The Fight for Independence Has Drawn Many Somalis From the Diaspora to Las Anod

The prospect of freedom from the government in Somaliland has brought them home to aid the war effort and to rebuild

The Fight for Independence Has Drawn Many Somalis From the Diaspora to Las Anod
In Las Anod, a truck full of Dhulbahante militia fighters, outfitted through contributions from the Somali diaspora, prepares to deploy to the front line. (Paul Stremple)

On an evening in late May 2023, the men sat in front of the hotel, some smoking, some chewing khat. They were outside in the dark to enjoy a slight breeze that provided relief from the blazing heat of northern Somalia, while the boom of artillery shells rolled in from the hills. Here, on the edge of Las Anod, the administrative capital of the central Sool region, at a cheap hotel with intermittent power and sweltering rooms, a rotating cast of Somalis had returned from their stable lives abroad in the diaspora to a city under siege.

Their accents and the passports they traveled on revealed ties to the American Midwest, Canada and the United Kingdom, but all were connected to Las Anod. Some were born there, growing up nearby before their families sought better fortunes abroad or fled as refugees when civil war broke out in 1991. Others were raised in various parts of Somalia, but still traced their lineage back to this small, disputed town — a site of conflicting territorial claims and fighting since the early 20th century, a turbulent outpost through colonization, independence and years of civil war. Now, local Dhulbahante clan militias were locked in battle with the armed forces of Somaliland, the de facto state that lays claim to the town of Las Anod.

As electricity returned to the hotel, electric bulbs flickered on and illuminated the gathering. Dhulbahante militia soldiers, moonlighting as hired security, slumped against the wall on woven mats, their guns and boots piled around them. Rashid Mahmoud sat nearby in a traditional “macwis,” the colorful wrap ubiquitous among Somali men. As I returned to the hotel from reporting at a local hospital, Mahmoud flagged me down, eager to tell me about the conflict. He recounted how he had left his home in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the United States to organize support on the ground in Las Anod. The day before, as I had stood on the edge of town and seen the plumes from exploding shells rise in the distance, Mahmoud and his driver had raced by, ferrying supplies to the front line in his four-wheel drive. Now, in the cooling evening, he leaned close and pointed beyond the hills that encircle Las Anod, to the deadly no man’s land between the militias and Somaliland forces, where the fields that his grandfather once farmed lay. My eyes flicked back and forth between his outstretched finger and the pistol lying casually on his lap.

On a chair next to him, Aadan Barre checked his phone for updates and ashed a cigarette. He was also born in Las Anod but has lived for years in Canada, first working as a car-rental manager at the Toronto airport before decamping to Edmonton, Alberta. He returned to Las Anod at the beginning of 2023, after two relatives were killed in early fighting, despite the protestations of his wife and kids. Determined to see the liberation struggle through to the end, he manages contracts for his business in Canada remotely, eager to do his part by marshaling support from abroad while back in his hometown.

The current conflict that beckoned the men “home” ignited after the assassination of popular opposition politician Abdifatah Abdullahi Abdi rocked Las Anod in late December 2022. Students took to the streets, protesting against the Somaliland government they thought responsible for the killing. When Somaliland police attempted to quell the unrest by firing live ammunition, they gunned down protesters and sent shockwaves through the community, with shaky cellphone videos of the violence spreading abroad via Facebook and WhatsApp groups. Local clan militias organized to retaliate, and the Somaliland forces retreated from Las Anod.

Suddenly, the mainly Dhulbahante residents of the city, who had lived with insecurity after the town was seized by Somaliland in 2007, found themselves in control. Fighting rendered the power intermittent and resulted in a cutoff of the water supply. As residents fled the shelling, the town’s economy collapsed, bringing services to a halt. But it was an inflection point for many of their fellow clan members living in the diaspora, who rushed to buy tickets and return home, eager to support the movement and, perhaps, achieve the dream they had held for all those years in the West: a free state of their own, called SSC-Khaatumo, after the regions of Sool, Sanaag and Cayn, where the Dhulbahante people could live on their land in peace. The end goal was self-determination and a return to the Federal Republic of Somalia as a recognized member state.

