. Another time, I was at a store downtown. A man came running to our store and asked for his gun which somebody had left with us. We asked him what was happening. He said: ‘Give me my gun! give me my gun! these trucks were stolen.’ I asked him not to take the gun and fight. Some women told him they would buy his trucks back. I insisted and other women joined me and we convinced the man not to fight. Finally he agreed, and he even promised us to stop the fight among the others. In fact, the trucks were brought back on the second day and that man is still alive today …

Some incidents were outrageous. The young men who had come back with their arms without respect for any law or anyone were the biggest threat the country faced. It was a volcano ready to erupt at any minute, and that was even before the civil war started. I remember one day while I was standing in front of the house, gunshots and heavy artillery started firing all over the town. The sound was deafening. Everybody started to run for their lives and I thought I was done for. We went into hiding for the next six hours and at around 10 p.m. people came from the downtown area and told us what had happened. They said it was because of the wedding of one of the fighters, and even the heavy artillery was a sign of celebration for his wedding. I could not believe it. I told my mother, who could not believe it either. Someone was celebrating. That was the level of insanity we had reached in this country.

It was the time of the colonels, they were at the centre of every issue. You could hear people saying, ‘This colonel did this, that colonel did that, the colonel is coming, this colonel got killed, colonel, colonel, colonel.’ This shows the level of governance and rule of law we had descended to. One colonel from my clan, Jama Ali Elmi, had refused to take part in the civil war [of 1995]. But instead of being saluted, he was looked down upon and condemned for not supporting his clan. This was the situation of the country …

I also remember another incident. I submitted a proposal to Oxfam Novib, which they accepted. They sent us a woman to travel with us to the site. She came to Burao and Yirowe and saw the devastation and the suffering. When we came back to Sheikh to have breakfast, she refused to eat. We came back to Hargeisa and stayed at Mansoor Hotel, which had only twelve rooms at the time. She was crying throughout the journey and we were ashamed. She told us. ‘I am crying because of the suffering you have caused yourselves.’ The civil war was a lesson for us. Towards the end of the last civil war, I remember the big conference in Ceel Xume by the Habr Yunis. The women who were cooking for the meeting told the young men who were guarding the conference not to let any of the delegates to come out if they fought inside the assembly. They told them to send them back and keep them inside till they reached an agreement. The dust finally settled towards the end of 1996 and the final peace agreement was signed.[358]

Not only were the basics of life deeply affected by the recent fighting, but the ordnance left behind kept causing casualties. The British company Rimfire was contracted by the UN to remove what mines they could; it operated after 1991. During a couple of years of work it removed about 50,000 mines but reckoned that many more remained.

There were mines everywhere particularly around the Hargeisa airport and the various police stations. The first groups that worked for Rimfire were very superficially trained but they managed to remove most of the mines in Hargeisa itself. There was no census of how many died because of those mines, but in every town or village you went there were people missing arms or legs.[359]