Tuesday, March 6, 2012


We are getting further and further east. Jijiga is the capital of the ethnic-Somali Ogaden region in Eastern Ethiopia. The town features prominently in a book written by Nega Mezlekia, who was born here, and spent his childhood here. Nega was born in 1958, same as me, and in many ways his childhood was not too different from mine: a middle-class family, relatively protected, a schoolboy being naughty, pulling off all sorts of pranks, frequently being expelled from the class room: I recognize that. Yet, there are obviously a lot of things I don’t recognize, my teacher didn’t beat me senseless, I wasn’t subjected to witchcraft to drive out the devil, but mostly, I didn’t live in an Ethiopia.
In the early and mid seventies, I was in my confident, bragging teens, chasing girls and growing up carefree, for all intents and purposes. Ethiopia saw violent regime change, the emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown and subsequently killed, and a military junta, the Derg, took over. As so often, internal conflict weakened the junta, opening up opportunities for separatist movements, amongst them the Western Somali Liberation Front inside Ethiopia. Any Liberation Front worth its salt is supported by another, preferably bordering nation, in this case, surprise, surprise, Somalia, who then saw its chance and invaded Ethiopia. In true Cold War fashion Somalia had initially been supported by the Soviets, who helped them built up their military strength, but when the Ethiopian emperor fell - traditionally supported by the US -, the Soviets decided to link up with the Ethiopians, who thus closed the door to the Americans – are you still following? Not wanting to support two sides of the same war, the Soviets then withdrew from Somalia, whereupon the Americans decided to support the Somalis against the Ethiopians, who were by now helped by 8000 Soviet advisers as well as 15,000 Cuban troops.
Nega was in Jijiga during the war, he must have been 18 or 19. Initially Ethiopian government troops firmly defended the town, in part through rounding up all ethnic Somalis they could find and slaughtering them, executing then  – effectively genocide, of course, although it is not called that in the book. Afterwards the Somali army was winning, forcing an exodus of over 20,000 people from Jijiga first across the strategically important Marda Pass, and then on to nearby Harar. Despite the distance of less than 100 km the trip nevertheless took some two weeks, and came complete with snipers, land mines, mortar attacks, black market traders – who, for good measure, were also executed - and famine. I didn’t have any of that in my youth.
To cut a long story short, the 1977 Somali invasion was ultimately rebuffed by the Ethiopian army, and the Somalis withdrew to their own territory again in March 1978, end of the Ogaden war. Also beginning of the weakening of the Somali regime, of course, of which we see the fall-out today.
It took us a little over an hour to get from Harar to Jijiga.

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