Somaliland is a self-proclaimed republic, with no international recognition, formed in 1991 as a separatist state, breaking away from Somalia’s northwestern region after the civil war. It spans over a strip of land of almost 137,600 square kilometers along the south of the Gulf of Aden – a crucial shipping route, including for petroleum, connecting the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea. It is now facing what many observers regard as an existential threat as the unionist movement for reunification with Somalia spreads across Sool, Sanaag and Cayn (SSC), which is over a third of what Somaliland regards as its territory.
The protests calling for reunification began in December 2022 in the city of Las Anod, where a declaration was passed in February, proclaiming SSC as a part of Somalia and deeming the presence of Somaliland administration illegal. Somaliland has since been shelling the city. To understand the extent of the damage to the city and its administration under war, Peoples Dispatch spoke to Dr. Jaama Mohamed Mursal from the Las Anod General Hospital, Garad Mukhtar, one of the 14 clan elders of SSC region, and Elham Garad, a Somali unionist activist who arrived in the city to volunteer earlier this week.
Casualties mounted in Las Anod as the troops of Somaliland – a separatist breakaway from Somalia with no international recognition of its claim to sovereignty – continued attempts to reoccupy the city at the heart of the unionist movement to reunite the region with Somalia.
On Saturday, March 18, attacks by the Somaliland army left over 280 people injured and 47 dead, Jaama Mohamed Mursal, a medical doctor at the Las Anod General Hospital told Peoples Dispatch. The hospital has been severely damaged in the bombardment ongoing since early February.
On Sunday, when street-fighting between the Somaliland army and the local troops defending the city continued at a lower intensity, at least 12 more were injured, and two were killed. Somaliland’s troops have since withdrawn to its Goojacade base, about two kilometers on Las Anod’s outskirts, from where they shelled the city for two more days, killing one more on Monday, and three on Tuesday, according to the data compiled from the city’s five hospitals.
While there are no reports of shelling on the city itself since Tuesday, Jaama said that artillery fire could be heard in the Las Anod as the fighting continues on the frontline on its outskirts, as on the evening of Thursday, March 23.
Las Anod, which was captured by Somaliland’s troops in 2007 from Somalia’s autonomous region of Puntland, has become the epicenter of the unionist movement for the reunification of Sool, Sanaag and Cayn (SSC) with Somalia.
‘We are not part of the Somaliland and have never participated in the secession program’
Mass protests against the Somaliland administration erupted in Las Anod at the end of December 2022, calling for reunification with Somalia. These mobilizations were met with a violent crackdown by Somaliland’s security forces that killed at least 20 civilians before retreating to Goojacade.
The blue flag of Somalia was subsequently raised in several cities of the region, as the protests spread across SSC, which spans over a third of the self-declared republic, the majority of whose population has historically opposed secession from Somalia.
In this context, traditional elders of all the major clans in the SSC region – historically marginalized in Somaliland’s politics dominated by the Isak clan – held a nine-day long ‘self-determination conference’ in Las Anod.
At its conclusion on February 5, the conference declared “that we are not part of the Somaliland Administration and that we have never agreed to or participated in the secession program, although the Somaliland administration is trying to force it upon us…”
Declaring the SSC region as a part of Somalia and deeming the presence of “secessionist… Somaliland administration” in SSC as “illegal”, it elected a 33-member committee to govern the region independent of Somaliland until formal integration with the Federal Republic of Somalia.
It is this committee that has been running the local administration of the city since. The Mayor and local city officials, previously under Somaliland administration, are a part of this committee “because they were elected by the locals,” Garad Mukhtar, one of the 14 clan elders of the SSC region, told Peoples Dispatch. “They have continued work as before”, running the garbage collection, police stations, and other local administrative tasks.
The venue of the conference which elected this committee was shelled on its last day, disrupting the scheduled reading out of this ‘Las Anod Declaration’. “The attack on the city by Somaliland has never really stopped since,” he added.
“Almost every day, they have been attacking the city. The only difference has been in the intensity of these attacks. On some days, they only fire artillery from their base and other positions they have taken around the city. On other days, like the past weekend, we saw a full invasion and face-to-face fighting.”
“Las Anod General Hospital has been regularly targeted by artillery”
Between February 6 and March 20, at least 1,520 casualties, including 226 deaths, have been documented from Las Anod General Hospital and four other community hospitals, according to Dr. Jaama. In addition, there have been other deaths not documented in this data because it has not been possible to recover the bodies still lying between the two fighting sides, he said, adding that the actual number of deaths could be anywhere between 250 and 300.
