The publication of Clan-cleansing in Somalia: The Ruinous Legacy of 1991 by Lidwien Kapteijns has aroused deeply contrasting reactions from the Somali community. The author herself clearly anticipated this response when she set out to write about the divided and diametrically opposed recollections on the part of Somalis regarding what happened in those years. This is clearly expressed in a review by Hassan M. Abukar in which he recounts how an invitation from the current president of Somalia to forget the past has been met with contrasting reactions ranging from those “who wanted to move forward and build on the positives, to those who had hard time swallowing the fact that what happened in 1991 could be readily dismissed after so many lives were lost, properties confiscated, and thousands expelled from their homes.”
The past cannot be obliterated. Its significance cannot be established once and for all. What can be changed, however, is the moral engagement of the present with respect to past events. In analyzing the truth, warns the author, it is imperative to critically analyze the construct of clan and not to accept it as a natural category “because the analysis itself can ‘join’ a conflict, and the analyst can become virtually indistinguishable from the participant.” If the widespread use of violence inflicted on civilians, based on clan-affiliation, became a common political tool during the Siad Barre Regime, then what happened in 1990-1991 was “analytically, politically and discursively something new, a transformative turning point and key shift that has remained largely unaddressed (and has been purposefully denied and concealed) both in the scholarship about the Somali civil war, and in the political efforts at social and moral repair.”
In this context, there was a transformation in the use of violence that has no precedent in the history of Somalia. First of all, it took on the guise of a tool of power exercised outside the context of the state by which the leaders involved not only identified the civilian population as a target for violence, but actually incited it, in the name of each person’s clan affiliation, to personally commit this violence. This produced a shift in the axis along which the conflict was being waged that no longer pitted the government against the opposition, but one Somali against the other, on the basis of a particular identity construct. Referring to the comparative studies that examine the cases of Rwanda and of the ex-Yugoslavia, Kapteijns defines this violence as clan-cleansing. By adopting it, the warlords and political leaders sought to destroy any kind of alternative to their political plan. The goal of ethnic cleansing, that of ethnic purification, is not in effect; in its place is a systematic destruction of any kind of possible alternative leadership.
What Lidwien has achieved through this painful, but necessary book, has been to trace the motives of those who perpetrated the worst acts of violence against civilians. She discusses the role played by rhetoric and the message that its perpetrators conveyed through their use of violence. In fact, she analyzes and contextualizes the hate narratives that functioned as both premise and justification for the common organized violence in clan-cleansing. The events of 1990 and 1991 are located in a past that has not been absorbed, digested and publicly recognized, and consequently has become identified with the civil war and persists as a negative political force. In the words voiced by the Somali Canadian poet Togane in his poetic pamphlet, “what Lidwien Kapteijns had done in Clan-cleansing in Somalia: The Ruinous Legacy of 1991 is to speak the unspeakable, is to break the complicit silence of all us Somalis/ is going against the (...) culture of omertà/ of impunity/ of plausible deniability/ of the three monkeys/ see no evil/ speak no evil/ hear no evil.”
Kapteijns is a professor of African & Middle Eastern History at Wellesley College and has dedicated many years to the field of Somali Studies. In her analysis she examines an extensive body of sources that include political memoirs, oral histories, articles and reports written at the time of the facts discussed above. Thanks to her deep knowledge of the Somali language, she analyzes popular cultural texts, poems, songs and Somali novels, demonstrating how they mediate or rather, interpret and play a discursive role in the violence of 1991, and more generally in the civil war. She dedicates a long chapter to the clan-cleansing campaign because it has never been studied and because it constitutes a historical inheritance with which Somalis must come to terms. Without a careful reconstruction of who did what to whom, when, and in the name of which identity construct, we cannot understand the underlying significance of the violence against civilians. It is emblematic how the comments of the detractors of this important essay are steeped in misogyny and chauvinism as demonstrated by their fallacious arguments.
The past is an ambiguous place, and each interpretation should be explored rather than dismissed because it reveals what the actors consider to constitute the effective disparities of the present, regarding the civil war and the relationship of one to another. However, “different points of view of the past are necessary once one sits down at the table of peace and reconciliation, but crucial to moral repair and justice is the acknowledgement that, of those versions of the past that must be represented at that table, not all are equally truthful to/authoritative about the past. The interpretation of the past isn’t just up to Somalis; the reconciliation is.”
The truth about the Somali civil war, according to Kapteijns, “must and can in the long run, only be pursued by Somalis who are willing to hold the truth dearer than anything else.”
Translation by Victoria Offredi Poletto and Giovanna Bellesia-Contuzzi
Ubah Cristina Ali Farah was born in Verona, Italy to a Somali father and an Italian mother and grew up in Mogadishu. She left Mogadishu once the Civil War broke out in 1991. She has a Laurea in Lettere from the University of Rome. Cristina published several books of poetry and the novel Little Mother (Indiana University Press). She is active in promoting African literature in Italy.
Giovanna Bellesia-Contuzzi is a Professor of Italian Language and Literature at Smith College. She has also translated several texts, along with her colleague Victoria Poletto. Their most recent publications are Little Mother, a novel by Cristina Ali Farah, and Queen of Flowers and Pearls: The Story of Ethiopia and the Italian Occupation by Gabriella Ghermandi, fortcoming, Summer 2014 (Indiana University Press).
Victoria Offredi Poletto was born and raised in England and Italy of Italian parents and has resided in the USA for the past thirty-five years. For twenty years she taught Italian as Senior Lecturer at Smith College. Since her retirement in 2007 she has collaborated with her colleague, Giovanna Bellesia, in translating a variety of works, both online and for publication.