This is the second in a series by Matthew Toyama, a law student at Santa Clara University, who is conducting research in the autonomous state of Somaliland in northern Somalia on war crimes of the Siad Barre regime.
I and Somalia against the world.
I and my clan against Somalia.
I and my family against the clan.
I and my brother against the family.
I against my brother.
– Somali proverb
As the Equipo Peruano de Antropología Forense (EPAF) team continues breaking ground this week in Gebilay, Somaliland–the small town 57 kilometers northwest of Hargeisa–in an effort to unearth both the remains and truth regarding the summary executions of twenty-one young Isaaq men in 1987, the context of the violence giving rise to their deaths almost three decades ago bears discussion. The “Somali situation” is one of the most complex and fascinating socio-cultural-political case studies in world history to date. From the area’s composition before its colonial partition in the 19th century to its relationship with Western influences and world economy and into the fragmented quest for self-identity in the modern era, the story of the very tip of Africa’s Horn and its inhabitants has followed the plot line of heterogenous interests prediposed and superimposed against one another.
In a microcosm, regional differences amongst peoples sharing a social structure of clan-based, blood group loyalties and a centrality of Islam informs the saga of Somalia going forward. While undoubtedly nuanced, a consistent division to dispel notions of any significant homogeneous character amongst the Somali identity fabric comes between north and south. Reaching back historically before European colonization, the peoples populating the African Horn tip, for example, differed between nomadic pastoral lifestyle in the north and a more settled southern way of agricultural pastoralism. Colonization and partition by European powers forming British Somaliland in the north, French Djibouti and southern Italian Somalia introduced new languages and influences in the region as well as an introduction into world economy in the 19th century. In attempts to move beyond the frequently employed lens of clan-ism, current debate considers the ways in which the incompatibility of traditional Somali social structure with a post-colonial, centralized state model has impacted modern Somali struggles in statehood. The discussion turns on whether introduction to world economy might have aggravated differences between the area’s regions in the 19th century, where the largest opposition to centralized state formation came from the north, being characterized by a nomadic lifestyle and greater reliance on remittance economy. In the alternative, experts posit that the traditional Somali civil fabric was fundamentally altered by 19th century introduction into world economy and floundered erratically into the 20th century at the time of the area’s independence.
In a hasty attempt to form a united Somali state in 1960, the northern territory conceded to certain conditions by southern leaders, resulting in Mogadishu becoming the capital and seat of parliament, while concurrently suffering from an economically challenged colonial inheritance which integration with the south failed to remedy. It was during this period of struggling democratic regional compromise that General Mohamed Siad Barre rose to power by coup under a banner to overcome the area’s interests and identities against one another through socialism. As history reveals, it was through a combination of nature and timeless hubris that the dictator’s finally unified Somalia would be undone.
Siad Barre’s Somalia was hit by severe famine in 1974-75, known as Abaartii Dabadheer, which affected the northern regions most intensely. To make matters more difficult, Barre’s nationalization policies, which prohibited private trade importantly amongst the historic Arabian-Somaliland-Ethiopian axis and instituted a food rationing system, failed and millions of northern nomads suffering food supply shortages were transformed into discontented internally displaced persons. At the same time, Barre undertook the overzealous and infamously disastrous campaign to claim the ethnically-Somali southeast of Ethiopia, known as the Ogaden War. The results of utter defeat, a reverse displacement of a new million ethnic-Somalis across the border, half of which settled in the struggling north of Somalia, and loss of faith in Barre’s Pan-Somali promise finally gave rise to two opposition movements and a long building stand for independence by the region’s north, once known as Somaliland.
