Violation of the North was first published in the New African Magazine in May 1991 by the famous journalist Koert Lindijer who was in Hargeisa at the time.

Northern Somalia has been flattened, raped, and traumatized by Siyad Barre’s forces. Whole towns have been destroyed. Mines are everywhere, still wreaking havoc on defenseless people.

Koert Lindijer who visited the area brings back this first-hand report.

The cracked minarets symbolize the barbarity. This was a war of total destruction “The moment the praying started, so did the bombing” said the owner of what was once a shop opposite the mosque of Hargeisa. He still cannot understand how in a country where everybody is Muslim even the house of God could not be a safe haven. “This war was waged by godless people. President Faqash, as we called President Barre, had given orders to his army to exterminate us Isaaq people of the North.”

Nearly the whole of Northern Somalia is in ruins. No town, no village is left untouched. What remains of the major town of I Hargeisa is a landscape of bullet-riddled walls, car wrecks, and twisted steel. Nearly half a million inhabitants lived here up till 1988 in relative prosperity. Then the war started.

Violation Of The North (Somaliland)
Somaliland, Hargeisa 1991

Early in 1988, the Northern-based Somalia National Movement (SNM) was expelled from its guerrilla bases in Ethiopia. The SNM started a spectacular offensive and succeeded in occupying parts of the major towns in northern Somalia for several weeks. The local army commander, General Morgan, son-in-law of Barre, had earlier written a “death letter“, in which he asked the President’s permission to destroy the Isaaq clan from which the SNM recruits its members. The revenge of the government soldiers for the SNM attacks was executed in the spirit of Morgan’s letter.

With the regularity of a Matatu (mini-bus) service, Chinese MIGs took off from Hargeisa airport to drop their explosives only five kilometers away. The destruction took place unnoticed by the world. All foreigners were expelled while nearly all the town dwellers took refuge in neighboring Ethiopia. Only the harbor town of Berbera was saved, possibly because of the presence of American marines there.

In Hargeisa alone, an estimated 50,000 people lost their lives during the bombardments. Only 5% of the buildings in Hargeisa still stand – the ones in which the government soldiers resided. Hargeisa, the second town of Somalia and the capital of British Somaliland will have to be entirely rebuilt. The totality and intensity of the destruction in Northern Somalia in beyond description.

Violation Of The North (Somaliland)
Somaliland, Hargeisa 1991

Hargeisa had a beautiful theatre. It now looks like a surrealistic piece of art, with the twisted metal of the roof winding around the frames of the chairs. “The devil which did this to us will be damned,” shouted a passer-by.

“This destruction can’t be described in words,” comments SNM guerrilla leader Omar Issa. “I did not know conventional weapons could cause such demolition, it is as if a nuclear bomb had exploded in this town.”

Hargeisa fell into SNM’s hands on 31 January. In contrast to southern Somalia, fighting had ceased in the North. But war victims are still being reported every day, due to mines. The SNM has received information from captured government trooper about 250,000 anti-personnel mines in and around Hargeisa. These mines await the first few thousand Somalians who are returning from Ethiopia.

Mines, everywhere mines! And nobody knows where they are. A woman tried to hide her jewels somewhere in the garden before she fled in 1988. Yesterday when she removed the stones and earth a mine exploded in her face. A man who returned to what once was his house sat down in a chair in his living room and was thrown in the air by a bomb.

On the road from Hargeisa via Berbera to Burao, a penetrating smell warns of rotting human flesh. From the rubble of a blown-up tank, a shriveled leg sticks out. On the tarmac lies a decomposing flattened body. The desert wind tries to tear loose the rags of the military uniform.

“Don’t walk there, there may be mines,” says our driver. With passion, he narrates how his SNM unit ambushed government convoys along this route. The SNM blew up nearly all the bridges to restrict the mobility of the government troops. The villages between the towns were razed to the ground by Barre’s soldiers to discourage support for the SNM.

High above the vibrating heat of the semi-desert the small town of Sheikh lies about a hundred kilometers from Burao in the nice coolness of a plateau. The British colonialists built a school complex here where many northern Somalis had their first education. The mortar-fire of the government soldiers did not succeed in destroying the solid buildings. But Barre’s soldiers ripped out the toilets and window frames, took the chairs from the school theatre and the desks from the classrooms, and loaded them on lorries, and sold them in southern Somalia or Ethiopia.


“My heart is broken,” says middle-aged Ali Hussein Abdi when seeing the havoc. “I feel tears in my eyes. Here lies my past, this school made me what I am today. Now everything has gone to pieces.” And then: “Oh, don’t walk there, there may be mines.”’ In the library, cows are eating the books on the floor. A calf puts his tongue around the cover of the book The Spirit of Liberty.

In Burao the SNM last week appointed a new civilian administration. Members of the new city council show me around as if I were a tourist. “On your left, you see destroyed houses and on your right destroyed residences. That rubbish heap there was the primary school. And there you can see the waterpipes which have been pulled from the ground. And do you see these piles of stones? ‘That is where we buried our victims. That little street near the camel market, don’t walk there, we suspect mines to be there.”

The new mayor of Burao, Mahmoud Hashi has also just returned from Ethiopia. He shows a kind of excitement when he displays the gaping wounds of the town. The massive scale of the destruction seems to have disrupted the emotional life of the Somalians. They are in a state of absurd ecstasy. The excitement of the returning inhabitants speaks of astonishment.  Maybe it is their defense against despair, maybe it is their way of bringing order to their confused feelings when seeing for the first time the demolition of their towns.

The human tragedy of the war has hardly been charted. The International Committee of the Red Cross last week located a 20-year-old boy in the countryside with a desiccated leg. He had been hit by a landmine two months earlier but there was no doctor to amputate his leg. In the few remaining buildings of the looted hospital of Hargeisa lies a man with dressings on both eyes. He has been hit by bullets. Only an eye specialist could save him from blindness. A teenager with blown-off legs asks for crutches. A young boy tries to tell me something. Bullets have pierced his cheeks. He can’t talk.

Not far from the hospital is the house of the doomed. The lame, the very poor, the beggars occupy this building to protect themselves against the uncharitable outside world. They don’t receive food and there is nobody who is able to give them alms. They are just waiting to die.

From the corner of a stuffy, dark mom comes the sound of sobbing. Tears stream down her face, slime drips from her mouth. Every word of this old lady is accompanied by a cough. She is severely malnourished. Today her friend died. She wants to go the same way.

The few Somali doctors and aid workers are faced with the impossible task of assessing their priorities. Northern Somalia is littered with landmines, the SNM lacks the equipment to locate them. Later this month the rains will fall and will cause epidemics. There is no clean water, no electricity, no food, no shelter, and no medicine. It will be a race against time. After that, the people can start considering how to rebuild their country. They have to begin from scratch.

The New African Magazine May 1991                        

Koert Lindijer is the Africa correspondent for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad.

Violation Of The North (Somaliland)Violation Of The North (Somaliland)

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