Thursday, September 15

Unhealing Wounds

The Unhealing Wound is the website of a documentary that tells of a forgotten Ethiopian story.
The Unhealing Wound is an extraordinary story of Ethiopians who have been stranded in Cuba for the past twenty-three years as a result of the socialist love-affair[e] between Cuba and Ethiopia.

Their story traces back to the 1977 Ethiopia-Somalia war during which the Ethiopian communist leader Lt. Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam received billions of dollars worth of aid and arms from the Soviet block to fight against the invading Somalia.

Cuba on its part sent thousands of its young citizens to fight and die alongside their Ethiopian comrades in the conflict. Because of this relationship, Cuba offered to take and educate the orphaned children of fallen Ethiopian soldiers. Over 4,000 children ranging from the ages of six to thirteen were sent to a small island located on the southwest corner of Cuba called Isla de la Juventud.

In a foreign land without family or Ethiopian government support, these children now in adulthood have managed to endure years of hardship and loneliness. This film is a documentation of their lost childhood as they reflect on the past 20 years on life in Cuba.
The production company, Past Forward Films has a very accomplished group of productive and artistic talent. A photogallery of some of the film's subjects begins here.


At one point in 1977-1978 Ethiopia was fighting two of the largest wars on planet earth - all within its own borders. One against invading Somalis on the Eastern Front and the second against Eritrean rebels on the Northern Front.

From 1977 through to the late 1980s Cuba had at least 15,000 soldiers, airman, advisors, technicians and intelligence agents in Ethiopia at any given time. They left when the Soviet Empire collapsed and there was no one left to pay their bills any longer.

Some Ethiopians have fond memories of the Cuban presence in terms of the individual soldiers but the geopolitics of it all is more in dispute. Despite their association with the Mengistu regime, most lower rank Cubans were seen as innocents caught up in a foreign war not of their making.

We have met more than one youth of the late 1970s or early 1980s who assumed 'Guantanamera', that quintessentially Cuban song, was an Ethiopian song sung in Spanish.

The Cubans were there as Soviet mercenaries. Sending them was a way to avoid a direct provocation that Soviet forces would have meant to the West and also served the general fiction of a third world revolutionary crusade that played well in progressive circles.

..................................... provides a very complete summary of the Ethiopia - Somalia Ogaden War. Losses are not delineated in terms of dead or wounded but the Ethiopian number given is 15,000 and the Cuban one is 2,000. Combined losses for Somalis and Somali sponsored rebels (really the same thing) is 20,000.

Normally there is an assumed 3:1 ratio of wounded to dead in combat. Given the horrific medical care Ethiopians could have expected under Mengistu or the Somalis under Siad that number may have been more like 2:1. However, a slightly superior medical infrastructure inherited from Haile Selassie's government and a number of Cuban doctors probably improved the odds for Ethiopian wounded a bit more.

Thus we don't know if 15,000 casualties means about 5,000 dead and 10,000 wounded or 15,000 dead and up to 45,000 wounded. Dictatorships generally don't care as we saw in the recent Ethiopian - Eritrean war whose combined casualty figures are estimated to run up to between 80,000 and 100,000 by some authorities.

Besides a relatively small elite who are given technical and other special training such as armor, intelligence, communications, artillery or logistics, many third world armies have a bleak ‘unit cost’ approach to soldiers and warfare.

It is based on how much it costs to outfit one soldier with the basics such as an AK-47 and uniform while giving him basic training, token pay, and feeding him until battle. That figure is then multiplied by how many soldiers will be needed. Not much thought (if any) is given to the wounded or adequate pensions.

Survivors go back in line waiting for battle again while they pray for early victory and / or peace. Thus, there is a definite price tags of say $10 million (probably less) for a division's worth of infantry (about 10,000 men) - dead or alive.


Somali losses in the 1970s and Eritrean losses at the turn of this century should also be noted in the context of populations about ten times smaller than those of Ethiopia. One must wonder what the Somali government was possibly thinking of achieving in the short term and keeping in the long term.

