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Remembering Jijiga

On this momentous occasion when we observe the strength and inspiration of the peaceful transition of power in a democracy with the inauguration of Barack Obama for his second term as President, and we celebrate the life’s work of civil rights activist Martin Luther King, it is only fitting to share another guest post from Tracey Buckenmeyer.

All three have dedicated their lives to making a difference, knowing that while progress is achieved, sometimes it takes generations to see the promise fulfilled.

Tracey has made a career of helping refugees and displaced persons, working for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She’s worked in many different countries, and currently is posted to Ethiopia. Her previous guest posts were Tough Neighborhood and Geographical Gingerbread Man.

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Kinda got an idea of what a war veteran feels like when he fondly reminisces years later about his war experiences. People look aghast at how anyone can wax nostalgic over a war but what he’s really remembering is his youth, the rush of strange experiences and things and places new and exotic.

Going back to Jijiga last month, 18 years later almost to the day, was like that.

Jijiga, a small village in eastern  Ethiopia was my first posting with UNHCR, at the time (1991) ground zero for nearly a million Somali refugees. I’m chasing memories, lots of good times, good experiences…along with some bad ones…though I’m not quite sure what I was looking for now.

It’s not here anymore, definitely not in a physical sense; if someone plopped me in the middle of Jijiga but didn’t tell me where I was, I would never know it was Jijiga. It’s changed entirely, I can’t identify a single landmark: UNHCR’s residence and office are still in the same place but so transformed they seem alien. The one-camel town I knew has exploded into a bona fide city.

Its only raison d’etre two decades ago was to be home for dozens of aid agencies; now it’s the capital of Somali Region. Ethiopia adopted what is called ethnic federalism, dividing up the country based on its ethnic makeup, and Jijiga is now the regional capital.

Photos of Jijiga, Ethiopia 1991 & 2012 on Adventures in Expat Land

Jijiga, 1991 and 2012

The dirt road leading into and out of town has been replaced by a four-lane boulevard complete with street lights.

Also missing are the people.

Many have moved on, to other jobs, other regions, especially any non-Somali staff as the newly created ethnic state exercised its new autonomy by a purge of all non-Somalis.

A few of the old staff are now working at the Addis office but sadly, a surprising number have passed – many of whom were my age.

Even the refugees are different. Twenty years ago, the camps hosted Somali refugees from northwest Somalia. With that part of Somalia now stable and more or less a self-declared state, those refugees have returned home only to be replaced by the refugees from the restive and destructive southern area of Mogadishu, a fraction of what was hosted before (some 40,000 people now) since most have gone to camps in southern Ethiopia.

The few staff who actually stayed in Jijiga are older and grayer, not unlike myself. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the wind, but with far less dust to blow around since it’s all been paved over.

So, no landmarks, no people. What is it that I am looking for?

I finally realize it’s my youth, as well as the youth of UNHCR since in the early ‘90s it was just starting to transition into the major aid agency that it’s known for today. I stared around the UNHCR residence compound trying to imagine, remember those crazy days, running to and from work, to bircha sessions (chat chewing rituals) and coffee ceremonies to Cozy’s bar where all the aid workers congregated.

The images faded as soon as I conjured them up. It’s all gone, including my naivete, replaced by a certain jaded feeling that can only come with layers of crazy experiences of refugee operations laid upon one another in the two decades since.

I’ve struggled to describe what I feel. It’s not nostalgia since I thought that was supposed to feel warm and tingly, I don’t feel that good about this. I feel like I’m walking amongst ghosts and it’s best to leave them be.

The changes are all good for Jijiga, neglected under Emperor Haile Selassie and the murderous Dergue; it’s coming into its own and that’s a very good thing. But the Jijiga I know is long gone.

Sadly, the refugees are not, the focus merely redirected to the south where the new, young aid workers are probably getting their version of the experiences I had so long ago.

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