Racism In Somalia: Arabic `Soft-Hairs' Always Run The Show

SAGAALAAD, Somalia - In Somalia, people with hard hair suffer first and suffer most.

Amid the hatred and violence that cut so many ways in Somalia, people of Arab descent with soft hair hold sway over those who wear the hard curls of an African.

The soft hairs, Somalis whose ethnic roots are buried in the sands of the Arabian Peninsula, own the businesses, carry the guns and run the political factions that are vying to replace deposed dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.

Warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid is a soft-hair. Arab-descended Somalis have also robbed their hard-haired countrymen, many of whose ancestors were East Africans, of their farms and forced them into modern-day servitude that borders on slavery.

"Somalia has a racism problem. It's one of the dirty little secrets that the civil war has exposed," said Ken Menkhaus, a Somalia scholar and U.N. adviser from Davidson College in North Carolina.

The distinction is not color, but ancestry.

The Somalis of Arab descent call their brethren "tiimo jereer" - hard hairs. Or, more honestly, "addoon" - slave. That is what many were a century ago and what they have become again since civil war ripped away what little protection they had.

For lack of a more accurate term, aid workers call the East African-descended people Bantus after the group of languages many of their ancestors spoke.

New deeds written

Under Siad Barre's 22-year regime, the 300,000 or so Somali Bantus lost much of their land to government officials who simply wrote themselves deeds to the richest farms along the Jubba and Shabeelle rivers of southern Somalia.

During the famine, those landless Bantus were the first to go hungry.

When Siad Barre fell, the Somali clan gunmen came, again forcing Bantus from their farms, raping Bantu women and settling into a pattern of routine extortion that could only be called servitude by terror.

"We have to work for the people who stole our land. Our girls have to work as servants in our own houses," said Aden Yusuf Aden, 28, a resident of Sagaalaad, a predominantly Bantu village on the banks of the crocodile-infested Shabeelle, 19 miles west of Mogadishu.

Some Bantus migrated into the area as long as 1,000 years ago, farming plots that the nomadic Somalis scorned. Others were brought in by Arab slave traders during the 19th century, then escaped and settled on unoccupied land along the rivers.

"You had one of the weakest social groups occupying one of the richest resources in Somalia," said Menkhaus. "That's a contradiction they're in the process of resolving now at the point of a gun."

U.N. arrival welcomed

The Bantus welcomed the international intervention in Somalia 14 months ago because they hoped for relief from the famine and help in recovering their lands.

Inadvertently, the U.N. also helped forge a new sense of identity among the Bantus.

Partly inspired by the sight of Zimbabwean, Botswanan, Nigerian and black American peacekeepers brandishing weapons and fighting ethnic Somalis, the Somali Bantus formed their own political party, called SAMO.

In January, SAMO invited the 15 ethnic Somali political factions to join them in talks about the future of the country and of the Bantus. The invitation brought an immediate and angry response from local members of Aidid's faction.

"It's a meeting that brings confrontation," said Abdikadir Hassan Siad, chairman of the area's pro-Aidid youth group. "This meeting is only for Bantus and the Bantus don't live here. We've never heard of Bantus. I hear they live in Central Africa.

"We only recognize that there's soft hair and there's hard hair," he added when pressed.

The Bantus chased Aidid supporters out of the village.

"We will overcome every obstacle," said Ahmed Yusuf Mahalin, 26, a student from Mogadishu. "We know freedom is expensive. We must feed it blood."

SAMO seems destined to meet with frustration, however. The Somali factions and their armies have the weapons, and, history suggests, little genuine concern for their hard-haired brethren.

"The Bantus in the long-run are going to lose," said Menkhaus. "It's hard to see how they're going to fend off this invasion by nomadic Somalis who are competing for very scarce resources."