HARGEISA— An American volunteer gently brushes away dirt to reveal the bones of a Somali victim buried in a mass grave some 30 years ago. Tens of thousands of skeletons may lie in mass graves here, on the northern edge of Somalia, where many want to see justice prevail, even if delayed.

Last year 38 bodies were uncovered in two graves by the Somaliland War Crimes Investigation Commission, which is overseeing the work on a third site where another dozen bodies are buried.

More than 200 mass graves with the bodies of 50,000 to 60,000 people may be in the region, according to the commission.

Those killed were civilians and militia members from the Isaq clan who were hunted and slain in the late 1980s by the regime of Siad Barre, Ahmed said. Barre’s overthrow in 1991 unleashed 20 years of chaos, making Somalia a failed state.

The victims’ families “are all grieving and all sad because of non-recognition of the government. We can’t get any recognition from any court or any individual,” said said Kadar Ahmed, chairman of the commission.

The War Crimes Commission says that Cold War politics helped protect Barre’s regime from punishment from the U.S. and others despite the gross human rights violations. Most of those who carried out the killings now live outside Somalia, the commission says.

Why dig up the past now?

Many African countries try to forget about atrocities carried out in their recent pasts, said Kadar Ahmed, chairman of the commission, speaking at the gravesite. He wants this northern tip of Somalia — a self-governing region called Somaliland — to confront those ghosts head-on. He said he hopes an outside tribunal will take up the case of the unknown numbers of deaths.

The commission was created in 1997 with the dual aim of offering a proper burial to the victims and taking judicial action against those responsible for the killings. Ahmed, who was not in Somaliland during the 1980s violence, has headed the commission the last four years.

If government’s aren’t held responsible for mass killings, then killings will continue, said Ahmed. Another aim is to “find the individuals and take them to court,” he said. Ahmed believes that one general who gave the order to commence a slaughter is dead. The other, he says, is outside the country.

About a dozen people from the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team are helping Somaliland unbury the past, and also helping to train Ahmed’s staff so they can one day take over. Franco Mora leads the team and says the work is about helping friends and family close the mourning process.

“Families are waiting for answers,” said Mora, who has worked on similar projects in Congo, Guatemala and Mexico. But the Somali team needs more training: “We are explaining to them you can’t go into the field and use heavy machinery. We are teaching them to recover the remains in a way you can use them for prosecution.”

Mora noted that the skeletons being uncovered in the latest mass grave were all buried facing toward Mecca, a holy site for Muslims. He suspects that means the victims were buried with care by local residents.

“This country is a big mass grave. There are graves everywhere. People are living with death. It’s everywhere,” Mora said.

Amber Barton is a 26-year-old volunteer on Mora’s team from the San Francisco region in California. On a recent sunny morning she gently brushed dirt away from a skeleton lying in a row of several bodies. She hopes to apply the skills she has studied in archaeology to a forensics context. She says the Somalis here are interested in the group’s work.

“The locals are curious about what’s happened, with the individuals, how they died,” Barton said.

“They collected whoever they saw. Child, woman, man, taking them and killing them. They were executing them, sometimes torture, then shooting them,” said Ahmed, of the commission.

A great deal of work is needed and Ahmed appears determined. After speaking, the 63-year-old Ahmed walked down into the grave, picked up a bucket of dirt from beside a newly uncovered skeleton and carried it away.

Source:  Associated Press



  1. Stop this; Muslim bones should be off limit from disturbance and disruption. We should find another method to cognize those of us who fall victim under the barrels of merciless machines of the late crazy and brutal dictator exactly. We should come up an approach better than this one by simply seeking advice from our genuine Muslim scholars and our knowledgeable people who are fully aware that the real torturers, killers, and oppressor were evil men and women hiding behind, the ignorant, the misinformed, the tribe list minds full of hatred, the cowards who can’t stand up for the truth, and those only the body between the thorax and the pelvis drives. And believe me or not, you can easily find such categories people from anywhere, from Saylac to Kismanyo.
    The second point is, those victims of us were Muslims, and they were believed Allah (swt) who never disremembers what the criminals have done on this earth from beginning to the end. He says in surat Ibrahim:
    “Consider not that Allah is unaware of that which the Dalimun (polytheists, wrong-doers, criminals etc.) do, but He gives them respite up to a Day when the eyes will stare in horror” (14:42)

    Long live Somaliland as always

    • You are wrong to attribute Islam to your own lack of respect for those who were not buried properly since the Siyadists had a reason to hide the truth of their crimes. Time belongs to Allah, and time is the best witness of events. These helpers did not study for years and travelled from a distance just so you could help ignorance and criminals who are happy to watch their crime unnoticed and without evidences. Their work is very much appreciated, and you should respect that as your solution is doing nothing but watching the likes of Morgan have tea and coffee in Garowe or Nairobi.

    • How come someone is not questioning why Muslim butchered another Muslim who has not done anything wrong? innocent civilians ! I do question it .It is not perfect solution to leave everything sake of religion, but we have to find another way. Finally, victim's relatives and everyone in Somaliland deserve truth and justice.

  2. It is appalling to see those criminals who tortured and indiscriminately killed the people of Somali land and buried them in mass graves for their resistance of Barre's excesses stay in areas not so far from the burial sites of Somali land . The people of Somali land can at least take their revenge in these areas. For those criminals who are enjoying freedom and good life in the West, it is enough to avail of these countries' laws to take them to the courts.

  3. Dahir Riyale, the previous head of somaliland, who hails from the samaroon's family have played a great role in the atempt of whiping off the Isaaq clan and yet he roam around freely without being questioned even once about it. I personally believe those who working on this project are motivated by other factors but not the good intention of restoring the right to those who have been tortured and killed. It is not a rockit science to understand that some of the Isaaq and Dir men who got their hands dirty with blood are allowed to get away with it, while asking the international community and the somali people why we were hard done by the dar00d.
    When the intentions are pure, then Allah will assist but otherwise, you won't do it

  4. If you know for a fact that some people in Somaliland took part and our elders after brokering peace have failed to take them to account then that is something you need to bring to the people. Also realize that our elders inorder to create Somaliland granted immunity to some communities within Somaliland just to keep from further bloodshed and hatred between folks that live very close to each other.

    I believe in people being brought to justice but I also believe in building Somaliland and making it a nation, which in the end is our ultimate revenge! Our success is Somaliland being a nation. You have to decide where your priorities lay. What did those people lose their lives for, just so you can get momentary satisfaction that their killers are brought to justice or that future generations of Somalilanders are born free and never have to answer to the likes of Xamaar?

    You have to think farther, wise men/women plant trees whos shade they knew they will never enjoy.