Somaliland-The Land of Poets


The land of poets. To a Westerner, it sounds a little too easy, even pathetic. And indeed, after the first casual conversation about the relationship between Somalis and poetry, it became clear to me that matters are quite complex.

Hargeisa, Somaliland, 17 November 2022

Young audience at HCC, Hargeisa Cultural Center. Most men.

Women sitting to one side, without exception covered by hijabs, boys sitting separately, hugging, holding hands, coming and going during the event as if it was none of their business.

But when one of the two performers stopped speaking and a song floated around the room, recited by heart, an electrified tension suddenly reigned. You could see how everyone listened to the last one.

You could smell, touch, touch hearing.

What a great song, got it? Jama Musse Jama, director and spiritual father of the Hargeisa Cultural Center, asked me after the reading, who was sitting among the youth with an open laptop in his lap.

I nodded, not understanding a word, but I understood that something very powerful had just happened.

Jama had just returned from a book fair in Jigjiga, the capital of a Somali-speaking province in neighboring Ethiopia, just before the event, but despite the journey, he was in full action.

Books, books, everything about books and what they keep for posterity is the guiding principle of Jam’s center.

Hence the annual book fair in the premises of the Hurgeisa Cultural Center, which has been held for 15 years and which has served as a model for many others in this part of the world, including colleagues in Jigjiga.

HCC is an island of freedom in Hargeisa, an event space, an incubator, a music school, on the top floor of one of the buildings, in the evenings, Somali women learn to sew on sewing machines, from somewhere comes the strumming of children playing traditional musical instruments, behind the event space, which is a covered courtyard, is an art gallery, a small museum and the heart of the Cultural Center, an archive with hundreds of audio cassettes with recordings of songs and testimonies that Jama has been collecting for decades.

It was a song about a mother, about how a mother gives life and how without a mother there would be no future, says Jama aloof. He speaks softly, almost caressingly elfin, his eyes shining from under the cap or hat with which he is always covered.

The land of poets. To a Westerner, it sounds a little too easy, even pathetic. And indeed, after the first casual conversation about the relationship between Somalis and poetry, it became clear to me that matters are quite complex.

That apparently there really is such a thing as a Somalis’ inculcated ear for poetry.

For publicly spoken poetry, of course. Writers write, and poets work with memory, speak by heart, just like listeners who swallow words with the greatest attention, swallow what is said and are often able to repeat what they hear after just one listen.

If the poet happens to get the beat wrong, there are loud protests.

Poets, at least until recently, neither wrote nor read, they were the illiterate bards of their clan.

At least this is what poets and educated people claim in the capital, which did not exist 200 years ago, when Richard Burton traveled here.

Hargeisa, a jumble of crumbling plot walls, sand kicked up by chaotic traffic, a sheet metal patchwork of compacted villages and unfinished modern buildings, shops, donkey carts delivering drinking water, excavators, the military, dismantled buses and huge jeeps. And all this in a massive expansion of immigration. The unstoppable immigration of people from the savannah, people who only yesterday lived as nomads, moving with their small belongings, following grazing opportunities and avoiding conflicts between family clans, militias and the army.

Being a nomad is not in fashion at the moment, environmentalist Ahmed I Awale, who works with his organization Candlelight to preserve biodiversity in the region, told me a few days ago.

Everyone rushes here, to the capital. Much indigenous knowledge is lost forever. The techniques of making certain objects, or even the grass and trees from which they were made, have become extinct.

Today, everyone has a cell phone, and people are flocking to cities that look completely different than they did before and during the dictatorship.

Before the war, it was forbidden to build buildings higher than two stories, for any higher building you needed a permit from the former capital, Mogadishu.

Dictator Siad Barre took the repression of some of the clans that made up the Democratic Republic of Somalia to the point where he did not allow the people here, who mostly belonged to the hated Isaaq clan, to build according to their wishes.

In the 1970s, the dictator had a library, museum and theater built in the city center.

