THE BLOG

Breaking the Silence in Somalia

20/06/2014 11:56 BST | Updated 18/08/2014 10:59 BST

This article has been written for the Minority Rights Group International (MRG) blog: Minorities in Focus by Communications Intern Isabelle Younane, following her experience at MRG's storytelling event at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict 2014.

As visitors pressed themselves into the cramped back rows of the MRG tent in the ExCel centre, waiting for our Somali panelists to begin, I quickly realised that my role of kick-starting the question time had been made redundant. While I passed the microphone from straining hand to straining hand, trying to wrestle my sleeve from the grasps of eager Somali guests who insisted in not-so-hushed tones that it was their turn to speak next, I felt increasingly saddened. Here, in this side-event at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, perched on the edges of London and thousands of miles away from Somalia, was, for many, their chance to express how it feels to be treated as a second-class citizen in their own country. Why had no one listened to them sooner?

Hon. Bibi Khalif Mohamed, one of the few female MPs in Somalia and member of the Constitution Review Committee, told us the story of Habiba, a child from a minority clan in Somalia who found herself caught up in a civil war that raged across Somalia in the 1990s. Habiba's father and brother were murdered, while her mother and aunt were raped by insurgents from the majority clan under the gaze of three-year-old Habiba as she hid beneath a mango tree. As their home was destroyed, Habiba and the remains of her family were admitted into an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp where they hoped to find relief from the surge of sectarian violence between majority and minority clans that had been fuelled by conflict. But as our storyteller revealed, they found no such refuge.

2014-06-18-habiba.jpg

The audience members were required to wave a coloured card when they saw what they perceived to be discrimination - a seemingly straightforward task. A flurry of cards shot into the air when Habiba's mother was raped and her father was killed. This was discrimination as we know it - sexual violence, murder and hate speech. But there was less certainty when Habiba reached the IDP camp and discrimination took a more insidious form. Being forced to the back of the food queue, receiving smaller portions than everyone else - was this discrimination too? As we learned from Habiba's story, the act of doing nothing, too often practiced by the guards of IDP camps whose knowledge of Somali clans is insufficient, can also serve to facilitate discriminatory action in an environment that should offer protection.

'But this is just the way it is,' was the general consensus in the room. It is not that our Somali guests had accepted their fate of persecution, but rather they had despaired of any tenable solution. The civil unrest in Somalia stems from deep tribal divisions between Somali clans, notably Isaaq of the north, Ogadeni of the south and Hawiye of central Somalia - divisions that span generations. It became increasingly apparent that in Somalia, your tribe is considered inextricable from your identity, which means the victims envisage little hope of escape from threats of violence, sexual assault and even death.

2014-06-18-mee.jpg

As one audience member pointed out, the tribal tensions are perpetuated by Somali diaspora, and parents who teach their children to treat minority clans with hostility. So inevitably, just as Habiba and her family suffered persecution in the IDP camp, Somali families who have fled Somalia in search of new lives abroad find that they cannot leave discrimination behind them. 'If you meet another Somali,' said one guest, 'the first thing they ask you is "which clan do you belong to?" If you give the wrong answer, they insult you, threaten you, or simply walk away from you.' But when victims of persecution living in London turn to the police for help, another guest explained, the authorities dismiss it as 'an argument within our community' - a Somali problem.

But hopefully the Global Summit went some way to dissolving this Western attitude that persecution of minority cultures is not our problem. This attitude is particularly damaging to Somali women, who are protected in Somalia neither by the militant groups and warlords whose loyalties are with majority clans, nor by Somali police who fail to provide effective justice or social support for victims of sexual assault. As our audience members and panellists emphasised, there is a black hole of responsibility for discrimination against minority groups, both in and out of Somalia. The international community can make a first step in countering this discrimination by ensuring that such violations of human rights are not met with impunity in our own country, and by empowering members of minority groups through education programmes and advocacy, both national and international.

As I learned from this event - and from the Global Summit in general - the effects of globalisation and immigration mean that the West can no longer sit back and allow the suffering of ethnic groups, particularly as some of their members now walk the streets of our egalitarian nation. Hopefully, this modest event was a first step in creating a dialogue between Somali victims and the international community about the reality of life as a minority in Somalia, and what we can do to help.

Photo: MRG event, Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict 2014. Copyright: Minority Rights Group International