Genocide in Somalia’s Jubba Valley and Somali Bantu Refugees in the U.S.
Published on: Apr 09, 2007

How do genocides end from the point of view of those most harmed? Often genocides only end when those targeted flee to a safe place. The best way to end a genocide may be to get those targeted out of harm’s way in a hurry. For survivors, genocide ends when they feel they have regained security and sustainability—either at home or in a place of refuge. Genocide brings in its wake long term insecurities both physical—such as ongoing threats of banditry and assault and the dangers of landmines—and cultural—such as when those targeted for genocide continue to carry negatively marked identities within the larger political context. The former requires technical and administrative solutions (enhanced security, land mine clearance campaigns, demilitarization), but the latter poses challenges that are politically, psychologically, and culturally much more difficult to overcome. This is particularly true when the justification for genocide utilized a language of cleansing, pollution, degradation, and racism. For many, genocides only end with permanent relocation to a place perceived as offering physical and cultural security, as well as possibilities for psychological recovery.

In 1999, the U.S. government agreed to accept 12,000 Somali Bantu refugees, the largest group of African refugees ever identified for political resettlement in U.S. history. During the 1990s, tens of thousands of Somali Bantu farmers fled from their villages in Somalia’s Jubba Valley, a site of profound violence and genocidal campaigns, to refugee camps in Kenya. After failed attempts at repatriation and resettlement in east Africa, all parties (the refugees, camp officials, the host government, and refugee activists) agreed that these refugees could not be required to return to Somalia, and a group of 12,000 were granted P2 (persecuted minority) status, which afforded them preferential status for resettlement. In 2004, Somali Bantus from this group began arriving for permanent resettlement in the U.S.

Acts of genocide are normally committed by state agents, for example by soldiers in the employ of the national military or by militias who have the support of those who hold state power. Somalia is a rare case in which genocidal acts were carried out by militias in the utter absence of a governing state structure. While Somalia’s dictator, Siyad Barre, orchestrated massacres of his political opponents during his final years in power, local “warlords” in charge of private militias continued the strategy following Barre’s fall from power and the collapse of a governing structure. Somalia’s collapse was defined by clan-aligned militias battling each other for power in local and regional arenas, with the unarmed population of the Jubba Valley becoming a particular target of violence and abuse by opposed militias. During the peak of the violence, an Oxfam official called the valley “one big graveyard.” While Somalis throughout the country suffered grievously during the peak years of civil war, residents in the Jubba Valley received particularly harsh treatment by militias because of several factors: 1) in the early years of the war, militias of competing warlords battled back and forth across the Valley for territorial control, each side attacking civilians; 2) identified as racial minorities of slave ancestry within Somalia, most Jubba Valley residents held weak ties to Somali clans that were easily broken in the midst of war, which meant that armed clans did not come to their defense; 3) as sedentary peasant farmers tied to the land for their subsistence, Valley residents were easily targeted by mobile militias; 4) as food producers, Valley residents were killed so other Somalis could claim their land and their harvests; 5) as an unarmed population, Valley residents were defenseless. Genocidal acts in the valley took the form of mass killings, abduction and involuntary marriage of local women by militia members, and the deliberate starvation of entire communities by the seizure of food supplies.

I use the term “genocidal acts,” because the local expressions of violence make it difficult to disentangle the reasons that caused Jubba Valley villagers to flee and feel unable ever to return. Genocide, political persecution, a civil war that caught civilians in the crossfire, and economic distress all describe what happened in the Jubba Valley after 1991. Militias massacred groups of villagers who defied their efforts to exert control in the valley. Several villages, for example, lost all their men in such acts. Militias forcibly divorced young Somali Bantu women from their husbands in order to abduct them into involuntary marriages, specifically in order to ensure their children (whose identities follow the patrilineage) were members of the militia clans rather than Somali Bantus. Discrimination against and dispossession of Jubba Valley villagers has long been a theme in Somalia, and the instability and food insecurity since 1988 made the farmers targets for horrible levels of persecution, which included murder, rape, torture, the routine looting of their food reserves and harvests, and forced labor. They were also caught in the crossfire, particularly as one front of the war shifted back and forth across the river valley as the Rahanweyn battled in from the east, took over the valley, then lost it again to the Darood from the west of the valley. Each time villagers suffered pillaging by fleeing militias and attacks from incoming militias. They are also economic refugees; some fled because the continual looting of their food and dispossession of their farmland resulted in starvation.

