picture copyrightAFP

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

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

Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and Valentine’s Day are dates you may 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 possible to have the ability to inform you the names of the final 20 generations of their forefathers moderately than the main points of their start date.

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

‘Dresden of Africa’

Actually subsequent 12 months marks three a long time for the reason that Somali state collapsed leaving many households like mine with out their essential paperwork or photographs.

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, grow to be referred to as the “Dresden of Africa” as town was completely levelled within the battle.

I spent my early life 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 lots of the many hundreds of people that handed by the camp, which ultimately closed in 2004, I used to be stripped of all information of my life earlier than the struggle with no start certificates or passport – relying solely on ephemeral and fleeting reminiscences.

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 residence.

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 infinite Martian expanse’

On a scorching 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 lovely previous railway station that’s 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, ingesting 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 navy 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 infinite 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 drugs and numerous numbers died of starvation, thirst and illness.

But the camp shortly grew to become like a city with a big market the place you possibly can purchase all method of issues and with locations to sit down and drink tea.

Often individuals assume refugee camps are solely locations stuffed with distress and desperation.

Yet as a baby I keep in mind I typically had numerous enjoyable with my buddies working round taking part in with rocks and screaming in giddy pleasure on the occasional UN aircraft that flew above us to ship much-needed help.

However, 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 captionJust a few farmers could be discovered on the positioning of the previous refugee camp

I felt considerably disenchanted in my reminiscences.

There had 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”

Then 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.

He now lives with his family in a “bull”, a small traditional house and they have cows, goats and farm what little they can.

He told me a few camp buildings were still standing, including what might have been a hospital that a woman called Sahra showed me around with her young granddaughter.

image copyrightKate Stanworth

image captionThis old camp building now serves as a shelter for goats

Painted in seemed to be the UN colours of blue and white, there was a stench of decay and goat dung as it was occupied by animals belonging to Sahra’s family, who had once lived in Wajale on the Somali-side of the border, but now farmed here.

I thought of all those who must have lost their loved ones inside this building.

Of course many of the younger people I came across, like the young cattle herder Jimale, did not remember the refugees at all.

image copyrightKate Stanworth

image captionNomads now wander over the vast expanse of the camp which was closed by the UN in 2004

I also met a group of Somali-speaking nomads following their camels in search of fresh grass and water, who offered me, a tired traveller from London, fresh and pungent camel milk.

As the sky tinted orange I decided to return to Hartisheik town before the sun set – leaving the camp for a second time, this time as a man, but a changed man slightly dazed and confused by the tricks of memory.

It brought to mind another memory – me aged about five finding a small tub of discarded Vicks ointment in the camp – which I naively rubbed all over my face.

Inevitability it ended up getting into my eyes and a fountain of tears rolled down my face as I ran dazed and confused across the camp in search of my mother.

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