The guard spoke out of the place where his front tooth used to be. He sat in the passenger seat of an aged Toyota station wagon with a muddied rifle leaning against his knee. A former liberation soldier, he clapped his hands to the blaring sound of Somali rap music as we sped through the desert east of Hargeisa, the administrative hub of Somaliland: a place that no longer exists.
He turned around to face us and pointed out the window. ’Tank, tank,’ he said. In a place like this, the natural reaction would be to panic. But just off the road his referent became clear. A tank with a rusted, spray-painted shell, its tracks long since removed. It looked like a sad, lost elephant with its trunk dangling. ’Somalia tank,’ the guard said.
Official maps lump Somaliland in with the other regions comprising Somalia. Others use a dotted line to demarcate the patch where Somalia ends and Somaliland begins. Somaliland was part of the Ottoman Empire, later becoming a British protectorate. And then, in 1960, it merged with Somalia after Somalia gained its independence from Italy. But years of bitter war confirmed what Somalilanders always knew: ‘this’ place was not ‘that’ place.
While central and south Somalia and the neighbouring Puntland fell into the chaos of piracy, clan-warfare and Islamic militancy, Somaliland embarked on a steady course of state-building
In 1991 it declared its independence and became a nowhere land - blocked from international recognition by an African Union (previously the Organization of African Unity) concerned that legitimizing it as a country would set a precedent for other secession movements in the continent.
Against all odds
So while central and south Somalia and the neighbouring Puntland fell into the chaos of piracy, clan-warfare and Islamic militancy, Somaliland embarked on a steady course of state-building. Remarkably, it overcame clan differences, building a relatively stable democracy, an education system and, against all odds, its own currency. Women participate in a vibrant civil society, though gender relations have a long way to go.
It also, as we discovered, had a small tourism industry. However, there is always a vague sense of unease when a tour comes with a compulsory armed guard. A few days earlier the hotel manager had attempted to offer some reassurance. ’Don’t worry,’ he called after us as we were led away by a man in army fatigues carrying an assault rifle, ‘Somaliland is safe.’
Its tourism sector revolves around a series of prehistoric cave paintings at Las Geel, 60 kilometers from Hargeisa. For hundreds of years, the caves were feared by nomads who thought they were haunted by devils. The caves remained ‘undiscovered’ until 2002, when a team of international researchers visited Somaliland. They were encouraged by what they found - the paintings on granite were thousands of years old.
There are no signs to Las Geel, Somali for ‘camel watering hole’, just a hard left turn off the road and onto terrain that tests our vehicle’s low-range gear ratio and suspension. After rattling through several dried-up river beds, we arrived at a check point. A DIY pole straddled a dusty, rocky track. But its guard was nowhere to be seen. Something rustled beneath a nearby tree. A half-conscious, bleary-eyed man lacking a shirt slowly made his way to his feet. Our driver displayed our permits and the guard grabbed at them wearily before lifting up the pole.
We met our guide, who communicated largely through gesture. He lead us up the rock, through a flimsy barbed wire protection and soon we were standing underneath something someone created up to 5000 years ago. Parts of the work still looked fresh.
The Horn of Africa is known more for its bloody conflicts and messy geopolitics than its success stories, of which the self-declared Somaliland is a prime example
’Cow,’ the guide said, pointing to an abstract rendering of a blood-red bovine, seemingly decorated with a necklace. ‘Man,’ he said tracing a large, elongated and stick-limbed oblong. ’Cow and man,’ he said, before mimicking the way a man would milk the animal, suggesting that animals were domesticated when the paintings were rendered. The paintings point to a period in history when the now arid Horn of Africa was lush with wildlife.
Source of pride
Hundreds of sites – depicting giraffes and human figures – have been discovered over the past decade throughout Somaliland. In many ways they are a source of pride for the territory, judged usually according to its success in comparison to the disaster in Somalia, rather than on the face of its achievements alone. Indeed, the Horn of Africa is known more for its bloody conflicts and messy geopolitics than its success stories, of which the self-declared Somaliland is a prime example.
The guide continued onto other shelters lined with paintings of knives, women and numerous other abstract forms. Under the midday sun he bent down and picked up three sharp rocks. He brought one to his cheeks and scraped it against his beard. ‘Shave,’ he said.
Then he turned the rock around and plunged its sharp tip into his chest. ’Arrow,’ he said. He mimicked the anguished cry of a man mortally wounded, hands thrown to the sky.