Compiled by Abdulaziz Al-Mutairi
Somalilandsun – Ahmed Mohamed Hassan, a former Somalia Air Force pilot who refused an order to bomb the civilian residents of Hargeisa in 1988 and instead decided to defect to Djibouti returned to Hargeisa after 20 years overseas. The following are excerpts of an interview Ahmed Mohamed gave to Ogaal newspaper recently whilst staying at Imperial Hotel in Hargeisa.
Question: Ahmed Mohamed thank you for taking the time to answer our questions, I wonder if you could give our readers a brief background of the situation in 1988 which forced you disobey orders to bomb Hargeisa and subsequently defect to Djibouti with your plane?
Answer: It is my pleasure and I want to thank you for this opportunity. In 1988 there was a civil war in Somalia, but the period in question, the time of my defection, was the time of the heaviest fighting between the government forces and the opposition forces of the Somali National Movement. It was a time of fierce battles and I think only those who had experienced this first hand can attest to the situation in Hargeisa and its surrounding areas.
Q: When where you first transferred to Hargeisa to take part in the fighting?
A: I was not transferred to Hargeisa, I and another Somali pilot were ordered to fly our Mig 17 jets to Hargeisa to take part in the bombardment of the city. There were already air force technicians in Hargeisa, but other pilot and I were ordered to fly to Hargeisa to take part in the bombardment of the city and its residents. The Mig 17 jets were the only planes in the Somali Air Force that could carry the heavy 500 kilo bombs intended for the bombardment of the city. Unfortunately, this was a sad chapter in my life and in our history, and it pains me to remember, but it is an issue that needs to be discussed.
Q: When did you decide to take your plane to Djibouti instead of bombarding Hargeisa and its residents?
A: It was the day I arrived in July, 1988; I think it was on the 10th of July 1988. On that day we departed from Mogadishu air force base and headed north, we landed in Galkaico, for refuelling and rest. We arrived in Hargeisa around 5pm on the same day. After spending the night at Hargeisa airport, we were told to get ready for bombing sorties the next day. The next day, I reported a technical problem on my plane, whilst the other plane began to bombard Hargeisa and its residents. The second day, after the technicians had finished checking my plane, I was ordered to prepare for my mission, and it was on this day that between 12-1pm that I headed for Djibouti.
Q: So, on this second day, as you departed Hargeisa airport you were under orders to complete your mission by bombarding the city and its residents?
A: Yes, on this day my plane passed inspection and was fitted with FAB 500 bombs. I also want to mention that on the previous afternoon, were given a briefing on the areas in Hargeisa which we were to bomb. In this briefing, certain parts of the city were of a high priority targets. We therefore took off in tandem from the airport and headed for city below in order to commence bombing of the city. We headed west in order to begin our approach from that direction towards to the city. At this time, I set a course for Djibouti. The decision to fly to Djibouti was not made in mid-flight, but it was a decision I took previously. In order to reach my Djibouti I needed to preserve fuel, so I decided to jettison the FAB 500 bombs on the plane. I dumped the bombs just beyond the Nasa-Hablod mountain range towards the east of the city. The bombs fell harmlessly because they were not primed. After dumping the bombs, I headed west toward Djibouti. It took around fifteen to eighteen minutes to reach my destination. As my intended destination grew closer, I began to prepare for landing. I was running out of fuel, so I decided to make an emergency landing on the beach instead of an airport.
Q: When you flew over Hargeisa, what was the situation on the ground like?
A: As you know Hargeisa airport overlooks the city and before I took off, I went up to the tower to take a look at the city. At that time the city was burning, there was heavy destruction in every section, frankly, to me, it looked like a cemetery. Although it was almost 20 years ago, it was an unforgettable sight, it was a terrible sight.
Q: What were some of the areas you recall from looking across the city?
A: I recall that a friend of mine requested my help in assisting his father-in-law to try and leave the city. My friend told me the area of his in-laws residence. It was in one of the priority target areas. In my mind this was madness, this was only something a mad person can do, bomb innocent civilians. Really, it was tragic time which is beyond comprehension, only those who were there can describe the magnitude of the situation.
Q: Were you the only pilot abroad Mig 17?
