REMEMBERING THE UNSUNG AND FORGOTTEN HEROES OF LABAATAN JIRROW

There were heavy rains, and the track between Baidoa and Labaatan Jirow
Maximum Security was all but impassable. We were blindfolded as we left
Baidoa to prevent us from knowing where Labaatan Jirow was. Inside each
one of us was taken to cell . The cell was completely empty, 7×7 feet
with a hole in the right hand corner. This was toilet since no one would
be allowed to go out at all. The walls were unplastered and made of
reinforced concrete. There were two successive doors for each cell.
The inner floor remained looked at all times and consisted of heavy
steel bars. The outer door, which
Was opened from 7:00 A.M to 4:00 P.M. each day, was one heavy sheet of
iron without even a small hole in it. This door was normally closed
during punishment periods that were quite frequent because the slightest
sound constituted ‘misbehaver’ in the eyes of the soldier.

There were about 150 soldiers outside, equipped with heavy artillery and
anti-aircraft guns. All the soldiers, both inside and outside the
prison, were members of the military police. The soldiers outside were
to protect the prison from attack. There was no custodial corps in
Labaatan Jirow. Administratively, the special prison was run direct from
the president’s office in Mogadishu. The overall membership of the
military police in the country was predominantly *******. They had wide
powers of search, arrest, and interrogation. They also manned all
control posts throughout the country, using their powers to extort
property from the population. Every single soldier from the prison
warden Colonel Deria Hirsi to male nurse Dheel Deria Yussuf, was a
*******-clan of Siad Barre, the president. The regime denied the very
existence of a prison called Labaatan Jirow. In fact the only people,
who have ever seen it apart from Siad Barre himself, were builders,
prisoners or the prison administrators. Prisoner’s sketch from memory.
We learnt of others who had been there at one time or another between
1981 and 1989.

They included:
Mohamed Yussuf Weyrah, ex-minister of finance
Abdillahi Mohammed Nour, army major
Warsama Ali Farah, ex-mayor of Modadishu who died in prison in 1983
Ali Easa Islam, police inspector
Mohamed Ali Jama, army capt., released in 1984
Mohamoud Islam Abdille, army captains
Ahmed Hashi, army captains
Gaboobeh Abdi Samatar (Iridyambo), army captain
Ahmed Dhore Farah, businessman, still in prison when we left in 1989
Mohamoud Malin, civil servant
Sheikh Mukhtar, lawyer
Yussuf Osman Samatar, in prison since 1968
Hussein Ahmed, an Ethiopian airforce colonel 1976-still in prison when we left in 1989

On the second day after our arrival, I was given a blanket, an aluminum
cup, a plastic plate and a small plastic bucket for water. Everyday
each prisoner was given a bucket of water for all purposes such as
drinking and ablution before prayers, washing up the utensils and
cleaning the toilet. We were not provided with clothes, and ours were
taken away. I was left with a T-shirt, a Ma-awis ( the traditional
Somali cloth wrapped round the lower body) a pair of sandals cut from an
old tire, kabo shaag in Somali.

We were given millet gruel for breakfast and boiled rice with a glass of
powdered milk for lunch. This was the usual prison fare for the next
six and a half years. Only occasionally, perhaps once every three to
six months, a goat would be killed, boiled and each prisoner given a
tiny piece with his rice. These were ‘feast’ days for us and they would
be signaled the day before by the bleat of a goat. The ‘feast’ day
unusual movement and numbers of crows in the prison compound would
confirm itself. A bleat one-day and increased crow activity definitely
indicated goat meat. A bleat therefore became a beautiful song to our
ears. Every time one of us heard it, whether in the morning, afternoon
or in the middle of the night we would immediately transmit the good
news to neighbor the delicious part of the goat they would like to get
and, in due course, the part actually received.

One comic incident comes into mind. Dr. Osman dreamt one night during a
particularly meatless period, that he heard the bleat of a goat. He
woke up and transmitted the news to his neighbors. Everybody stayed up
the rest of the night discussing the good omen. The next morning, a
group of crows chased one of their numbers holding a piece of red meat
in its beak. We all saw this. It was more than enough to lift our
spirits. We watched the lucky crows with hungry eyes as they flew back
and forth playfully. Suddenly the lucky crow released the meat. We all
waited for it to fall to the ground. But lucky crow released the meat.
We all waited for it to fall to the ground. But no; the ‘meat’ stayed
up in the air, floating! The crows kept it playfully in the air; it was
a piece of cellophane bag.

