Home Today Letter from Africa: Somalia's Christmas birthdays and misplaced recollections

Letter from Africa: Somalia’s Christmas birthdays and misplaced recollections

A man walking past a war memorial in Hargeisa, Somaliland

picture copyrightAFP

picture captionA memorial commemorating these killed within the aerial bombardment of Hargeisa in 1988

In our collection of letters from African journalists, Ismail Einashe considers the significance of reminiscence for many who lose every thing within the chaos of struggle.

Christmas Day, New 12 months’s Day and Valentine’s Day are dates you will discover many Somalis celebrating their birthdays. This isn’t as stunning because it sounds, it’s simply that only a few Somalis know when precisely they had been born and so go for extra memorable dates.

Somalia has an oral tradition – most Somalis are extra doubtless to have the ability to let you know the names of the final 20 generations of their forefathers fairly than the main points of their delivery date.

And Somali solely turned a written language in 1972 when official information started to be saved – however little or no stays of those archives as a result of the nation has been torn aside by civil struggle.

‘Dresden of Africa’

Really subsequent 12 months marks three a long time because the Somali state collapsed leaving many households like mine with out their essential paperwork or pictures.

We had been pressured to flee the escalating violence which started a couple of years earlier in 1988 with aerial bombardments and floor assaults by the regime of then-President Siad Barre.

Hargeisa, the place I used to be born, change into referred to as the “Dresden of Africa” as the town was completely levelled within the battle.

I spent my adolescence residing in what was then the world’s largest refugee camp – Hartisheik in Ethiopia close to the Somali border.

picture copyrightUNHCR
picture captionThe refugee camp close to Hartisheik in Ethiopia was as soon as the most important on this planet

Like most of the many 1000’s of people that handed by means of the camp, which finally closed in 2004, I used to be stripped of all information of my life earlier than the struggle with no delivery certificates or passport – relying solely on ephemeral and fleeting recollections.

It was in pursuit of those that I made a decision a long time later to return to Hartisheik to see what remained of the camp that was as soon as my dwelling.

I wished to try to get a way of the place I had come from – to grasp my footing on this world in flux.

‘An limitless Martian expanse’

On a sizzling afternoon I took a flight east from Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, to Dire Dawa, the nation’s second largest metropolis, although it actually felt extra like a quaint, sleepy city with its stunning previous railway station that’s now not in use besides as a house for a household of monkeys.

An previous carriage lay exterior the grand entrance the place a couple of males slept beneath the wheels, whereas others sheltered there from the solar chewing khat, consuming tea and smoking cigarettes.

After leaving the refugee camp I had briefly lived in Dire Dawa so I visited my previous haunts with curiosity earlier than heading additional east to Hartisheik.


I used to be extra nervous about making that lengthy journey on an previous minibus. It was made worse by the common army checkpoints and the a number of hours alongside a tough street from the city of Jijiga in direction of the Somali border.

I remembered the camp exterior Hartisheik city as a dusty, distant and unforgiving place – an limitless expanse with a cracked Martian hue.

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When folks arrived there 30 odd years in the past they discovered horrendous situations -there was no shelter, water, meals or medication and numerous numbers died of starvation, thirst and illness.

However the camp rapidly turned like a city with a big market the place you may purchase all method of issues and with locations to sit down and drink tea.

Usually folks assume refugee camps are solely locations crammed with distress and desperation.

But as a baby I bear in mind I typically had plenty of enjoyable with my associates working round taking part in with rocks and screaming in giddy pleasure on the occasional UN airplane that flew above us to ship much-needed help.

Nevertheless, the mud that was engrained in my reminiscence was to not be discovered on my return – I used to be dumbfounded to discover a inexperienced, lush and delightful panorama because of the wet season.

No headstones for the useless

It felt unusual to me that such an alluring place with its ponds, bushes and lengthy grass so far as the attention may see had been so full of individuals’s fears all these years in the past.

picture copyrightKate Stanworth
picture captionJust a few farmers could be discovered on the location of the previous refugee camp

I felt considerably upset in my recollections.

There have been nothing to mark the extra 600,000 refugees who as soon as lived right here at its peak – no headstones for the useless and no official commemoration – the earth had reclaimed all of it.

Mohamed, who was once caretaker of Hartisheik refugee camp in Ethiopia

Kate Stanworth

I noticed an aged Ethiopian man, Mohamed, who it turned out had as soon as labored because the caretaker of the camp – a spot he remembered as being stuffed with the ache of struggle”

Ismail Einashe

Then I noticed an aged Ethiopian man, Mohamed, who it turned out had as soon as labored because the caretaker of the camp – a spot he remembered as being stuffed with the ache of struggle.

He now lives along with his household in a “bull”, a small conventional home and so they have cows, goats and farm what little they will.

He advised me a couple of camp buildings had been nonetheless standing, together with what might need been a hospital {that a} lady known as Sahra confirmed me round along with her younger granddaughter.

picture copyrightKate Stanworth
picture captionThis previous camp constructing now serves as a shelter for goats

Painted in gave the impression to be the UN colors of blue and white, there was a stench of decay and goat dung because it was occupied by animals belonging to Sahra’s household, who had as soon as lived in Wajale on the Somali-side of the border, however now farmed right here.

I considered all those that will need to have misplaced their family members inside this constructing.

After all most of the youthful folks I got here throughout, just like the younger cattle herder Jimale, didn’t bear in mind the refugees in any respect.

picture copyrightKate Stanworth
picture captionNomads now wander over the huge expanse of the camp which was closed by the UN in 2004

I additionally met a bunch of Somali-speaking nomads following their camels looking for contemporary grass and water, who supplied me, a drained traveller from London, contemporary and pungent camel milk.

Because the sky tinted orange I made a decision to return to Hartisheik city earlier than the solar set – leaving the camp for a second time, this time as a person, however a modified man barely dazed and confused by the methods of reminiscence.

It dropped at thoughts one other reminiscence – me aged about 5 discovering a small tub of discarded Vicks ointment within the camp – which I naively rubbed throughout my face.

Inevitability it ended up entering into my eyes and a fountain of tears rolled down my face as I ran dazed and confused throughout the camp looking for my mom.

Extra Letters from Africa:

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Associated Subjects

  • Refugees and asylum seekers

  • Somalia
  • Ethiopia
  • Refugee camps

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