Letter from Africa: Somalia’s Christmas birthdays and lost memories


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 individuals who lose every little thing within the chaos of struggle.

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

Somalia has an oral tradition – most Somalis are extra probably to have the ability to inform you the names of the final 20 generations of their forefathers slightly than the small print of their delivery date.

And Somali solely turned a written language in 1972 when official data 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 many years because the Somali state collapsed leaving many households like mine with out their necessary paperwork or images.

We have been compelled 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, turn into generally known as the “Dresden of Africa” as town was completely levelled within the battle.

I spent my childhood 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 largest on the planet

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

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

I needed to attempt 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 outdated railway station that’s not in use besides as a house for a household of monkeys.

An outdated 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, ingesting tea and smoking cigarettes.

After leaving the refugee camp I had briefly lived in Dire Dawa so I visited my outdated haunts with curiosity earlier than heading additional east to Hartisheik.


I used to be extra nervous about making that lengthy journey on an outdated minibus. It was made worse by the common navy checkpoints and the a number of hours alongside a tough highway from the city of Jijiga in the 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 individuals arrived there 30 odd years in the past they discovered horrendous circumstances -there was no shelter, water, meals or medication and numerous numbers died of starvation, thirst and illness.

However the camp shortly 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.

Typically individuals suppose refugee camps are solely locations crammed with distress and desperation.

But as a toddler I bear in mind I usually had a number of enjoyable with my buddies 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 exquisite panorama due to the wet season.

No headstones for the lifeless

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

picture copyrightKate Stanworth
picture captionA number of farmers might be discovered on the positioning of the outdated refugee camp

I felt considerably disenchanted in my reminiscences.

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 lifeless 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 together 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 have been nonetheless standing, together with what may need been a hospital {that a} lady known as Sahra confirmed me round together with her younger granddaughter.

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

Painted in appeared 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 should have misplaced their family members inside this constructing.

After all lots of the youthful individuals 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 in quest of recent grass and water, who supplied me, a drained traveller from London, recent 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 tips of reminiscence.

It delivered to 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 in quest of my mom.

Extra Letters from Africa:

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Associated Matters

  • Refugees and asylum seekers

  • Somalia
  • Ethiopia
  • Refugee camps

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