The assessment of the US Military Aid Mission to Ethiopia in the 60s and the early 70s was that Somalia had enough superiority in armored forces and artillery to push Ethiopia's 3rd Division (all alone in the vastness of Harar and the Ogaden with a few 1940s era tanks) back to the gates of Harar city proper and Jijiga.

At that point, drawing on the gold reserves of the state (remember that then Ethiopia used foreign aid for specific development projects but was self supporting otherwise), extant patriotism of many centuries standing and further long centuries of military competence - it was expected that "those Ethiopians will come tearing down from the highlands and not stop until they reached the Indian Ocean."

This was just expected to happen with or without American involvement. In fact, from the point of view of American foreign policy, the problem was not a possible Ethiopian defeat but the geopolitical consequences of an overwhelming Ethiopian victory. Soviet involvement to defend their Somali client state and the Soviet military bases there would then threaten a US-Soviet confrontation.


The Somali national mission from independence on was one of conqest of its neighbors - all of Djibouti, North-Eastern Kenya and about a third of Eastern Ethiopia - to take all lands where Somali was spoken or were Somalis ever transited as nomads. That mission, doomed to failure, and the Scientific Socialist dictatorship of Siad Bare eventually led to the destruction of Somalia proper in civil war and the fragmenting of Somali proper into the 'nations, nationalities and peoples' of infinitely smaller warring units.

Ethiopia was relatively weak at the time because the Dergue was busy traumatizing its own society while politicizing and purging the military along Communist lines - all to assure its own power. Somalia, since its independence some fifteen years before had been planning to invade, made up detailed plans with intense Soviet involvement and took the opportunity Mengistu gave them.

Remember, the military forces of military dictatorships are always less capable than their civilian counteparts because their mission in the former is politics and in the latter military readiness.

The entire Somali military machine was better equipped than Ethiopia's (although not as well trained) and the object of a long decade's lavish supply and support from the Soviet Union. When Ethiopia embraced Revolutionary Democracy (oh sorry, Scientific Socialism) under the Dergue, the very same Soviets just flew right next door and set up shop planning to kill Somalis instead of Ethiopians.

Ethiopia was considered a far richer prize in the grand designs of the Soviet Empire. All of the Soviets and the Cubans could have easily been aiding Somalia and fighting Ethiopians if it wasn't for a few accidents of geopolitics.


One condition for Cuban and South Yemeni aid seems to have been that they would not take direct action against EPLF rebels and one must presume by association TPLF rebels as well. This was probably because the Eritrean cause had established its revolutionary credentials on the progressive scene long before then.

Not that such credentials mattered as a moral issue, but they did have some importance to Soviet relations with its Arab client states who were great supporters of the ELF and EPLF from the beginning. In addition much of the Soviet Bloc already had long standing relations with the Eritrean rebel movement that they did not sacrifice the way they did their relations with Somalia in favor of Ethiopia.

However, that did not stop the Cubans from joining the Soviets in training and equipping every Ethiopian unit that fought on that northern front. It all served Soviet policy in another way. They knew Ethiopia had become an ally because of its weakness so they encouraged every manner of dependence.

They knew very well that in peacetime they had nothing to offer even the Dergue beyond economic schemes that had already been failing in the USSR since 1917. Indeed, by the 1970s and 1980s the Soviets themselves were already dependent on Western largesse in the form of billions in loans to keep their economy, society and war machine somewhere near functional.

An endless war in northern Ethiopia served Moscow's purposes perfectly in this regard. For example, from Belgians and French in the 1930s through to Swedes, British, Americans, Israelis and even Indians in later decades - all had been involved with the Ethiopian military with particular care paid to comprehensive training. Ethiopians were expected to learn to use and repair everything from jet and tank engines onto radars and howitzers.

The Soviets, however, had major components flown back to depots in the USSR as a matter of routine for maintenance so Ethiopians could not function without constant outside involvement. The Cubans, who were there largely to pay back Moscow for its tens of billions of dollars of aid dating from Communisim's first failed economic introduction to Cuba, played along with their bosses and paymasters.


