A Visit to the De-Facto State of Somaliland

November 2012: As a backup to a failed attempt to visit Socotra Island in Yemen, I visited the Defacto state of Somaliland from Djibouti and travel across the country to Ethiopia over the course of 4 days. Somaliland was truly a place I knew little about before visiting and I had zero plans and preparations in place before visiting except for the visa, which I obtained from an individual’s yahoo email account in the USA after submitting 20 USD via PayPal and completing a basic application, which I emailed to the individual. The individual claimed to represent the Somaliland Consular services and I obtained his email from a Lonely Planet Thorn tree forum. It was the most informal visa I had ever obtained.

 

 

About Somaliland

My route across Somaliland

Somaliland, once a British colony that after independence became part of greater Somalia, broke away from Somalia in a 1980’s civil war that resulted in the strongman dictator of Somalia Siad Barre being overthrown and Somalia descending into anarchy. Somalia continues to claim Somaliland and Somalia is seeking recognition from the United Nations as an intendant state. Somaliland is mostly an arid desert that sits along the northern Indian Ocean. Compared to its neighbor Somalia it is far safer and hasn’t suffered from the same degree of banditry, piracy and Islamic insurgency from Al Shabab. Nonetheless it is remote, received few visitors during the time of my travel and I really had no one to ask for guidance so I was a little apprehensive about my visit but excited about blazing new trails.

 

Crossing a Border that Few Foreigners Have Ever Crossed

My shared taxi jeep I took across Somaliland at night

I entered Somaliland via the Djibouti border on a shared taxi jeep. A Yemeni man I met in my hotel in Djibouti kindly volunteered to help me find the right taxi jeep to enter Somaliland. The Yemeni man was a businessman who commonly worked in Djibouti and in Somaliland and he was friends with a Chief Immigration Official in the capitol of Somaliland, Hargeisa. He provided me the contact info for the official, and his number if I needed help.  The man from Yemen helped me with no expectation of anything in return. This was the kind of generosity I remembered from my trip to Yemen. The bus station was chaos, and his assistance was much appreciated but once the taxi bus departed, I was on my own in a jeep full of strangers including the driver that did not speak a drop of English. Exiting the Djibouti border was a breeze but crossing into Somaliland was more difficult. The Somaliland border officials analyzed my informal looking visa letter I was emailed from an individual in the USA that claimed to represent Somaliland Missions. The border officials looked very puzzled and were arguing among themselves. I called my Yemeni friend to help translate over my phone.  The officials were very curious about why I wanted to enter Somaliland and they asked where I had received the visa document. I informed them that their government provided it to me and that it granted me permission to enter the country. Again, they were very puzzled and explained to me that they had only one foreigner enter Somaliland at that border and bever an American and they had never seen an American passport before. They also didn’t understand what I wanted to do in Somaliland. The Yemeni man informed the border officials that my trip was ordained by his official contact in Hargeisa and the officials agreed to allow me to enter Somaliland.

The taxi jeep was packed to the brim with passengers, some were seated in the trunk where there were no seats or windows on top of the luggage. I paid extra to sit in the front passenger seat, but I still had two other passengers in between me and the driver. I didn’t know much about what to expect other than the drive would take all night and transfers to Hargeisa always occurred at night because the desert temperatures were cooler and more manageable. We stopped in the town of Zeila on the Indian Ocean for tea and other reasons unknown to me. I sat at a tea stop and watched WWF wrestling on a box television with some Somalians, one of which spoke English and told me he used to live in Minnesota and drive a taxi. Our driver whistled it was time to go. I never strayed far from the taxi jeep to ensure I wasn’t left behind. We set off for the long drive across the desert. Even thought it was night, it was still hot outside, the road was nonexistent. We drove in a small convoy of taxi jeeps on sandy tracts across the desert. There was no road and it seemed that one jeep would just follow the tracks of the one in front of it. It seemed very easy to get lost in the desert and there were no village lights anywhere to be seen in the distance. It was dark and I was breaking my number one rule-traveling at night in Africa. The driver blasted Somali music at an ear deafening volume all night. It was like a crazy dream. I drifted in and out of sleep. My actual dreams were less surreal. I would have to wake up occasionally when our jeep got stuck in the sand and all of the passengers would exit the jeep and help shovel and push it free. I made sure to have plenty of water for the trip. The long night drive was also broken up by a few tea and toilet stops in isolated villages we came across in the desert. Most people would stare at me, but none seemed very interested. I tried to find someone who spoke English, but no one did.

