At the request of an independent expert of the UN Commission on Human Rights, an international forensic team, provided by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), came to Somaliland in December 1997. Two North American forensic experts were shown more than 100 alleged mass-grave sites. After preliminary investigations, the team reported that some of the sites did indeed exhibit characteristics of mass graves and contained evidence of gross human rights abuses. It recommended that the sites be preserved, and an international team of forensic specialists be authorised by the UN to carry out further investigations.
|Forensic experts describe |
finding human remains
with "knotted loops
of rope binding their wrists together
behind their backs"
The Somaliland administration, headed by Muhammed Ibrahim Egal, set up a local Technical Committee for the Investigation of War Crimes of the Siyad Barre Regime to collect documentation, take testimonies, and preserve the sites where mass graves were known and alleged to be.
Part Two: The need for peace and justice
|Next to a shanty town, this mass |
grave is said to contain at least
23 men executed in Berbera
In 1999, a report by UN Special Rapporteur Ms Mona Rishmawi, recommended that "authorities in foreign countries... take steps to bring to justice those suspected of committing [war crimes or crimes against humanity] in Somalia". She reminded the UN Security Council of the "responsibility of states to end impunity and to prosecute those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity and serious violations of international humanitarian law".
Stressing that the need for accountability was essential for reconciliation and peace, the Special Rapporteur said peace and justice in Somalia should not be alternatives, but should go hand in hand.
|Mass graves exposed |
by heavy rain in 1997
led to a preliminary investigation
She also welcomed a proposal by President Ismail Omar Guelleh's to the UN General Assembly on 22 September 1999 that a regional peace initiative could include "the possible trial of those suspected of war crimes and crimes against humanity".
Recommendations to the Security Council were based on discussions the Special Rapporteur had had with leaders and civilians during visits to Somaliland; Baidoa, in southern Somalia; and the self-declared autonomous region of Puntland, northeastern Somalia. Rishmawi said she had heard "chilling allegations" during the visit to Baidoa regarding the massacre of civilians, and described the human rights situation in the capital, Mogadishu, as "serious". There were also allegations of massacres in the southern port of Kismayo and the Juba Valley. "Many acts that could be qualified as war crimes or crimes against humanity are being committed now in Somalia, in particular in the south of the country." Recommendations also dealt with concerns regarding the absence of justice and the denial of freedoms in post-1991 administrations.
The report of the Special Rapporteur referred to abuses committed under the previous regime, and during the post-1991 factional fighting that followed its collapse.
Part Three: Creating a culture of impunity
Barre took power in a military coup in 1969, and remained in power until his regime collapsed in 1991, following armed resistance in the northwest by the Somali National Movement (SNM) during the 1980s, and later by the United Somali Congress (USC) forces in the south.
According to the international human rights organisation Amnesty International, under Barre "a persistent pattern of political repression and gross human rights violations developed...[including] routine torture of political prisoners, thousands of detentions without charge or trial, grossly unfair political trials, many of which resulted in executions, and extrajudicial executions of thousands of civilians." [Somalia: Building human rights in the disintegrated state, November 1995]. Human rights abuses against Somalis were ubiquitous and many. In the northwest and some northeastern regions, said Amnesty, "thousands of civilians were killed because of their clan membership and consequent presumed support for armed opposition groups".
Barre was known to be a master of manipulation of clan loyalties and regional rivalries. People from all clans and all regions have recounted sufferings under his rule. Until 1977, his government was a close ally of the Soviet Union. Then, after the Soviet Union switched sides in the war between Somalia and Ethiopia in the Ogaden, he won strong backing from the United States - until criticism from the US Congress of the brutal counter-insurgency campaign in the north led to a suspension of US military and economic aid.
In humanitarian terms, the cost of the dictatorship was enormous and - if at first mostly hidden from view - was to become appallingly evident to the outside world. When the regime collapsed in 1991, Somalia was described by Andrew Natsios, the then director of the US Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), as "the worst humanitarian disaster in the world today".
Inter-factional fighting in the capital, Mogadishu, and the south left an estimated 30,000 civilians dead, humanitarian agencies said. Humanitarian organisations and human rights groups believed that at least one million of the estimated nine million Somali population fled to neighbouring countries, with another estimated 1.7 million people fleeing to other Somali regions. In some areas, minority communities were killed, raped and forcibly expelled by the militia of clan-based factions.
"The carnage inflicted upon the civilian population by indiscriminate use of weapons of extraordinary force and by the failure on all sides to abide by minimum standards of international humanitarian law has already earned Mogadishu a special place in the annals of human cruelty," concluded a mission by PHR and Africa Watch in 1992 [No Mercy in Mogadishu: the human cost of the conflict and the struggle for relief, July 1992].
For the next decade, Somalia was without a central authority. Somalis suffered civil war, famine, displacement, and destruction of property and livelihoods. Factional and clan persecution was also played out in some cases within refugee camps in Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti. A huge international humanitarian intervention - including a military peace force spearheaded by the US - from 1992 to 1994 failed to put the country back on its feet.
The abuses and anarchy witnessed during inter-factional fighting in the 1990s were overwhelming; international attention struggled to get food and medical assistance to Somalis rather than try to grasp the concept of justice and prosecutions for war crimes. Atrocities committed by some of the faction leaders and their militia were "no less horrific than those committed earlier by state officials," said Amnesty. It said former military, security and political officials of the Barre government - who were responsible for or personally carried out the human rights abuses of the 1970s and 80s - had escaped justice. As a result, the culture of impunity already established by the previous regime became integral to the Somali social and political fabric, one human rights researcher pointed out.
As the debate continues, vital evidence is being destroyed. In Somaliland, remains exposed by heavy rains have been washed away, or carried off by dogs and wild animals. Some of the alleged mass graves sites seen by IRIN are near schools, where children play among pieces of bones and military uniforms - some have fallen into holes and shallow burial mounds. Exposed pieces of skeletons, rope and shreds of clothing have disappeared from the banks of dry river beds that appeared in the aftermath of the floods in 1997.
In the Special Rapporteur's report, 1999, Rishmawi said that although a local committee had been established by the Somaliland administration to preserve evidence of mass graves, it was not an easy task as "the land is increasingly being claimed by the internally displaced for resettlement". Preservation was "crucial", she warned, in the context of "possible action by the international community to bring the perpetrators of the killings to justice".
But what does remain - and cannot be washed away - is the trauma of relatives, who still wait to know what happened to their loved ones. In a joint report in 1992, PHR and Africa Watch documented the long-term psychological consequences of the conflict in Somalia [No Mercy in Mogadishu: The human cost of the conflict and the struggle for relief]. It said there were "numerous psychiatric disturbances among the survivors" who had witnessed atrocities.
"Somali tradition dictates great respect for the dead... the bereaved [of those not properly buried] feel a burden of guilt towards the dead for failing to fulfil their customary obligations." It said many survivors had been bereft of not just one close friend and relative, but many, which was "likely to lead to widespread pathological grief". One witness that IRIN talked to in Somaliland, Amina Isma'il Ade, said she had never tried to reclaim or rebury the body of her executed husband, even though she knew the site of the mass grave. "I think all those bodies should be buried properly." She said she needed to know who had executed her husband and why. "I would like to see the people responsible brought to justice." Note :
This report was published by IRIN in May 2011