From his home in Minneapolis, Garaad Mukhtaar, one of the 14 traditional elders of the Dhulbahante clan, watched the videos of protests going viral on social media and the frantic posts about young men cut down in the street with automatic weapons. He immediately made plans to return, and arrived in Las Anod in January — as did the rest of his fellow tribal leaders, most of whom were living in self-imposed exile across Somalia or the wider diaspora.

“It was organic,” Mukhtaar told New Lines over the phone. “People like me knew from the get-go, the only time our attempts will work is if it starts right in the grassroots, locally, and people get to the point where they are fed up.”

The uprising was the moment Dhulbahante leaders were poised to seize upon. Previous freedom movements had failed, and all the planning and awareness-raising over the years couldn’t compete with a spontaneous rebellion of the people. Mukhtaar was raised in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, but his father was a Dhulbahante from Las Anod. Somali clan identity follows patriarchal lines — as did the hereditary title of garad that Mukhtaar would one day assume. But living in the heart of Somaliland as part of a minority clan, he was made to feel like an outsider in Hargeisa during his youth.

He remembers a demonstration organized against the government in the 1990s. “We were chanting, ‘Down the government, down the government.’ And then all of a sudden, the chanting changed from the government to our tribe, ‘Down the Darood.’ So right there, it was a wake-up call,” he said.

That resentment against the Darood, the larger clan group of which the Dhulbahante are a subset, was born out of their involvement in the Somalian government of then-President Mohammed Siad Barre and his brutal campaign against both the Isaaq people and the Somali National Movement that opposed him in the late 1980s. Referred to as the Isaaq genocide, this murder of tens of thousands from the Isaaq clan became a key part of Somaliland’s identity as a self-declared state, but with it came a simmering resentment for the Dhulbahante people within Somaliland’s territory, who would be forever associated with the regime’s brutality.

Arriving in Las Anod this past January, Mukhtaar and the Dhulbahante leaders conferred with groups of stakeholders in Las Anod: teachers, women’s groups and youth representatives as well as prominent businessmen and religious scholars.

“We were brainstorming,” he said. “What do we do going forward? How do we get out of this?”

Taking into account the people’s desire to secede, a council of garads made a formal declaration of independence on Feb. 6, 2023: The Dhulbahante regions of Sool, Sanaag and Cayn would not be part of Somaliland but would form a new state, SSC-Khaatumo, seeking recognition from the federal government of Somalia. On a video of the announcement posted to Facebook, Mahmoud read out the English translation of the declaration originally made in Somali.

In response, the Somaliland troops encircling Las Anod shelled the town. Fighting began again in earnest following the declaration, and for more than 20 days, militias battled the army at the edge of town, engaging in bloody house-to-house fighting as Somaliland forces attempted to retake the city. They were unsuccessful, and as more and more Dhulbahante militias organized and streamed into the city to reinforce its outgunned defenders, the Somalilanders instead began indiscriminately shelling Las Anod from a nearby military base, killing and injuring civilians and fighters alike. More than 150,000 residents fled, mostly women, children and the elderly, and the city fell into a state of siege, with opposing forces facing off from the hills that surround the small city at the edge of the wide Nugaal Valley.

But as civilians streamed from the city under bombardment, others were arriving. Alia Abukar, a Somali nurse based in London, saw the fighting and immediately knew she had to help. She had grown up in Mogadishu before leaving Somalia, seeking refugee status after the collapse of the government in 1991. But her family is from Las Anod, and she always intended to return to the place where her mother and her grandparents are buried. The crisis forced her decision.

Abukar helped make an assessment of the hospitals in town, then set to fundraising for supplies and searching for ways to bring in specialized doctors to support local staff suddenly overwhelmed with battlefield casualties and trauma cases. Most of all, the hospitals needed modern equipment. We met in a cafe in Las Anod after a long day of fighting in late May, when an endless stream of casualties from the front lines had pushed all the local hospitals to capacity.

