Thirty years ago, the US-backed Somali government slaughtered an estimated 200,000 people. Now survivors want US to help to uncover the crimes (Somaliland’s Forgotten Genocide).
By Ismail Einashe and Matt Kennard
On a hot and humid June afternoon, a group of boys wearing FC Barcelona jerseys kicked around a soccer ball in the Malko-Durduro, a dry seasonal river on the outskirts of Hargeisa, the capital of the breakaway territory of Somaliland. At first glance, the flat, red earth of the riverbed made for a typical improvised pitch in this arid region. But recent heavy rains had exposed what had earned the area the moniker “the Valley of Death.” Around them, human bones protruded from the ground. But these kids had grown up playing soccer surrounded by skeletal remains; they hardly noticed them.
This story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Between 1987 and 1989, the regime of Somali dictator Siyad Barre massacred an estimated 200,000 members of the Isaaq tribe, the largest clan group in the northwest part of Somalia. At the time, some Isaaqs were fighting for independence, and to eliminate the threat, Barre tried to exterminate all of them. Experts now say there are more than 200 mass graves in Somaliland, most of them in the Valley of Death.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of what is often called the “Hargeisa Holocaust,” when about 90 percent of the city was destroyed and tens of thousands of Isaaqs were killed. Yet there are no major plans to mark the horrors in Somaliland, or anywhere else for that matter. In the past, a few international organizations have recognized the bloodletting. A 2001 UN report investigating the attacks against the Isaaqs concluded that “the crime of genocide was conceived, planned and perpetrated by the Somalia Government against the Isaaq people of northern Somalia.” But the events have been mostly forgotten; the boys playing soccer did not know the story behind the bones.
Even in Hargeisa, many people don’t realize the extent of US support during the genocide. No American has ever apologized for what happened in Somaliland; there has been no internationally backed Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and no one has been criminally punished. There is little funding to investigate—let alone prosecute—the perpetrators. And some of the Somali genocidaires now have close ties to the US-backed government in Mogadishu of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, known as Farmajo.
COLD WAR PROXY
The country of Somalia was formed in 1960 when British Somaliland gained its independence from Britain and joined with its much larger neighbor to east and south, Italian Somaliland. Nine years later, General Siyad Barre took over in a bloodless coup and steered the young country toward the Soviet Union. Somalia was strategically placed along Africa’s longest coastline, and the Soviets welcomed a new proxy in the Horn of Africa.
This all changed in 1977 when Barre invaded the Somali-majority Ogaden region of southeastern Ethiopia. Previously Ethiopia had been aligned with the United States, but after the Derg military junta seized power in 1974, the Soviets had begun supporting Somalia’s communist neighbor. Forced to choose between allies, the Soviets sided with the Derg junta, and sent arms and military advisers. Cuba’s Fidel Castro provided an additional 13,000 troops, and Ethiopia repelled the Somali army in 1978.
Livid at the Soviet support for Ethiopia, Barre switched sides, allying himself with the United States. In January 1981, former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger visited the presidential palace in Mogadishu, hoping to further strengthen US-Somalia ties. Barre had criticized President Jimmy Carter for not backing his country against the Soviets. But now Kissinger was convincing President Ronald Reagan to view Somalia as a crucial theater for US-Soviet confrontation. A year later, Barre made the trip to Washington, DC, to meet with Reagan in the Oval Office. Grainy footage of the encounter shows Barre asking Reagan for help. “Somalia is not afraid of any other country in the region, but it cannot cope with a superpower like the Soviet Union,” he told Reagan.
Barre said the United States agreed to help Somalia because it “is also in its own interest.” In the 1983 budget, Reagan requested $91 million in military and economic assistance for Somalia, plus another $18 million in food aid for refugees. That year Somalia’s entire GDP was less than $750 million.
Around this time, Paul Manafort, a lobbyist who would become the chairman of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, took on the Barre government as a client. In 1980 Manafort founded the lobbying company Black, Manafort and Stone, which had close ties to the Reagan White House and later the George H.W. Bush administration. Riva Levinson, who worked with Manafort in the 1980s, has said she asked at the time, “Are we sure we want this guy as a client?” Manafort sounded agitated: “We all know Barre is a bad guy, Riva. We just have to make sure he’s our bad guy.”
Manafort did PR for Barre even as he was massacring the Isaaqs. Levinson said Manafort sent her to Somalia to have Barre sign a contract for $1 million. “Our assignment would then be to clean up Siyad Barre’s international reputation, which needed plenty of soap,” she wrote in The Washington Post in 2017.
With Manafort’s PR work and the country’s anti-Soviet Union alignment, the United States was happy to turn a blind eye to Barre’s abuses. By 1988, Washington had given his government hundreds of millions of dollars of military and economic aid, and Barre had become entirely dependent on US support.
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