Somaliland, An Overview
Somaliland has its own currency, military, government, and requires a Somaliland visa to enter the country. Yet, there are 193 countries in the United Nations and not one of those countries recognize Somaliland as an independent, sovereign nation. In fact, type in Somaliland into Google Map and the country does not exist.
Somaliland declared independence in 1991 during the civil war in Somalia when the central government collapsed. The country situated on the Gulf of Aden has a population of around 3.5 million with a GDP of only about $1.5 billion. That works out to a per capita income of only $350 a year. Some estimate unemployment at 80%. Approximately two thirds of the economy is driven by remittances by Somalilanders living overseas.
When I decided to travel to Somaliland, I took to the internet and started my research. The British government had issued this warning. “There is a high threat from terrorism, including kidnapping. Terrorist groups have made threats against westerners and those working for western organizations. The FCO also believes that terrorists continue to plan attacks against westerners in Somaliland.”
I took this warning with a grain of salt as well as the other warnings I read from the US State Department. As I read further, it appeared that Somaliland was relatively safe and stable. Somaliland was not synonymous with the lawless, chaos found in “Black Hawk Down” Somalia. As stated on the Somaliland’s government website it states: “The number one priority for the Somaliland Government: Somaliland Recognition.” With that in mind, the government is interested in showcasing its stability which can be demonstrated with foreign tourists being treated respectfully and safely.
While you can enter Somaliland overland via Ethiopia and Djibouti, I elected to fly from Addis Ababa to Hargeisa, the respective capitals of Ethiopia and Somaliland. You can fly to Somaliland via Mogadishu, Nairobi, Dubai, Nairobi, yet the primary gateway seems to be Addis Ababa. My flight was an expensive ($450) but short (90 minutes) flight on Ethiopian Airlines.
Upon arriving in Addis Ababa my first mission was to attain a Somaliland visa. After just a couple of hours in the capital, I found a taxi driver who knew the location of the Somaliland Liaison Office. There are missions also located in Washington DC and London. As you might have noted, Somaliland does not maintain embassies since they are not a recognized country. At the time of this writing, visas were not issued on arrival, meaning you needed to attain prior to entering the country.
The taxi driver in his ancient Soviet Lada led me the Liaison Office which is located in a residential area. In fact, the Liaison Office apparently was simply a large house. The Somaliland flag fluttered in the breeze. I knocked on the off-green gate garnished with barb wire. The gate swung open and a guard pointed me to the back of the complex where I entered a small office with two women covered with head scarves. I was handed a two page form and sat in Reception 1. I returned quickly and handed my US passport, $40, 1 passport photo, and the form. I was directed to wait in Reception 1. I slouched down on the couch and started conversing with the three other waiting men. I learned the three Germans were planning on spending two weeks in Somaliland. I crinkled my eyebrows in surprise. My planned trip was for 4 days, which I thought was plenty to get a taste for the country. They explained they wanted to take their time to see the country.
I was later to learn that these three Germans were investigative journalists working on a story in Somaliland in regard to “returned” children. Many Somalilanders are residing in countries like the US, UK, and Canada. Some families are sending their children back to the homeland for a summer visit. Yet, it is subterfuge. Upon arriving to Somaliland their passport is taken from them and they are in fact prisoners of this country. Having grown up in a western country, they are unfamiliar with this foreign land. The language and the culture are unknown to them. Often these pre-teens or teenagers are known as asewaladine – children who have disobeyed. Sending them back to the virtual prison of Somaliland allows them to learn the values of the culture and religion valued by their parents. In extreme cases, these asewaladine are imprisoned at the request of the families for misbehaving. These children with their confiscated passports are unable to exit the country. In addition, there is no consular support since there are no US or UK embassies in Somaliland.
After a short wait, my name was called and I was handed my passport with my freshly stamped visa. All in all, a painless process that clocked in less than an hour.
A week later I found myself at the Addis Ababa Bole International Airport (ADD). There are two terminals, a modern international terminal and a decrepit bus-like terminal for domestic flights. I wrongly assumed my international flight to Somaliland would depart from the international terminal. Upon entering the international terminal I learned my flight would be departing from the domestic terminal. I rolled my bag for the thankfully short, ten minute walk to the other terminal to check in.
The security process for Ethiopian flights is somewhat maddening and seemingly excessive. Apparently, their metal detectors are set off by a single Kleenex in your pocket and the eyeglasses resting on your face. Out of frustration, I threatened to take my pants off after I was I asked for a 4th time to pass through the metal detector.
Being Star Alliance Gold, I have complimentary access to the business lounge. I entered the ShebaMiles Lounge, and knew I was in for a tough time when I saw a rat scurry by me. A single two liter bottle of coke served as the refreshment. Several desktops were available to access the internet. After five minutes of attempting to login, I surrendered and waited patiently for my flight.
