Somaliland Opens Mass Graves, Searches for Murderers

15 March, 2017

Investigators in Somalia continue to find and remove bodies from large group burial places in the northwestern area of Somaliland. They are gathering evidence to present in court so that war criminals might be punished. Two such cases have been presented already in courts in the United States.

VOA went to the town of Berbera, in Somaliland, where the investigators are working.

They use metal hand tools to remove the soil covering a group burial place in the coastal town along the Gulf of Aden.

The bodies of seventeen men lie almost two meters below. Gunmen shot and then buried the men about thirty years ago. Troops loyal to the former Somali dictator Siad Barre are suspected of responsibility. Barre ordered a military campaign against rebels in Somaliland that killed about 50,000 people. Most of those killed were from the Isaaq group.

A forensic investigator brushes away soil from the top of a mass grave containing 17 bodies buried nearly 30 years ago in Berbera, Somaliland. (J. Patinkin/VOA)
A forensic investigator brushes away soil from the top of a mass grave containing 17 bodies buried nearly 30 years ago in Berbera, Somaliland. (J. Patinkin/VOA)

Somaliland declared independence after the Barre government collapsed in 1991. But other countries do not recognize Somaliland as a nation separate from Somalia.

Somaliland has created a War Crimes Investigations Commission. An international team working for the commission has been opening old graves to gather evidence. Khadar Ahmed Like is the chairman of the commission.

"Every person has the right to be buried in his religious method. So, we are just taking out these bodies and we are burying them separately after cleaning and praying on them."

The commission has dug up 11 such burial places in the past five years. There are many more, including six others in Berbera alone. New graves are often discovered after rains wash away the topsoil, uncovering human remains. The commission has reburied more than 100 bodies.

After a few days of work, the team has found the bones of victims. Members remove the bones and try to make a complete skeleton of them. They examine the remains. They are trying to identify them and learn how they died.

Valeska Martinez is an expert from Chile. She finds a skull that has been badly broken. Its facial bones are missing. She says this shows the likely cause of death.

"Mostly the case is (a) gunshot wound in the head or in the thoracic area. If we see, like, a gunshot wound in the head, we know that this person don't (didn't) die in a natural way. With that kind of proof, we can show in a court a proof that this person was murdered."

Not everyone supports opening the graves. The commission did not talk with family members about the process before it began its work. Some family members tried to stop the graves from being opened. There were clashes between family members and police.

The remains of Khadra Mohamed Abdi's father were found in a mass grave. She says she wants the person who killed him to be found and sent to prison. But she does not want her father's bones removed from the grave.

"It's all so painful -- you know, someone you forgot twenty-five years ago, and then when we see the process, it's like it's new to us. All the time we are crying because we remember what happened that time. We told them not to dig but the decision is (out of) not our hand."

Commissioner Like dismisses the families' concerns. He says proving the murders took place is important to the country. And he said it could persuade other countries to recognize Somaliland as a nation separate from Somalia.

"Actually, for them it's nothing, but it is for us to prove this genocide has occurred by the regime of Siad Barre."

I'm Dorothy Gundy.

Correspondent Jason Patinkin reported this story from Berbera, Somaliland. John Smith adapted the story into VOA Special English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

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Words in This Story

grave – n. a hole in the ground for burying a dead body

skull – n. the structure of bones that form the head and face of a person or animal

thoracic – adj. the part of an animal's body between the neck and the waist

actually – adv. used to refer to what is true or real

occur – v. to happen

regime – n. a form of government