In-depth: A Decent Burial - Somalis yearn for justice

SOMALIA: A Decent Burial - Somalis yearn for justice

Mass graves exposed by heavy rain in 1997 led to a preliminary investigation
HARGEYSA, 1 May 2001 (IRIN) - When heavy rains in 1997 exposed bones, ropes, broken skulls and torn pieces of clothing in shallow graves in Hargeysa, capital of the self-declared state of Somaliland, northwestern Somalia, it set in motion the rudimentary beginnings of an international investigation into alleged war crimes.

At the request of an independent expert of the UN Commission on Human Rights, an international forensic team, provided by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), came to Somaliland in December 1997. Two North American forensic experts were shown more than 100 alleged mass-grave sites. After preliminary investigations, the team reported that some of the sites did indeed exhibit characteristics of mass graves and contained evidence of gross human rights abuses. It recommended that the sites be preserved, and an international team of forensic specialists be authorised by the UN to carry out further investigations.

Graves investigated by the 1997 team revealed individual remains that were "tightly grouped and bound to each other by... rope binding their wrists together behind their back, with the rope connecting them to each other in a line" the report said. Test excavations at another site discovered "patterned impressions on the floor of the grave... consistent with the grave having been dug by an earth-moving machine."

The Somaliland administration, headed by Muhammed Ibrahim Egal, set up a local Technical Committee for the Investigation of War Crimes of the Siyad Barre Regime to collect documentation, take testimonies, and preserve the sites where mass graves were known and alleged to be.


Personal Account: Bulldozer driver

Issues at a glance
"The greatest danger is that the issue of war crimes would be immediately politicised and used to further divisions and extremism," - senior UN source.
"Peace and justice in Somalia should not be alternatives, but should go hand in hand." - Independent expert.
Amina said she needed to know who had executed her husband and why -"I would like to see the people responsible brought to justice."
I used to drive the bulldozer that buried the people who had been killed. I worked for the Ministry of Public Works, and did it over a period of about six months, from 1988. It was in Hargeysa."

Photo: IRIN
The Milk Factory site - where bodies were buried

"The first time they came to get me from my home, it was about one o'clock at night. I lived in a compound near the Ministry of Public Works. There was a group of armed soldiers, and they took three of us.­ I thought we were going to be killed. They took us to a warehouse where the tractors and bulldozers were, and told the others to leave. They asked me to take one of the bulldozers. After the others left, there were four soldiers with me -­ two in front, two behind. They told me to pick the best bulldozer - one of those big military ones which can shift about 40 cubic metres of sand. That's when they told me it would be used to bury people they had killed. They said: We have to collect the bodies and bury them so that there is no disease. They talked of the people they had killed as being unclean, filthy."

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© 2001, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. All rights reserved.