There is a painful irony in Somalia’s predicament. Internal conflict is tearing apart the one nation in Africa that is truly homogeneous — ethnically, culturally, and linguistically, a unity that has been strengthened by a common Islamic heritage. Somalia had other advantages. Independence was celebrated in 1960 amidst genuine enthusiasm at the opportunity to unite the southern and northern regions, which had been colonized by Italy and Britain respectively. History bequeathed Somalia a unique opportunity to forge a united nation. Today, after twenty years of rule by the regime of President Mohamed Siyad Barre, all that seems a distant memory. Massive human rights abuses, resulting in war, disintegration, and mistrust, have made it impossible to keep alive the dream of unity. The flight of hundreds of thousands of refugees to Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, the United Kingdom, Holland and Canada, and the additional hundreds of thousands displaced within the country are a sad testimony to the colossal failure of the dream of unity. The loss of their homes is also a powerful indictment of the repressive policies and practices of the regime in power.

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


The cost is staggeringly high in any terms, with people dead, wounded, displaced and impoverished and cities demolished. The most bloody conflict and the longest-lasting has been the war in the north against the Isaak clan, the largest in the region. The government has been actively at war with the Isaaks throughout the 1980s, and particularly since 1981, after the creation of an Isaak-based anti-government guerrilla organization, the Somali National Move­ment (SNM). Suspecting every Isaak of supporting the SNM, the government unleashed a reign of terror and lawlessness in northern Somalia. The authorities exploited the emergence of the SNM to justify the savagery against individuals and groups that criticized government policies and leadership, or merely because of their clan affiliation.

The abuses we describe in this report are not only a concern of the past. Abuses that have become well-established in the north have become common elsewhere. Similar policies are now also being pursued in southern and central Somalia against the Ogaden and Hawiye clans in reprisal for their support of two rebel movements, respectively the Somali Patriotic Movement (SPM) and the United Somali Congress (USC).

The Somali government’s campaigns against the SNM, the SPM, and the USC have been waged as if such wars were subject to no rules. The Geneva Conventions, which the Somali government has ratified, and other rules of war, have been disregarded. It is enough that someone belongs to the clan behind the insurgency group to be regarded as “anti-government,” a label that justifies any abuse, including murder. Increasingly harsh counter-insurgency measures have resulted in the wholesale slaughter of non-combatants, aerial bombardment of civilian targets, secret detentions in squalid conditions, the burning of vil­lages, the indiscriminate use of landmines, the deliberate destruction of reser­voirs and the killing of livestock, the lifeline of the rural population. For many years, there has been no respite from the cruelty of the army and security agencies. Entire regions have been devastated by a military engaged in combat against its own people, resembling a foreign occupation force that recognizes no constraints on its power to kill, rape, or loot. Somalia is torn by violence and anger that express deep-seated grievances. Nothing in recent memory prepared the victims for the sheer scale of the atrocities.

The survivors have not escaped either. The violence has taken its toll in ways that reach beyond physical survival. What of the minds gone mad with grief? The minds of mothers mourning the baby boys seized from their backs and bayonetted because “the little bastard will grow up to be an SNM sup­porter”? The minds deranged by the death of so many loved ones? The anger that festers in so many fathers and husbands held at gunpoint outside their houses while soldiers raped their daughters, their wives, and their sisters?

Among many of those interviewed by Africa Watch, the effort to find words to describe their experiences invoked a bewildering range of emotions:  anger, bitterness, anxiety, and determination that the world should know the truth. The savagery of the government’s policies far exceeds the capacity of language to capture the horrors of state-sponsored terrorism. The look of anguish, the pain and suppressed fury that crept into their voices and the intensity of the emotions that accompanied their words made it easier to imagine the unimaginable and made the unthinkable mundane. The psychological price of their trauma is suggested by the number of people who complained of depression, insomnia, nightmares, loss of appetite and fatigue. Many refugees spoke of being “psychologically overwhelmed”. Coping with lives imbued with so much fear and insecurity makes the prospect of “normality” beyond the grasp of most of the survivors.