While we strenously avoid conspiracy theories, one story is revealing in terms of what it shows of the resentment and mistrust felt between the Ethiopian forces and their Soviet / Cuban allies. Sometime in the 1980s (after Operation Red Star) an exposed position, perhaps a bulge in the Army line in Ertitrea near the Sudanese border, was considered no longer worth keeping. So the local commander suggested a tactical retreat to more defensible positions.

Mengistu, safe in the Gibee while chain-smoking Winstons and managing the destruction of yet more lives, gave his characteristic 'fight to the death' order. Soviet advisers then insisted that resupply of the hill in question include a battery of anti-aircraft guns - even though the EPLF obviously had no air force. So when the hill was lost the EPLF came into posession of an intact means of making life difficult for Ethiopia's greatest military asset, its air force.

Once again, what the above story reveals, true or not, is as much a penchant for conspiracy theories to explain loss as it does a profound mistrust, nearing actual hostility betweeen erstwhile fraternal socialist comrades. In the 1970s Dergue members had actually been executed by Mengistu for having world views to suited to Ethiopian interests as opposed to an internationalist perspective that took into account Soviet needs.


The Somalis later claimed that Washington had 'winked' at their plans to invade Ethiopia but especially during the Carter Administration this is very hard to credit. Until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Carter was simply not playing such realpolitik games and was if anything concerned with the "inordinate fear of Communism" that guided American foreign policy since World War II on.

Along with the self proclaimed socialism of the Dergue, it was Carter's human rights policies that ruined relations becasue being a thug, Mengistu knew very well that he could never meet any standard of treating Ethiopians decently. So he needed a source of military supply that did not care who or how many got 'red terror'-ed or napalmed. So he blustered and insulted and made long speeches and got on the phone to Moscow.

Later the Saudis paid for some American arms shipments to Somalia after the end of the war but with the American caveat that they not be used across the border. By then the Somali internal crisis was well along and the more 'labor and skill intensive' US weapons simply rusted in fields and parking lots along with those leftover from the USSR and Egypt.

In 1982 Ethiopians invaded Somalia to attack staging bases for rebels who with necessary Somali government support were acting up again back across the border. This is a recurring pattern - the last foray was in 1996-97 (to our knowledge). The ability to know about and intervene (through surrogates or directly) in Somali affairs is probably the biggest reason for the American embrace of Ethiopia's current dictatorship.

Indeed, some argue that this issue is regularly manipulated by the Ethiopian government for its advantage by the creation of incidents and the exageration of Somali radicalism to draw favorable Western attention and comparison.

By the late 1980s both Mengistu and Siad were so deeply embroiled in wars of anhilation with their own people that they signed a peace treaty. Thus Ethiopia's Ogaden army could be sent to Eritrea and Tigray while the Somali army could act against Somali civilians, particularly in the north, in earnest without worrying about an external threat.


Another untold story of that war is what happened to the Cuban veterans of Angola and Ethiopia when they went back home. The ones who did the fighting and the dying were disproportionately from Revolutionary Cuba's totally disenfranchised Black majority.

There was a cruel joke (as all such ugly truths are) at the time among potential Black Cuban draftees: 'the blacker you are in Havana, the redder you will be back in Africa.' The red presumably being the blood staining one's uniform and of course an allusion to the red of the Cuban communist revolution.


Yet another story of the shared experience is the orphans left behind in places like Harar and Addis whose Cuban fathers were rotated back home. That kind of experience is a constant of every war and its aftermath everywhere throughout history.

We have little doubt that while they shared the hardships of life with their fellow Ethiopians that they were far more integrated into society and less lonely than their fellow Ethiopians sent to the Isle of Youth in Cuba.


Ethiopian Review has a fascinating archive of formerly secret Eastern Bloc Documents on the late 1970s crisis in the Horn of Africa from the Soviet Bloc perspective.


Eventually in our sporadic history of the Ethiopian Air Force we will write about the multi-national air war in the Horn of Africa in the late 1970s.

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