Thursday, February 29, 2024
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Memories from Karamardha

By Osman Hassan

Karamardha, here I come!! I have waited a long time and come a long way to pay homage to a part of the Somali homeland that holds for me deep and dear emotions – the Somali Ogaden region and in particular its capital Jigjiga. Travelling from Harar by road on 20 February 2020 on my way to Jigjiga, I passed through Karamardha, the gateway to the city. This was a return I yearned for a lifetime and so I told my Oromo driver to stop the car. He looked understanding and pointed to the hillside.  Perhaps he thought I needed to disappear behind the bush to relieve myself. Little did he know what Karamardha meant for me?

Osman Hassan at Karamardha

I got out of the car and stood there for a sometime reminiscing of those indelible memories I hold from 43 years ago when I stood at the same spot with over one hundred journalists coming from around the world to report on what was the most spectacular victory scored by the mighty Somali National Army, from a nation barely a dozen years independent at the time, against the army of Ethiopia, a nation ten times more populous, and independent over a thousand years. The Somali- Ethiopian war over the Ogaden region was decided by the will of the liberator which triumphed over the resistance of the occupier.

To share those memories, we arrived in Jigjiga in late September 1977 soon after its capture and set off to tour its surrounding plains, finally ending at Karamardha pass as the climax of our trip. Wherever we looked on those plains, we could see the endless decimated wreckage of the armour of the routed Ethiopian army. But surprisingly, we also saw, in contrast, some camps intact, well-stocked with USA and Soviet arsenal. Rather than stay put and fight, in the face of the approaching deafening fire from the Somali artillery and rockets, panic and fear took their hold, enough to make them desert these assets and flee, many leaving their shoes behind in the process, a drag if you have to run for your life.

The Ethiopians are good runners and that God-given gift seems to have come handy for many on this occasion. Those who survived the Somali onslaught, took to their heels or in their tracks and passed through Karamaradha in a rush to reach safe territory towards Harar.

Among the countless reports on the war, that of Brisith John Snow, (now with Channel Four news) stands out in my book as one of the most memorable coverage. His concluding observations summed up the state of the Ogaden war after the capture of Jigjiga and at a time when Harar was within artillery range of the approaching Somali army. Short of direct internvention by the Soviet Union and their allies, he said, nothing else would otherwise stem the inexorable Somali advance or avert the consequential collapse of the Ethiopian empire that would follow their defeat.

And that is precisely what the Soviets did – intervening massively on the side of Ethiopian in a scale not seen since the Second World War and wresting the Ogaden region back for them and thereby saving the empire- at least for the time being. In the meantime, their own Soviet empire has come to disintegrate, its constituent parts becoming separate independent countries. All empires go that way and the same inevitable fate also awaits the Ethiopian empire. Its demise will come from internal strife among its competing irreconcilable parts, obviating the need for another Somali invasion to liberate the Ogaden region.

Manument at Karamadha – for the winner or loser?

President Farmajo with PM Abiy Ahmed

Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian Prime Minister, is habitually driven by narcissistic grandstanding to be the centre of attention at home and abroad. Now facing an election, and with his earlier popularity fast fading, he is apt to whip up chauvinistic public sentiments on certain issues to gain popularity. In so doing, he is a man of contradictions. Thus on the one hand he courts President Farmaajo to create a grand union of the countries of the Horn of Africa. On the other, Somalia, his main partner, is often at the short end of his stick. These actions are bound to be self-defeating and he is only himself to blame.

So it was not surprising that he would capture the headlines the other day, calling this time for the erection of a monument to commemorate what he considers their victory in Jigjiga in the 1977-78 Ogaden war. This is the height of double talk. A monument  of course would have been in order if the defending Ethiopian army at Jigjiga had actually defeated the Somali army and without the help of outsiders. Abiy Ahmed might fool those gullible or uninformed among his people but the world knows better and cannot be fooled. On the contrary, if a monument is to be erected, it should be for those who liberated the Ogaden region in a just cause against a coloniser.

