Darusalam joined the ONLF as a fighter at just 17 – inspired by what he saw as the oppression of the Somali people, and after being beaten by soldiers. The then regional President, Abdi Mohamed Omar “Abdi Iley’s” regime restricted movement and economic activity, confiscated land and property, and government forces would harass and kill family members of ONLF fighters. During his nine and a half years as a fighter, Darusalam gained proficiency in battlefield first aid.
Darusalam was eventually captured in 2014 at Qabridahar and was taken to Jail Ogaden – notorious for its torture and abuse of prisoners. A broken leg sustained during his capture was left untreated for 15 days and allowed to fester. The medical treatment advised by doctors in Jigjiga was refused by Darusalam’s prison guards, causing the bone to heal incorrectly and forcing him to re-break and set his leg whilst in prison and recover in a ward isolated from other prisoners.
When inmates went on hunger strike to protest against the inhumane conditions in the prison, regional officials visited and ordered an intensification of the abuse; beatings became daily, sanitary conditions deteriorated and prisoners were forced to stand for hours. This visit became known as “Black Day” and Darusalam recalls one top official proclaiming:
“Yesterday you took guns to fight us and now you want to cause trouble in jail. I’m telling you that you will not get your rights, no family will come visit you, you will not get clean clothes. I promise you will experience something you have never experienced before.”
Darusalam was finally released from Jail Ogaden in 2018 - six weeks before regional President Abdi Iley was removed from power. He was transferred to a remote area known as Bayaxow, where ex-prisoners were forced to build houses for a future village. The government claimed that the prisoners were free, and that their labour would be compensated with some of the houses that they had built, as well as with livestock for them to raise. In practice Bayaxow functioned as an open-air prison. Darusalam describes reckoning with this new kind of imprisonment during calls with his family:
"My family would ask ‘are you free?’, and I would reply, ‘yes’. So, they would ask, ‘can you come visit us?’, and I would say ‘no’. So, then they would ask, ‘can we come visit you?’, and I would again say ‘no’. So, then they would ask, ‘how are you free?’"
Following the fall of Abdi Iley and prior to the signing of a peace agreement between the ONLF and the Government of Ethiopia, Darusalam returned to Jigjiga. Recognising the significant and complex challenges they and fellow victims now faced, Darusalam and other former prisoners at Bayaxow decided to self-organise to proactively advocate for victims’ rights and needs. Establishing an advocacy network was a challenge, however, as Darusalam and his peers had no experience of running an organisation and they faced uncertainties regarding how to support themselves, their health and their families. Darusalam connected the group with various civil society activists, government officials and Conciliation Resources, who provided advice and guidance that allowed this group to clarify their goals, mandate and structure and formally found the Association for Somali Regional Victims and Survivors (ASVS).
In 2020, ASVS hosted a press conference ahead of the commemoration of Black Day at the site of the now defunct Jail Ogaden. The event was attended by over 350 victims, as well as the regional president and many top government officials, and saw victims share their experiences of the abuses they suffered.
This event generated significant social media attention in the region, increasing ASVS’ profile and visibility as an advocacy organisation. The event also helped ASVS build closer ties with the regional president’s office, including the new President Mustafe Omer who himself is a victim/survivor of the previous regime. Darusalam now serves as the executive director of ASVS and has built on experiences of leadership in the ONLF with advice from peers and the support of Conciliation Resources’ trainings and workshops on organisational development and budget management. Reflecting on how he felt leaving Bayaxow and his engagement with the peace process since, Darusalam says:
"When I left Bayaxow, I felt like I was born again. In prison I was in a desperate situation, as if between life and death. Now I have a new life, with new hopes and ambitions. I face many challenges: a lack of money, time and even physical strength. Yet, I am hopeful to achieve certain ambitions. ASVS is one of those ambitions."
April 2021 saw the second commemoration of Black Day which focussed on the preparation and implementation of victims’ priorities. Participants, including government officials, elders and civil society actors, advocated for this day to be recognised nationally as a day to remember the atrocities committed in the region.
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For more than two decades, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) has been fighting for self-determination for Somalis in the Somali Regional State (SRS) of Ethiopia (also known as the Ogaden region.)