“When I came, I saw five nurses [working on] a wounded patient … and they are pushing blood down by their hands from the bags to make it run fast. They didn’t have any fluid pumps or any pressure bags. In the West, we use either a fluid pump or we use pressure bags,” she said.

Abukar connected with groups of Somalis through social media and WhatsApp, making fundraising appeals via text and posted videos, trying to relate the scale of the need to concerned groups abroad. But even with their enthusiasm, many donors were not sure what supplies were required.

“I had to shout to the WhatsApp group,” she said. ”If you are lucky, a medically trained person will listen to what you said. Otherwise, for each piece of equipment I was ordering, I had to get the picture from Google, send the picture to the group, and they would send it to someone else. Do you have that? Yes. Can we buy this amount? Yes. Send it to Las Anod.”

With an influx of funding and shipments of supplies using her name as a contact, Abukar worked to be as transparent as possible, updating the groups on what was purchased with their money. But when fighting flared up, it was all hands on deck in the hospitals to treat the wounded carried in from the front lines.

Early in the conflict, the regional hospital was targeted with mortar strikes that destroyed the blood bank, an operating theater and the hospital’s solar panels. At another hospital across town, two medical workers were killed in a crossfire. When we met in Las Anod, the fighting was farther away, but occasional shells still found targets in town, and the regional hospital was struck again in early June. Abukar’s hospital wasn’t hit, but her family remained worried about her safety, begging her to come home. Her two grown sons, who work in London, wondered what their mother was doing in a war zone.

“I’m not better than them — than those who are dying. I’m a human being, they are human beings,” Abukar said. “I spoke to my boys and said, ‘If I die here, you have to be proud what your mom was doing.’”

It’s no surprise that a country stricken by decades of conflict and instability has so many of its citizens living in the diaspora. The United Nations estimates the number at roughly 2 million people — more than 10% of Somalia’s population. In the 1980s, jobs lured many Somalis abroad, mostly as laborers in the Gulf States, sending remittances home to their families as the decadeslong rule of Siad Barre turned increasingly dictatorial. Multiple clan militia movements rebelled against his rule, causing the collapse of the Barre government in 1991, and plunging Somalia into a civil war that is still ongoing.

Over the years, clan warlords fought to fill the power vacuum left by Barre, foreign peacekeepers intervened before leaving bloodied and embarrassed, and famine repeatedly devastated civilian populations. The middle part of the first decade of the 2000s saw the brief religious rule of the Islamic Courts Union, a Western-backed intervention by Ethiopian troops to oust them, and a shaky centralized government. These years also saw the rise of al-Shabab, a terrorist organization that Mogadishu is currently working to drive from the country’s south with the support of African peacekeeping troops and U.S. drones. Despite steps toward stability in recent years, Somali families have left the country in droves, seeking safety abroad as refugees.

Many of those who left Las Anod were able to pursue higher education and start businesses in their far-flung destinations, bolstered by tight-knit immigrant enclaves. But even as they saw material success and raised their families, they dreamed of one day returning to the land of their birth in peace. When Somaliland annexed Las Anod in 2007, it renewed the struggle for many, even though they were thousands of miles away.

For Mahmoud, this meant organizing Somali businessmen and raising money for the Khaatumo movement from his home in St. Paul, where he ran a financial services business. His childhood memories are of growing up in a small, peaceful town, reliant on trade with nomadic herders and their flocks of camels and sheep. As a boy, he watched Chinese contractors build the tarmac road that runs through town, connecting Garowe to the port at Berbera. When fighting began, Rashid came back to Las Anod to bring his 90-year-old mother to safety in a nearby village and install his relatives at a house in Puntland, where his nieces and nephews could continue their education away from the fighting.

As the conflict dragged on over months, the tempo of his involvement increased. Collecting funds from overseas, Mahmoud directly supported the militias fighting against Somaliland, importing four-wheel drives and trucks to be converted to fighting technicals, with heavy machine guns mounted in their beds. Driving down the same tarmac road he saw built as a child, his trucks ferried militiamen to the front lines. His efforts fielded more than 10 technicals and purchased uniforms and small arms for over 100 men, he said. He is open about his involvement and unconcerned that it will affect his life outside Somalia.

