Somalia is comprised of four main tribes. Throughout the reign of Ziad Bare the Isaaq tribe has been suppressed and segregated from Somalia. In 1988 Bare gave orders to annihilate the tribe, and his army began to bomb their cities and murder tribe members.
In 1960 Somalia declared independence as a union between provinces which until then had been colonies of Britain and Italy. In 1969 a military coup was led by the Chief of Staff Siad Barre. Barre abolished Somali democracy and led an Islamic communist regime in close partnership with the USSR, which sold him weapons to use against internal and external enemies. In 1977 Somalia declared war against Ethiopia in an attempt to conquer the Ogaden Desert where Somali nomads from the Ogaden clan (to which Barre’s mother belonged) lived.
Somalia was defeated. The defeat led to a massive economic crisis and one million refugees from the Ogaden Desert fled to Somali territory, mostly to northern Somalia where the Isaaq tribe dwelt. The relative stability of the Barre regime was undermined. In 1979, after two difficult years of crisis, Barre turned to the West and turned his back on the USSR which had supported him until then. The Barre regime began to crumble: members of his party began to plot against him, members of his tribe and other tribes which had been subject to discrimination began to oppose his regime, the opposition parties (from other tribes) established military forces, and a civil war began.
During the years of his rule, Barre promoted members of different tribes in order to stabilize his power. He would initially promote the interests of a certain tribe and oppress another tribe, but then afterwards promote the tribe he had previously oppressed and oppress the tribe he had promoted. Only the Isaaq, a large tribe which lived in the nation’s north, were never promoted in any way or involved in the mechanisms of government whatsoever.
Barre’s efforts to control Isaaq merchants’ trade in cattle and khat, and settle Ogaden refugees on Isaaq lands, worsened the conflict between the Isaaq tribe and the ruling southern tribes. A number of tribes, led by the Isaaq, established an armed underground called the Somali National Movement. In response, the Somali government armed the Ogaden refugees in order to use them as soldiers against the Isaaq tribesmen. In addition, the government encouraged the refugees to claim ownership of land and to expel Isaaq. The barely-equipped guerillas from the SNM attacked a number of Ogaden refugee camps and government facilities in northern Somalia in 1988. Barre responded with great brutality.
On May 27, 1988 Siad Barre gave instructions to exterminate all members of the Isaaq tribe. Military forces under the command of Mohammed Said Hersi began aerial and artillery bombardment of the three cities in which the Isaaq lived: Hargeisa, Berbera and Bur’o. They also attacked villages and nomadic encampments where tribe members lived. Infantry forces exterminated those fleeing from cities, and after the cities were completely destroyed, went in on foot to complete the killing work directly. Many bodies were buried in mass graves.
General Said Hersi reported to Barre that he could not wipe out all of the Isaaq, as they were too numerous. It was then that his troops began forced marches of Isaaq tribesmen across the desert towards the Ethiopian border. Many perished of hunger and thirst along the way. The city of Hargeisa, which held some 350,000 inhabitants before the attack, was completely abandoned. The whole area was laid waste – animal herds were confiscated, agriculture destroyed, and mines laid everywhere. Various estimates give the number killed in less than one year at between 100,000 and 400,000 Isaaq. More than half a million Isaaq fled to Ethiopia; some half a million more lost their homes and became internally displaced persons in the northern region.
After the Slaughter:
After the three main cities of northern Somalia were destroyed and abandoned, they were resettled by members of the Ogaden tribe and other tribes close to the government. 300,000 Isaaq remained in refugee camps in Ethiopia and thousands more fled Africa entirely. In 1989, in response to significant pressure from Amnesty International and other human rights organizations, the US government reduced its support and arming of the Somali government. In 1990 as a result Siad Barre’s government fell and he fled to Nigeria. Since that time there has been no stable government in Somalia; hundreds of thousands of Isaaq returned to northern Somalia and declared the independence of Somaliland, a piece of land about one-third of the size of Somalia. Somaliland functions as a distinct state with democratic elections, its own currency and governing institutions located in the capital city of Hargeisa, but it has not gained official recognition by any country.
The United States and the Genocide of the Isaaq:
In 1998 the US Department of Defense made an official statement regarding the Somali government’s policy towards the Isaaq tribe. The statement opens with the question of whether the Somali government is carrying out genocide against the Isaaq tribe. It explains the balance of forces in the Somali civil war, presents the reasons for war between the Ogaden and Isaaq tribes, and reports on the artillery attacks and aerial bombings of the cities of Hargeisa, Berbera and Bur’o, including a description of the total destruction of Hargeisa and Bur’o. It reports that between May 27, 1988 and December 1988, 5,000 Isaaq people were killed. In the statement, the concept of genocide is never mentioned apart from the opening question and it explicitly spells out that Somalis, including those of the Isaaq tribe, are not eligible for refugee status.