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The War Nerd / November 17, 2008
By Gary Brecher

Today I’ll finally keep my promise and tell you about my favorite book on the Horn of Africa. Remember a couple columns back, I promised to tell you about a great book on the Ethiopian/Somali wars? Of course I promised to post my book report “tomorrow,” and it’s weeks later. Hey, “tomorrow” is a flexible concept, like “manana.”

Besides, there was this election thing…and not to get distracted all over again, but I got just one thing to say about that election: my fellow Americans, have you-all got something against soldiers? I swear, you really do. It’s not even a Left vs. Right thing, because last time it was Kerry, a total pinko but at least he served in Nam, vs. Dubya, a guy who went AWOL from the Alabama National Guard. And it was the guy who put the “W” in AWOL who ended up winning. 2008 rolls around and we’ve got McCain who spent five years in a North Vietnamese prison vs. Obama who, I don’t know, might’ve been in Indonesian cub scouts, probably didn’t make Webelos though…and Obama wins. What, you don’t like war heroes? Cause that’s how it’s starting to look.

Well, it’s none of my business. I just live here. So I’m back on the job, talking about parts of the world where war still gets a little respect. Yeah, the Horn of Africa. I’ve written about the Horn lots of times, but one thing I’ve noticed myself is that when you describe the pure warrior tribes there, it’s hard to believe. It’s what office people call “OTT.” When office jerks use that word, or abbreviation or whatever, it means “too serious for me.” And that’s how the people of the Horn are: too serious to believe.

That’s where this book comes in: to understand how these people got so serious you need to study more than their wars. You need to hear how they live, how they grow up. What it’s actually like to have grown up in Ethiopia when the Emperor’s regime was deposed, when the Marxist officer corps took over and the country dissolved into a half dozen wars going all at once.

And this book will take you to that world. It’s called In the Hyena’s Belly: A Memoir of My Ethiopian Boyhood by Nega Mezlekia, who grew up in a mixed Amharic/Somali part of Ethiopia just in time to fight in the Ethiopian vs. Somali war in the Ogaden Desert. Mezlekia is a good storyteller, like most Africans. The rougher the life, the better the stories, which puts Africans right at the top. But most of the stories you hear from Africans come from the better-known parts of the continent, like Nigeria or Kenya or S’thfr’ca, as the locals call Mandelaland (formerly Apartheidburg). I’ve read memoirs from all those places, but never anything by a boy growing up in an isolated town at the edge of the Ethiopian empire just as it was falling apart. It’s an amazing story, weirder than any other African life story I’ve ever read.

Nega is an Amhara boy, meaning he’s from the dominant tribe, the “Ethiopians” of Ethiopia. Like I said in that other column, the Amhara are a highland tribe, who expanded outward from their plateau into the jungle south and the Somali deserts to the east. And keep in mind, he’s not some street kid; all the violence his parents used on him was not just normal but upmarket stuff, like he says himself:

“As a child of the Amhara community, I was brought up according to time-honored aristocratic moral codes.” And what wacko codes they are!

Being an African, Nega tells his childhood stories real cheerfully, but they’re way creepier and weirder than you’d expect. That’s why these stories are worth reading: to understand bush wars you need to understand that violence doesn’t “come to” these places like the bleedingheart reporters say. Violence is a daily fact for everyone, from toddler-hood on up. The way Nega tells it, growing up Amhara means being thrown into a horrible stew of weird Christian superstitions and ultra-violence from the moment you’re born. If you want to make warriors, the child-rearing theories they work with in the Horn are perfect. Oprah might not approve, though, because this is definitely not “positive-reinforcement stuff.”

Every part of Africa has some weird magic goin’ on, but the Amhara diagnoses in this book take the juju cake. When Nega’s uppity sister Almaz beats up a local drunk for abusing his wife, a friend of hers, the medicine men reach total consensus on the medical basis for the problem: “Your daughter has crossed the path of the devil at the garbage dump during the high sun.” You can’t argue with science.

