Editors’ note

In 1988 the population of Somalia’s north west region was estimated at between 1.78 and 2.05 million, excluding Ethiopian refugees who had been there since the 1978 Ogaden War: Following the massive aerial bombardment and destruction of Hargeisa and Burao by Siad Barre’s forces in May 1988, up to 1 million people had sought refuge in Ethiopia and elsewhere, including the south of the country

In January 1991 as the United Somali Congress (USC) took Mogadishu, and Siad Barre and his supporters fled, the Somali National Movement (SNM) captured the northern cities of Hargeisa, Berbera and Burao, bringing an end to the civil war in the region. Refugees and displaced people began cautiously returning to the towns and cities which they had run from three years before. Throughout 1991 and 1992 those arriving in Somaliland included people who had never previously lived there. By January 1992 Somaliland’s population was estimated to be 1.35 million. (Bradbury 1997)

The people arriving in cities like Hargeisa and Burao in 1991 found little left standing. In Hargeisa more than 90 per cent of buildings had been destroyed. The only part of the city left relatively unscathed was the area that had been held by government troops. People returning did so at con­siderable risk of being injured by the 1 million or more landmines laid in the region during the civil war – many of them scattered in and around ruined buildings. Water sources had been systematically blown up, contam­inated or booby-trapped; airstrips, bridges and communication routes had been destroyed or badly damaged, and all public services, like health care and education, had collapsed. By the end of 1992 a foreign professional mines-clearance company had arrived to train Somalis but until then mines were cleared by whatever means were available. A group of volunteer men organised themselves into ‘the Pioneers’ and showed courage in clearing mines with nothing but their ingenuity and bare hands.

At the same time as having to negotiate the lethal hazards left by the former regime the men, women and children returning to the country confronted gangs of gun-carrying, trigger-happy and qood-chewing bandits or dey-dey. Such bandits tended to be young former SNM fighters, many traumatised by the war and with no vision of a future except to survive on illegal gains. Usually operating in gangs, and equipped with heavy artillery including tanks and gun-mounted vehicles known as ‘technicals’, they survived through looting, intimidation and extortion and the very real threat of violence. At the same time as being aggressors, many groups functioned as the protectors and military vanguards of the clan or sub-clan they represented; as militias they were underthe control of the clan elders. Clan elders sometimes took action against their own militia members, including executions, in order to ensure the clan abided by traditional codes of conduct and reparation or to curb their violent tendencies.

Probably there is no one who lived in Hargeisa between 1991 and 1995 who did not experience a violent or threatening confrontation. Faced with the need to get on with rebuilding their lives, everyone took risks and showed courage. But motivated by a determination to prevent further death and suffering, some women and men exposed themselves to additional risks and showed extraordinary courage. The late Noreen Michael Mariano was one such person.

Noreen was a founder member of the Committee of Concerned Somalis (CCS), a volunteer group of 10 men and women set up in 1992. One of CCS’s first goals was to address the high maternal mortality in Hargeisa by re-establishing the Hargeisa Hospital which had been badly damaged in the war and had become home to a variety of squatters including former militiamen.