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Somalia: sparing people from the spears – how a radio show can save lives

25-08-2008 Feature

The ICRC, the Somali Red Crescent Society and local radio stations have together initiated a series of radio spots aimed at spreading public awareness of the Somali customary code of war, known as ‘Biri-ma-Geydo’ (literally, spared from the spear), and the basics of international humanitarian law.


  ©ICRC/P. Yazdi    
Kids playing football in Mogadishu. 

For years, sporadic armed clashes have been a part of daily life for the habitants of the bullet-scarred Somali capital. But this afternoon, Mogadishu is surprisingly calm. No armed clashes are rumbling in the southern part of the city. Barefoot kids play football on waste ground and passers-by take advantage of the calm to buy a bit of food or charcoal with their meagre incomes.

 Joining the masses outside the city  

Nearby, a family loads a donkey cart with kitchen utensils and mats. A week ago a shell hit their house, injuring several people. The family has decided to leave Mogadishu in order to join the hundreds of thousands of other displaced people living in improvised camps dotted along the Afgooye road, just a few kilometres from the broken city.

Sitting in the shadow of a wall, Farah Gure, a 20-year-old resident, listens attentively to the radio dramas which are routinely aired by local FM radio. Despite the insecurity and the armed clashes, he and the rest of his family have decided to stay in Mogadishu.

 Today's indiscriminate victims  

" Because of 17 years of war and chaos in Somalia, recurrent natural disasters, the constant displacement of families and the lack of traditional or modern education, young people like me have not heard about Biri-ma-Geydo,” says Farah. " Nowadays, women, children and civilians are indiscriminate victims of clashes that occur in Mogadishu or elsewhere. "

The Somali customary code of war was drawn up centuries ago to regulate the behaviour of individuals, groups and clans, using moral responsibility and social pressure for its enforcement. Much of the ‘immunity from the spear’ code formerly employed by Somalis was in accord with Islamic teachings related to war-time conduct.

 Yesterday's 'immunity from the spear'  

According to a Somali proverb, every war gives way to peace. In anticipation of eventual peace, women, children, those innocently caught up in fighting, the wounded and the captives would be protected and treated humanely during the conduct of hostilities .

" International humanitarian law contains provisions from customary, military and general laws. It was created to be applied in wartime and therefore its parallel with Biri-ma-Geydo is easy to explain to Somalis, " says Afi, the tireless Somali Red Crescent Society communications coordinator.

The ICRC/Somali Red Crescent radio programmes – consisting of dramas, messages and live round table debates – are designed for a young audience and targeted at those directly engaged in armed clashes and who have little or no knowledge of international humanitarian law (IHL) or Biri-ma-Geydo.

" Somalia is a country that has been ravaged by civil strife for nearly 17 years. In Mogadishu and other cities where recurrent armed clashes occur, the population is often trapped in the midst of fighting, and residential areas are hit, " says Benjamin Wahren, ICRC’s deputy head of delegation for Somalia.

" Medina and Keysaney, the two main hospitals in Mogadishu supported by the ICRC, treat dozens of people hit by bullet or shrapnel every week. A third of these admissions are women and children, " he adds.


  ©ICRC/M. Yerow    
Mogadishu. Young Somalis listen to ICRC radio programmes. 

 Radio put to multi-faceted good use  


Sitting attentively next to his radio, Farah reflects, " I'm sure the Biri-ma-Geydo radio programmes will have a positive impact on many young people engaged in armed conflict and who do not respect the basic rules of the fighting during clashes. "

" Our Biri-ma-Geydo is probably older than your international humanitarian law. Everybody should know about it. Somalis should be proud of it and should have great respect for it. "

Since radio is the main form of mass communication in Somalia – drawing on the long-standing Somali oral tradition – it is also being put to good use in other areas.

The ICRC is collaborating with FM radio stations to broadcast cholera awareness programmes. And as part of their joint programme to re-establish links between families separated by armed conflict, the ICRC and the Somali Red Crescent also collaborate with the BBC Somali Service (short-wave radio service) to broadcast the names of persons sought by their families in Somalia and all around the world (see Somali Family Links website ).