Kurdistan is a a geopolitical region in the north of Iraq, as well as several other neighboring countries. It has some of the cultural distinctions of a country, but it is most definitely not a country. Another distinction of Kurdistan, specifically Iraqi Kurdistan, is that it’s the safest region of the country. In the north of Somalia is a similarly safer region called Somaliland. Now, the Somaliland people most definitely consider themselves a country and have since declaring so in 1988. They have a functioning government and, compared to the south of Somalia, should be considered extremely safe. So, who decides what distinguishes a place as a country?
That’s certainly a question that people can disagree on. The United Nations member list is a pretty authoritative starting point. Unfortunately for Somaliland, you won’t find them there, and very likely never will. There are cultural, geographic, and historical distinctions to Somaliland. They have their own separate government, military forces, police, and currency. One needs a separate visa to visit Somaliland. By many measures, it’s an independent country. It’s far more functional than the rest of Somalia, where it isn’t even safe for the president to reside in the country. But the UN has it’s hands dirty with Somalia. There’s history there. It’s not a stretch to call the place a “failed state”. Recognizing Somaliland, the safer and functional part of Somalia, as a separate country, just might be seen as acknowledging all of the international efforts as a failure.
After visiting Somaliland, it’s hard to not recognize it as a separate country. At the same time, there’s an unmistakable overlap with the people and small details you’ll see touring around. A very charming detail we remember from Mogadishu is how all of the shops have rough paintings on the buildings of the types of goods they have for sale inside. The markets are absolute pandemonium. It’s ostensibly safe for a Westerner to walk around in Hargeisa, but doing just a little of that seemed like tempting fate. You are a spectacle here like nowhere else. Crowds gather round, people jockey to say hello and make conversation. A poorly interpreted comment or hand gesture would seem to have the potential to go very badly. On our first day in Hargeisa, Greg and I got out to walk up amongst a crowd to take a few pictures at a monument to a downed Russian MIG fighter jet. A few guys were trying to chat with us and asked us where we’re from…. “USA”…. “Oh, you’re American?” To which Greg replied: “Well, sometimes” with a laugh. The guys face, totally flat “No, I mean your nationality”. Cracking jokes doesn’t always translate, I guess.
Driving around Hargeisa was exciting and a total sensory overload. The place is packed with people and traffic. Animals running around, yelling, music, calls to prayer. Men crowded around Khat stands like they’re at a party. The smell of breads and spices intermingled with exhaust fumes and dust. Shoulder-to-shoulder shantytown markets. We drove onto a street of moneychangers, where we exchanged about $80 usd for huge stacks of Somaliland shillings. A couple of clothing vendors with wheeled carts were being aggressively chased away by a police officer. The guy had a huge club and was banging it on their carts to get them to move faster. Their panicked expressions suggested they knew the next whack would be on them if they weren’t out of there fast enough.
Our second day in Hargeisa was a full day trip, morning to evening, leaving the capital, Hargeisa. This was the main attraction to visiting Somaliland. We wanted to visit a place called Laas Geel, a set of cave formations with paintings that date from 3000 to 9000 BC. I knew they were unmatched in scope and accessibility, but wasn’t prepared for how impressive they would be in person.
Before leaving Hargeisa, tourists are required to have a permit and an armed guard accompany them. This seemed largely perfunctory, but it was reassuring nonetheless. The team of 7-8 guards, operating as a tactical assault team, surrounding us in Mogadishu, felt like we might be protected from a fairly serious attempt on us. Here with the one guard with an automatic rifle… well, if someone was serious about getting to us, there wouldn’t be too big of a fight. Thankfully though, Somaliland is nothing like Mogadishu. We were around plenty of groups of locals and never felt like anything was shady or unsafe.
Laas Geel is a fairly short drive outside of Hargeisa down smooth, straight roads through the desert. The complex is about 8 km off of the main highway, passing some remote huts with families along the way. Our guide and guard passed out sweets to all the children as we drove through. Arriving at the caves, a large group of Somali college students was leaving, and we were a total spectacle, as usual.
After Laas Geel, we drove to the small coastal town of Berbera. We had lunch there, seafood. Fried fish with lime and a really incredible spice powder. The beach in Berbera isn’t as beautiful as Mogadishu, but it’s certainly safer! We only spent a little while there snapping a few pictures and wandering a little bit onto the beach. It would’ve been something if we just stripped to swimwear and went splashing into the water with the locals. Driving back to Hargeisa, we made a few pit stops in small towns and got some snacks and drinks, but that pretty much wrapped up the day. It was a short visit, but definitely worthwhile since we’re traveling through the region again. It was really nice to see a different facet of Somalia, where we could venture out a bit more safely.
Next stop: Djibouti