Health workers have also been victims. Dr. Jaama reported that many have sustained injuries while rescuing and carrying the wounded to hospitals. Five medics have died. Abdisalan Said Musa, a worker with the Somali Red Crescent Society (SRCS), succumbed to his wounds on February 11. Mohammed Hassan, a nurse who was paralyzed after suffering a spinal injury in the shelling of the general hospital on February 7, died later that month while receiving treatment in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu.
Many health workers, he said, have left the hospital because work there has become too dangerous. The remaining medics are “trying to save whom they can,” but remain severely overburdened by the staff shortage. Due to the targeting of the hospital, many patients have been avoiding it altogether, fearing the possibility of getting further injured there.
“Las Anod General Hospital has been regularly targeted by artillery. This forced us to relocate the emergency ward to another safer location because the hospital’s roof is not concrete. The hospital’s oxygen plant, solar panel and a portion of the laboratory is damaged. The maternity department, pediatric department, the outpatient department – none of it is functional. Only the operation theater and (the partially damaged) laboratory are functioning here,” he added.
“When I came into the city, I thought I was in a ghost town. Schools, mosques, houses were all damaged,” Elham Garad, a UK-based Somali activist, told Peoples Dispatch. Elham arrived in Las Anod after the fighting on Sunday to volunteer. She added, “The general hospital has been absolutely mortared by Somaliland. Most of it is destroyed by shelling.”
Attacks amid mediation attempts by Ethiopia
“We have taken a lot of damage,” Garad, the SSC clan leader, said. “Especially on Saturday, the damage was severe because we were not prepared for this attack. It was least expected. We were under the hope that the Ethiopian mediation was going to bear some fruits.”
Early this month, the Ethiopian mediators met representatives of the Somaliland administration in its capital Hargeisa and the leaders of the SSC in Puntland’s city of Garowe in an attempt to bring about a negotiated settlement to the conflict.
“We welcomed the mediators when they asked us to enter into a peaceful negotiation. But we explained that for peaceful negotiations to take place, there needs to be a ceasefire, which can only happen if Somaliland’s troops withdraw from our territory to their nearest city of Oog,” about 90 kilometers from Las Anod, Garad said.
Somaliland’s representatives, he alleged, lied to mediators, claiming that they had already withdrawn 30 kilometers from the city and were willing to negotiate peacefully, while in fact, they were gathering more troops and weapons in their base, only two kilometers from Las Anod.
‘POWs allegedly killed by Somaliland’
On Saturday, March 18, the artillery bombardment of the city, which started at around 5 am, was followed by an invasion of the army with vehicles. “Our forces met them and defended the city. We seized many of their army vehicles and also took prisoners,” he recounted.
“We are treating them with humanity. But we have learned that our troops taken by Somaliland as POWs [Prisoners of War] were first denied medical aid, and then their [military] court issued an order to kill them,” Garad claimed. The troops fighting on the side of the SSC, he explained, are former soldiers of the Somaliland army recruited from the region.
“They were on Somaliland’s payroll. When Somaliland started shelling civilians in Las Anod, they broke away from the army and joined our struggle. So they are the ones who are leading this fight. They have created their own command center and appointed their own general who has the final command. He reports on their actions and progress to us,” he said, referring to the 14 clan elders of SSC, including himself.
A delegation of clan elders, including Garad, along with members of the 33-member committee administering the city, met a UN Panel of Experts on March 13 in Garowe and submitted a report detailing the atrocities committed by the Somaliland administration.
“The report also explained the underlying issue here, which is the rejection of Somaliland’s separatism by the people of SSC,” Garad said. “The common-sense question we raised was this: Somaliland claims that Sool, Sanaag and Cayn (SSC) has been its part since its formation in 1991. If that is true, why did its troops capture Las Anod (capital of Sool) in 2007 if Sool was already a part of Somaliland since 1991? Did they capture their own city?” he asked.
“The constitution of Somaliland was voted for in its regions when it was formed in 1991. But people in the SSC region had never voted for this constitution. So this basic document giving their laws and the authority to its government was never ratified here. SSC region only had an agreement to establish peaceful relations with Somaliland, but it had never acceded to Somaliland” he said.
The region, he said, had remained independent after the civil war brought about the fall of united Somalia in 1991 until it joined Somalia’s Puntland autonomous region when it was formed in 1998.
“In 2007, when Somaliland’s forces invaded to capture Las Anod, Puntland withdrew to minimize destruction from the shelling. Somaliland has been occupying the region ever since.”