Somaliland: Ghost Republic


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Text by Carlijn Urlings and Chantal Heijnen

A constitution, an elected government, an operational justice system, a head of state, a national flag, currency, passports – at first glance, this description could fit any well-established democracy in the world. Nothing necessarily strikes you as unusual — until you realize the geographical map you are looking at is the Horn of Africa, and the democratic system is Somaliland.

A former British protectorate, Somaliland was independent for a few days in 1960, before uniting with former Italian Somaliland to form the Somali Republic. After seizing power through a military coup in 1969, the Somali dictatorial Siad Barre regime (1969-1991) started two decades of violence against the people of Somaliland, leaving more than 50,000 dead. The 1988 bombing of Somaliland’s capital Hargeisa killed thousands and fueled the Somali Civil War and Somaliland’s battle for independence. When the Somali central government collapsed in 1991, the local Somaliland government declared independence from greater Somalia and started to build a fragile democracy in the world’s most volatile region. It has been fighting for international recognition ever since.

Today, Somaliland has everything one would expect any “normal” democracy to have, except that it is situated within, and is officially still part of, greater Somalia. Declared the most volatile and violent country in the world today by the 2012 Global Peace Index, Somalia is home to an ongoing civil war, ongoing brutalities and absence of government. The peaceful and democratic Republic of Somaliland is not recognized as an independent state by the United Nations or any other international organization. Left in legal limbo, it is a ghost republic, a pseudo-state with no official recognition – a democracy against all odds.

In 2009, I traveled with my Somaliland-born friend Fatma Ali to this democratic enigma within what is essentially a failed state. In the following two years, I documented the Somaliland people as they built democratic institutions of governance in their unrecognized republic. On my second visit, I met Mustafe Sacad Dhinbiil, editor in chief for Jamhuuriya, a privately owned daily Somaliland newspaper that provides Somalilanders with local and national news. Jamhuuriya covered this project, publishing my photographs from Dec. 10, 2010, through Feb. 21, 2011, across 20 issues, to signify Somaliland’s 20th anniversary.

The collaboration with Jamhuuriya not only added a local dimension to this international project but also gave me the opportunity to share my images with the Somaliland people. The original Jamhuuriya publications are physical testimonies to the existence of a nation that is not internationally recognized. They add to the few things that make this ghost republic visible, connecting its people to the outside world. Ghost Republic Somaliland is a photo document focused on the Somalilanders who are organizing, maintaining and governing a nation that is effectively cut off from the rest of the world.

Text by Carlijn Urlings and Chantal Heijnen

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Chantal Heijnen is a portrait and documentary photographer based in The Bronx, New York. In 2000, she received a B.A. in Social Work and worked for 10 years as a refugee counselor in The Netherlands. In 2008 she graduated with honors with a B.A. in Photography from the Photo Academy in Amsterdam. She has worked as an editorial photographer for international newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, Stern and Vrij Nederland. Chantal also works as a teaching assistant for the Community Programs at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York City. She’s passionate about her long-term personal projects, creating portraits – through people and landscapes – of rarely seen communities. She goes where the story takes her, following the narrative as it presents itself to her, but always originating from the people she portrays. Because of her profound interest in people she creates intimate portraits with sensitivity, compassion and respect.


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