HARGEISA, Oct 16 (Reuters) - Abdi Ibrahim lost most of his loved ones in 1988 when government bombers attacked Hargeisa, at the time just another city flattened by Somalia's civil war.
Memories of that attack remain raw, not just because tens of thousands were killed but because the massacre deepened a fierce desire for separate nationhood among the people of Somaliland, the northeast region of Somalia.
Somaliland -- a former British protectorate -- unilaterally declared independence in 1991, a decade after rebels took up arms against Somali military ruler Mohamed Siad Barre.
The anger that fed that breakaway drive more than a decade ago still smoulders in the semi-desert territory, which is pushing to become the next African country to win nationhood after Eritrea, which split from Ethiopia in 1993.
"I lost three of my children and 162 ... family members during the massacre," Ibrahim, 52, said, in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland.
"Almost everybody was affected. Dead bodies littered the city. Thousands were killed by the blasts as well as by trigger-happy soldiers."
Many who survived the onslaught were crippled by hundreds of thousands of landmines placed by soldiers targeting civilians trying to flee to nearby Ethiopia.
Although it has not been recognized internationally, Somaliland is flourishing compared to the rest of chaotic Somalia, buoyed by the economic stimulus provided by the arrival of thousands of former refugees attracted by its stability.
Last month, the Horn of Africa territory held peaceful parliamentary elections, its third polls since declaring independence from the rest of Somalia in 1991.
Somaliland officials say the polls, the enclave's stability, the disarmament of 50,000 gunmen and efforts at good governance show the territory should be a nation in its own right.
Somaliland's bid for recognition is widely resisted around Africa because of a longstanding preference for leaving old colonial borders intact to discourage secessionist movements.
The charter of the pan-continental African Union requires that colonial-era borders be left untouched unless all parties involved negotiate all changes.
But in Somaliland, there can be no going back.
Barre ordered mercenary pilots to bomb Hargeisa in 1988 to snuff out opposition. Many locals who fled vowed never again to be part of greater Somalia when they returned to their city.
Abdiwahab Shamaheye was 11 during the killings. He helplessly watched as soldiers loyal to Barre murdered his uncle and guardian Abdullahi Askar, a soldier himself who had disobeyed orders to slay his own people.
"My uncle Abdullahi was shot dead in front of our house, Shamaheye said. "The government gave orders for the killing of senior civil servants and police officers from the north because it feared they would rally citizens to fight it."
Thousands have been buried in shallow mass graves south of Hargeisa near a military base.
A MiG-19 bomber jet sits atop a dais in the capital's Freedom Garden to remind people of the bloodshed.
Omar Dualle, a Somaliland diplomat who fights for its recognition, said relics of the massacre were preserved to remind people of the pain of union with Somalia.
"We will never go back to the union because the same plane with a blue star you see in our Freedom Garden bombed our city," Duale said. "It's a reminder to our future generations."
EAGER TO DO BUSINESS
Once ruled by Britain, Somaliland joined the rest of Somalia, a former Italian colony, in 1960. The union took place during a wave of Somali nationalism after the British and then the Italians gave independence to their colonies.
That nationalist euphoria has long since faded.
Somaliland made the final break from Somalia after warlords ousted Barre and plunged the rest of the country into the anarchy that still grips it today.
Africa's reluctance to sanction that break has not stopped Somaliland developing.
One of its successful businessmen is Abdulkadir Hashi Elmi, owner of Maan-Soor hotel. A retired petroleum engineer with six children, Elmi worked in Kuwait for 36 years before coming home.
Locals said he was mad to sink his savings into the hotel's construction on the outskirts of Hargeisa in 1992. But Elmi trusted his instincts.
"I knew the city and people well, I knew one day everything will calm down," he said. "I invested $1.5 million to build Maan-Soor hotel to accommodate (non-governmental organisation) staff who were commuting to and from Djibouti."
Elmi might be looking to the future, but the past still casts a long shadow in this enclave of 3.5 million people.
Opposition leader Feisal Ali Warabe says Somaliland's people still wanted those behind the 1988 massacre to be punished.
While Barre and many of his officers are now dead, some survive and wield influence in the south as warlords.
Ali is inspired by the hunt for Nazi war criminals.
"We will track them down and bring them to justice like the Jews did," he said.