Thus the specific definition of genocide as an intentional effort to destroy an ethnic group does not capture the complexity of what happened in the Jubba Valley. Additionally, because no state authority orchestrated the violence, which was carried out by many different militias fighting for their own particular interests, it is difficult to ascribe genocidal intent to a specific authority. What happened in the Jubba Valley illustrates the difficulties in clearly distinguishing genocide from other forms of violence.

Peace has been hard to negotiate because of the number of local and clan based groups competing for power, the continual rejection by militia leaders of internationally-mediated new governments, the persistent disregard of peace treaties by political actors, and the desire by Ethiopia and the U.S. to contain the consolidation of power over southern Somalia by the Union of Islamic Courts. Periods of peace are punctuated by moments of violence, and it remains difficult to claim that Somalia’s war has unequivocally ended.

It seems that acts of genocide in the Jubba Valley have ended, however, at least for now, having been replaced by regimes of forced labor maintained by threats to life and limb against farmers who remained or returned after fleeing if they refuse to comply with demands of armed militia. Under the current political dispensation, the Bantu of the Valley have lost their land and do not enjoy any political rights.

For many survivors, genocide ended in flight to refugee camps in Kenya, where they continued to suffer violent abuse by refugee Somalis. In an effort to contain the violence, the UNHCR removed the Somali Bantus identified for resettlement to a separate camp, from where they are being transferred to the U.S.

For Somali Bantus now resettled in the U.S., their experience of violence directed against them has finally ended. Resettlement saved their lives. But the argument that the international community’s primary response to genocide should be getting people permanently to safety is challenging and unsatisfying because it allows murderers to win. Unfortunately the harsh reality is that genocides usually only end when those in charge believe they have accomplished their goals by killing and displacing their targeted populations. Military interventions, in fact, have rarely ended a genocide. Genocidal murderers do, in fact, usually win. Thus permanent relocation of targeted populations may be the only realistic way to end genocides, and is, from the point of view of survivors, lifesaving. From a strictly humanitarian perspective, where saving lives is the immediate goal, removing targeted populations from danger quickly is imperative. From a political perspective, however, it amounts to losing a war against humanity. From a human rights perspective, the basic right to life is preserved while civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights are lost. Unfortunately, global history has not provided superior models of how to save people effectively, efficiently, and permanently other than removing them rapidly from war zones to a place of temporary safety.

But this is difficult to do in our current world order of nation-states. While we advocate globalization as desirable, profitable, and an important component of building democracy around the world, the political and economic elite are not willing to advocate that globalization should also foster the free flow of people, in addition to the free flow of goods, commodities, finance, and media images. Rather, while we claim we are trying to reduce barriers to free trade across political borders, we are building barriers against the movement of people across political borders.

What this means is that people who find themselves in the middle of wars in which they are targets or innocent bystanders become, in effect, political prisoners in war zones or refugee camps. The present world order that we live in—a global structure of states with compulsory citizenship and with official state bureaucracies that monitor and control the movement of people across borders—is relatively recent. For Somali Bantus in refugee camps, not only are they living outside of the state they are supposed to belong to, but their state doesn’t really even exist because Somalia is one of the only places on earth that utterly lacks a functioning government. For people who are forced into such liminal positions—for people who aren’t citizens of anywhere—the global order of mandatory citizenship looks pretty harsh and exclusionary. Thus we must reassess our understanding of what globalization means and what we want it to look like. Do we want a globalized world in which people are incarcerated in war zones and refugee camps, where the only things that can flow freely in and out are weapons and photographs of victims?