“I’m defending my homeland. I’m not organizing anything that’s against the law. Any human being has the right to defend himself, his house, his assets. Even in the U.S., we have guns to defend our home,” he said. “I’m supporting American values, which is freedom. Everybody has the right to have life and liberty, you know? So I’m fighting for life, for my people’s liberty.”

Mahmoud points to the involvement of American volunteer fighters in Ukraine as precedent, and the countless donations that have been made in their fight against Russia. Fighting is expensive, too, and without a tax base or formal government in the nascent state of SSC-Khaatumo, he said, it’s important that Somalis contribute to the war effort, especially those living abroad.

During the past 15 years in Las Anod, unrest and unsolved killings kept many of its scattered sons and daughters away. Residents estimate that in the past decade, more than 100 politicians, businessmen and local leaders have been killed by unknown gunmen, most in cases that have never been solved.

Even prominent elders like Mukhtaar stayed away, fearing for their safety from would-be assassins. The leader’s last trip to the area before the conflict was three years ago, for the ceremony that installed him as clan elder and positioned him as a leader and mediator for his fellow Dhulbahate. For businessmen like Mahmoud, with family still in the city, any effort to visit was carried out with heightened caution.

“When I came to Las Anod in 2020, I had to be very careful. I would come at night and go to my mother’s house, stay there and leave the next day,” he said. The rule was to avoid exposure — those who were outspoken on social media were subject to arrest or violence, Mahmoud said.

Somaliland’s government has variously pointed to interclan rivalries within the Dhulbahante, the alleged presence of al-Shabab terrorists and general crime in the city as reasons for the killings. But the underlying belief of locals has always been that the Somaliland government had a hand in the deaths, as a way of keeping the Dhulbahante distracted and divided. This creeping paranoia gave way to the protests following Abdifatah Abdullahi Abdi’s assassination in December 2022 — the incident that incited the conflict.

With a war going on just outside the city, leaders moved around with security details of heavily armed fighters, usually relatives, who are euphemistically referred to as “staff.” But for all the young men with AK-47s on the streets of Las Anod, the town felt relatively safe during the crisis — one of the paradoxes that accompanies conflict. Returnees could feel the difference, even as artillery echoed in the distance.

“Last year when I was here, you couldn’t even walk at night,” said Aadan Barre. “Now, I can go everywhere.” In constant contact with various groups across the country and in the diaspora, he coordinated with volunteers serving displaced people in makeshift refugee camps and relayed updates to political contacts in Mogadishu. After shelling struck the hospital in town, he visited to take photographs as evidence, posting them to social media and sending them to a friend, a political cartoonist, to use them in his work.

On the main road through town, the Haldoor Cafe was the geographic and social center of Las Anod during the crisis. With a wide patio that gets early shade in the evening and a dining room filled with bright-red leatherette chairs, it’s where groups gathered over spiced camel-milk tea and endless lattes cranked out by the shop’s ancient espresso machine. The town’s intellectuals and would-be intellectuals discussed politics while social-media creators in their early 20s, bedecked in military uniforms, uploaded videos they had taken at the front lines. Exhausted doctors from Medecins Sans Frontieres sat alongside diaspora volunteers delivering supplies, tucking in to dinners of meat and pasta served with fresh orange juice.

But Las Anod locals who weathered the fighting from the start noticed the cafe was a bit more crowded than usual by midway through this year.

“Look at all these guys,” said one youth council leader quietly, leaning conspiratorially across the leather couch. “Before Ramadan (which occurred in early spring this year), there was hardly anyone in here — it was quiet.”

He and his peers, all residents of Las Anod, are schoolteachers and professionals in their late 20s. They were in the streets with protesters and under bombardment when Somaliland forces shelled the city. Then groups of returnees with family ties to the town began to show up from London and Cleveland and Minneapolis, bearing Western passports and vague sentiments about checking in on distant relatives. Some were involved politically, part of planning efforts to secure the future of the region, but others were just hoping to “check it out,” as one buoyant American-Somali said, excited to shoot some drone footage and post about his experience on Facebook.