War broke out on May 27, 1988, when the SNM attacked Burao, one of the main towns in the north. On May 31, they attacked Hargeisa, the provincial capital of the region and the second city in the country. Refugees told Africa Watch repeatedly that, frustrated by their efforts to defeat in direct combat the small and poorly armed SNM guerrilla force, the army turned its firepower, including its air force and artillery, against them, the civilian popula­tion, causing predictably high casualties. Our estimate of the number killed during the past nineteen months shot point-blank range, or as a result of aerial bombardment and artillery shelling is in the vicinity of 50,000 to 60,000. In that period, nearly half a million have fled the country, the majority for the in­hospitable refuge of the desert in neighboring Ethiopia. The figures are so high because the army sought both to punish civilians for their presumed support for the SNM attacks and to discourage them from further assistance to the guerrillas.

We are publishing this report at a time when the pattern of abuses that characterized northern Somalia is becoming “normal” in the central and southern regions. The indiscriminate use of deadly force, massacres, the looting of private homes and the rape of women by soldiers that accompany arrests and house-to-house searches are, once again in Hiran, Gallkayo, and Kismayo the government’s response to any hint of resistance.

The government has consistently denied that civilians have been killed or that civilian targets have been destroyed deliberately. It has dismissed criticism of its conduct as “propaganda.” Cultivating the fiction that the damage has been the work of “bandits,” it has sought to legitimize its practices by describing civilian casualties as “exceptional episodes,” “unfortunate” but “inevitable” consequences of counter-insurgency operations. We disagree. The military exigencies that justify the shelling of residential districts without any effort to evacuate or warn civilians, the aerial bombardment of non-combatants fleeing the war, and massacres of civilians who had set-up temporary shelters in the countryside are not apparent to us. The frequency with which such practices have been employed belie the effort to label them as “exceptional.”

The first-hand testimonies Africa Watch has gathered from many witnesses make it clear that the slaughter of defenseless civilians was not an “aberration.” Rather, it was the result of calculation, the outcome of a specific conception of how the war against the insurgents should be fought. This strategy has no regard for the civilians living in the zones of conflict. Such methods were first employed in central Somalia in 1978-1981 against Majerteen civilians, to deprive the Somali Democratic Salvation Front, formed by members of the Majerteen clan, of a social and political base.

The Somali government has denied journalists, representatives of human rights groups and representatives of humanitarian organizations access to the war-affected regions. Though the obvious consequence is to cast doubts on the government’s denials of brutality, the exclusion of independent observers has also limited pressure against abuses. Also, the decision by an increasing number of aid agencies to withdraw because of the lack of security places civilians beyond the protective reach of international observation.

In the long-term, some of the most troubling consequences are the destruction of social values that underpinned a whole way of life. Particularly damaging is the demise of Somalia’s delicate clan structure. As one refugee told Africa Watch, “one’s clan used to be essentially an address. Under Siyad Barre, it has become literally a matter of life and death, both for the individual and the group.”* After years of manipulation, this has been turned into a mechanism for political domination, a tool for the exploitation of targeted clans and a means for those in power to sustain a life of spectacular profit and plunder.

With the exception of South Africa, the world has been slow to condemn the cruelties of despotic regimes in Africa, in spite of abundant evidence that violations are widespread and serious. The reasons are varied, but underlying this neglect is the attitude that little can be done for people living under such regimes nor may anything better be expected of these governments. These are not reasons the world can be proud of. Whatever the reasons for failing to exert pressure on the responsible governments, the effect is to facilitate massive abuses. Speaking out about human rights abuses is the responsibility of all those whose circumstances give them a free voice to defend the rights of those whose rights have been denied to them.

For too long, many Africans, foreign governments and observers have welcomed the intervention of military regimes in the political affairs of African nations, as a means of providing the “stability” Africa needs, the bulwark against chaos and weak government. The regime of Mohamed Siyad Barre highlights the fact that in Somalia, as elsewhere in Africa and Latin America, military control of the political process has not in fact been a guarantor of stability. On the contrary, military supremacy has emasculated political development, left a society that is deeply divided, retarded economic progress, failed to legitimize the rule of those in power, created turmoil in neighboring countries and has contributed significantly to instability in a volatile region.

Rebuilding a society that has been utterly devastated politically, economically and socially will be a daunting task. It will be even more difficult unless the international community is ready to act in a decisive manner to stem the violence and to halt the fragmentation of the country. Africa Watch calls in particular on the governments of the mass protests in cities around the U.S. against an executive order that would block millions of people from entering the United States, the European Community, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates to exert pressure on the government to end its violent policies. By recording in detail the experiences of the victims, we hope to make international opinion aware of the tragedy in Somalia and to make it impossible to ignore the anguish of its people. Above all, we hope the result will be a concerted effort to alleviate the human misery that Somalia has come to represent.

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