On an ordinary night, after the sun sets over Hargeisa, Somaliland, Mohamed packs up his shoe-shine kit and heads to the storm drain where he lives when he’s not working. All things considered, it’s a good spot for the 12-year-old to sleep—the discarded snack wrappers and plastic bottles help keep him warm, and when the sun creeps in each morning the shadow of a nearby skyscraper shields him from the heat.
The skyscraper, which was built in 2012 and houses a company whose business is to bring high-speed internet from neighboring Djibouti, is one of the many symbols of Hargeisa’s relative wealth. The city itself is the crown jewel of Somaliland, a self-declared republic in northwest Somalia.
Although Somaliland’s sovereignty has yet to be formally recognized by any other country or the UN, it has its own democratically elected government and a 30,000-strong military. Its nascent borders contain valuable natural resources—the Turkish oil company Genel plans to drill for oil there in the next two years—and the bustling northern port city of Berbera, which are two good reasons Somalia doesn’t want the region to secede. The government in the terror-torn capital, Mogadishu may also be clinging to the hope that Somaliland’s peace and prosperity could spill over into the rest of the region. But whatever the contours of this convoluted political landscape, at the very least Somaliland feels like a separate nation; houses in Hargeisa fly the tricolored flag the region adopted in 1996 instead of Somalia’s sky-blue standard.
Just a few decades ago, Somaliland was a broken place. Under the rule of Siad Barre, a ruthless dictator who took control of Somalia in 1969, nine years after the end of European colonial rule, Somalilanders were brutalized and disenfranchised. Barre forbade any explicit mention of the clan lines that have long divided the region from Somalia, and his troops infamously opened fire on protesters outside Hargeisa’s soccer stadium in 1990. After Barre was ousted in 1991, Somalia fell into a deadly civil war that is still being fought 23 years later. For over a decade, Hargeisa remained a tattered, smoking shell of a city.
Slowly, however, things started to change. The city has been bombing-free since 2008, which by the standards of its geopolitical neighborhood is a minor miracle. The region’s relative safety has persuaded thousands of wealthy Somalilanders who fled the unrest for the US, Europe, and Asia to return to their homeland, bringing their Western cash with them. The now autonomous region has its own currency, 16 universities, and more than 200,000 students enrolled in primary and secondary schools. If southern Somalia is a nation by name only, then Somaliland is its antithesis—a country in all but name, at least officially.
No matter how prosperous Somaliland might become, it’s doubtful that any of that good fortune will trickle down to Hargeisa’s homeless children—young outcasts living completely on their own who are at best ignored and at worst abused and treated like vermin. They are a near-constant presence, crawling around the shadows of alleys and squares in a city where poverty and wealth butt heads on nearly every street corner: shiny new office blocks sit beside ancient shacks, currency traders have set up open-air stands where they display piles of cash, Hyundais brush past donkeys down the city’s sole paved street.
Behind that street is a café that serves up coffee and soup to midmorning breakfasters. This is where I first met Mohamed. “Salam,” he said quietly after I introduced myself.
Mohamed told me that if he sleeps too close to the skyscraper that shields him from the light of dawn, a security guard beats him with an acacia branch until he bleeds. I noticed that he had an old lemonade bottle tucked under his filthy sweatshirt. It was filled with glue, perhaps the only escape he has from his harsh existence. He took huffs every few minutes as he spoke to me: “I could stop. I could definitely stop. But it’s hard… And why?”
According to the Hargeisa Child Protection Network, there are 3,000 to 5,000 homeless youth in the city, most of whom are Oromo migrants from Ethiopia. Around 200 a year complete the voyage through Somaliland and across the Gulf of Aden into Yemen, where they attempt to cross the border to Saudi Arabia and find work; many more don’t make it.
For more than four decades the Oromo have been fleeing persecution in Ethiopia, where they have long been politically marginalized. Mohamed arrived in Somaliland as part of this ongoing migration. Five years ago, he told me, his family made the 500-mile trek from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, to Hargeisa. The Somaliland government claims up to 80,000 illegal immigrants—mostly Ethiopians—reside in its territory. Many of them trickled in through the giant border of Ogaden, a vast, dusty outback on the edge of Ethiopia’s Somali Region (the easternmost of the country’s nine ethnic divisions, which, as the name implies, is mostly populated by ethnic Somalis). Some travel in cars arranged by fixers. Others make the long journey on foot. Almost all won’t make it past the border without a bribe. Given their options, a few bucks for freedom seemed liked the best deal for Mohamed’s family. But after their migration, things only got worse.
