Mass graves in Somalia reveal grim past

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HARGEISA, Somalia -- An American volunteer gently brushes away dirt to reveal the bones of a Somali victim buried in a mass grave some 30 years ago. Tens of thousands of skeletons may lie in mass graves on the northern edge of Somalia where many want to see justice prevail, even if delayed.

Last year, 38 bodies were uncovered in two graves by the Somaliland War Crimes Investigation Commission, which is overseeing the work on a third site where another dozen bodies are buried. More than 200 mass graves with the bodies of 50,000 to 60,000 people may be in the region, according to the commission.

Why dig up the past now?

Many African countries try to forget about atrocities carried out in their recent pasts, said commission chairman Kadar Ahmed, speaking at the gravesite. He wants this northern tip of Somalia -- a self-governing region called Somaliland -- to confront those ghosts head-on. He said he hopes that an outside tribunal will take up the case of the unknown numbers of deaths.

The commission was created in 1997 with the dual aim of offering a proper burial to the victims and taking judicial action against those responsible for the killings. Mr. Ahmed, who was not in Somaliland during the 1980s violence, has headed the commission the last four years.

If governments aren't held responsible for mass killings, then killings will continue, said Mr. Ahmed. Another aim is to "find the individuals and take them to court," he said. Mr. Ahmed believes that one general who gave the order to commence a slaughter is dead. The other, he says, is outside the country.

Those killed were civilians and militia members from the Isaq clan, who were hunted and slain in the late 1980s by the regime of Siad Barre, Mr. Ahmed said. Barre's overthrow in 1991 unleashed 20 years of chaos, making Somalia a failed state.

In 1995, Barre died in exile from a heart attack while he was in Lagos, Nigeria. His body was returned to and buried in Somalia.

The victims' families "are all grieving and all sad because of nonrecognition of the government. We can't get any recognition from any court or any individual," Mr. Ahmed said about the killings.

About a dozen people from the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team are helping Somaliland unbury the past, and also helping to train Mr. Ahmed's staff, so they can one day take over. Franco Mora leads the team and says the work is about helping friends and family close the mourning process.

"Families are waiting for answers," said Mr. Mora, who has worked on similar projects in Congo, Guatemala and Mexico.


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