For most Somalis general Samatar’s case brings raw emotions to the surface that go to the root cause of why the Somali state came apart. The reaction to his trial and the Supreme Court verdict denying him immunity for his actions while in charge of the formidable Somali army and their role in the genocide in Somaliland and destruction of towns is quite telling.
He is either a saint or a Satan incarnated depending on where one stands (in the line of fire or behind the guns). It is important to note that those defending Samater most vociferously are not denying the bombings of Hargeisa, or the deaths of tens of thousands of people, the mass rapes, summary executions and torture chambers visited on ordinary people throughout Somaliland. They are objecting to finally assigning official responsibility to general Samatar and by extension the former leaders of the government of Somalia.
It is difficult to argue on the one hand that the unity of all Somalis is sacrosanct and on the other deny the very actions that brought us where we are; not holding accountable those responsible for the very condition that brought about the demise of Somalia is not conducive to bringing us back together. Since the actions of general Samatar are not defensible, the argument most often used by those who support him is that we should forget and forgive what happened in the past and move on. Now, that is an admirable sentiment consistent with Somali traditions and it highlights the immense capacity of the people and their rich culture to overcome adversity brought about by tribal warfare in the past. The irony is that this tradition has been practiced only in Somaliland where all the resident tribes came together in peace and pledged to build their nation back together in 1991.
The difference in this case is that the genocide that happened in Somaliland was not tribal warfare; it was the act of a government, using all the considerable and destructive instruments of power it could muster including fighter planes dropping bombs on Hargeisa, tanks shelling the cities, and soldiers shooting at people indiscriminately as they attempted to flee the city. The carnage of civilians was so horrific it drove a Somali fighter pilot to defect to Djibouti with his plane because he could not bear to watch what was taking place below him. South African mercenaries had no such difficulties and literally bombed every structure in the city, until there was not a single house or building standing. This was done in the name of the Somali government which supposedly represented all Somalis at the time including the very people it was actively attempting to exterminate.
When asked whether he (general Samatar) authorized the level of destruction inflicted on the second largest city in Somalia, the general readily admitted that he indeed gave the orders to level the city. He was speaking at the Press Club in Washington DC responding to a question posed by a BBC reporter (recording available inYoutube). The estimates of how many people were killed during the Somaliland massacre range from 50,000 to 150,000 people, some killed as a direct result of the military campaign, others rounded up and killed by the security forces like the civilians who were randomly picked in the middle of the night and shot by a firing squad at a Mogadishu beach. What was their crime? They were all from Somaliland, or their parents were originally from Somaliland.
There is a name for this kind of act; it is called a war crime, genocide, a crime against humanity itself! It would have been a travesty of justice of immense proportion if this case was not allowed to proceed and the multitude of victims living or dead were denied their day in court to tell the world what really happened to them, describe the monsters inhabiting their dreams and the man responsible for their creation. When all was said and done the general was found liable on all counts; war crimes, extra judicial killing, torture and a host of human right abuses.
In essence the court found him personally responsible for the atrocities visited on the people of Somaliland, and the only reason why he was not dragged to jail was because this was a civil trial and he could only be found liable to the charges facing him, and that is exactly what happened. Facing overwhelming evidence the general folded and accepted responsibility to all the allegations facing him despite repeated queries from the judge probing his understanding of what he was pleading liable to.
The fact that he declared bankruptcy the night before the trial was to begin was immaterial, this was never about money, it was about justice, and the need to establish a precedent so that those in power would know that no place on earth is safe for them when they commit crimes such as the one committed by general Samater and the regime he served.
To oppose the survivors of such horrors to stand up in a court of law and look at the face of their tormentor speaks volumes about the lack of compassion and empathy from those who purport to have the best intentions for Somalia and Somalis. It is not enough to say you have good intentions, or that it is best to forget. One has to defer those heavenly gestures to those who have something to forget or forgive, so if one is seeking a mature way of addressing this issue, or is interested in improving relations among the Somaliland and Somalia divide, one should have the decency and the honesty to acknowledge the obvious facts of the case and respect the individual as well as the collective pain of this remarkable people as they come to term with their past and chart a promising future for themselves.
Ultimately this is a case of basic human right – to have your day in court, and the principle of equal justice under the law prevailed, because in the land of liberty, everyone is entitled to petition the Court when seeking remedy for wrongs done to him or her. Whether someone wins or loses is up to the Judge or Jury to decide, but a day in court is all the plaintiffs wanted, and that is precisely what they got!
What lessons we draw from this experience is for each of us to decide, but as far as I am concerned a path has been lit and I am glad to have been a witness to immense courage and dignity by ordinary people facing extra ordinary events in their lives.
I bid you peace
Mahdi Ahmed Abdi (Gabose)