Outside downtown Hargeisa’s central market.
A short time after his family arrived in Somaliland—he’s not sure exactly when—Mohamed’s father died of tuberculosis. Quickly running out of options, he left his mother in a border town called Borama to try to eke out a living, working whatever job was available some 90 miles away in Hargeisa.
Instead Mohamed ended up where he is now, wandering around the city with his friends and fellow Ethiopian migrants Mukhtar and Hamza (all three have adopted Muslim-sounding names to better blend into the local population). Their days mostly consist of shining shoes for 500 Somaliland shillings (seven cents) a pop and taking many breaks in between jobs to sniff glue.
On a good day, the boys will combine their meager earnings and pay to sleep on the floors of migrant camps on the outskirts of town, where persecuted people from all over East Africa live in corrugated shanties in the desert. If they don’t shine enough shoes, it’s back to the storm drain. “I live in the walls,” Mukhtar said. “No one knows me.”
Though they fled Ethiopia to escape persecution, the Oromo migrants often endure even worse treatment in Hargeisa. The first time I met Mohamed’s friend Hamza he was plodding through the crowd at an outdoor restaurant, offering shoe shines in the midday sun. An older man dressed in a cream apparatchik suit like a James Bond villain sitting next to me shouted at the child, who cowered, turned, and ran away. “Fucking kids,” he said to me in perfect English. “God can provide for them.”
Reports by the local press on Hargeisa’s growing homeless- youth population have done nothing to help the kids’ reputation. The authorities have told journalists that street kids are the city’s gravest security threat amid a backdrop of tables covered with gruesome shivs, shanks, and machetes supposedly confiscated from the wily urchins. “The grown-up street children have become the new gangsters,” local police chief Mohamed Ismail Hirsi told the IRIN news agency in 2009.
Officials are similarly apathetic to the notion of helping the young migrants get out of their rut, likely because Somaliland and Somalia are already dealing with enough horrific humanitarian crises without having to worry about another country’s displaced people—in 2012, the number of Somalis fleeing their own country topped a million.
Somaliland boasts “a vibrant traditional social-welfare support system,” according to its National Vision 2030 plan—a grand scheme unveiled in 2012 that aims to continue to improve the region’s standard of living. The plan also acknowledges that “there are, however, times when vulnerable groups such as street children, displaced people, young children, and mothers are excluded from traditional social safety nets [and] the government… has a responsibility to intervene.” So far, the only evidence that the government intends to follow through with the plan is a struggling 400-capacity orphanage in Hargeisa. Unsurprisingly, government officials in Somaliland refused repeated requests for comment on this issue or any other issues pertaining to this article.
At the Somaliland government’s last count, in 2008, the region’s population was 3.5 million, but with so many people flooding in from the south and Ethiopia each year, it’s impossible to say how many hundreds of thousands more live there now. It’s hard to assign all the blame to the burgeoning nation’s embattled and overwhelmed authorities; there’s simply no room and too few resources to think too deeply about glue-addicted kids roaming the streets.
One claim that the government can’t make is that these kids have chosen to live in squalor; for them, there are no viable alternatives. Somaliland offers no government-funded public education—schools are generally run by NGOs, and other private groups rarely accept Oromo children as students. Even if they did, enrollment would be a nightmare because the vast majority of these kids are without identification, homes, or relatives living nearby. They’re often left on their own to scratch out an existence in a city that hates them and offers them next to nothing.
Ismail Yahye, who works for the Save the Children campaign, used to be a Somaliland street kid himself. He despairs at the pipe dreams they are fed before relocating from Ethiopia—many leave home believing the rumors about how life is so much better in Somaliland.
“The main reasons they come here are for economic prosperity and job opportunities,” he said. “They pay bribes at the border and come by foot. They can’t return. They’re trapped.”
The Hargeisa Child Protection Network reports that 88 percent of the city’s homeless children have suffered some form of sexual abuse or harassment. All of the boys I met denied having been raped or abused during their time on the streets, but my fixer told me he strongly believed that they were too ashamed and scared to admit to any such incidents.
Mukhtar stands outside the Ethiopian café where he shines shoes every day.
