On the morning of 27 May 1988, as newsreader for Radio Hargeisa, I reported that the Somali National Movement (SNM) had invaded and captured Burao the previous night. Having made this announcement I immediately excused myself from the Service and went downtown to my mother’s small food store to collect bags of food, charcoal and store water in case of war: We had reported that the SNM were on their way to capture Hargeisa and would come soon.
On the night ofTuesday 31 May 1988 we were woken by the thunderlike explosions of warThe sky was red with shell and rocket fire. We were not used to the incessant sounds of heavy artillery and rockets. A ‘Stalin Organ’ or ‘PM’ gun and a tank situated close by filled us with fear and restlessness and as a result my husband, myself and my six children lay awake until morning.
In the morning non-uniformed forces in more than 40 armed vehicles entered Hargeisa from the west. They were led by Jeeps equipped with heavy anti-tank guns. This procession passed by our house, which was located on the main Hargeisa-Gebiley road. We realised they were SNM forces and wondered if they had captured the faqash [derogatory slang for the forces of the government] in one day An hour later we found that our area was in the hands of the government army. At 8am we went here and there trying to get information and talking to neighbours who belonged to Barre’s tribe. But our neighbours would not greet us and looked on us with hostile eyes. Two passed by near us: one was a ma’alin, or teacher; at a Koranic school located near to our house, the other was a National Security Service office watchman. Both were armed with AK-45 rifles. Partly because of their old age and partly because I imagined that sheikhs and elderly men would not be moved so quickly to engage in war; I did not expect these people to take up arms. From the way they were holding the rifles it was apparent that this was the first time they had ever taken up such a weapon. When we asked about the situation, they answered with angry expressions on their faces.
‘Are you not aware of what your kinsmen have done? Then what are you expecting?’ My husband responded:‘Things will be as God wishes.’ Three more armed men appeared leading an unfortunate woman, she was blindfolded and her neck was tied with a rope on which they were pulling, as though she was a camel. Her clothes were torn and bloodied. The poor woman looked as if she was shaking with pain. Although we knew one of the three men pulling her along we did not talk to them. One of the men glanced at us saying:‘The most dangerous spy is caught!’ They reached a point about 100 metres away from us when an exchange of fire nearby could be heard. They suddenly threw the woman down on the ground and shot her dead.
Bodies were scattered here and there, not all of them government supporters. We saw the bodies of nine dead government supporters and two SNM. We saw through the window women who had just learnt about the death of some relatives; [they were] stabbing three dead bodies with knives. We were afraid that these women would rush and kill us. Luckily, at this point this idea had not entered their heads.
On the night of Wednesday 1 June we stayed in our house discussing our way out of the situation. We felt the SNM had captured the northern part of Hargeisa and that the east-west would be the front line. We were convinced that we could not cross the front line, which was north of us. We decided to go to my mother’s house in southern Hargeisa. We believed the people from my husband’s family were cut off from us by the front line. I was six months’ pregnant. The oldest of my six children was a boy of six years, the youngest were my twin boys aged one. Two of my children could undertake a long march but it would prove difficult for the others so we needed people to help us carry the children.
On the Wednesday morning we saw one of our neighbours, a government supporter called Ahmed, leading three tanks to us. While they were passing the house he told them something about us. The tank directed its barrel towards us. Instinctively we rushed the children into the dining room on the other side of the house. We were just in time – the tank devastated two bedrooms and the sitting room with six heavy shots. Miraculously we were not harmed, although we were very frightened. They clearly thought that we were dead. After a few minutes they were distracted by heavy firing nearby, and the tank moved on.
We immediately set off to a neighbouring Isaq family. We were explaining to our neighbour what had happened when armed men knocked at the doorWhen the door was opened the men asked:‘Who is the man who fired at us?’They were told that nobody had fired anything. But they ordered all of us out of the house while firing into the house to terrify us. Seven of the armed men looted everything useful from the house, including the curtains. Both of our households decided to escape while we were still alive. We left all we had except for SSh20,000 [equivalent to US$50] which the looters had failed to find. We walked 3 km to reach my mother and displaced sister with her five children in the southern part of the city.
We felt some relief in the morning because the war was not so near; although government troops were moving on the roads near us. But in the evening we moved to another house to get away from the government’s artillery bombardment of all the houses and the resulting exchange of fire. We relocated to a house situated in the southern tip of Hargeisa.
Everybody was thinking about how to escape. All were convinced that anyone staying behind would be killed by the defeated troops of Siad Barre or by civilians whose relatives had been killed by SNM troops. On the fourth day of the war I met the unfortunate Asha Yusuf who told me the menfolk in her group, including her husband, had been slaughtered and that even the babes in arms had been checked to determine their sex; and four baby boys including her only son had been slaughtered. As she was recounting this story tears were streaming from her eyes. I cried too, as did the others who were with us.
Kadra Ali, a girl who was with us told us that she had witnessed something similar. She had been hiding in thick shrubs when around 50-60 people were shot dead while trying to escape – two babies were left crying over their mothers’ dead bodies. Kadra could not tell us whether the babies had been eaten by animals or whether they had been taken by people. She said these troops remained there until dark dividing the looted wealth among themselves and checking the pockets of dead bodies for money.
I couldn’t get anyone to help me carry my children and without help we couldn’t make it. The families who had strong members had a better chance of escaping.
On the tenth day of the war we decided to make our fourth escape attempt, determined to join the settlements of the displaced populations located in the north of Hargeisa. When we were almost halfway across, somewhere near the eastern side of Hargeisa, troops intercepted us and ordered us to sit down in a line. They watched us closely as if they had caught the highest commanders of the SNM. We were sure they would kill us all. After we had been sitting there for an hour and a half, a door of a house nearby opened. I looked at the person who had stepped outside and recognised him as a colonel called Hassan Wiif who was known to my husband. I called to him to help us and release us. We did not expect a positive response because of our experience during the past days. But the man did order our release. Despite the reports of his troops which identified us as SNM, the colonel ordered the release of all the people. Luckily for us this man did not have the poor tribal mentality that so many others had sunk to the level of.
Those people who were not carrying small children continued their attempt to escape. But we could do nothing but return to the house we had set out from that morning.
Day by day people were beginning to adapt to the awful situation. In the early days of the war large groups would try to escape after sunset – the only time of day when it was possible to move unnoticed. At other times you could be easily seen by the government troops, who would ambush people en route. On the day we decided to try to escape we got together with many families and planned to begin after midnight. It was six weeks after the war had started. At 1 o’clock in the morning we started out. We were not less than 300 people. A man who knew more about the route we would escape by was assigned to guide us. We walked in single file without making the least noise. Although heavily pregnant I carried my year-old twin boys, my mother carried the next youngest. Some people were reluctant to escape in a group with young children for fear that the children would cry out and alert attackers. All the way I prayed that my children would be able to keep silent. They did, and I wondered if the smallest ones had been ‘trained’ by such awful experiences that they had been through.
After four hours walking south west the guide told us that we had passed through the hostile area. We were so relieved and pleased. After another hour of walking we reached Gerebis, a village 30 km south west of Hargeisa. We rested for a few days and then continued our journey, still on foot, to the refugee camp in Harshin and later to Harta Sheikh in Ethiopia.