After four months, Barud was transferred to the infamous facility at Labaatan Jirow near Baydhabo in southern Somalia. He would spend the next six and half years in solitary confinement, shut in a cramped cell roughly three paces square, including the toilet. Once a day the outside door would be opened for air, and sometimes a little sunshine, to enter the cell. “In February 1989, I heard that there was fighting,” he recalls. “I heard that Hargeisa was deserted and demolished. It was difficult to believe a thing like that. l thought that the stories were exaggerated. l couldn’t accept it.” When he was released one month later, Barud discovered that the stories were accurate, but they were long out of date. The SNM’s nearly suicidal offensive (1,200 of the lightly armed guerrillas confronted two fully equipped army divisions) against the heavily garrisoned northern towns of Hargeisa and Burao, and the government’s savage and devastating reply, had transpired nearly a full year before.
For Barre, the SNM onslaught signaled the beginning of the end. Within months, a group of Ogadeni government officers, led by General Morgan’s (military commander in Hargeisa and Siyad Barre’s son-in-law) operations officer, Colonel Ahmed Omar Jess, deserted their posts in the north and headed south to join the nascent Somali Patriotic Movement. In 1989, the Ethiopian-based military wing of the United Somali Congress (USC), under the leadership of General Mohamed Farah Aidied, had launched offensive operations along the border near Beled Weyne. Stretched between three fronts simultaneously, the Somali National Army would soon become distended and demoralized, fighting for a little more than its survival against the increasingly experienced, well-armed insurrectionary movements. The total collapse was less than two years away.
The May 1988 offensive also marked a point of no return for the SNM. Aden Tarabi Jama was one of the 450 guerrilla fighters in the assault in Burao. “Before I was fighting for a free government for all of Somalia,” but the shock of joining battle changed that. “Then we were fighting to have two governments” Boobe, who had become one of the SNM top cadres, noticed a similar shift in the movement’s orientation. “The aerial bombings, the bombardment, strafing of refugees as they fled to the border, all helped to solidify our sentiment of separateness. Their looting of the cities, the systematic, indiscriminate shelling…We realized we had nothing in common with these people from the south.”
Such sentiment also found expression in the SNM’s relations with other Ethiopian-based rebel movements. Until 1989, about a quarter of the SNM’s central committee was composed of members of other clans who shared the Isaaq’s discontent with the Barre government. Following the outbreak of full-scale civil war in the north, this began to change Both the SPM and USC, initially reliant upon the SNM’s good offices for their Ethiopian patronage, broke away and started to stake out independent areas of operations closer to the battle for the northwest. The facade of a Somali ‘National’ Movement was now effectively dropped.
Despite the movement’s new, sharper focus, 1990 was to prove a difficult year. Under a new commander in the northwest, Gen. Abdulaziz, government forces managed to score an unprecedented victory against the SNM, capturing their bases at Balli Gubadle and Alaybaday and driving the rebels back across the border into Ethiopia. As the SNM fought back to regain lost ground and to restore morale, USC forces of General Aidied fought their way across the Somali capital, SNM troops stormed Berbera, Hargeisa, and Burao in rapid succession. The army and the administration crumbled and its agents in the northwest fled. For the SNM the war was over.
After 10 years of armed struggle, the SNM found itself in possession of the prize it had so long been fighting for. The destruction wrought by the war had been terrible. Hargeisa, the capital, was a lifeless plain of blasted ruins, infested with mines and unrecognizable as the once-dynamic hub of life in northern Somalia. Burao, Hargeisa’s sister city to the east, like innumerable villages in the interior, had shared the same fate, razed to the ground and sown with lethal and crippling devices Over 60,000 northerners were dead; hundreds of thousands more had endured the duration of the conflict in sprawling Ethiopian refugee camps and the scattered SNM-controlled havens along the arid frontier. One Hargeisa resident described returning to the shattered city for the first time after nearly a decade in exile “Whatever anybody tells you, it’s such a shock. You don’t know what to do… whether you should cry…You can’t imagine that kind of destruction. There was just one street left. The rest of the city was just garbage and unexploded bombs.”
The human cost of the war had been no less shattering Around Birjeex military headquarters in Hargeisa, returning fighters discovered a series of irregular mounds of fine red earth, marking mass graves of hundreds of the regime’s victims. Several hundred more are buried near Berbera’s airstrip, systematically executed by the garrison’s military governor. Human rights organizations report that most of them probably had their throats slit.
Such revelations only served to deepen Isaaq resolve to distance themselves from the south, but it took the unilateral declaration of a national government by a faction of the USC in Mogadishu, without consulting either the SNM or any of the other liberation fronts, to bring matters to a head Secession was not on the leadership’s agenda in early 1991, but the decision about whether or not to declare independence was no longer in the SNM’s hands. “People saw independence as a fait accompli, a fact of life,” argues Barud. “As soon as they came back to the country, and there was fighting going on in the south, they thought it would be automatic.” The shock of finding the country in utter ruin, deliberately stripped of infrastructure, and strewn with mines helped crystallize attitudes toward the south.
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