In this very unfriendly and inhospitable city, a Somali American named Shafi is one of the few residents who goes out of his way to help the kids. In another life, Shafi was a drug dealer in Buffalo, New York, a job that landed him in prison before he cleaned up his act and decided to return to the city of his birth to do good. Now he provides Hargeisa’s street urchins with the occasional meal, helps them organize games of soccer or basketball, and finds safe places where they can stay at night. But he is only one man and knows he can’t save them all. Most still end up sleeping in the drains, left to die of starvation or diseases like tuberculosis and typhoid fever. “I’ve carried quite a few dead children through these streets,” he told me.
Many kids earn small amounts of cash doing menial tasks like shoe-shining and washing cars. Others find work running alcohol, which is illegal in the Muslim state. If you ever find yourself at a party in one of Hargeisa’s sprawling, plush villas, chances are the gin in your gimlet was smuggled into the country by a kid who sleeps in a gutter.
It was with Shafi’s help that I was first able to meet Hargeisa’s Oromo children. He told me the best place to find them was around the convenience stores they visit daily to buy fresh glue. On our first attempt and without much searching, Shafi and I found a couple of kids who appeared to be homeless hanging out in an alley near a school. We spoke with them for a bit, and when I felt that everyone was comfortable I pulled out my camera. Before I could take their photos, a guy who said he was an off-duty cop appeared out of nowhere. He approached us, shouting at me in gravelly Somali and quickly confiscating the bottles of glue from the kids.
“He called you a pedophile,” Shafi translated, adding that it would benefit me to reimburse the boys for their stolen solvents.
After the cop left, one of the boys grew somber. “I hope I stop using,” he said. As he spoke I noticed the painful sores etched across his face. “I just miss my family. I haven’t seen them in years. I’m alone and no one helps me.”
The stigma that surrounds these children is such that even those trying to help them are treated with suspicion—as are reporters hoping to tell their story, as I found out the hard way one night while Shafi and I were trying to track down Mohamed and his friends.
It was a typical breezy fall evening, full of the usual scenes: men sipping tea and debating loudly, women and children hustling soup and camel meat, a mess of car horns cleaving the air. Shafi was sure the kids were nearby, but that didn’t mean much because they usually try to remain hidden so as not to cause a scene.
It didn’t take much time to spot Hamza’s tattered bootleg Barcelona soccer jersey peeking out from behind the edge of a wall. As we approached, more kids appeared from behind parked cars and emerged from alleys, and some even popped out of a nearby storm drain. Within minutes more than two dozen homeless children had surrounded us, clamoring for cash and posing for pictures. An empty square in the middle of town had suddenly transformed into a glue-sniffers’ agora.
Our time with the kids didn’t last long. A couple minutes later an old man who was lounging outside a nearby café decided he’d had enough, sprung to his feet, walked over to us, and began hitting me and the kids with his walking stick.
Some of the children scattered. Others stayed, presumably with the hope that holding out for the payout from the Western journalist would be worth the licks. In a surreal moment, as the old man continued to swing his stick and scream, one boy, who said his name was Hussein, walked over and, huffing on his glue pot, told me about his hopes and dreams. “I want to be a doctor,” he said, staggering about and staring straight through me. “Sometimes I dream when I get hungry. But there’s no food here, no help. I expected a better life. I don’t now. But sometimes, I wish.”
Just then, a scuffle broke out—the old man had lured a couple of his friends into the argument, and they came to the collective decision to grab me and smash my camera. Shafi and my driver, Mohammed, struggled to hold them back.
Two cops arrived on the scene soon after the scuffle. Instead of punishing the old man for attacking the kids and trying to destroy my camera, they dragged me off to a festering cinder-block carcass covered in graffiti that serves as the local jail.
“You cannot photograph the children without their permission,” the more senior cop said, pointing to my camera. “They do not want you to photograph them.”
Shafi translated as I tried to explain to the policeman that that the kids were clearly desperate forsomeone to be interested in their plight, and that they were even posing for pictures. That’s when I stopped, realizing that the subject wasn’t up for debate. It was clear that writing about or photographing these street children was taboo.
In the end, I compromised by deleting most of the photos I had taken and then sat in a corner of the jail while my driver, Mohammed, and my captors read one another’s horoscopes outside the gates.
A couple hours later I was released. Mohammed was waiting for me outside, and he immediately pulled me aside to tell me something that I had already accepted the moment I entered the jail: my reporting on the children had come to an end.
Mohammed looked unnerved. “We can leave now, Insha’Allah… The kids thing is over. They are invisible.”