Hargeysa, Somaliland – 11/20/08 (Part II)
Here’s a photo that alludes to what things have been like since returning to Hargeysa from Berbera:
According to my friend Jakob, who has worked in Hargeysa with the Swiss NGO Caritas for the past two years and who lives in the same compound as me, the political and security climate in Somaliland is the most tense it has been in nearly a decade. After the suicide bombings of October 29th – which targeted the Presidential Palace, the UN Development Programme and the Ethiopian Trade Commission – nearly all of the expatriates working in Somaliland were evacuated to Nairobi. Many expected to be out of the country for no more than a week. Now, three weeks have come and gone, and the exile is still in effect. Some of my friends have been told that their programs in Hargeysa have been put on hold and that they will be spending the next six months in Kenya. Others have simply left for Europe and North America. What this means is that, according to the most popular estimate, I am now one of only 50 foreigners currently living in Somaliland.
This new security reality has made things very difficult and restrictive. Though the Academy has not formally limited my movement, most international organizations that have managed to retain one or two expatriates have forbidden them from moving through the downtown core at any time of day. SPUs – the teams of bodyguards that all foreigners are required to hire whenever they leave the capital – are now commonplace in Hargeysa. Expanded checkpoints in and out of the city have greatly multiplied police presence, and all incoming vehicles are now subjected to a thorough search. Even my small residential compound has undergone a complete security facelift; a second gate has been installed, along with concrete barriers and speed bumps, and the number of armed guards has been doubled. All of these changes, when coupled with the exodus of many of my expatriate friends, has meant that if I am not at my office in the Academy, I am at home, watching an endless stream of movies that I download from iTunes whenever the Internet connection is good. Most recently, I’ve seen “Dirty Harry”, “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”, “Platoon”, “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”, “American Beauty”, “Giant”, and the entire twelfth season on “South Park”. Though I have discovered a profound passion for all things related to Clint Eastwood, this is not quite what I had imagined for myself when I envisioned the final days of my Somaliland placement.
Most concerning has been the postponement of Somaliland’s cherished voter registration exercise. Initially, the process was slated to begin in Hargeysa on November 10th. After the bombings, this date was pushed back to the 17th. Now, it’s set for sometime around the 25th, though even this seems highly unlikely, since the Indian officials who had volunteered to facilitate the process have been told by their government that the political situation is too volatile to proceed. Moreover, even if the Indians were able to wrangle passage to Hargeysa, many people feel that no Somalilanders would show up. The feeling on the street is that things are simply too dangerous to participate. So what should happen next?
On account of all this uncertainty, I have experienced a sort of disillusionment. Though I continue to believe that Somaliland is ripe with political opportunity, I am disappointed by these current events. I wonder why President Rayale failed to address the suicide bombings in a formal national statement, three weeks after the event occurred? And why did so many international organizations evacuate? It is true that things have gotten more dangerous, but there has also been no indication that foreigners were explicit targets in the October 29th bombings. In leaving, the people of Somaliland may feel abandoned. Indeed, if expatriates don’t start returning soon, many development programs will collapse, crippling the hopes and well-being of tens of thousands of Somalilanders. By choosing to leave so spontaneously, without defending evacuation on the basis of objective criteria collected in a calm and level-headed manner, international organizations may have made it hard to justify a return. It may be hard to demonstrate that “things have changed for the better” if there was no thorough understanding of what things were like before one left.
In spite of these frustrations, I did manage to have a spectacular final day in Somaliland. Against all security precautions, I decided to organize a half-day road trip to Las Geel, an archeological site about 50km north of Hargeysa. Adnan tagged along for the ride and we had a wonderful time. During the entire trip up, he and I talked about how we might best employ – in our own lives – the various communication techniques that we’d explored over the previous two-and-a-half months.
Las Geel boasts a world-renowned and immaculately preserved collection of cave paintings over 5000 years old. Lonely Planet claims that if the caves were located anywhere but Somalia, it would immediately be declared a UNESCO world heritage site and would see hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. But because the caves are in Somalia, we had them all to ourselves. The last person to sign the site’s guestbook had visited over a week ago, and was Somali. There were no fences and no tidy plaques describing what we were seeing. We had unfettered access and could have touched the paintings with our own hands, if we were so inclined.
Adnan and I spent about two hours scrambling over rocks and tunneling through caves. This was an extremely welcome bout of of physical activity, considering how little exploration I’d been able to do since the suicide bombings. Once we had seen everything that we wanted to see, we chowed down a plastic bag full of spaghetti and made our way back to Hargeysa.
Back in town, I decided to spend the evening chewing one last bushel of qat at the Academy’s mefrishe. There isn’t anything particularly important to report here – just more phenomenal political conversation and more unexpected professional connections. But considering how the evenings I’ve spent at various mefrishes around the country have been among the most engaging and illuminating of my entire placement, I thought it mandatory to idle my final hours away reclining and chewing in one.
And then there was packing, the boarding of a plane and the departure of a country. It’s still too soon for me to comment lucidly on how I feel about moving on from Somaliland, but generally, I’m pretty beaten up. I know that although I should be leaving with a profound sense of happiness and pride, I can’t help but think that I’m leaving a criminal number of exciting and worthwhile opportunities behind. I’m sure this is how most Fellows have felt when leaving their first placement, and so I’m forcing myself to look forward to The Hague with a sense of appreciation and excitement. But it is tough.
And now I’m in Djibouti. I arrived four hours ago and I’m currently sprawled out on one of the outdoor couches of the very chic La Paillote restaurant. The sun has set, the stars are out and I’m staring across the Gulf of Aden, enjoying my first cold beer in a month. For dinner, I ordered filet de requin avec sauce au champignon: filet of shark in a mushroom sauce. I haven’t tasted anything so wonderful in nearly three months.
I’m now waiting for a glass of water and a well-stoked mint sheesha (a Middle Eastern water pipe stuffed with flavoured tobacco). It’s a great way to start eight days of vacation. And I do have a lot to look forward to! Tomorrow, I anticipate doing some scuba diving (it’s whale shark season here in Djibouti) and in three days I leave for Yemen, where I’m planning on doing several days of camping and backcountry hiking. I may even rent myself a donkey!
P.S. Co-Fellow Carrie and I just decided to meet up in London from December 1st to the 3rd to attend a course on how to design peacekeeping operations. I can’t wait to see her!