This argument is particularly acute for those who have fled from persecution directed specifically against them. Since the 1950s, governments and international organizations have promoted voluntary repatriation as the preferred option for refugees. Permanent asylum in the receiving country or third-country resettlement has been regarded as second best. Since the 1980s, refugee law and practice have shifted so that asylum seekers (especially in Africa and Asia) are no longer assessed on their individual “well-founded fear of persecution”—the language of the 1951 refugee convention—but are seen instead as members of collectivities that have fled conflict or hardship and can be returned en masse when conditions have returned to normal. The blurring of the distinction between economic and political refugees has enabled a policy orientation toward repatriation rather than resettlement.

But for those who have fled genocide, repatriation often sounds like a terrible option. So it was for the Somali Bantus. Many, many Somali Bantus died because they repatriated under the assumption that UN and U.S. peacekeeping would bring security. Instead, the opposite happened. The U.S.-UN intervention in Somalia in 1993-4 did not successfully establish peace, security, or a functioning government. Rather, Somali Bantu refugees claim the U.S.-UN intervention heightened insecurity in the valley as militants were pushed out of areas secured by the intervention. Hoping the intervention would bring peace, the UNHCR sponsored repatriation trips, the BBC radio broadcast promising reports of peace, and ethnic Somalis encouraged Bantu farmers to return to rebuild the country. Those who did so returned to an upward spiral of violence and retribution, to death for many, to a much more difficult and life threatening second flight through the harsh desert to Kenya for others, and to a much longer wait in the refugee camps for a resolution to their homelessness. The U.S.-UN intervention did not bring long term security to the Somali Bantu farmers of the Jubba Valley.

Refugees from genocidal persecution often remain unconvinced that the political and social structures that produced a war and defined them as undesirable citizens targeted for murder can be unequivocally dismantled, even by international peacekeepers, even by international interventions to foster reconciliation. What it took for Somali Bantu farmers to abandon their land and flee through the desert, hiding from bandits, watching family members die of thirst and starvation, trying to protect their women from rape and abduction, is a very clear indication that, in their eyes, nothing could be worse than staying in Somalia. And nothing has changed in Somalia that would make it safe for them to return.

Thus the only response can be to develop a much more efficient system of relocation and resettlement for those targeted by genocidal acts. Currently, humanitarian aid workers complain that humanitarian aid is all-too-often hijacked by political agendas, where aid is linked to conflict resolution or mediation. Refugees who, as a population, have been specifically targeted for assault and murder must be treated as a humanitarian disaster and the world’s response to them must be delinked from a response to the political context that caused them to flee.

It is clear that the U.S. needs to dramatically expand its refugee resettlement program, particularly for those fleeing a well-founded fear of genocidal persecution. The war in Iraq has produced about 2 million refugees. The U.S. has accepted 500 of them. There are somewhere around 20 million refugees displaced from their countries of origin in the world today. The United States has an annual refugee admissions quota of 70,000, a number we haven’t even come close to accepting in the past 6 years. This is morally reprehensible and in the long term will contribute far more to global insecurity than it will guarantee domestic security. People fear that opening up our borders to refugees might let in terrorists. But refugee camps may be great training grounds for terrorists. A safe world is one in which no one has to live for years on end in the betwixt and between of horror and uncertainty in a refugee camp.

Another prominent response on the part of the international community about how to deal with the aftermath of war is to encourage and fund attempts at reconciliation between the warring parties. Ever since South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the idea of facilitating reconciliation among warring groups has caught on in the human rights arena and among international humanitarian organizations as a wonderful idea. It is a wonderful idea that you should make up after a fight. But, when it wasn’t a fair fight—when the fight was waged by clearly defined oppressors against clearly defined victims, when global actors hid their involvement or their political agenda for supporting one side against the other—whose interests are served by reconciliation? Victims, who have lost everything, often don’t want anything to do with their former oppressors and quite legitimately mistrust the intentions of those with whom they are supposed to reconcile.

Somali Bantus in the U.S. are desperate for security and stability, they are avidly pursuing language and literacy classes, education, employment, skills training, and community building initiatives, and they are frantic and traumatized about the loved ones they left behind in the refugee camps and the Jubba Valley. Most are utterly uninterested in reconciliation, which in any event they only believe will be achieved once they have gained material and educational equality with their oppressors. These are much more immediate, important, community building, and self sustaining goals, far worthier of international investment than reconciliation efforts and certainly than continued war-making in Somalia.