The Isaaq genocide or Hargeisa Holocaust was the systematic, state-sponsored massacre of Isaaq civilians between 1987 and 1989 by the Somali Democratic Republic under the dictatorship of Siad Barre. The number of civilian deaths in this massacre is estimated to be between 50,000-100,000 according to various sources, whilst local reports estimate the total civilian deaths to be upwards of 200,000 Isaaq civilians. This genocide also included the leveling and complete destruction of the second and third largest cities in Somalia, Hargeisa (which was 90 percent destroyed) and Burao (70 per cent destroyed) respectively, and had caused up to 500,000 Somalis (primarily of the Isaaq clan) to flee their land and cross the border to Hartasheikh in Ethiopia as refugees, in what was described as “one of the fastest and largest forced movements of people recorded in Africa”, and resulted in the creation of the world’s largest refugee camp then (1988), with another 400,000 being displaced. The scale of destruction led to Hargeisa being known as the ‘Dresden of Africa’. The killings happened during the Somali Civil War and have been referred to as a “forgotten genocide”.
In the countryside the persecution of Isaaq included the creation of a mechanized section of the Somali Armed Forces called Dabar Goynta Isaaka (The Isaaq Exterminators) consisting entirely of non-Isaaqs (mainly Ogaden), this unit conducted a “systematic pattern of attacks against unarmed, civilian villages, watering points and grazing areas of northern Somalia [Somaliland], killing many of their residents and forcing survivors to flee for safety to remote areas”, this resulted in entire villages being depopulated and towns getting plundered. Rape was also used as a weapon against Isaaqs. Human Rights Watch states that this unit along with other branches of the military was responsible for terrorizing Isaaq nomads in the countryside. Dabar Goynta Isaaka would later turn into a system of governance where local officials would put the most hard-line policies into effect against the local Isaaq population.
The Somali government also planted one million land mines within Isaaq territory.
In 2001, the United Nations commissioned an investigation on past human rights violations in Somalia, specifically to find out if “crimes of international jurisdiction (i.e. war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide) had been perpetrated during the country’s civil war”. The investigation was commissioned jointly by the United Nations Co-ordination Unit (UNCU) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The investigation concluded with a report confirming the crime of genocide to have taken place against the Isaaqs in Somalia. United Nations investigator, Chris Mburu, stated:
Based on the totality of evidence collected in Somaliland and elsewhere both during and after his mission, the consultant firmly believes that the crime of genocide was conceived, planned and perpetrated by the Somali Government against the Isaaq people of northern Somalia between 1987 and 1989.