I have more than 200 black and white photographs that go back half a century. Some of these photos are of deceased acquaintances and friends during my adolescence in the Ethiopian cities of Yirga Alem, Awasa, and Dila. Sadly, I don’t know the whereabouts of most of these people or of their children so that I can hand over these photographs and the memories they contain.
I am deeply indebted to my late parents and brother for holding onto these photographs and mailing them to me years ago. I am grateful for their care in keeping these photos, as they have little sentiment to them, and could have otherwise easily ended up in the trash. So far I have been able to return some of these photos to a few friends and relatives. The photographs still in my possession tell stories of relatives and their children, some of whom are now parents and some of whom have since passed away. It is my guess that my former friends and acquaintances in these photos still live in Ethiopia; the others in the diaspora.
At times I take a nostalgic trip down memory lane looking at these old photos that take me back to a past filled with idealistic love, altruism and community. It always amazes me how some pictures can unlock powerful memories and bring about a great deal of emotions and feelings.
The drought in the Borena, Guji, Amaro, Burji, Dirashe, Konso, South Omo and
Somali regions has killed millions of livestock that the inhabitants depend on for food and income. Although the worsening drought has been regarded by many local and international humanitarian organizations including OCHA and United Nations as the worst drought in forty years, it is being willfully ignored by the Ethiopian government who refuse to respond to this humanitarian crisis.
It is heartbreaking to see photos of dying animals and their owners lying side by side, helplessly watching each other in pain amid their eventual demise. The farmers who live adjacent to the pastoralists producing a meager amount of crops are also affected by the drought, further endangering an already precarious and depleted livelihood. Most have lost their dear possessions with it; they have also lost their hope as life no longer has any meaning to them.
As someone who grew up in a family who made their living raising cattle, I can share the extreme pain felt by the pastoralists in response to the death of their cattle. When we raised our cattle, we identified and related to them by name and other attributes. Of the hundereds, we assigned names for each breed, some based on their size, and others for their abundant milk production. Our prefered breeds were never sold or slaughtered but died a natural death after years of production and reproduction. For the people of Borena, their livelihood is one of great pride and culture intertwined together.
Instead of addressing the worst drought in 40 years, the regime has wasted valuable time with trivial matters, such as forcing elementary and high school students to sing the national anthem of Oromia and salute its flag against the will of the children and their parents; a clear violation of their human rights. Crackdowns against anyone who appears opposed to this shameful exercise and imposition continues unhidered. The failed regime renames elementary and high schools in Addis Ababa after Oromo political and liberation front leaders rather than provide practical support to those affected by the drought.The drought has been followed by floods in various regions, further worsening this crisis. While pastoralists cope with the whims of mother nature, the failed system is busy concocting means to suppress public outcry. The government is also busy demolishing residential homes belonging to poor city dwellers in Addis Ababa and the surrounding area. Desecrating houses of worship and killing its adherents has become the new normal in Addis Ababa and elsewhere in the past few years. City dwellers are confronted daily with inadequate food and water along with intermittent electrical supply. Meanwhile, the government, which has a poor record of providing basic services to its citizens, is conceiving unattainable projects in order to distract citizens, a longstanding gimick of theirs.
Using meager resources obtained from donor countries to build not well thought out mega projects is immoral, shameful and rubbish. Building without consideration for the environment, basic building design, and without the consultation of potentially affected communities is one example of extreme arrogance; only time will tell whether it’s a success or failure.The only guarantee is that these ill conceived projects will help to line up the pockets of the few connected to the system.
The proposed Sheger City plan is displacing and will continue to displace thousands from their modest homes. In addition to building this mega city, the government has earmarked billions of dollars to build multiple Oromo palaces as if these buildings will save Oromos and the more than 20 million people currently in starvation who depend on international humanitarian aid. Instead, it would have been prudent to use this aid to rehabilitate thousands of disabled civilians, orphans, soldiers, and decimated health facilities in addition to the millions of displaced starving nursing mothers, children and elders who are forced to reside in inadequate shelters all over the country due to the failed system of governance.
The fickle leader and his associates with no compunction for the millions who suffer from food insecuity and disease, continue with their reckless acts on multiple fronts. For example, making a veiled threat against a neighboring state in a recent public address without realizing the dire consequences for the nation.
The regime that failed to learn a lesson from the previous civil war in Tigray, has been waging war in the Amhara region for over a month. Fighting in the Amhara region has killed hundreds of monks, nuns, women and children who had been sheltering in monasteries. The top military leaders-who happen to be Oromo-who are responsible for these dispicable act against unarmed civilians have followed in the footsteps of those who came before them; not engaging an army but instead, unarmed civilians. Ironically, Fascist Italy massacred hundreds of monks at Debre Libanos monastery on May 20 1937, 86 years ago. What a concidence, skin color will not hide fascistic traits. The war in Amhara region is billed as an operation to ensure law and order, yet the incarceration of Amhara journalists, social activists, intellectuals and businessmen en masse took place before this war.