One returnee, a human rights lawyer based in London, grew up in Las Anod before his family moved abroad. Now back on the streets of his youth, he pointed out old family homes and businesses, and outside town, the gullies and riverbeds where he would swim with friends as a child. He is closely involved in the movement, helping to write a recovery plan for Las Anod and the region to implement once the fighting stops, but remains skeptical about who will make up the new state’s leadership moving forward.

“In the past, there’s been cases where leaders from the diaspora had one foot here and one foot in the West,” he says. “That’s not helpful to local communities.”

The lawyer, who asked not to be named, expressed concern that someone parachuting in from abroad would lack the respect and buy-in from local stakeholders for long-term stability. In the past, he said, some elites with lives outside Somalia were seen as more likely to settle with the government in Hargeisa, without holding the hard-line unionist beliefs that those chafing under Somaliland rule for years have come to hold.

“That’s not to paint the diaspora with a broad bush,” he added. “There are plenty who are capable. Ultimately, it’s not about who is local and who isn’t — it’s about commitment to the cause.”

The scramble to create a new state from scratch may have opened the door to political opportunists, but those were seen as problems for peacetime. After weeks without major clashes, many believed that the Somaliland military was unable to break out of the stalemate, despite President Muse Bihi’s violent rhetoric about ending the conflict, while representatives for the Dhulbahante leadership parroted the party line, that their troops were deployed only in a defensive capacity. But in late August, Dhulbahante militia fighters mounted a major attack that routed the Somaliland forces, recapturing territory around Las Anod and breaking the monthslong siege.

Now, the reality of an SSC-Khaatumo state seems to be at hand, along with the chance to rebuild and invest in Las Anod. Rashid Mahmoud plans to help with the organization of the new administration, and says he is happy to serve if called upon, but he has no desire for a position of power.

“A normal life — that’s my goal. I have no ambition except that my people live in peace, in their own homes, and they govern themselves, they determine their own future,” he said. “And I will be happy, man, forever.”

In June, I walked with Aadan Barre on a hill above the hotel where he was staying, and we looked out to admire the town just before sunset.

“It’s a nice view up here,” he said. “I’ve already talked to my cousin about buying some land, maybe to open a restaurant — something nice, you know, for after.”

Then, with shadows stretching long across the mosques and houses below, he pointed to the ring of hills on the other side of town and the militia fighting positions just visible to the naked eye. Technicals were parked on the hillside in the evening light, and somewhere nearby, soldiers waited, guarding against the enemy beyond the hills.

Now, months later, the positions have moved outside town, following the breakthrough into newly secured SSC-Khaatumo territory. Reports trickle in of Somaliland forces regrouping and assembling at the edge of their new front, a portent of fighting and border clashes that could last forever. But even if the long-awaited future seems to be at hand for Las Anod’s residents and returnees, many acknowledge one of the hardest challenges that faces a Somalia at peace — what to do when the fighting stops.

“I’m saying one more month, until it is normal,” said Barre, on a phone call from Las Anod in September. “I haven’t seen my kids in seven months, but I don’t know if there will still be war.”

Barre’s concern is not just for his children, he said, but also for the militia fighters in Las Anod who, like so many young men across Somalia, have grown up fighting, knowing only a country in crisis. As families and children return to the city from displacement camps, the men who fought for their city will have to transition to a new life in peacetime.

“We want to build our country. We want to build Las Anod,” Barre said. “But we have to tell them to put their guns down, to go to school, to go to university. We have to get them to settle down.”

Visiting a refugee camp outside the city, Barre spoke to a group of young children who had been living in ramshackle tents, out of school, their mothers and grandmothers struggling to feed them in a perennially drought-stricken region. The kids knew little about territorial claims over Las Anod, or land and clan conflict, but when he asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up, the answer came quickly: fighters.

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