One Thorn Bush at a Time: How a Peace Has Been Quietly Hatched in One of the World's Most War-Torn Regions

By Omaar, Rakiya | New Internationalist, June 1994 | Go to article overview

One Thorn Bush at a Time: How a Peace Has Been Quietly Hatched in One of the World's Most War-Torn Regions


Omaar, Rakiya, New Internationalist


NOTHING can prepare you for a visit to a hometown utterly destroyed by war. Especially not when 70 per cent of your hometown has been levelled to the ground by artillery shelling and aerial bombardment.

I had seen pictures and videos of the wasteland Hargeisa had become after a decade of destruction and neglect. But this did not blunt the shock of my first return visit to the Somaliland capital in June 1992. I was touched by the tenderness with which people tried to help me absorb my impressions without making a drama out of their misfortune.

This year I made a second trip back -- and found a rather different Somaliland. In stark contrast with recent events in neighbouring Somalia, recent events in neighbouring Somalia, the main activity in Somaliland over the past year had been not war - but peace - making. And it had been achieved with precious little outside involvement or interest.

To communicate the scale of this achievement I must fill in some of the background of Somaliland's recent bloody history.

Up to 1991 Somaliland was a north - western province of Somalia. Local people -- mainly of the Isaaq clan -- felt they were not getting an equal share of the nation's resources in a country run from the southern capital of Mogadishu. In 1982 the northerners formed the Somali National Movement to promote a higher political profile.

The response from dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was to launch a sustained campaign of terror against civilians in the region. People were tortured, livestock slaughtered, villages razed, crops destroyed and the area strewn with landmines. Summary executions were commonplace. Thousands fled to escape violent and humiliating abuse.

But in 1988 the ill - equipped Somali National Movement rebels managed to take the cities of Hargeisa and Burao -- much to the surprise of the Barre Government which reacted by pounding residential districts with artillery. Thousands died as their homes collapsed on them. Others were shot in their houses or as they ran for cover or tried to escape into the countryside. Soldiers patrolling the exits to the towns robbed, raped and murdered people as they fled. By mid - June almost the entire Isaaq population was either dead or had become refugees in Ethiopia.

When in 1991 Siad Barre was toppled after 21 years of dictatorship there was a feeling of euphoria. Somaliland seceded from Somalia and declared its independence. Relieved to be home, buoyed by the security that prevailed almost everywhere, people began to rebuild their lives. The economy took off, making it possible to begin the formidable task of reconstruction.

But the heady optimism ended abruptly in January 1992 when feuding between politicians and army officers erupted into open warfare, first in the town of Burao and then in Berbera, the principal port and the country's economic nerve centre.

I wept when I saw what had happened to Burao and its people,' Sultan Abdi, the Vice - Chair of the Isaaq Elders Council told me. When their diplomacy failed to halt the fighting, Sultan Abdi and other elders went into the battlefield itself to stop the fighting. 'We could not find enough white flags to wave to get the shooting to stop, so some of us took off our shirts.'

When I visited the port of Berbera in July 1992 it was a virtual ghost - town. People were too discouraged, disoriented and uncertain about the future to start rebuilding their homes. Heavily - armed young men were everywhere. Travel was dangerous. The few foreign agencies had either closed their operations or evacuated their expatriate staff.

With the Government implicated in the fighting, the forces of peace had one option left. They rallied around traditional elders, the most enduring and accountable elements in Somali society. No other civic institution has the political clout or the moral authority of the elders.

Resolving conflict was nothing new for the elders, who are experienced professional negotiators. …

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