The Burao conflict, 1992
The initial euphoria surrounding Somaliland’s independence was shattered by the outbreak of fighting between sub-clans in Burao in January 1992 and in Berbera in March 1992. Many of the people caught up in the fighting had only just arrived in Somaliland, having endured often terrifying and arduous journeys of many weeks as they fled from the horror of the inter-clan conflict in southern Somalia. (See Halimo Elmi’s testimony, for example) Expecting to have found sanctuary within Somaliland many people were now once again forced to flee for their lives. This period of violence was brought to an end in October 1992 through a political settlement and peace conference, held in the town of Sheikh, brokered by the Somaliland
clan elders. What is not documented about this sequence of events is the role women played in bringing an end to the conflicts, promoting the Sheikh Conference, and their role in subsequent peace processes in Somaliland.
Although Zeynab Mohamed Hassan had lived in Mogadishu, her husband’s home, for many years, she is originally from Somaliland. In 1991, as a result of the fierce fighting in Mogadishu, she was forced to leave her husband behind and flee to Somaliland where she would be safer, in her clan’s territory. Shortly after her arrival in Burao the town erupted in fierce fighting. She recalls how women responded:
In January 1992 the divisions within the SNM led to armed confrontation between the two sub-clans in Burao. Women led in denouncing this civil war. The majority of women in Hargeisa and Burao could not fathom the situation in which the SNM fighters were killing each other and innocent civilians were being caught in the crossfire. Most women were emotionally at the end of their tether and tired of war. I and other women came together to see what we could do collectively to stop the fighting. We urged the traditional leaders to resolve this armed conflict, but without waiting for the elders to act, we also took action. Some women left Hargeisa and other settlements, towns and cities, and came to Burao. There were about 300 of us and we tied white bands around our heads – a sign of mourning [white symbolises anger or sorrow in Somali culture]. We marched up and down between the two groups demonstrating7 and singing moving buraanbur or women’s poems and songs,8 urging: ‘SNM fighters, remember the bad times you and your families have been through; this is not the day for killing one another!’
As we did this the men stopped firing. They were shamed by the sorrowful songs directed towards them by their female partners, sisters and in-laws. Within a matter of days a ceasefire had been agreed.
We composed a number of songs, the most important being one that begins: ‘Oh Dahir! [a man’s name] You have spent a long time in the bush’. This addresses the armed militias and points out that their dispute serves no purpose but only adds to the suffering of people who have already suffered much and just want to rebuild their lives:
Hayga dumin qalbiga,
Durba ii bugsaday Hay saarin debedii,
Diilaalyadii ka raystoo,
Dugsi baaban seexdee.
Hayga dilin halyey,
Dabkii hore ka hadhay.
Ha duqaynin naafada,
Dirqii bay ku kabantee.
Dabka wiilka ridayow,
Cidi kuma duljoogtee,
Maanaad I dilaysaa?
Daarihii maxaa helay?
Oh Dahir! Shatter not my newly mended heart,
Force me not to the refugee life, where cold, hunger and misery resides.
For I have tasted the comfort of home. Oh Dahir!
Oh Dahir! Kill not the surviving heroes Who miraculously escaped death.
Crush not the handicapped ones,
For they have barely recovered. Oh Dahir!
Oh Dahir! Young man with the gun,
Whom are you shooting? Me?
For there is no enemy in sight.
Have you ever seriously wondered?
What became of our brave comrades?
Whatever happened to all our buildings? Oh Dahir! (Translation from the Somali by Amina M. Warsame)
What really made the fighters throw down their weapons was the wailing and crying songs sung by the women as we ran to and fro between the two units until a ceasefire was achieved. Poetry and songs are very powerful means of communication in Somali society. Many of the ones used or created by women contained messages like:
Why is this section of the town not speaking to the other section? Why is my left arm not talking to my right?
Why is my brother fighting my son?
Why is my son fighting with my brother?
Why is my husband fighting with my brother?
Prayer meetings for peace: AUabari
AUabari are a traditional form of collective prayer meeting which used to occur all over Somalia and other Somali speaking regions such as Djibouti. They are traditionally held at times of common need such as drought. During an allabari people come together to share food and to pray to Allah to help them overcome their difficulty. Allabari can also be held to give thanks to God when something good has happened. Traditionally they were a way of sealing trust and forging friendships.
During the recurrent conflict in Somaliland between 1991 and 1996 women used the tradition of allabari but gave it a new meaning – they held prayer meetings for peace. Peace activist Noreen Michael Mariano recalled one of the occasions when women mobilised others in the community to take part in an allabari:
I am searching all the time to stop the recurrence of the civil war and fighting. In 1992 a group of concerned women who were tired of the conflict in Berbera and keen to promote peace, organised an allabari in an attempt to get people to stop fighting each other. A group of about 300-600, mainly women but also some men and boys, gathered to cook, eat and recite prayers for peace. Our prayers called for Allah to intervene to stop the troubles. We asked for three things: peace, rain (because there was drought), and economic improvement (because there was rampant inflation).
Remarkably, three days later the rains came! This gave encouragement to all of those who had participated in the allabari. The women went home from the allabari and took it on themselves to attempt to put pressure on their menfolk to stop the conflict. They called themselves ‘peace workers’ and wrote to the newspapers saying that they wanted to live in peace. Women who were able to recite poetry and sing came together to meet and reason with members of the militia and with the elders, in order to persuade them to end the conflict and enter into talks about peace with their enemies.
They succeeded in getting the elders to sit down together.