Disquiet over plan to turn Mogadishu cemetery into a naval base

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The planned marine base is part of a 10-year maritime defence pact between Somalia and Turkey signed in February

An order by the Somali government to exhume hundreds of bodies at the Gen. Kahiye Police Academy Cemetery in Mogadishu’s Hamar Jajab district has caused public outrage.

This week, the Somali government issued a 10-month notice to people to exhume the bodies of their loved ones at the cemetery to pave the way for the building of a naval base, which is part of a 10-year maritime defence pact between Somalia and Turkey signed in February. 

“The decision to repurpose this land is part of our broader strategy to enhance our naval capabilities with the support of Turkey,” Somalia’s Defence Minister Abdulkadir Mohamed Nur said. 

“We understand the pain and distress this decision may cause and we are committed to working with families to ensure the respectful relocation of their loved ones,” he said.

The Somali Air Force formerly used the site in pre-civil war Mogadishu. 

The minister said the land belonged to the federal government before it was turned into a cemetery, and the state now intends to repurpose it as a base for the Somali Navy. 

“The government needs this land, which stretches from the entrance of Marino Gate airport to the Yerdemeli Hospital. This land has always been of public interest and owned by the government. Now the government has pressing needs and the Navy and coastal forces will be established here,” Abdulkadir said.

Islamic law

Two Muslim scholars, Sheikh Bashir Ahmed Salaad and Ali Wajiis, who had accompanied the minister during a tour of the site, said Islamic law permits the relocating of bodies for valid reasons.

“The land belongs to the government and the government needs it now. In this case, the Islamic law makes exhumation and relocation permissible,” Sheikh Bashir said. 

On Wednesday, relatives and residents of various districts gathered outside the cemetery to protest what they claimed was a demand by the authorities to pay a clearance fee.

“We arrived this morning and were told to get a letter from the Banadir Region. While we cannot ignore the government’s order, we are pleading for a waiver of this fee. We cannot afford this fee. The sorrow of exhuming our loved ones after so many years is already too much,” said Dahir Abdi.

A family exhumes a loved one’s body from the Gen. Kahiye Police Academy Cemetery. (Photo: X)

Some of those who rushed to the cemetery to retrieve the bodies of their relatives for reburial told The Eastleigh Voice they could not trace their graves. 

“We are expected to purchase a new plot to bury my brother. The government should have, at least, catered for this or offered some alternative land for a new cemetery. This whole process of removing our brother’s body is traumatic for my family. It has relived the grief we went through after he died years ago in an explosion,” Abdikadir Shure told The Eastleigh Voice

Journalists were denied access to the cemetery, a move that was criticised by media organisations.

“So controversial is the issue that the government is restricting journalists from accessing the site to cover the story. Some relatives claimed the authorities at the cemetery were demanding up to 30 dollars for a permit to exhume a body. The leaked video footage of families exhuming and carrying the bodies of their loved ones elsewhere is heartbreaking,” Hussein Mohamed, a journalist, told The Eastleigh Voice.

But the Hamar Jajab administration, through its district commissioner, denied that the government was asking for a clearance fee to allow families to exhume bodies.

The people's trust

Leaders, among them former president Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, described the action as regrettable and unacceptable.

Opposition politician Abdirahman Abdishakur said the government will lose the trust of the people following the controversial move.

“Trust is essential between the people and the government. Without it, the government cannot function. It's unfortunate that (Muslim) scholars have become a tool for legitimisation,” Abdirahman said. 

Rumours of plans to demolish the cemetery to pave the way for a military base started circulating in May, and families started exhuming the bodies of their loved ones. 

Among the first bodies to be exhumed was that of the late popular Somali comedian Abdi Muridi Dheere (Ajakis), who was buried in September 2021. The government then denied its plans to demolish the cemetery.

Among notable figures buried at the cemetery is a former mayor of Mogadishu, Abdirahman Omar Yarisow, who was killed in a suicide bombing in 2019.

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