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

A man walking past a war memorial in Hargeisa, Somaliland
A memorial commemorating these killed within the aerial bombardment of Hargeisa in 1988

In our series of letters from African journalists, Ismail Einashe considers the value of memory for those who lose every thing in the chaos of warfare.

Short presentational grey line
short presentational gray line

Christmas Day, New 12 months’s Day and Valentine’s Day are dates you’ll locate many Somalis celebrating their birthdays. here is no longer as stunning as it sounds, it is just that only a few Somalis be aware of when precisely they were born and so choose more memorable dates.

Somalia has an oral culture – most Somalis usually tend to be able to tell you the names of the final 20 generations of their forefathers in preference to the particulars of their start date.

And Somali most effective became a written language in 1972 when authentic records started to be kept – however very little is still of those archives because the country has been torn apart via civil war.

‘Dresden of Africa’

really subsequent year marks three a long time due to the fact that the Somali state collapsed leaving many families like mine with out their essential documents or pictures.

We have been compelled to flee the escalating violence which all started a number of years earlier in 1988 with aerial bombardments and floor assaults through the regime of then-President Siad Barre.

Hargeisa, the place i was born, turn into customary because the “Dresden of Africa” because the city became absolutely levelled in the battle.

I spent my early life living in what was then the world’s largest refugee camp – Hartisheik in Ethiopia near the Somali border.

The refugee camp near Hartisheik in Ethiopia - archive shot
The refugee camp near Hartisheik in Ethiopia turned into once the biggest on this planet

Like lots of the many lots of individuals who handed in the course of the camp, which ultimately closed in 2004, i used to be stripped of all facts of my life earlier than the battle with out a start certificate or passport – relying only on ephemeral and fleeting reminiscences.

It was in pursuit of these that I determined decades later to return to Hartisheik to see what remained of the camp that changed into once my home.

i needed to are trying and get a sense of where I had come from – to take note my footing during this world in flux.

‘An endless Martian expanse’

On a sizzling afternoon I took a flight east from Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, to Dire Dawa, the country’s 2nd biggest city, though it truly felt extra like a quaint, sleepy city with its pleasing historical railway station that isn’t any longer in use apart from as a house for a family unit of monkeys.

An historic carriage lay backyard the grand entrance where just a few guys slept below the wheels, whereas others sheltered there from the sun chewing khat, consuming tea and smoking cigarettes.

After leaving the refugee camp I had briefly lived in Dire Dawa so I visited my historical haunts with hobby before heading extra east to Hartisheik.

Map
Map

i was extra apprehensive about making that lengthy experience on an historic minibus. It become made worse with the aid of the regular defense force checkpoints and the a couple of hours along a rough road from the city of Jijiga against the Somali border.

I remembered the camp backyard Hartisheik town as a dusty, faraway and unforgiving location – an countless expanse with a cracked Martian hue.

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When people arrived there 30 extraordinary years in the past they found horrendous circumstances -there became no safeguard, water, food or medicine and countless numbers died of starvation, thirst and disease.

however the camp directly became like a town with a huge market the place you could buy all method of issues and with areas to sit and drink tea.

The refugee camp near Hartisheik in Ethiopia - archive shot
The refugee camp close Hartisheik in Ethiopia was once the largest on earth

regularly individuals feel refugee camps are most effective areas full of misery and desperation.

Yet as a toddler I be aware I frequently had a lot of fun with my chums running around playing with rocks and screaming in giddy exhilaration on the occasional UN plane that flew above us to bring a great deal-obligatory aid.

youngsters, the grime that turned into engrained in my memory changed into now not to be found on my return – i used to be dumbfounded to find a eco-friendly, lush and exquisite panorama due to the wet season.

No headstones for the lifeless

It felt unusual to me that such an pleasing location with its ponds, timber and long grass so far as the eye might see had been so filled with people’s fears all these years in the past.

Farmers with donkey on the site of the former refugee camp at Hartisheik, Ethiopia
a couple of farmers can be discovered on the site of the historic refugee camp

I felt just a little disappointed in my recollections.

there have been nothing to mark the more 600,000 refugees who once lived right here at its top – no headstones for the lifeless and no authentic commemoration – the earth had reclaimed all of it.

"I spotted an elderly Ethiopian man, Mohamed, who it turned out had once worked as the caretaker of the camp - a place he remembered as being full of the pain of war"", Source: Ismail Einashe , Source description: Journalist, Image: Mohamed, who was once caretaker of Hartisheik refugee camp in Ethiopia
“I spotted an aged Ethiopian man, Mohamed, who it grew to become out had as soon as labored because the caretaker of the camp – a spot he remembered as being full of the ache of conflict””, supply: Ismail Einashe , source description: Journalist, picture: Mohamed, who changed into once caretaker of Hartisheik refugee camp in Ethiopia

Then I noticed an elderly Ethiopian man, Mohamed, who it grew to become out had once worked as the caretaker of the camp – a spot he remembered as being crammed with the pain of struggle.

He now lives along with his family in a “bull”, a small ordinary condo and that they have cows, goats and farm what little they could.

He instructed me a few camp structures had been still standing, together with what may have been a medical institution that a woman known as Sahra showed me round along with her younger granddaughter.

Sahra and her granddaughter in an old building at the site of Hartisheik refugee camp in Ethiopia
This historic camp constructing now serves as a take care of for goats

Painted in appeared to be the UN colors of blue and white, there become a stench of decay and goat dung as it become occupied through animals belonging to Sahra’s family unit, who had as soon as lived in Wajale on the Somali-aspect of the border, however now farmed right here.

i believed of all people who need to have lost their relatives internal this constructing.

Of route lots of the more youthful individuals I came throughout, just like the younger cattle herder Jimale, didn’t bear in mind the refugees in any respect.

Nomadic Somali-speaking camel herders on the site of an old refugee camp in Ethiopia
Nomads now wander over the giant expanse of the camp which become closed via the UN in 2004

I also met a group of Somali-speakme nomads following their camels searching for sparkling grass and water, who provided me, a drained traveller from London, sparkling and pungent camel milk.

as the sky tinted orange I decided to come to Hartisheik town earlier than the solar set – leaving the camp for a 2d time, this time as a person, but a changed man just a little dazed and at a loss for words by using the tricks of reminiscence.

It brought to intellect one other reminiscence – me aged about five discovering a small bathtub of discarded Vicks ointment in the camp – which I naively rubbed all over the place my face.

Inevitability it ended up stepping into my eyes and a fountain of tears rolled down my face as I ran dazed and puzzled throughout the camp in the hunt for my mom.

greater Letters from Africa:

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A composite photograph displaying the BBC Africa logo and a person reading on his smartphone.