The complex history of the region of the world loosely defined as Somalia is terrifically embodied in the moment of the 1987-1991 Somaliland Liberation war and also presents a fascinating academic exercise in international human rights legal analysis. The mass grave sites which EPAF has been excavating for the past two years between Hargeisa and Gebilay are the result of the Barre government response, carried out by loyal Ogadeni clan militias, against opposition movements led by members of two other major Somali clans, the Majerteen and Isaaq, in the north. After formation of a first, failed movement, the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF), by senior military officers from the Majerteen clan which was followed in 1981 by the formation of the Somali National Movement (SNM) by a group of businessmen, religious leaders, intellectuals and former army officers drawn from the Isaaq clan, up to 100,000 people are estimated to have lost their lives in the greater Hargeisa area as a result of responsive summary executions and aerial bombardments carried out by Barre troops. For example, as locals and village elders still alive testify, the two graves currently under excavation in Gebilay by EPAF contain the bodies of at least twenty young Isaaq men who had been taken to a hill ridge outside of the town and executed on orders of a notoriously sadistic Barre colonel, Yusuf Abdi Ali (nicknamed “Tukeh”), for suspicion of involvement with the SNM. Thus, nearly five centuries of evolving regional and clan identities now underlies the perception of a government’s, albeit a dictatorship’s, thorough, if merciless, response to actions precipitating a civil war–the question is, was it genocide?
Could what happened in Hargeisa and Gebilay between 1987-1991 be perceived entirely as the swift, iron-fisted answer to the formation of two opposition movements in its northern provinces, which happened to be carried out along certain clan membership lines? Or because the government, with the assistance of one ethnic clan group, purposefully treated two other specific ethnic clans to the destruction of many of their members, were the Barre regime’s acts in Hargeisa and Gebilay acts of a genocidal nature?
As traditionally viewed through the lens of the international community’s reaction to the Holocaust between 1941-1945, Article 2 of the Genocide Convention defines “genocide” to mean the following relevant acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; … .” Under international legal authorities, “intent” may be deduced from words or general behavior of perpetrator, for example, the method of commission, exclusion of other members of groups and/or premeditation; “in part” means a substantial part of the targeted group in terms of quantity or quality; and the term “group” has traditionally been interpreted to consider the stated list as exhaustive in international law. The rationale is to guard against the scope of the definition of the crime from becoming too permissive, thus allowing alleged political, economic or other groups seemingly “distinct” from the rest of a population in some way to merit the weighty implications, associated with the finding of a genocide. However, this arguably antiquated definition, specifically the final section, has left room for a fight and indeed has been challenged in recent times.
In the cases of Hargeisa and Gebilay, the need for lively and important debate remains. For example, proponents for the application of the label of genocide to acts by the Barre government against Isaaq and Majerteen clan peoples between 1987-1991, such as Kathy Roberts, legal director of the Center for Justice and Accountability, maintain that from a legal standpoint, the intent by a government to respond to opposition movements to quell a rebellion that is person-group neutral on its face is not mutually exclusive from an intent to also destroy a protected person group. In other words, the Barre regime could be responsible for a genocide of the Isaaq and Majerteen clans if sufficient evidence to this effect exists, regardless of the fact that it may also have been seeking to quell civil unrest simultaneously. Still, a larger discussion over the scope of “group” in genocide cases remains. In this case, even though investigations by the U.S. State Department have maintained that Barre troops carried out systematic attacks on civilian populations in greater Hargeisa and brutal acts in rural villages may have even been carried out by special troops with titles such as “Isaaq Extermination Wing”, because the genocide definition of “group” arguably did not originally conceive of “clans” within its scope, currently, a classification of the killings perpetrated in Hargeisa and Gebilay from 1987-1991 would not rise to the level of genocide, even with a showing of qualifying intent.
Room for discussion and perhaps a modern rethinking of the scope of the Genocide Convention remains.
– James Fergusson, “The World’s Most Dangerous Place: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia” (2011)
– Ismail I. Ahmed & Reginald Herbold Green, “The heritage of war and state collapse in Somalia and Somaliland: local level effects, external interventions and reconstruction”, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 1 pp. 113-127 (1999)
– Timo Kivimaki & Juha Auvinen, “The Complex Humanitarian Emergency in the Former Somalia”