A: Yes, the Mig 17 has a training plane and a fighter plane. The training plane has two flight cockpits. The fighter has only one. So, I was the only person on the plane.
Q: Did you contact Djibouti tower prior to your arrival?
A: By Allah, I had no communication with Djibouti; the communication on my plane was linked to Hargeisa tower controlled by the Somali armed forces at that time. I was unable to contact Djibouti tower. Therefore it was my intention to land the plane in Djibouti, if I could find an airstrip or not, even if I had to parachute out of the plane! I had several contingencies, but really, it was a case of whatever it takes to get to Djibouti.
Q: So, your plan was to land the plane if possible and jump out?
A: Yes, that was the plan. But, when it becomes necessary to land on the beach due to the fuel situation which had by then finished, it was an easier landing without serious difficulties.
Q: During your flight to Djibouti did you not receive any communications from the airport in Hargeisa?
A: Yes, the airport in Hargeisa did contact me just I had passed over the Nasa-Hablood range, but I informed them that my plane had developed technical difficulties and then I switched off the radio link to the airport because I was already preceding with my own plans.
Q: How did the Djibouti government receive you?
A: After landed, I came across some fishermen who took me to the city (Djibouti) in their boats. At the same time, I was received by the government of Djibouti in a cordial and brotherly manner.
Q: Didn’t the Djibouti forces monitor your incursion into their airspace?
A: Perhaps they did, but I did advise the Djibouti authorities of the location of the Mig 17. I was de-briefed by the Djibouti forces and was interviewed by the local media including the television service.
Q: What happened after your reception by the Djibouti authorities?
A: After my reception by the Djibouti government, my situation became the responsibility of the United Nations offices in Djibouti. However, it is worth mentioning that was I not detained by the Djibouti authorities and was free to go about my business in the country. But, due to security reasons, I decided that it would prudent to find a new country of residence with the help of the United Nations offices in Djibouti.
Q: Did the Somali government request your repatriation?
A: Yes, they did. However, their request was rejected by the Djibouti government. I was informed by the Djiboutian home affairs minister that since I decided not to bomb innocent civilians: they will also save me from any harm.
Q: After your transfer to the United Nations agencies, where was your next destination?
A: The United Nation agencies decided to find a third country that will accept me as a refugee. I had no preference and I was happy with any safe place. After a short period, I was fortunate to receive acceptance from Luxembourg, where I still live today with my family.
Q: If you did carry out your mission to bomb Hargeisa, considering the amount weapons abroad your fighter jet, what do you think that damage may have been?
A: It would have been extensive. Furthermore, the plans were, and as we now know, not just one sortie, but several, as many as possible. There was no anti-aircraft fire from the residents of Hargeisa; they were civilians in their homes.
Q: At that time, the defunct Somali government still had some power, therefore, was there any attempt against you in your new home in Luxembourg?
A: No, really, there was no fear because there are not many Somalis in Luxembourg, and to be frank, the ability of the Somali government was not at that level. I really felt safe in my new home in Luxembourg.
Q: Did any of the opposition movement contact you? Or at the very least praise your actions?
A: By Allah, I never met any of the opposition movements in an official capacity, I did meet one or two members who praised my action. But, really, I don’t see anything that requires praise; it was my duty as a human being to save the lives of other defenceless and innocent people. I refused to be vessel for destruction. It is only other people who make my actions seem heroic.
Q: To your knowledge, did any other fellow air force pilots follow your example?
A: I had heard that another plane from the Somali air force landed in Djibouti on its way to another location. However, the plane and its passengers who included members of the army logistic and supply corps were returned to Somalia. That is the only other incident I recall.
Q: Now that you have returned to Hargeisa, what are your memories and impressions?
A: I arrived in Hargeisa yesterday, and I am very, very happy to be here. I am also touched by the reception from the people of Hargeisa and Somaliland. I am grateful to see the peace and stability in Somaliland, and I encourage the people of Somaliland to maintain it. It is an example to all the nations in the region.
I had left a city in ruins and returned to a risen city. I thank and praise the people of Somaliland.
Sources: Qarannews and Ogaal Newspapers.
Compiled by Abdulaziz Al-Mutairi
Republishing this article was prompted by readers following an article we posted about the The Unsung Hero Who filmed the Siad Barre Atrocities in Hargeisa