Wednesday April 27, 2022
Hargeisa, Somaliland: On April 1, the first night of
Ramadan, 23-year-old Somalilander Abdul Rahman was undertaking a solemn duty.
A friend’s relative had recently passed away, and Rahman was
helping dig the grave. As he toiled in a graveyard on the outskirts of
Hargeisa, the capital of the unrecognised de facto state of Somaliland, his
phone lit up.
News of a major fire in the Waheen Market, a sprawling
bazaar that employed more than 12,000 Somalilanders, was circulating widely on
social media. As the owner of a clothing stall in the market, Rahman raced to
“We were in the graveyard, and we ran 3 kilometres to the
fire. All the streets were blocked by cars,” he said. When he arrived, he found
the market engulfed in flames. “I worked with the firefighters to remove the
stock,” Rahman said. “It was very dangerous.”
About 300 metres (1,000 feet) away, former Somaliland head
of mission to the United Kingdom, Ayan Mahamoud, was dining at the Damal Hotel.
“We [first] thought it was a small fire. And just five to 10 minutes [later],
we saw the fire literally in the sky,” said Mahamoud.
“The whole city was running,” she said. “At some point, we
thought we’re all going to die.”
Ruins and memories of ruins
Rahman showed Al Jazeera a photo of what remained of the
family business founded by his father in 2006, which directly supported 20
people. It was destroyed.
Access to the market site has been restricted as the
clean-up operation commences.
Three weeks after the blaze was brought under control, smoke
continued to billow from one pile of rubble. Ottoman buildings dating back to
the 19th century are crumbling. Twisted sheets of corrugated iron are scattered
across the site. Stock is charred and left in place, and the air remains thick
with smoke and dust.
A single tree that once provided shade for Somalilanders in
the open-air section of the market still stands, but is now blackened and
stripped of foliage.
While no deaths were reported — the fire broke out after the
market had closed — the sheer scale of the blaze has scarred Somaliland,
economically and emotionally.
Authorities have estimated the economic impact of the fire
at $2bn, or 60 percent of Somaliland’s gross domestic product (GDP). The
astronomical figure is due to the market’s centrality to Somaliland’s economy.
Much of the trade that flowed through the de facto state
ended up for sale at the Waheen. “It was more than a market, it was an entire
financial district,” said Mahamoud.
The disaster comes as Somaliland battles fierce drought
conditions, which have devastated communities throughout the Horn of Africa.
The United Nations estimates the drought has impacted over 800,000 people in
Somaliland, and in February, it stressed the need for “urgent humanitarian
support” for those affected.
For some Somalilanders, the devastating scene of the
destroyed Waheen Market brings back painful memories of the Somali civil war.
Between 1987 and 1989, more than 200,000 Isaaq tribespeople
were killed in what has been described as Africa’s “forgotten genocide”. Much
of the killing occurred in Hargeisa, which was also largely destroyed by the
then-Somali government’s air raids.
Across the city, the fire is now being viewed as its
second-biggest disaster. A lot of the traders were “that generation who left”
Somaliland due to the genocide, Mahamoud said.
“They are saying ‘we’ve rebuilt once, we will do it again’.
You just feel their lives have been taken away again from them,” she said.
Three decades after declaring independence from Somalia,
Somaliland bears the hallmarks of a legitimate independent state. It has
sovereign control of its borders, issues its own currency, maintains a foreign
service, and is run by a government elected through democratic processes.
But Somaliland is still considered an autonomous region
within Somalia, with Mogadishu – and the rest of the world – continuing to
reject Hargeisa’s claim.
Achieving international recognition is therefore one of the
central objectives of the Somaliland government.
Before the fire, major efforts towards this goal were
underway. A government delegation, led by President Muse Bihi Abdi, returned
from the United States late in March, hopeful of a new era of engagement with
A port and road investment from the United Arab Emirates had
strengthened Somaliland’s economic credentials and a new partnership with
Taiwan had given Somaliland a useful diplomatic partner on the world stage.
The fire, however, has forced the Somaliland government to
shift its attention towards recovery, which itself is being hampered by
Hargeisa’s complicated political status.
In the days after the disaster, the international community
“Your city will rise again and UK will do what we can to
support Somaliand’s rebuilding effort,” Boris Johnson, the prime minister of
the United Kingdom, tweeted after the fire.
But as an unrecognised state, foreign governments are unable
to freely send money to Hargeisa, instead funnelling assistance through proxy
NGOs which can slow disaster response.
Only Taiwan, which established a de facto embassy in
Somaliland in 2020, has been able to directly contribute resources to the
Somaliland government, pledging $500,000.
‘We saw all of our
Within two weeks of the fire, the Somaliland government had
identified almost 1,000 victims eligible for compensation. Initial estimates
suggest 2,000 business owners were affected, though the true number is much
higher given the prevalence of unregistered traders.
Shiran, who carted goods throughout the market on a
wheelbarrow unregistered, was one of those who lost his livelihood. “We saw all
of our stock burn,” he said, via a translator. “We are really asking for help”.
Abdi Shakur was another unregistered trader. “I lost almost
$2,000. I lost everything,” he told Al Jazeera.
In the aftermath of the fire, displaced traders have camped
on the surrounding streets, setting up new stalls on once busy thoroughfares,
creating gridlock in downtown Hargeisa.
As Eid approaches, Hargeisa is adjusting to a new normal,
with the economic and cultural heart of the Somaliland capital now only a
But with food security in Somaliland already threatened by
the ongoing drought, an emotional Mahamoud fears that economic impact of the
Waheen fire could be the beginning of something worse.
“It’s one thing about
how to recover economically,” she said. “It’s another to make sure people are
not dying of hunger.”