MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — An upsurge of gang rapes has hit the breakaway region of Somaliland — a normally peaceful enclave considered by many to be a sanctuary from Somalia's decades of violence.
Knife-wielding young men follow women along the dusty streets of Hargeisa, the capital of the region, dragging them inside buildings to rape and rob them. Children are among the victims.
At least 84 women have been raped since the beginning of this year, according to rights activists and medical officials.
"This year is more terrifying than last year when we were barely receiving two or three in each month. This year we are seeing a new victim for every day," said a nurse at a hospital in Hargeisa. She insisted on anonymity because she is not authorized to release the details.
"It's rampant and victims are being attacked at homes, streets or anywhere now," she said.
The northern region of Somaliland declared independence from the rest of Somalia in 1960, but it has not won international recognition as an independent state. Having escaped decades of conflict in Somalia, Somaliland employs its own security and police forces, justice system and currency. It is seen by some neighboring countries as a bulwark against terrorism. It also has a reputation for successfully maintaining law and order for its population of 3.5 million.
The outbreak of gang rapes in Somaliland began early this year and has surprised local residents who blame gangs of young men.
Confronted by the spate of attacks, police have arrested dozens of suspects, but the rapes continue on Hargeisa's streets and in back roads.
Some of the victims were beaten while others suffered stabbings by the gangs. This could dent the women's freedom in Somaliland where they can drive and exercise many freedoms. Many women do not wear the veil in public.
But now some religious leaders suggest that women remain closer to their homes to avoid the rapes.
"This is in fact a horrible outbreak, raped and bleeding children are being brought into hospitals every day," said Nimo Hussein Qowdhan, Somaliland's deputy health minister. "It's becoming out of control. We must concentrate on fighting it."
Two young children were recent victims of the gang-rape attacks, said officials.
"It's a disturbing development, even children are being raped by criminals," said Fathia Hussein Ahmed, chairwoman of Somaliland's national human rights commission. "According to a report we have made, children are the most affected."
She said rapes continue to haunt victims, as many women are shunned by some communities after being raped by gangs. Some are divorced by their husbands because of the rapes.
"We are creating awareness among local communities to illustrate the negative impact of rape," she said.
The sexual attacks have brought the long-taboo subject into street conversations and have provoked calls for a new approach toward rapists, instead of the traditional clan-related legal solutions. Clan elders often let off rapists with softer punishments. In Somaliland, it is common for the clans to make their own rulings to evade harsher sentences from the government judiciary.
"We warn that the traditional clan justice system (should) avoid solving these cases, instead, courts must apply the ruling to such cases," said a statement from a consortium of human rights groups in Somaliland.
Unlike the rest of Somalia where women avoid reporting crimes to law enforcement agencies, women in Somaliland are increasingly reporting their cases to the hospitals and police. Hospitals are creating counseling for victims of sexual attacks. Activists say this may also be driving the increase in reported rapes, as women are aware of services and more likely to seek help or report rape.
However, police and rape victims struggle to identify the culprits who are believed to be unlinked, making it hard for investigators to contain the violence through arrests.
"You never know who's to blame," said Sadiya Hassan, a resident in Hargeisa, the capital of the breakaway region by phone. "The attacks forced us to avoid walking while dark or through back roads."
"This is not easy to pinpoint exactly what triggered (the rapes) but the cost of marriage for young people in Somaliland is too high and contacts between the opposite sex before marriage is also frowned upon and the fact that many youths in the diaspora returned to the country may also have contributed," said Mohamed Abdillahi, a university professor in Hargeisa city.