The plane landed a short 90 minutes later in the capital of Hargeisa. The international airport was similarly-sized to a commuter rail station. Two building comprised the airport. I queued up in one of the two lines for immigration. My passport was quickly and perfunctorily stamped by the official. At the next desk I paid a $33 entrance fee in US dollars. Some of you might have read that the government forces you to convert $50 at below market conversion rate. This policy seems to have been discontinued. I collected my bag and exited the airport to find a taxi. Again I read a taxi could be gotten for $15 to the town center, but the cab drivers seemed in no mood to negotiate. I reluctantly agreed to a $20 fare for the 19 minute ride. Before we left, the taxi needed to have its battery jumped.
I was dropped off at the Oriental Hotel. The hotel dates back to 1953 and is centrally located and perfect starting point to walk the city if so inclined. Within minutes you will note that the Oriental has seen better days. In fact, you can see bullet and shrapnel holes from the war of independence. It is somewhat tired and dreary. But the rooms were clean, the water worked, and even the wi-fi is passable. A giant glassed in courtyard is surrounded by the rooms. And finally the price is right: $15 per night including breakfast.
Somaliland is on the outside of the international banking system. In other words, no ATMs and no credit cards. On the plus, if you get in a jam, you can get money wired into the country. With that in mind, make sure you bring in enough hard currency. US dollars do the trick. A large outdoor money market resides next to the Oriental. The going rate is approximately 6900 Somaliland Schillings to $1. US dollars are widely accepted, but it is always good to have a supply of the local currency.
If you are planning to go to Somaliland I hope you are not a wall flower. Plan on being noticed everywhere. In fact, during my four day stay I only saw one western tourist. The Addis Ababa Liaison Office had only issued 266 visas during the first 3 months of 2014. 80% of the attention is in general polite and pleasant while occasionally tedious. About 17% is rude and menacing. While the final 3% is threatening and potentially violent. The final category is the least fun.
For the 80%, this is the script you need to follow.
“Hello, come here!” A Somaliland man yells at me from across the street and gestures with his hand. I cross the dusty street to shake hands. “Welcome to Somaliland. Where are you from?”
“Canada,” I lie.
“Ah, Canada, my uncle lives there. Great country,” My new friend beams. “What do you think of the peace here?”
“It is very peaceful here. Not like Somali. The people are very friendly and I feel very safe,” I spew the response he wants to hear.
“Yes, Somali is very dangerous. Here we have peace. When do you think Canada will recognize Somaliland is an independent country?”
“I hope they do very soon. But I am not sure, that is a decision the government makes.”
“Are you a journalist? Why are you here?”
“No, just a tourist. I was interested in visiting your country.”
You will be stopped a dozen plus times a day to have this eerily similar conversation by complete strangers. At times, the conversation will start with a single man. Within minutes a circle has formed around you, and 20 men have encircled you. This can be a little awkward and uncomfortable. These men (no women will be addressing you) are friendly and welcoming. They are simply curious why a westerner is strolling their bustling streets.
The 17% is a lot less pleasant.
The camera in Somaliland is not your friend. By many locals it is perceived as a threat. Occasionally, a local will ask you to take their photo. As I snapped his photo in the local market, a man at a stall started screaming at me.
“WHY YOU TAKE HIS PHOTO??”
“I’m sorry, but he asked me to take his photo.” I looked imploringly at the man who asked me to take his photo for help. He simply smiled.
“YOU DELETE NOW! DO NOT TAKE HIS PHOTO. WHY YOU TAKE??”
I showed him my camera and deleted the photo as he ordered. I scurried off quickly. Perplexed and angered. A local simply viewing your camera strapped around your shoulder might convulse in a fit of anger and screaming.
While the 17% is not a fun group, the 3% potentially makes some of your hairs stand on its end.
Going through my 80% script with two curious shopkeepers, I realized someone was yelling at me. I turned around and a lanky teen was screaming at me in Somali while holding a large hammer. Thankfully, the two shopkeepers spoke to him and calmed him down.
I shuffled through the open air market. My camera hung lazily on my shoulder with the lens cap on.
“WHY YOU HAVE CAMERA??” I pointed to the covered lens, implying I was not there to take photos. Giant slabs of meat rested on tables in the mid-day heat.
“NO PHOTO!! NO CAMERA” Another man yelled at me. I smiled and again pointed to the lens cap. A third man joined the chorus of discordant threats.
At this point, it appeared the mob had turned against me. More people started screaming at me. And some of the men began to leave their tables to confront me. My love of Somaliland was rapidly diminishing. I reversed directions, and half ran out of the crowded market place. I decided to sit out the remainder of the day in the safe confines of the Oriental.
Other amusing incidents included a man threatening me with a drill, some teens throwing stones at me, and a woman in the money market demanding money from my while holding a rock. Eventually the police arrived and carted her off.
The exit. Cabs back to the airport can be negotiated to $10. Apparently, there are no computers in the airport. My ticket was handwritten. Somaliland has two final parting gifts upon departure. Two separate booths will collect the $33 exit fee and the $10 security fee. You will pay in US dollars and they can make change is US dollars.