Food in all such facilities is the main conversation topic. Even when
alone, one daydreams about food. We made many a joke about our
yearnings for food. Dr. Osman was asked once by his neighbor through
the wall to name his best wish at that particular moment. Without
hesitation he said ‘meat’. Only after we asked him about freedom did he
laugh and said of course. One became obsessed with food, which was
brought in a big barrel pushed on a wheelbarrow. As soon as we heard
the noise of the wheelbarrow we literally started to salivate, like
Pavlov’s dog, even for millet gruel.

The greatest problem was during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims
fast from dawn to sunset. We were given food only during the night, to
break our fast at six in the evening and 3 o’clock the next morning.
The early evening was no problem but at 3 in the morning the soldier
violently opened the doors. If you were not ready at the door with your
plate, they just locked up the door and that was that. Your next meal
would then be fifteen hours later, at six in the evening. We usually
solved this problem by assigning one person to stay awake each night.
As soon as he heard the noise of the wheelbarrow he would wake up
everybody. Even if we got the meal, darkness was a problem in the cell.
The soldiers brought hurricane lamps with them, but as soon as they
locked up, it was pitch black. With the smell of food came attacks from
all quarters-cockroaches, mice and ants. We tried to cover the plate
with one hand and eat with the other. The cockroaches were particularly
vicious. They would fly from the walls above the toilet and land on
your face and plate and refuse to take no for an answer. If you were
squeamish you went hungry.

Confronted with poor food, shortage of water, lack of sanitation
facilities, immobility, lack of reading material and isolation not only
from the rest of the world, but from any fellow prisoners, the first few
days in Labaatan Jirow were the most difficult. All contributed to a
sense of incomprehension and depression. I tried to get in touch with my
friends on either side of me. But as soon as one uttered a word even
sotto voce, soldier would be at the doorstep closing the main iron door.
There were no warnings given in that prison. Very soon we learned that
shouting to each other behind the doors would only bring more
punishment. We had to content ourselves with knocking on the wall
between the cells when the soldier were not looking even warned not to
write anything on the walls. It is literally impossible to desist from
scratching something on prison walls in solitary confinement because
that is about the only way left to express oneself. But we had to be
careful. Obviously my predecessors took their warnings seriously and
did not dare to write on the walls. Only much later, while I was
sitting on the floor and looking at the walls in front of me, I saw
something on the wall. Where the soldiers could not possibly see was
EGAL written in capital letters. This was the name of Somalia’s last
civilian prime minister much later to be ‘president’ of the Somaliland
Republic. He spent 7 years here. The most powerful man in the country
had been reduced to writing his name on that corner of the cell to
express his protest. I felt for him at that time.

I did see one grim example of protest graffiti in the large cell I
shared with 20 friends in Hargeisa’s main prison where we had stayed for
8 months before we were transferred to Labaatan Jirow. On a wall
opposite where I slept, clearly written were the names of 7 male
prisoners, every name apparently written by a different person. Every
one added a comment after his name. Most of them wrote the name of
somebody loved.

One had poignantly written “SIYAD BARRE SAYS WE DIE TOMORROW ON THE 28
APRIL 1981 BY FIRING SQUAD-SIYAD BARRE SAYS BUT ALLAH DID NOT SAY. But
for those seven prisoners who signed their names on the wall of that
grim prison, as for so many Somalis before and after them, there was no
divine intervention. They were shot on the 28th. Now they rest in
Allah,s peace. They were all civilians belonging to the MIJERTAIN clan,
accused of belonging to the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF),
the first opposition movement to fight the Siad Barre regime.
One of the cruelest things was the treatment during illnes. Even if
they believed you, seeing that you were really in pain, they gave you
insufficient doses or the wrong drugs. There was only one old male
nurse for health care in the prison. We called him doctor No because
his first response was always negative. Later on, when we learnt to
communicate with each other through the walls between the cells, we were
able to seek advice from the four real doctors amongst us. The doctors
advised us to keep asking from the four real doctors amongst us. The
doctor advised us to keep asking for drugs, particularly aspirins,
sedatives, anti-pain drugs, antibiotics and chloroquinine against
malaria and to hoard them even when we were well. This method helped us
whenever one of us fell ill and doctor No would not come to see him or
refused to issue medicines.
We were able to pass medicines to each other because we had one exercise
period of 10 minutes every three days, excluding Thursdays and Fridays.
Exercise periods were taken one person at a time, but if that person had
drugs to pass on he would inform the person next to him through the
walls who would pass on the information to his neighbor and so on until
the person needing the drugs was reached. Medicines would be dropped
at a prearranged place for the ill person to pick up during his turn of
exercise. The walk took place between two door 30 meters apart with
one soldier at each end. We always dropped drugs near a small shrub
halfway between the two doors. However, sometimes we were not given
exercise periods for 3 or 4 consecutive months or even more. This
usually coincided with periods of tension in the country as we found out
later. For example we did not have exercise periods after May 1988 as a
result of the war in the North. I have calculated that we came out of
the cells during six and half years for only 72 hours.
Major health problems were mainly connected with immobility, tension,
anxiety, fear, depression, insomnia and poor diet. Most of us suffered
psychosomatic ailments and doctor No always succeeded in aggravating
these conditions. During our sojourn, two men died due to negligence.
One of them, WARSAME ALI FARAH, who was in his seventies, was taken to
Mogadishu but died there two days later. According to the official
pathological report he died of kidney failure, but there is no doubt
that he died of criminal negligence. He had been mayor of the capital
city.
One of the detainees who fell very ill had been held since the 1978 coup
attempt. ABDILLAHI MOHAMED NOUR had been asking for drugs for six
months. On 1 May 1986 he started shouting at the top of his voice. The
place was normally dead quiet and we all put our ears against the doors
to hear what was happening. He started reciting his autobiography. The
authorities closed the outer iron door on him. They came in the night
took him shouting Allah! Allah! This continued on and off for about
two hours. He never stopped his sporadic shouting until he was released
in February 1989. The soldiers never attempted to treat him for his
disturbance, as far as we know. When we were released, we found out
that he had been badly maimed that night. Sadly, Abdillahi is still
mentally disturbed.

