(Nairobi) – Authorities in Somalia should intensify their investigation into the abduction and apparent summary execution of seven health workers and a pharmacist in May 2020, Human Rights Watch said today. Six months on, government investigations have not resulted in arrests or prosecutions, while the victims’ relatives await justice.
On May 27 at about 1:30 p.m., five masked gunmen entered the compound of a mother and child healthcare clinic run by a nongovernmental organization, the Zamzam foundation, in Gololey village, Balcad district, Hirshabelle state. Several witnesses said the gunmen – three in Somali military uniforms, one in a seemingly light blue police uniform, and another in civilian clothes – separated seven male workers from the five female workers. They blindfolded the men and brought another man, who ran a nearby pharmacy, to the clinic. The gunmen then left with the men. On the afternoon of May 28, residents found the men’s bullet-ridden bodies outside the village.
“The heinous summary execution of seven health workers and a pharmacist left a rural community reeling from the loss of their loved ones and in dire need of health care,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The possible involvement of security forces in this appalling incident puts an even greater onus on the government to thoroughly investigate and prosecute those responsible and appropriately compensate the victims’ families.”
No one has claimed responsibility for the killings. The Islamist armed group Al-Shabab denied any involvement, and the chief of staff of the federal army denied initial allegations from residents of security force involvement. On May 29, the Hirshabelle regional president established a high-level committee to investigate the killings and said it should report its findings within 30 days. On September 14, the Hirshabelle security minister told Human Rights Watch in a phone interview that the investigation was pending. The federal Somali Police Force’s Criminal Investigations Department (CID) also initiated an investigation.
Human Rights Watch interviewed, by phone between June and September, 13 witnesses and relatives of the health workers, as well as five journalists and humanitarian workers with knowledge of the area. Human Rights Watch has not received a response to its October 5 letter to the Somali Police Force requesting an update on their investigations.
In Somalia, humanitarian agencies, including health providers, face serious difficulty reaching people in need due to insecurity, targeted attacks on aid workers, generalized violence, and restrictions imposed by parties to the conflict. According to the Humanitarian Outcomes Aid Security Worker Security Database, 14 humanitarian workers, including the 7 in Gololey, have been killed in 2020. This has had a serious impact on the right to health for the affected population. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has reported that only 15 percent of people living in rural areas in Somalia have access to health care.
Gololey village is on an important route between Jowhar, capital of Hirshabelle state, and Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, and has been the site of a number of Al-Shabab attacks against Somali National Army convoys. Residents said that their relationship with government security forces had been particularly tense since late 2019, when the security forces arrested residents on several occasions following security incidents, accusing them of collaborating with Al-Shabab.
On May 26, the day before the abductions, Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for an improvised explosive device (IED) attack that hit a Somali National Army convoy on the outskirts of Gololey, killing at least eight soldiers. Human Rights Watch was not able to confirm a widely held view that the attack on the convoy and the killings were linked.
A witness at the clinic on May 27 said that the gunmen asked about the whereabouts of three residents, one a driver for the clinic who was not there that afternoon, and two other men who were the brothers of the local pharmacist. Three assailants forced one of the female health workers at gunpoint to take them to the house of the driver, who was not at home. The gunmen then rounded up the pharmacist.
The gunmen confiscated the female clinic staff’s phones before taking the eight men away. Residents and Zamzam foundation staff said that they repeatedly contacted government officials in Balcad on May 27, and again on the morning of May 28, but they received no information on the men’s whereabouts.
Several relatives said that they thought the men had just been taken away for questioning. The father of one man said, “I received a call saying that my son was taken away with the doctors by government soldiers with their faces covered. I wasn’t too worried as they used to take people and bring them back again.”
When the Gololey residents found the men’s bodies, their hands were tied and they had bullet wounds to the head and chest. Witnesses described signs of decomposition, suggesting they might have been dead since the previous day. One clinic staff member who saw her colleagues’ bodies said: “Their faces were still covered, and their hands were tied … I was shocked. Most of them had bullets that struck the head, and their brains had come out.”
Relatives put the bodies in a car and took them first to Balcad and then to the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) in Mogadishu for a postmortem examination.
Residents said that government forces and officials only came to Gololey on May 29, the day after the bodies were found. Witnesses, organization staff members, and other Gololey residents said both the Hirshabelle committee and the CID in Mogadishu questioned them, but they had not received any feedback on the investigations. The father of one young health worker said, “We still don’t have any answers on who killed the boys. When I saw the bodies, I couldn’t imagine how was this was my son. I was very stressed, very upset. He was 19 years old. He was supporting the family. His mother has been in shock, she is crying all the time, going mad.… It’s a bad tragedy.”
Relatives and witnesses repeatedly told Human Rights Watch that they wanted to see justice in the case. The clinic closed after the killings and only reopened in August. One female health worker said, “I was stressed for a long time. We came back to work because of the health problems of the villagers. You can understand how it feels to miss your colleagues who were working alongside you – we hope one day they will get justice.”
International humanitarian law, which applies to all parties to the conflict in Somalia, prohibits summary executions, including as a belligerent reprisal. Hospitals and other medical facilities are protected from attack unless they are being used for acts harmful to the enemy; such acts do not include treating wounded and sick combatants. Governments have an obligation to investigate and appropriately prosecute alleged war crimes.
Impunity for serious abuses in Somalia remains the norm, with an overreliance on military courts that have tried a broad range of offenses and defendants, in trials that violate basic fair trial standards, and have largely failed to ensure justice for the most serious crimes.
“Attacks on medical staff challenge the very foundations of the laws of war, and will persist if those responsible go unpunished,” Bader said. “The government should show that they can credibly investigate and appropriately prosecute an incident that devastated a community at a time when health workers are so urgently needed.”