‘I lost everything’: Somaliland market fire disrupts life and economy | Business and Economy News

Hargeisa, Somaliland: On April 1, the first night of Ramadan, Abdul Rahman, a 23-year-old Somalilander, was performing a solemn duty.

A friend’s relative had just passed away and Rahman was helping to dig the grave. While working in a cemetery on the outskirts of Hargeisa, the capital of the de facto unrecognized state of Somaliland, his phone went off.

News of a major fire in Waheen Market, a sprawling bazaar that employed more than 12,000 Somalilanders, was circulating widely on social media. As the owner of a clothing stall in the market, Rahman rushed to the scene.

“We were in the cemetery and we ran 3 kilometers to the fire. All the streets were blocked with cars,” he said. Upon arrival, he found the market engulfed in flames. “I worked with firefighters to remove the stock,” Rahman said. “It was very dangerous.”

About 300 meters away, the former Somaliland Head of Mission to the UK, Ayan Mahamoud, was dining at the Damal Hotel. “We [first] thought it was a small fire. And just five to 10 minutes [later]we saw the fire literally in the sky,” Mahamoud said.

“The whole town was running,” she said. “At one point we thought we were all going to die.”

Traders have taken to the side streets, blocking traffic after the fire at the Waheen market in Somaliland. [File: Edward Cavanough/Al Jazeera]

Ruins and memories of ruins

Rahman showed Al Jazeera a photo of what remained of the family business founded by his father in 2006, which directly supported 20 people. It was destroyed.

Access to the market site was restricted at the start of the clean-up operations.

Three weeks after the fire was brought under control, smoke continued to billow from a pile of rubble. Ottoman buildings dating from the 19th century are collapsing. Twisted corrugated sheets are strewn across the site. The stock is charred and left in place, and the air remains thick with smoke and dust.

A single tree that once provided shade to Somalilanders in the open-air section of the market still stands, but is now blackened and stripped of its foliage.

Although no fatalities have been reported – the fire broke out after the market closed – the sheer scale of the fire has scarred Somaliland, economically and emotionally.

Authorities estimated the economic impact of the fire at $2 billion, or 60 percent of Somaliland’s gross domestic product (GDP). The astronomical figure is due to the centrality of the market in Somaliland’s economy.

Much of the trade that passed through the de facto state ended up for sale in the Waheen. “It was more than a market, it was a whole financial district,” Mahamoud said.

The disaster comes as Somaliland battles a fierce drought, which has devastated communities across the Horn of Africa. The United Nations estimates that the drought has affected more than 800,000 people in Somaliland and in February it stressed the need for “urgent humanitarian support” for those affected.

For some Somalilanders, the devastating scene of the destroyed Waheen market brings back painful memories of Somalia’s civil war.

Between 1987 and 1989, more than 200,000 Isaaq tribesmen were killed in what has been described as Africa’s “forgotten genocide”. Most of the killings took place in Hargeisa, which was also largely destroyed by air raids by the Somali government at the time.

Across the city, the fire is now considered its second biggest disaster. Many of the traders were from “that generation that left” Somaliland due to the genocide, Mahamoud said.

“They say ‘we have rebuilt once, we will do it again’. You just feel like their life has been taken away from them again,” she said.

Political obstacles

Three decades after declaring independence from Somalia, Somaliland bears the hallmarks of a legitimate independent state. It has sovereign control of its borders, issues its own currency, maintains a foreign service, and is run by a government elected through democratic processes.

But Somaliland is still considered an autonomous region within Somalia, with Mogadishu – and the rest of the world – continuing to reject Hargeisa’s claim.

Obtaining international recognition is therefore one of the central objectives of the Somaliland government.

Prior to the fire, significant efforts toward this goal were underway. A government delegation, led by President Muse Bihi Abdi, returned from the United States in late March, hoping for a new era of engagement with Washington.

A port and road investment from the United Arab Emirates has bolstered Somaliland’s economic credentials and a new partnership with Taiwan has given Somaliland a useful diplomatic partner on the world stage.

The blaze, however, has forced the Somaliland government to turn its attention to recovery, which is itself hampered by Hargeisa’s complicated political status.

In the days following the disaster, the international community pledged assistance.

“Your city will rise again and the UK will do everything in its power to support Somalia’s rebuilding effort,” UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted after the blaze.

But as an unrecognized state, foreign governments are unable to freely send money to Hargeisa, instead channeling aid through proxy NGOs, which can slow disaster response.

Only Taiwan, which established a de facto embassy in Somaliland in 2020, was able to provide resources directly to the Somaliland government, pledging $500,000.

Waheen Market Destroyed 2
Waheen Market Ruins, Somaliland [File: Edward Cavanough/Al Jazeera]

“We saw all our stock burn”

Within two weeks of the fire, the Somaliland government had identified nearly 1,000 victims eligible for compensation. Initial estimates suggest 2,000 business owners have been affected, although the actual number is much higher given the prevalence of unregistered traders.

Shiran, who was transporting goods through the market on an unregistered wheelbarrow, was one of those who lost their livelihood. “We saw all our stock burn,” he said, via a translator. “We are really asking for help.”

Abdi Shakur was another unregistered trader. “I lost almost $2,000. I lost everything,” he told Al Jazeera.

In the aftermath of the blaze, displaced shopkeepers camped out in surrounding streets, setting up new stalls on once-busy thoroughfares, creating a traffic jam in downtown Hargeisa.

As Eid draws near, Hargeisa is adjusting to a new normal, with the economic and cultural heart of Somaliland’s capital a mere memory.

But with food security in Somaliland already threatened by the ongoing drought, an emotional Mahamoud fears the economic impact of the Waheen fire could be the start of something worse.

“It’s a thing about how to recover economically,” she said. “It’s another to make sure people don’t starve.”

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