Release, when, after many a long year, it eventually came, was as
dramatic as the manner of our arrest. One morning in Mid-March, two
soldiers followed by the male nurse stopped in front of my cell; and for
the first time in six and a half years called me by name. They wanted
to know whether I was called Mohamed Barood Ali. I took me a while to
comprehend the meaning of the query, before I stammered yes. A
cardboard box containing some few clothes was half pushed, half thrown
through the bars of the inner door. They left me open-mouthed without
saying another word. I could hear them stopping in front of my
neighbors door and talking to him, although I could not hear what they
were saying. Suddenly I was overwhelmed by a thousand thoughts all
incoherent and fantastic. About 2 o’clock in the afternoon, soldiers
all of them dressed for parade, stopped in front of my door and one of
them told me to collect my things. There was nothing I wanted to take
from that cell and I started towards the door almost running and
breathless. They opened the door and told me to walk. He told me to
sit down on a wooden form. I beheld coming through the door my friends,
one by one. They all seemed strangers: I had not seen them for six and
a half years. At first we said hello to each other as if we had only
met a few hours ago. But then someone started laughing hysterically and
we all started hugging each other and laughing. We were separated into
three groups and put in the back of Land Rovers. We were never sure
where we were going but reached Mogadishu after five hours drive.
We were immediately taken to the Villa Somalia, Siad Barre’s state
palace on a hill in the center of Mogadishu. We saw the fabled cheetah
royally kept and looked after by a platoon of guards. While waiting to
be received at the court of the dictator, we had the first opportunity
to speak to each other, because on the way we had been warned that if
anyone uttered a word, he was to be shot.
I was generally shocked by the sight of my emaciated friends who were
comparable to survivors of a concentration camp. All had aged a lot.
The effects of anxiety and solitary confinement were all too visible on
all their faces. Some were unusually withdrawn; others laughed
hysterically, and yet others exhibited signs of morbid fear and
nervously watched the soldiers as if expecting to be attacked at any
moment.
General Siad, who usually worked at night, kept us waiting for a long
time but we were never bored for a moment. We had so much to say to
each other and a rising excitement replaced our usual mood of
listlessness and apathy.
Finally, when we were summoned into the presence of Siad Barre, we found
him seated behind a huge mahogany desk. He was smoking, as always, with
an attendant standing one step behind him, holding a packet of
cigarettes and a lighter. He appeared much older than I expected, with
vacant, tired-looking eyes. There were eight in our group, but Siad
ordered Dr. Mohammoud Hassan Tani to remain outside because he was of a
different clan than the rest of us. This was typical of the man, who
was always exploiting the clan divisions in Somali society to remain in
power.
Siad inquired of each of us whether or not we had been guilty of the
offenses for which we had been sentenced in 1982, more than seven years
previously. But he did not listen or await any response. He started
railing away at us, saying that we were traitors.(Dr. Mohamoud Tani
later revealed to us that Siad had predictably, asked him why he had
involved himself with such a group of anti-government subversives as
ourselves.) After delivering this monologue, Siad announced that we
were pardoned but that we must refrain from getting involved in
anti-government activities in the future. He dismissed us by standing
up and we were ushered out of his quarters by a group of bodyguards who
left us in the middle of the street. We had no money and we did not
know where to go. It was about 3 o’clock in the morning.

The writer of this excerpt, Dr. Mohamed Baarod Ali,later became the “Somali-land” minster resposnsible for Rehabilitation.

 

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