In my recent trip, I had travelled extensively in Ethiopia, in particular the Amhara and Oromo regions and talked to numerous people. I have come to believe that different fates and prospects await Somalia and Ethiopia respectively. Some Somalis talk ad nauseam and with trepidation of little Somalia facing an Ethiopian nation of over 100 million people as of now. That is not how I see it. Ethiopian is an empire and a fragile one whose peoples are irreconcilable especially its dominant ones. Like all other empires, it is doomed to disintegrate and when that happens its disparate nationalities are bound to go their different ways as did the Soviet Union. When that happens, the Ogaden region would be free to join the motherland, this time without the Somali army.

What Somalia of the future would be facing are most likely to be independent weak countries like Oromia, Afar, Sidamo, etc- all to be dominated by Somalia if its homogeneous people are united and its immense potential resources are at its disposal. Like Saudi Arabia, countries, east and west, will be queuing to sell their wares, win contracts and receptive to its interests in particular Greater Somalia.  Somalia’s weakness is its disunity and its strength its unity. We should be more concerned about our disunity and less about a doomed Ethiopia.

Jigjiga and its Somali Identty Display

Having paid my homage to Karamardha, I proceeded to Jigjiga town. Needless to say, it has changed beyond recognition in size and population since our visit in September 1977. Yet, the town might have grown physically but its Somali soul has not, and remains as ever alive and vibrant. When secession, clan fiefdoms and the divisive 4.5 doctrine bedevil Somalia, and, worse former presidents are calling for clan power in Mogadishu, what is refreshing about Jigjiga in contrast is its immunity from those afflictions and its conspicuous pride in its Somali Identity, heritage and unity.

Sayid Mohamed’s monument in Jigjiga

These  facts hit you as you walk about in the town, or talk to its residents. The flag of the Somali Region proudly embraces the Somali national flag. It is also posted on many of those ubiquitous  local taxes (bakaaj) which throng the street of the town. Most notably, the pride of place is given to the symbol of Somali nationalism unity and resistance, Sayid Mohamed Hassan, the Dervish leader, whose monument dominates Jigjiga’s panorama.

President Mustafa Mohamed Omar, the current leader, clearly worried about this glaring “Somalisim, and nervously looking over his shoulders at Addis Ababa, has resorted to some delicate balancing acts. On one occasion, perhaps eager to establish his Ethiopian credentials with Addis Ababa, he exhorted the town’s university students to hail load and clear their loyalty to Ethiopan. He was met with a chorus of boos: “We are Somali first and formost” was their answer. It is a response shared by their people.

Much of the credit for what Jigjiga can boast of today, in terms of development and preserving its Somali identity, goes to its people and leaders, above all its former leader, Abdi Ilay, notwithstnding his human rights abuses. History will acknowledge his achievements which are now downplayed to be politically correct.

As I left, my only disappointment in Jigjiga was at its airport where I could not find a single Somali worker or speaker. I noticed the same phenomenon some years earlier at Wajir airport in North East Kenya. It seems those governments in Nairobi and Addis Ababa have much in common when it comes to their antipathies towards Somali visibilty (or freedom). President Mustafa Omar is a frequent traveller through the airport. I wonder how he can overlook this matter – or am I oversensetive!! ?

My Gesture

Osman Hassan in a disabled deserted Ethiopian tank, september, 1977

I conclude this memory of Karamardha with a photo of me ( see the photo) in a disabled deserted Ethiopian tank, almost half-a-century ago, and raising my hand triumphantly in the air, clearly unable to suppress my ectasy as I should as a reporter. It sums up the mood and the common gesture for victory among Somalis in Jigjiga (and indeed everywhre) in those giddy glorious days.

 Looking back, and considering the contrasting times we live in now, I consider myself fortunate to have lived, and covered as a journalist, Somalia’s finest times, having united people, effective government, patriotic leadership and the best army in black Africa. It could happen again hopefully in my lifetime. Karamardha is waiting.

Osman Hassan
email: osman.hassan2
Osman Hassan is a seasoned journalist and a former UN staff member. Mr Hassan is also a regular contributor to WardheerNews.

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