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Welcome to Somaliland | by Constantine Savvides
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Welcome to Somaliland

Walking in the sand, I stumbled across this door a little before sunset in Zeila, Somaliland.


The road to Zeila is not for the faint of stomach as its mostly off-roading. The terrain starts as semi-paved but soon switches to dirt. An abundance of cacti line the route for hours. I suddenly find myself bouncing over uneven rock as I make my way through a mountain range. This finally settles into thick sand where I even endure the obligatory get-stuck-in-sand episode. Gazelle stand still as statues watching the car approach before sprinting off majestically in all directions. The empty panoramas inspire a feeling of insignificance in nature’s wonder. Despite the vastness, some tents or livestock are usually in sight, signs of the remarkable fact that I was never far from human settlements. Despite a continuing trend towards urban migration, a large portion of the Somali population still lives a nomadic pastoralist lifestyle.


With light fading as I finally pull in to Zeila, I hurry out to discover my long-awaited destination. To my great surprise, it is bears little resemblance to the rest of Somaliland. Whereas in other places, the scars of war are noticeable, in Zeila, it’s as if the wounds haven’t even begun to heal. This is the first time in the entire trip that I am confronted with such a graphic image of ruination; it’s like walking into a museum of destruction. Yet amid the all the rubble, Zeila’s former magnificence can still be glimpsed, rendering the moment all the more melancholy. The skyline consists of giant telecom towers that dwarf the juxtaposed minarets. Storeowners prefer payment in Djibouti francs to Somaliland shillings. Socially, the people seem more reserved, spending free time in front of the many outdoor televisions, evicting goats for a good seat.


Losing light, I hurry for the ruins of a mosque to capture an incredible deep orange sunset, but before I arrive, two heavily armed paratroopers appear, ordering me to follow them into a gated two-story house. Despite of my pleas, they lead me up some creaky stairs to the second story of their compound, the former British governor’s house. A group of men lying on the floor with a mountain of khat stems stare at me through bloodshot eyes. After a short interrogation, tension quickly dissipates. The most vocal man introduces himself as the Mayor of Zeila and his fellow khat-chewers as the other key officials in the city (chief of police, chief judge). He welcomes me to take all the photos I want but the sun has already set.


At night, I devour a delicious Yemeni-style fish, evidence of Zeila’s Arab influence. At the end of the meal, the waiter brings a bottle of perfume to the table; it is the same kind used in the plane ride over. I head to apparently the only hotel in Zeila; the sign out front advertises “Resort”. With no running water and a combination shower and outhouse, this lodging might be slightly improperly named.


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Taken on November 20, 2011