Nothing remains, the library became a police station, the remains of the theater became a shopping center, the museum was later an emergency hospital, and now it is a construction site for some new project.

Honestly, even during Barre’s “experimental socialism” these facilities did not serve their purpose. People who, until yesterday, lived as nomads and neither read nor wrote, simply did not know what to do with books. And even if there were, there were no books, with the exception of the meter-long collected works of Kim Il Sung. I remember how as a young man I encountered sleeping guards a few times in an empty museum, Ahmed I Awale, who I visited on Jamo’s recommendation, laughed at me.

In the Cultural Center, there is an exhibition of the consequences of the fire, brick-sized packages of 5,000 shilling banknotes that were consumed beyond recognition by the fire, broken bottles from a perfume shop, burnt shoes.

Not far away, the only reminder of the Civil War, the monument where the plane landed.

We know who the perpetrators are. For many, we even know where they live. We have addresses of South African mercenaries

Who would have thought that 30 years ago there was nothing but ruins here.

That two to three kilometers were passable in total, and everything else was densely mined, like most of this part of Somalia, with over a million land mines.

“Kill them all, leave only the crows,” read one of the famous orders of Colonel Tukeh, one of the key men of Barre’s special militia.

“All that will be left behind is ashes,” declared Barre’s former bodyguard and brother-in-law, later vice-president and defense minister, the butcher of Hargeisa, General Morgan.

It was a genocide, an attempt to wipe out the Isaaq clan, which, in response to Barre’s terror, established its own militias in neighboring Ethiopia and, through the SNM, opposed the systematic extermination of Isaaq clan members for a decade.

It was on my birthday, May 31, 1988, that Said Barre’s warplanes took off from a nearby military airport and struck their own city with full force, complete with artillery. They killed everything that was alive, children, wounded, old men and women on the run. At the height of ethnic cleansing, 60 to 90 thousand people were cruelly killed.

Barre hired mercenaries, white pilots from the Republic of South Africa, to carry out the aerial bombardment, who sowed death among civilians. Their names and smiling faces in a photo taken before takeoff are circulating online and in rare books about one of the most brutal genocides in recent 50 Years.

All in all, up to 200,000 people were killed in the cleansing operations of Barre’s special units between 1984 and 1991. On this day, my birthday in 1988, Somalia’s second city was named the Dresden of Africa.

Today, despite the defeat of the dictator’s troops and the disintegration of Somalia, nothing reminds of the events, with the exception of a monument with a flag on top, opposite the area in the center where the suq is.

Until recently, the plane stood on a lower plinth painted with scenes of war. Since this spring, it has been raised on an impersonal marble triumphal arch without any indication of why the plane is there.

Even the poet Hadrawi only sings online about his Hargeisa, a city that is violently developing, changing and growing. He died in August this year, after returning to his hometown of Hargeisa after years of living in Britain.

There is no memorial to the poet in the city, no memorial to the victims and destruction, no reminder to future generations.

There is no state museum in the city, with the exception of two private collections that are open to the public, namely the Saryan Museum and the Hargeisa Cultural Center, but as they stand next to each other outside the center, between ministries and government villas, they are visited only by those who they know.

Young countries founded on extraordinary sacrifices usually want to tell their heroic story, inscribe it in their DNA, celebrate it and teach it with different intentions, certainly also to prevent the seas from repeating themselves.

None of this exists in Hargeisa. The history of Somaliland is not taught in schools, and young people born after the establishment of the new country, which has everything but international recognition, mostly do not know what happened and how high the blood toll the people here paid for the fall of the regime.

To my tireless questions about the relationship between poetry and the collective memory of Somalis, about the relationship between the extraordinary oral tradition and modern contemporary ways, Moustafa took advantage of the ties of the Cultural Center and got an appointment at the Investigation Department of the Republic of Somaliland for Genocide and War Crimes (Genocide and War Crimes Investigation Department from the Republic of Somaliland).

