The group’s story
Between 1981 and 1988 many men and boys in north west Somalia left their families and homes to join the opposition or to live in the Gulf countries. Those who stayed behind were constantly under threat of arrest by Siad Barre’s forces on suspicion of being SNM supporters, so over time more and more men chose to leave. The situation was worst in Hargeisa and Gebiley because that’s where the SNM drew its strongest support. It was bad in Woqooyi Galbeed, Burao, Sheikh and Berbera, but less bad in Erigavo.
After the SNM was formed it became unsafe for any Isaq man to stay in Hargeisa or other towns. Women had to shoulder many responsibilities on top of their normal tasks because so many men had either taken up arms to fight, had been put in prison, or had fled.
As well as caring for children and older people during the conflict years, women provided vital support to the fighters in the villages and rural areas held by the SNM. Women also served as intelligence gatherers, messengers, and fundraisers for the SNM. Others joined as nurses and paramedics while a small number fought alongside the male fighters.
We tolerated all kinds of degradation under the military and their civilian supporters. There were different ranks and types of people involved in the repression: the ‘victory pioneers of the October Revolution’, known as the guulwade, who were community vigilantes involved in surveillance; the security forces of the Central Intelligence Department and the National Security Service; the military police (hangesh),the military intelligence (dabar jabin), known as the ‘backbreakers’, and the koofiyed cas or Red Berets who were the Presidential Guard made up of men exclusively from Siad Barre’s own sub-clan.
Starting in 1981 or 1982 there was a curfew. It was common for it to be enforced from 2 o’clock in the afternoon until 7 o’clock the next morning. You were not allowed to break it even if you were in labour or a person was sick and needed to go to the hospital.
You never knew what would happen to you or whom you could trust. The military would come to the houses, forcing down doors, taking people away, taking money and looking for our gold.23 People would be imprisoned for no reason and then the family would have to pay for their release. Sometimes fathers were taken from their homes and killed. Then the next day the elders and mothers were taken to see the bodies of their loved ones – to humiliate us. You couldn’t mourn – they would be staring into your eyes to see if you were crying. Women and girls were raped in front of their families. For many of us our worst fear was that we might be raped in front of our fathers.
Orientation Centres were originally used as centres for socialist propaganda teaching. This was where you had to go to get married (usually with a group of other couples).They were a symbol of the regime’s control over our lives.24 In the 1980s you had to go the Orientation Centre to report any new person who came into town, even if they were only coming for two or three days; they would be allowed to stay for a certain period and if they overstayed you would be taken to prison. They wanted to control everyone’s whereabouts and movements. One of the jokes at the time was that a man reported his new-born baby to the orientation centre as a newcomer to his house.
The government imprisoned the rich merchants and traders so that they could not support the SNM. If they weren’t imprisoned then they were forced to report to an Orientation Centre every morning to prove that they were still in town, and to degrade them. No matter how much wealth an Isaq had they were not allowed to drive new cars or Land Cruisers. At the port imported goods would be seized if they belonged to an Isaq. To get them back would involve paying out large sums of money usually but not always, to one of Siad Barre’s clansmen. These people were eager to be posted to Somaliland (north west Somalia) because they could get rich there.
No form of community organising was permitted. Any social action was seen as a threat and was heavily repressed. In 1980 a group of young professionals who had raised funds and mobilised the community to improve conditions in Hargeisa Hospital were all arrested and given long prison sentences in solitary confinement. Three were even sentenced to death for treason (the sentences were not carried out).When students demonstrated outside the courtroom against their arrest, the dabar jabin fired on them killing some of them, and arrested some 200.
There was enormous suppression and control of information. It was forbidden to talk about the war or what was really going on. It wasn’t easy to get information in or out. To find out what was happening and what might come next or what we needed to do, we needed to be good intelligence gatherers but very careful of giving away our interests and being caught. Women were important in this role as we were less of a target than the men were. We would meet informally every morning and pass on details of what we knew about the latest arrests or disappearances and so on. Every morning we would gather information from our sources and from each other; and pass on what we’d learnt to the next person.
As the SNM grew stronger the government punished the civilians more. When the SNM killed one person, the military would kill scores in retaliation. In 1984 the government murdered 40 Isaq men (and women) in a reprisal for the SNM having killed the leader of the force charged with targeting the Isaq. In the same year 45 men were taken and killed in the centre of Burao for ‘helping the SNM’.
Some women took their children and went to live in Mogadishu or Ethiopia but the majority of people stayed until forced to flee in 1988. Few ordinary people in the south had any idea what was going on in the north west. The regime was expert at controlling information, repressing reports, preventing journalists from visiting. Even after thousands of us had fled to Mogadishu in 1988 we feared to talk about what had happened to us and it was difficult to get people to believe us. Nobody wanted to believe it. Those that were able to left the country completely. You couldn’t feel safe knowing that your own government wanted to exterminate you.