Thirty-one years ago, to be precise on February 4, 1991, all hell broke loose on Awdal, the northern region of Somalia now claimed by Somaliland separatists. This is a date that any sensitive soul should remember. Within 12 hours, the SNM, a clannish rebel militia, fighting in theory against the central government, entered and mercilessly killed up to 1,000 civilians.
After three decades, the right to remember the victims of the Borama massacre and to speak publicly about the killings committed by the SNM militia is still banned by the Somaliland leadership.
How did we get there?
On January 26th 1991, late president Mohamed Siyad Barre was ousted from power and fled Mogadishu after the United Somali Congress (USC) took over the capital.
Within a week, the newly appointed prime minister, Omar Arteh Qalib, took the puzzling step to request Somali National Army (SNA) units fighting antigovernment clan-based militias to cease fire and surrender to those militias.
Somali army officers stationed in the northern regions were well aware of the clan hate propaganda carried out by the Somali National Movement (SNM), who exclusively recruited from the mainly Isaaq clan from Hargeisa area, and reports of massacres perpetrated by their militiamen against local civilians came to light.
For this reason, SNA soldiers, drawn from clans in other parts of Somalia, feeling betrayed by their government and fearing for their own safety in the event of a surrender to the SNM militia, simply abandoned their post and vanished.
Unleashing the SNM terror
In an unobstructed course, the SNM militiamen ransacked all in their path in Awdal and days of unprecedented terror culminated in the massacres perpetrated in Dila and Borama on February 4th.
The terror started with shelling from the outskirt of Borama. The SNM fighters knew full well there were no government soldiers or civil defense militias in the area.
There was also absolutely no resistance or strategic need to shell a heavily populated . Earlier, those same men killed, raped, pillaged and burnt Dila, a small town not far from Borama.
Borama was already overflowing with refugees fleeing the advance of the terror organization, armed, trained and supervised by the Ethiopian army who were also supporting them with intelligence and heavy equipment.
The city residents feared the SNM’s rapid advances. About 80,000 people fled Borama because of reports of indiscriminate shelling of towns by the SNM and summary executions of anyone suspected of working for the government or simply belonging to non-Isaaq clans.
As feared, Borama suffered the same predicament as Dila but here the casualties and damages were much higher due to the size of the city and the high density of the population. People who couldn’t afford to flee barricaded themselves in their houses as a desperate move or hid in the bush nearby.
The rampage lasted about 12 hours from the afternoon and left a sign of doomsday. SNM fighters left the city in ruins and smoke, with corpses scattered all over the city. Sheikh Hassan Deheeye, a well-known imam in Borama, said he counted 764 bodies the next day. Other eyewitnesses gave a higher number.
To this day, residents are still missing. It is feared that they were captured, executed and thrown into an unmarked mass grave outside the city.
On their way out, SNM militiamen confiscated weapons and ammunition, looted warehouses, shops, cars, trucks, fuel and whatever that would keep them going on their journey of hell through Awdal.
The SNM unleashed an unparalleled terror tantamount to ethnic cleansing. By that, I mean the systematic elimination of a clan from a region, as by forced emigration and killing.
The SNM aim was clear from the onset but, after death, destruction and forced expulsion, it ended up with a complete submission of the survivors that still prevails. The Borama massacre, as well as other mass killings in Awdal, left a painful memory and a traumatic effect of abandonment on the Gadabursi population. Borama took decades to recover from the disaster.
However, the period that followed this onslaught was marked by a lack of will to fight, unending rights abuse by the self-proclaimed “republic of Somaliland”, the entity created by those who planned and carried out the 1991 Borama large scale massacre.
Borama’s population also increased when the Gadabursis were evicted from their homes in Hargeisa and Gabiley, as well as from their farms and grasslands. The demographic landscape of Awdal changed dramatically after the wave of terror.
The former SNM, divided now in three “political parties”, and other chauvinistic Isaaq clansmen called a “Jihad”, or Holy War, the disaster that scorched the country. War criminals, some of whom hold key positions in the administration of Somaliland, such as President Musa Bihi, the SNM commander in charge of operations in the Awdal region, are now revered as “Mujahid”, meaning “holy warrior”.
To add insult to injury, Somaliland leaders routinely deny the massacres and punishes anyone who raised the issue publicly. According to the doctrine circulated by the ideological remnants of the SNM campaign, there was only one genocide and it was that of Hargeisa and the culprits were the central government forces. Any other narrative that challenges this unique thought must be fought by all means.
Awdal’s brave youth
The impact of these massacres is tremendous to our people as that single event, I believe, was enough to force our elders to submission. The trauma is even palpable today as you have seen the way elders and politicians from Awdal react whenever there are efforts to shake off one clan hegemony and dominance and their own second class citizen status.
Today, the generation born after this terrible event, in spite of textbooks which teach the unique experience of the “central clan” (of Hargeisa) and its hatred towards the Somali central government, tries to recover its dignity.
The young people of Borama are distressed to see Hargeisa, Berbera and Burao celebrating their dead as “shahiid” (martyr) and the survivors as “mujahid”, while they must risk being arrested and imprisoned to do a similar commemoration for their own.
However, every year brave young people challenge the oppressive regime and find their own way to remember what SNM did to their parents and grandparents, and challenge what they consider as an oppression.
These new brand of dignified youth don’t feel the fear of a genocide that crippled the generation before them and, growing up in a fake “republic”. They sincerely believe they should have the same rights as other “Somalilanders”.
The republic of Hargeisa lays claim to the Awdal region but the people there do not have the basic right to even mourn their dead in a dignified manner and commemorate in the same way that Hargeisa does for their dead.
These brave youth don’t think they belong to a secessionist Somaliland and thirty years of oppression is proof of that. Their repugnance for the two-tier system established by the SNM is, however, as equal as their love for the blue flag of a united Somalia.