 

Somali music blasting all night in the shared taxi jeep

 

Detained in a Somalian Village During National Elections

We drove well into the next morning now in daylight ascending into higher grounds. The villages were growing larger, and I started to see nomad conical huts and nomads grazing with their goats. We started to pass soldier checkpoints in each village and then we reached one village where the soldiers stopped us and prevented us from entering a village. All of the passengers in our jeep stood outside on the road for an hour and it seemed that no one or just me anyways had any idea what was going on. I took some photos of nomads but all nomad women as friendly as they seemed would refuse a photo.

 

Somalian nomad houses

Nomad girl

Nomad boy

Then the soldiers allowed us to enter the village, but we were not allowed to leave. I asked for answers and tried to call my Yemeni friend, but he would not answer. Then I called the Somali official in Hargeisa, and he answered and spoke English. He explained to me that there was a national election and that during the election the government decreed that no one would be allowed to travel between villages to prevent election fraud but that he would try and get me an exemption. In the meantime, I had no choice but to relax and explore the village. The people were friendly. A crazed elderly man with a sword walked past me waving it in the air yelling Allah Akbar. I knew he was crazy because other villages also snickered at him.

The village I was detained in during elections

Kid playing in the village

Nomad lady walking her donkey

Somali Man

Somali man

Crazed man waving his sword

I had no idea how long we would be stuck in this village, and we were still 5 or so hours from Hargeisa. I tried to ask one of the soldiers if we would be allowed to go soon in my best sign language, but I was not successful. Then another Somali passenger from my jeep taxi approached me and said in perfect English, we are not allowed to go until maybe this afternoon. In the meantime, you can sleep in the guesthouse. I was shocked there was an English-speaking person and that he had waited until now to try and speak to me. Sadly, he was not in a cheerful mood. He was traveling to say goodbye to his father who was on his deathbed and now he like me was stuck in the village.

I ended up sleeping for a few hours in the guesthouse before my new English-speaking friend told me that we had permission to leave now. So, we entered the jeep and continued on to Hargeisa on the bumpy 4WD track. Sadly, at one of the stops the man would receive word that his father had just passed away.

 

Guesthouse were I slept during detention

My bed in the guesthouse

 

Traveling to Berbara and Visiting Ancient Rock Paintings 

We arrived in Hargeisa in the early evening, a dusty city that looked more like an accumulation of huts and cinder block buildings. Hundreds of people were lined up in the street all praying in front of my hotel as I arrived.  I promptly checked in to a nearby and went to sleep. The next morning, I arranged a taxi to Berbera with another traveler I met in the hotel. We were required to hire a security guard with a rifle to accompany us. After the previous day without one, I didn’t think it was necessary, but we had no choice.

 

Armed escort in the backseat with me

We stopped at the ancient rock painting inside a cave of Las Jeel, an isolated spot in the middle of a beautiful patch of desert.  The paintings are 5000 years old and only came to be known to the international community a few years prior to my visit. An old man who lived onsite escorted us to the paintings and showed us the best-preserved ones. The paintings showed Somalia at a time when the climate was much wetter than present day.

 

Las Jeel Ancient Cave paintings

Desert around las Jeel

Wildlife

View from the cave

Caretaker of las Jeel showing us the ancient paintings

Me at Las Jeel

Cave painting

 

Berbara

Along the way to Berbera, we saw some of the relics of the Somalian civil war such as tanks abandoned on the side of the road, and I came across a desert tortoise that I rescued from the road by picking it up and carrying it to a bush where it would be concealed. In Barbara, I didn’t explore the city as much as I really should have. Instead, I stayed close to the beach hotel and explored the beach.

Tanks from the civil war

Desert tortoise I recued from the road

Typical transport in Somalia

View of the beach by my hotel

Guest rules on my door at my hotel

Abandoned ship at Berbara

After a night in Berbera, I headed back to Hargeisa the next day and spent one more night there before taking a shared taxi to Harar, Ethiopia the following day on another extremely claustrophobic bush taxi that left me feeling like Iwas going to panic because it was so crowded.

3 + 9 =

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