Feb. 19, 2010 — -- For many, mention of Somalia conjures images of a smoldering Blackhawk helicopter and AK-47-wielding pirates loaded onto an antique skiff.
What may not come to mind as quickly is the idea that the tipping point for Somalia's downward spiral into an international no-go zone may have come decades before U.S. troops landed on a Somali beachfront in the mid 1990s. It may have come during the regime of military dictator Siad Barre.
Barre and the men under him have been accused by the United Nations of committing horrific war crimes throughout the '70s, '80s and early '90s that the country is still reeling from.
Like citizens of other countries ravaged by brutal regimes, many refugees who survived Barre's rule came to America to start over and live quietly among the population.
But shockingly, along with refugees and victims of war crimes, some alleged war criminals themselves have emigrated to the United States, escaping retribution for the monstrous acts they may have committed at home.
Men accused of human rights abuses from Somalia to Venezuela have laid their own claims to the American dream and now enjoy the same freedoms they're accused of trying to take away from their own people. It may seem impossible, but one of these men -- some allegedly responsible for mass murder, torture and the destruction of entire populations -- might literally be living next door.
Bashe Yousuf was one of the lucky ones. He survived Barre's notorious use of summary execution, rape, torture and imprisonment without trial to control what the dictator viewed as a dissident population in the northwest part of Somalia, today known as Somaliland.
Yousuf was a businessman in Hargeisa, the largest city in Somaliland. The area was particularly targeted by the regime for destruction. Along with his work in business, Yousuf said he was part of a group of community workers trying to clean up hospitals and obtain medical supplies.
Yousuf claims soldiers under the command of Barre's minister of defense, Gen. Mohammed Samantar, arrested him after his group's actions were deemed acts of political defiance.
"The government -- you know, took it as we were a political organization trying to challenge their power and put us all in jail," Yousuf said in a recent interview with ABC News.
'The Worst Torture ... Is Isolation'
Yousuf said he was subjected to beatings, electric shocks and waterboarding. Yet following what Yousuf said was months of torture, he was subjected to perhaps the worse form of punishment: six years of solitary confinement in a windowless cell.
"The worst torture that a person can take is isolation," Yousuf said. "Because you think so much, and the things that you think is the worst things that happened to you in all your life. You never think about anything good. All your nightmares haunt your every minute, every second."
Yousuf said he would provoke the guards to drag him outside the cell to beat him, just for the opportunity to have a moment outside.
"Just to see the sky, and the stars," he said.
Yousuf managed to survive those six years, and suddenly, as quickly as he had been arrested and thrown into jail, he said, he was released and pardoned.
By the time the Barre government collapsed in 1991, throwing the country into deeper chaos, Yousuf was living in America as an American citizen working to forget his past, yet still haunted by nightmares of his ordeal.
"I wake up and sweat almost all night sometimes," Yousuf said, "because I'm scared."
In 1998, Yousuf's nightmare came to life. Mohamed Samantar, Somalia's prime minister by that point, escaped the collapse of the Barre regime and eventually made his way into the Unites States. Samantar settled in a split-level house in the Washington D.C. suburbs.
"I couldn't believe it, that somebody who has done so much harm to so many people could be living in the United States," Yousuf said.
Yousuf said Samantar was at the helm of the atrocities committed in Somaliland. Samantar's attorney, however, denied those claims, saying that Samantar was received in Washington while in office and was granted asylum in the United States in 1997.
"He's somebody who seems to be a wonderful family man," said Julian Spirer, the attorney. "He's very much the sort of person you would want to have as a neighbor."
Subject to U.S. Law?
But Yousuf isn't buying it. He, along with four other Somalis subjected to torture and human rights abuses, filed a civil suit with the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) against Samantar. The suit seeks to hold the former general responsible for alleged abuses as the head of the Somali regimes' military.
"The issue here is whether Gen. Samantar is held to be subject to U.S. laws while he's living in this country," said Pamela Merchant, executive director of the CJA.
According the Merchant, Samantar is one of possibly 1,000 alleged war criminals living here in the United States. The CJA's main mission is to hold the suspects responsible for the atrocities they are alleged to have committed in their foreign countries.
"I think the first time you realize that somebody's living in your community that was responsible for serious human rights abuses, it can be shocking," Merchant said.
According to his family, Samantar is gravely ill, but his legal team led by Spirer contends his innocence on the charges.
"There hasn't been any proof yet. At this point these are strictly allegations," Spirer said.
Spirer said Samantar most likely was aware of the atrocities being committed in Somaliland, but there was very little he could do about them.
"Did he know that these were going on?" Spirer asked. "I expect he did know they were going on. If the question is, could he do anything about them? There was probably a very limited amount that he could do."
Merchant disagreed with that assumption.
"He was in charge of the military," she said. "He was the person who could stop it."
But no matter what Samantar's involvement may have been, a hard truth looms: Legally, it may not matter.
"We have a policy in this country, it's actually established in law, that our courts are not available to prosecute or hold liable foreign officials for acts done in their official capacity," Spirer said.
In 2007 a district judge ruled that Samantar had immunity under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act and dismissed CJA's lawsuit. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit overturned that decision, ruling that the law only applies to foreign states, not individuals.
Samantar next appealed that decision to the Supreme Court, which could hand down a ruling in the early summer. A major precedent could be set for trying officials -- including our own officials -- for war crimes.
For Yousuf, the case is about simple justice, and getting his day in court to confront a man he believes victimized so many.
"So many people died at the hands of this man," Yousuf said. "I want justice. That is all."