Dila Massacre 1991

As Somaliland, the self-proclaimed independent state, enters its 31st year, its worst chapter in history remains buried beneath the sand, adding to the African continent’s lengthy litany of horrors.

The Dila Massacre, the atrocity in issue, was a sequence of mass executions committed by members of the Isaaq clan against members of the Gadabursi clan during and after the Somali government collapsed in 1991.

Ethiopian Backing for the Somali National Movement

Members of the Isaaq clan grouping created an alliance in the 1980s that they named the Somali National Movement (SNM). Ethiopia, which wished to depose the Siad Barre regime, served as the SNM’s principal headquarters and source of assistance. Mengistu Haile Mariam and, to a lesser extent, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya aided the rebel organization.

Ethiopia sent soldiers to support the SNM cross-border operations against the Somali government. The vast bulk of these operations would take place within Gadabursi territory, which straddled Ethiopia and Somalia. These cross-border attacks would exacerbate the confrontation between the two factions. In the spring of 1988, Barre and Mengistu agreed to not lend their assistance to rebel organizations in the other country.

The SNM launched surprise attacks on northern Somalia cities in the summer of 1988, resulting in an all-out civil war between the Barre regime and the northern militia. While carrying out these operations, the SNM received extra assistance from the Ethiopian military, despite Mengistu’s violation of the peace treaty with Barre.

Throughout the SNM’s attacks, Ethiopia supplied anti-tank weapons, ammunition, and supplies. Mengistu remained a supporter of the SNM and other Somali guerrillas like USC (Hawiye clan in central Somalia) and SPM (Ogaden clan in the south) until February 1991.

Destruction and Mass slaughter in Awdal Region

The majority of the SNM’s incursions in northern Somalia were conducted in the Awdal region. To slow down the Somali National Army movement in the region and them from apprehending rebels, the SNM conducted a mining operation. Areas inhabited by Gadabursi were notably heavily mined by SNM rebels.

To continue operations against the Somali National Army in the north, the SNM placed car bombs in Somali National Army vehicles. In the city of Borama, the largest Gadabursi city in Somalia, the car bombings killed a high number of Gadabursi citizens and wreaked havoc in the town.

The Gadabursi people had had enough of the SNM’s terrorism in their homeland and launched a planned insurrection. The Somali government assaulted innocent Awdal residents the same year in reprisal for the SNM’s terrorism in the region.

In January 1991, the Somali government crumbled, trapping and exposing Awdal inhabitants to the SNM insurgents. The Gadabursi were horrified by the new Somali government’s decision to disintegrate the National Army and prepared to defend their country against rebels. In February 4th, 1991, the SNM entered Borama, murdering up to 1000 people and displacing 5,000 inhabitants, causing significant devastation.

The SNM committed murder and violence against Gadabursi clan members between January and March 1991.  The SNM’s militia had gone out of hand, and Gadabursi fleeing their murderous rage were burnt and pillaged on the road. SNM bombardments and artillery have demolished Dila, Somalia’s second-largest Gadabursi city. Entire families were slain for being Gadabursi, and the SNM ransacked Borama, the Awdal region’s major city.

The aftermath of the offensive

According to local reports, the SNM was not following the demise of the Somali regime in the late 1980s, but rather the Gadabursi clan. Dila, a Gadabursi settlement, was razed and left in ruins by the SNM. Dila citizens’ rural and urban property was in the hands of SNM rebels, who claimed to have “resolved centuries-old tribal scores.”

The Reer Nuur, a Gadabursi sub-clan, were the main victims of this whole offensive. This sub-clan traditionally served as a buffer between the other Gadabursis and the Isaaqs and were found in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Dila, as well as Borama, had no military presence and posed no threat. The attacks were seen as sheer hatred towards other local clans and a revenge for not siding with them against the government. In short, the violence unleashed by the SNM amounted to ethnic cleansing.

The SNM continued their mass killings while occupying Borama and the surrounding areas. Around 80,000 Awdal residents fled to Ethiopia and settled in Tog-Wajaale and Awbare refugee camps to escape the violence.

Somaliland had elections in 2021, claiming to be a paragon of democracy and self-determination, but anybody in the separate state who mentions the Dila Massacre is imprisoned and tortured. I encourage all Africans to remember the Dila Massacre and the victims of that catastrophe.


Hamda is a PhD candidate and a Somali-Canadian-based aspiring writer. Her background is in a Joint Honours degree in Political Science and Public Administration. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Political Science and Feminist and Gender studies specialization in Public Policy. She is particularly passionate about writing articles on Somali news from a gender and policy perspective, highlighting the experiences and perspectives of women.