In 1993, as a Minister of the Republic of Somaliland, “I was given the same office that the National Security Service interrogated me in the first night I was arrested [in 1982]. What can I say? All the demons have been exorcised from my life”. So ends, in characteristic modesty and generosity of spirit, the memoirs of Mohamed Barud Ali. The memoirs titled “The Mourning Tree – An Autobiography and Prison Memoirs” were launched on 20th February – an eventful date for the author and one which has since been commemorated in the Republic of Somaliland. The memoirs which have been published as the well chosen first book in a series titled “men and women” of Somaliland, is not just the story of a man, but also reflect the tale of a nation.
Born, in British Somaliland of the 1950s, under a tree (the Mourning Tree of the title) which was steeped in clan folklore, Barud attended one of the few elementary schools in Somaliland and joined the successive generations which left nomadic life. After independence, Barud attended the prestigious Sheikh Secondary School which was still staffed by redoubtable British teachers, and then, as one of the brightest pupils, he came to the United Kingdom for university education. With a keen eye for detail, Barud narrates amusing vignettes about the inevitable but innocent culture clashes and about the invidious racism of the 1970s seaside town “skinheads” who had never faced before young Somalis jealously guarding their honour.
I can attest to the fact that the curious incident of the “black magic” (hot pepper) powder which reduced the tough Brighton “bovver boys” into sopping jellies has gone down in the annals of UK Somaliland students’ folklore!
Unlike many other Somaliland students completing their overseas studies abroad in the 1970s, Barud returned to the Somali “Democratic” Republic, as the country was known then, at the end of 1978. By then the so called “bloodless” military coup of General Siyad Barre has already shed much blood. On his return, Barud had no choice but to go to Mogadishu “because it was the only place where there was an opportunity for employment in the country”. In 1980, however, he was lucky enough to find employment in his home town, Hargeisa, and soon a new chapter of his life unfolded.
Barud and other young professionals were concerned about the dire state of the British built Hargeisa Group Hospital. With no adequate electricity supplies, relatives of expectant mothers were asked to switch on the headlights of their cars so that midwives and doctors can deliver the babies. A voluntary committee started to improve the state of the hospital and the streets and kept the local officials apprised of their work. The dictator’s extensive security apparatus could neither countenance any voluntary welfare activities that might be seen as highlighting the government’s failings nor would it allow any meetings or gatherings of such volunteers.
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The dictatorship’s idea of voluntary self help “iskaa wax u qabso” was neither organised by volunteers nor undertaken voluntarily. Barud is very characteristically modest about his role and that of his colleagues, but both the nature and symbolism of their actions to the regime, on the one side, and to the long suffering “Somalileyn” people, on the other, set in train the events that followed and are narrated in the remainder of the memoirs.
It started with a portentous nock on the door late at night in November 1981. Five fully armed National Security Service soldiers took Barud away from his home. They reassured his anxious wife “with disarming civility” that he will be back home within the hour – an hour that stretched to eight and half years! 28 other Hargeisa professionals were arrested during the ensuing months. Barud describes the torture and the inhumane treatment to which he was subjected over a period of four months. This included indiscriminate and repeated beatings, various water torture, sensual deprivation, and hunger. In their continual efforts to extract confessions, the teams of interrogators even tried to condemn Barud and the others for absurd inferences drawn for their traditional names – Barud (gunpowder in Somali); Olad (struggle); Abby (defence) and Dagal (war)! Barud retorted by pointing their other names, such as Warsame (glad tidings), Dualeh (blessed) and Madar (nourishing rain)!
On 19 February 1982, Barud was served, for the first time, with a charge sheet alleging that he committed offences under Siyad Barre’s Security Law, which were punishable by death. Barud already knew that the people accused of serious offences were executed promptly with or without short “trials” in special security courts and states that this was indeed the worst week of his life. On the following day (20th February 1982), Barud heard from his prison cell gun fire that continued spasmodically for three days. This was the regime suppressing and killing unarmed students and young people who came on the streets when they learnt that Barud and 28 other detainees were to be sentenced by the dreaded National Security Court. Young students (and others) in Hargeisa and other cities came out into streets in defiance of the might of the dictatorship, and their stones and pebbles were answered with a hail of bullets, and reportedly some artillery fire. 45 were killed and a considerable number were arrested.
The ensuing show trial of Barud and the other 28 men took only 10 hours, including a break of one hour for lunch. The lawyers brought for them from Mogadishu two days.