Sheikh reconciliation and peace conference, October 1992
A reconciliation and peace conference attended by elders and clan members of the warring sub-clans was held in October 1992, in Sheikh, a town between Berbera and Burao. In accordance with custom, women were not present as participants or mediators but as one man put it:
Women were the wind behind the peace conference from A-Z in terms of mobilising the elders, in preparing the venue, the food, and in encouraging the participants to keep going until the final peace accord was reached. So they have all the credit in making that peace possible. (Dr Adan Yousuf Abokor, personal communication)
The conference, known as the Sheikh tawfiq, was a turning point for the establishment of peace and stability in Somaliland as it paved the way for a milestone in Somaliland’s modern history, the Grand Conference on National Reconciliation held in Boroma.
During the Sheikh conference the two parties agreed to exchange 30 young women, equally representing their two sub-clans, as brides, thereby re-establishing kinship bonds between the former warring parties. The agreement was in this case symbolic rather than real, as it is said that no actual exchange took place. The meaning behind this tradition is summed up in the saying, ‘meel xinijir lagu bururiyay xab baa lagu bururiya’, which translates as ‘Birth fluids should be spilt [i. e. a baby born] on the spot where blood has been spilt’. Exchange carries an expectation that once wed the girls would soon give birth to children by their new husbands, preferably boys, who take the clan identity of their father – thereby replacing the men lost by the clan in the war. The exchange, known as godob reeb in the north and godob tir in the south (meaning to erase an injustice or injury), symbolised that grievances and human loss on both sides were wiped out never to return.
Women interviewed hold different opinions about the traditional practice of exchanging women to seal a peace agreement. One view, said to be held more widely by men than women, is that the tradition
is not harmful to the women concerned as a girl cannot be exchanged without her consent. Some explain that most of the girls who put themselves forward to be exchanged on such occasions feel this is an opportunity to find a husband. According to this view, marriage is the right and ultimate wish of every Somali girl; thus the requirements of conciliation on the one hand, and the girl’s rights and wish for marriage on the other, enhance each other. Others take a human rights perspective and see peace-offering marriage as a violation of a girl’s right to choose whether to marry and whom, because the young girls are not self-selected and have no choice except to elope with someone as a means of avoiding the exchange.