As many as 200,000 people were buried in mass graves in the 1980s under Somali dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.
HARGEISA, SOMALILAND // Frankincense wafts through the air of a quiet building on the outskirts of Hargeisa, in the self-declared republic of Somaliland. It masks the odour of the remains of 38 men, whose skeletons are packed into cardboard boxes.
The tattered containers will be opened this month with the arrival of a forensics team on February 10. Somaliland officials want to show that the men were victims of a clan-based killing spree carried out by Somalia’s government in the 1980s.
They say as many as 200,000 men, women and children were executed and buried in mass graves. They accuse Somalia’s late dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre, of atrocities and want to put his alleged henchmen on trial.
“Everybody is missing a relative. Fathers, mothers, brothers, cousins,” said Khadar Ahmed Like, who runs the territory’s War Crimes Investigation Commission. “It is about getting the perpetrators in court. Unless we learn lessons, heads of state can do what they want.”
This month’s post-mortems mark the latest bid to secure justice for Somaliland’s victims. The atrocities date back to when Somaliland was part of Somalia and governed by Barre from the capital, Mogadishu.
In the 1980s, his increasingly authoritarian regime cracked down on the rebel Somalia National Movement (SNM) and targeted members of the Isaaq clan from northwestern Somalia who had created the group.
National forces arrested Isaaq clansmen suspected of having links to the SNM between 1984-88, commissioners say. Men, women and children were bound and frogmarched to the edges of towns and executed.
Somalilanders recount gruesome stories of Isaaq schoolchildren being killed and having their blood drained to provide transfusions to injured soldiers.
Yusuf Mire, 58, is still angry about what happened. He points to the amputated stump of his left arm, where he was shot by Somali national forces during a crackdown in the central Somaliland town of Burao in 1988.
“My relatives were taken from the house to be slaughtered,” he told Al Jazeera. “We want recognition that genocide took place in Somaliland. We will send this to the UN and get the right to be separated from the rest of Somalia.”
In 1988, Barre sent aircraft and troops to the SNM stronghold of Hargeisa, killing more than 40,000 people and reducing the city to rubble. But the campaign backfired and consolidated the opposition forces, which took Mogadishu in January 1991.
Four months later, Somaliland broke away from Somalia. While Somalia collapsed into more than two decades of civil war, Somaliland gradually developed better security, a livestock trade, its own currency and democratic elections.
Evidence of atrocities emerged in May 1997, when heavy rains washed away dirt to uncover skeletons from Hargeisa’s mass graves. But efforts to raise the profile of the atrocities failed to gain traction beyond the isolated region.
“We are now going to bring this to the international arena,” Somaliland’s Foreign Minister Mohamed Bihi Yonis, told Al Jazeera. “The perpetrators are hanging around, living a normal life. Those who are living in the West, we must go after them.”
This latest drive, funded by the US-based Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), saw the 38 bodies exhumed in September 2012. This month’s visit by an eight-person team will study the skeletons for evidence of systematic killings and will excavate a second site.
“Hargeisa is a graveyard,” said Jose Baraybar, a forensics expert who manages the team. “Some say there are 200,000 bodies under the ground. Others say 60,000. Nobody really knows. That’s why we have to get the record straight.”
They will look for bindings, close-range headshot wounds and other signs of systematic killing, said Baraybar, who has worked on probes in Haiti, Bosnia and elsewhere. Evidence that victims hailed from the same clan could indicate genocide, rather than mass-murder.
The three-year project will train locals to unearth Somaliland’s 226 known mass graves. The commission has listed 33 suspects for prosecutions. They include Barre’s son-in-law, Mohamed Said Hirsi, better known as “General Morgan”.
But there the project hits a snag, because Somaliland is not recognised by other countries.
Officials in Hargeisa lack the clout to push for a UN-backed tribunal, such as those that prosecuted the criminals of Rwanda and Yugoslavia. Legally, Somaliland is part of Somalia, which has not joined the International Criminal Court.
“They are a long way from launching prosecutions,” said Baraybar. “All of the killers have left Somaliland – they’re in Somalia, the US and Europe. Prosecution is very difficult for a country that is not a country yet.”
Down south in Mogadishu, there is little appetite for war crimes tribunals – either for Barre’s brutality in Somaliland or any other atrocity that has occurred in years of violence between rival clans, Islamists and foreign forces.
Like, a 64-year-old father-of-eight who lived in exile in the 1980s, said the suspects include members of Somalia’s government and parliament – although he declined to reveal their names for fear of repercussions.
Some live in Somalia, but others are in Kenya, Europe and the US, he said. Prosecutions must begin soon because the atrocities started almost 30 years ago, and some of the masterminds have already died.
Not all perpetrators have escaped justice. In 2012, seven Somali victims secured a $21 million judgement against Mohamed Ali Samantar, a Barre-era prime minister, for planning the torture and killing of Isaaq clansmen, in a US court.
It was one of three civil cases that the CJA has helped bring against Somalis who migrated to the US, using a statute that provides civil remedies for overseas abuses. But such cases fall short of the criminal tribunal that many in Somaliland want.
The bombing of Hargeisa and other atrocities cast long shadows across the breakaway region. Few Somalilanders want to rejoin Somalia, despite recent security gains under a UN-backed government in Mogadishu.
Somaliland parents tell their children stories about the cruelties. The cash-strapped government spends $50,000 on the war crimes commission each year, and is building a $300,000 museum to showcase skulls and weapons from the bloody era.
“When the former Somali government controlled the country, many Somaliland people were killed,” said Mohamed Jamal Emil, a 21-year-old who lives in a hut on the outskirts of Hargeisa. “It was a long time [ago], but we remember. My parents told me.”
Somaliland diplomats are in talks with counterparts from Mogadishu over long-term autonomy and independence. The atrocities and prospects for a tribunal could feature in the negotiations.
For Baraybar, the war-crimes sleuth, there is more to this probe than the prosecutions it may yield.
“While perpetrators die, the dead remain where they are. As long as they remain where they are, they tell us a story. That story has a healing power. Hearing that story is the right of those who survived, and of future generations,” he said.
“The grandchild must know what happened to his grandfather.”This article first appeared on Al Jazeera.