Poets, at least until recently, neither wrote nor read, they were the illiterate bards of their clan

Until recently, it was a government commission, now it is just a department of the Ministry of Justice.

We entered a small courtyard, in the middle of which stood a broken chair as an unfortunate reminder.

We were received kindly and at first the officer to whom we were assigned started reading a report on the department’s work from the computer.

Tasks and objectives of the department, the beginning and the course of work, they found 170 witnesses, found where about 240 mass graves are located, of which 200 are around Hargeisa, some of them were probed with the help of Peruvian forensics and some bodies were identified.

I have too many questions but can’t get answers. The official tirelessly reads from the screen until he finally hands me the report printed on paper.

I ask if they have documentation, archives, evidentiary material stored nearby. The official takes me to the next room, where the other colleagues, four elderly, venerable gentlemen, are sitting, and they start pulling out boards from the closet showing burial sites, remains of people and clothes.

I wonder why there is no will to openly talk about the past in Somaliland.

It is important to look forward, our truce between the clans is fragile, and there are very few resources and knowledge regarding how to deal with such traumas in society. We hear that in Rwanda the problem of preserving the memory of the genocide was solved in an exemplary way, a museum was built, something like that is not possible here for now. On the one hand, we have no one to complain to, we have a very narrow window to the international community. We don’t even get the most basic equipment and the help of experts in exhumation, says one of the four wise men, whose desire to change things for the better is written on their faces, but at the same time, they also feel completely powerless in the face of political circumstances.

We know who the perpetrators are. For many, we even know where they live. We have addresses of South African mercenaries. The butcher from Hargeisa, General Morgan, was sent by Puntland’s representative in the Somali parliament some time ago. There have been cases where, with the help of private lawsuits and non-governmental organizations, two individuals directly responsible for genocide were tracked down in the US and brought before a civil court. One of them, Tukeh, worked for years at Dulles Airport in Washington and drove for Uber. As an Uber driver, he had a very high customer satisfaction rating, but in reality he was a butcher of hundreds of people. We don’t exist as a country, so we don’t have a voice, we can’t even initiate proceedings, we are powerless and it won’t change until we get outside help.

Four old men in a fight that apparently no one wants, four apostles of memory, four powerless officials, parked without resources and powers, four who are terrified that the story will repeat itself for the sake of oblivion.

When I tell Jami about our visit to the Genocide and War Crimes Unit, she tells me her story. As a great admirer of poetry, he admired poems that motivated rebellion, and later calmed and promoted coexistence. This was not unusual in his generation of students, marked by one of Barre’s first purges in 1982.

More than 30 intellectuals, most of them professors at the University of Hargeisa, who, as a civil initiative, worked together to improve living conditions in the city, were called conspirators by Barre’s regime without any basis, imprisoned and threatened with hanging or 30-year prison terms. After months of trial, they were sentenced to draconian sentences in a political process in which they had no opportunity to defend themselves and where neither the indictment nor the verdict was made public. In an act of desperation, the students began to protest. This was the first time that Jama threw stones at the soldiers. They shot at a crowd of high school students.

There were deaths and thus one of the triggering moments for the organization of the rebellion.

The teachers were sentenced to long prison sentences and released after nine years in the worst solitary confinement just before the collapse of the country. After the war and the complete destruction of the city, Jama, who meanwhile studied and lived in Europe, returned to the mined and completely destroyed Hargeisa.

Back then, in 1991, there was a single woman who had a few chairs on the street and sold tea and coffee there. The city lacked just about everything. What was not looted and burned by the soldiers was carried away by the surviving inhabitants, including all the archives, everything that could be used. While drinking tea, Jama saw one of the guests of a street cafe among the ruins wiping his mouth with a paper that bore a familiar stamp. He discovered that the paper was the last sheet of the protocol of the court’s trial and verdict against his teachers. He was given the rest of the folder that would otherwise have been used as tissues or toilet paper. Since then, Jama has been trying to preserve his memory, collecting testimonies and documents, walking around the city with a small bag with a recorder and recording his memories.


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