Every photo has a meaning and story to tell. Among all the photos in my possession, one stands out in light of the current political atmosphere and disastrous drought in Ethiopia and the greater Horn of Africa. It is a photo of a man named Mr. Waqo Gutu, an Ethiopian rebel leader who operated in Southern Ethiopia, close to the border of Somalia during the late 1960s against the establishment. Gutu and other ethnic rebel groups obtained support from the Somali government led by Mr. Said Bare. Mr. Bare bestowed the title of a general on Gutu. He was lionized and referred to by his sympathizers and followers as “Waqo Gutu lenchan deloo”. “Lenchan deloo” roughly means lion of the jungle, more appropriately fitting than the title of general.
In 1970, I traveled with two of my friends from Ras Desta high school, Hasheim and Zegeye from Negele Borena to the border town of Dolo Odo; this was our idea of a vacation. I was in Negele Borena to visit my dear friend and other friends from high school. Our mode of transport was the top of a truck that transported lumber which was to be shipped to Somalia. Sitting on the top of the truck called for ducking thorny branches as the truck weaved from the main road to dilapidated stretches of the road, tolerating extreme sun exposure while simultaneously enjoying the warm wind blowing in our faces. We watched from a distance as ostriches and giraffes moved along in their own journeys. It was my first time seeing these majestic animals.
The border towns of Dolo Odo and Dolo Gedo are both small villages. The Dolo outpost on the Ethiopian side of the Ethiopia-Somalia border doesn’t have shops or dining places. Daily, we crossed the Dawa river by barge (called “donte” by the locals) into Dolo Gedo for food. We relied on Zegeye, who was fluent in the Somali language, to communicate with the locals.While in the area, we visited Mandera, a thriving Kenyan border town. This town has historical significance for Kenyans: freedom fighters against colonial Britain were kept in the military prison here.
Dolo is a hallowed ground where thousands of Ethiopian patriots died fighting the second Italian invasion. The Dolo campaign was led by Ras Desta Damtew who, along with thousands of Ethiopian patriots, marched south. Fascist Italy employed mustard gas against Ethiopian patriots and bombarded foreign Red Cross workers. Many have talked and written about this wretched and unforgiving place for anyone who is not used to the unique and harsh terrain and climate.
Dolo has a special place in my heart. My father, Ato Sintayehu Solomon, his half brother Tedela Emdere, son of Grazmach Emdere, his god son Ato Negash Asfaw, son of Kegn Azmach Asfaw, my grandfather Memere Geberemariam Zena, his compatriots, Ato Dewa Menesa, aka Geberehana, Ato Germamo Zena were among the thousands who marched south to resist Italian second invasion. Memere Gebremariam Zena, my maternal grandfather, carried the arc of Saint George, the Ethiopian patron Saint to the front, trekking close to 600 km barefoot. Ato Dewa Menesa and Ato Germamo Zena, were among the thousands of Ethiopians who were martyred here in Dolo at the hands of Italian air raids. Ato Tedela Emdere was martyred at the Hageremariam front after circling back from the Dolo campaign.
After a weeklong trip, it was time to go back to Negele Borena. Negele to Dolo is approximately 350 km. Right before our departure we were approached by three individuals who told us their stories as followers of Waqo Gutu and asked us if we could give them a ride to Negele Borena. The three looked tired and weak; they didn’t have anything on them- no food, no money, no gun, not even a knife. They claimed they had abandoned their leader Waqo Gutu but one wonders rather, if they were abandoned by him after he made a peace agreement with the famous Ethiopian General Jagama Kello.
As informed highschool students of the time, we all knew names of the rebel leaders both inside Africa and outside of it. For example, Ho Chi Min, Che Guevera, Amílcar Cabral, Harry Belafonte. We even gave Belafonte a nickname: Heroye Belay Fantaye, an Ethiopian version of his name. We were blindly sympathetic to their cause, thinking anyone who opposed the status quo in a country was a champion for progressive causes; and that those in Africa and Asia were fighting a just war of liberation from European colonizers, and for equality, justice and brotherhood. To us, there was no border, unlike the present day tribalistic and village mentality that consumes Ethiopia.
On our two day trip back to Negele Borena, we shared all of what we had with the three rebels. The town was a garrison for the 4th Brigade of the Ethiopian army. The first mutiny of the Ethiopian army started here that eventually led to the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie, and ushered in the military regime in Ethiopia. To play it safe, we dropped off the three former rebels 3-4 kilometers from the city’s perimeter. They were grateful for our help and cooperation. Before departing, they gave us a blessing and a big thank you, their only possession: a black and white passport size photo of their leader, Waqo Gutu as a show of gratitude. We happily accepted the gift and were delighted that they trusted us. Trust, unlike the present time, was granted irrespective of your ethnic affiliation and was shaped more by the bond of brotherhood.
Now, I believe it is time to return this photogtaph to its rightful owners or to someone who is working to help the drought and flood stricken folks in Borena and Somali Region.This photograph can be put up for auction to raise money to support the drought victims. Helping the drought and now flood affected folks in Borena region is urgent. Maybe the three whom we met or their descendants will benefit from this good deed.
For politicians awash with new fortune, busy creating foundations and erecting statues for their asumed heroes, it is time to secure this photo and become part of the historical narative you want to create. It is an opportunity to benefit the drought stricken former rebels’ children and their families. This is my contribution to bring attention to the drought stricken people across the region.
Taddesse Sintayehu aka Dogo Aba Bora