But diagnosis is small-time stuff. It’s in the cures that the Amhara genius for mixing insane superstition and horrible pain really comes into its own. For example, say you’re a worried parent and your lively little son has done something naughty. Little Nega gets mad at his teacher and says he’ll burn down the teacher’s barn. Of course he didn’t mean it, but you have to teach the brat a little manners, right? So instead of just beating the crap out of him, which is what Nega’s teacher, an insane blind monk, does when anybody forgets his lessons, Nega’s mom and dad decide to invest in their child’s future in a way that’s pure Amhara craziness: they buy a goat, hire a couple of off-duty soldiers to kill and skin it—carefully saving up all the bile and piss and shit from the goat’s guts. Then the soldiers pour all those nice smelly juices from the goats’ bowels into the skin. Then they grab little Nega, and stuff him inside the skin, and sew the skin shut, with Nega marinating inside the raw fresh goat skin along with all that shit and piss and bile. I’ll let Nega himself take it from there:

“I was too shocked to put up much of a fight. Once inside…I tried to keep myself from suffocating by poking my head up for air. But the soldiers pushed me down, adding water to the unsightly mix until I was completely drowned….Millenia passed and I was still inside that goat skin.”

Nega thinks this is such a great story that he does a lot of comedy riffs on it, talking about all the hallucinations he had while he was sewn into the goat skin. It’s light comedy to him. That’s how you toughen up a warrior of the Horn.

Every time Nega describes some straight-outta-Hell torture or murder ritual, he reminds you that it’s one of those “time-honored traditions.” For instance, guess how a young fella from the Adal tribe has to prove he’s a good marriage prospect, a real Bachelor #1. He doesn’t have to buy a Boxster or flash his pecs. He just has to kill a man from another tribe, any other tribe, and come home with the dude’s penis on a stick. Seriously. The bigger the penis, the better the eager little date-bait’s prospects. And those Adal girls are real sticklers, apparently:

“Not every penis is the right candidate. The victim has to be an adult from a different tribe, and the penis has to be of a convincing size. In cases where the penis could be mistaken for that of a boy, the bridegroom must skin the part of the pelvis attached to the pelvis….” What Nega is getting at here is what Ali G. said kinda more concisely about da age of consent: “If there’s grass on the pitch, let’s play.” Except it’s kind of for all the marbles when the Adal play. One game is your career, like those Aztec ball-players who ended up served on corn tortillas if they lost.

You grow up in a place like that and you’re ready for war. But not for Canada. So at the end of the book when Nega talks about what happened when he finally immigrated to Canada, he had some adjusting to do. My favorite example of Canuck culture-shock comes when he reads a a newspaper clipping about a guy getting jail for torturing his cat. He’s not falling for that! He actually cuts out the story to show his friends he gets the joke. Jail? For a little good clean cat-torture! Very funny! He describes his shock when his killjoy Canuck friends told him it wasn’t a joke at all, and was in fact a very serious crime in the Canadian Criminal Code. Nega tries to be a good animal-rights greenie in his new squeamish homeland but it’s not easy–not when you’ve been raised Amhara-style.

You have to remember, we’re not talking child abuse, we’re talking “a time-honored aristocratic moral code.” Nega’s parents are upstanding Amhara settlers in the town of Jijiga out there in the Somali Desert and they see themselves as upholding Amhara standards in the boonies. So when little Nega is disobedient again, they call in the same two soldiers, who always seem to be hanging around hoping to pick up some change helping torture Junior. This time the soldiers hold the boy down while Mom, who’s already cleared all the furniture from the room, proceeds to give him a little of that ol’ tough love in the form of suffocating the little tyke:

“She sprinkled the herbs and powders on the blazing charcoal, waited a few moments, until the smoke was very dense, and then gave the soldiers the cue to throw the blanket over both the burner and my head. Enclosed in a dome, surrounded by flame and smoke, I felt that I was in Hell. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t see.”

Naturally he goes insane again—all these disciplinary methods seem to bring on hallucinations caused by extreme pain—and imagines himself walking through flame on the floor of Hell for “generations” before he walks back into the normal world.

This is how you make soldiers. Sorry if that sounds mean, but I’m pretty sure it’s true. I’ve read about German methods of disciplining kids pre-1945, and they’re pretty grim, serious beatings handed out for just about anything. Not now, of course, but pre-Stalingrad they toughened those kids up on a daily basis.
I’ve seen it myself. Not me; I wasn’t hit much at all. Some relatives on my mother’s side say that’s what went wrong with me, I’ve heard, and maybe they’re right. But I grew up with a lot of kids who started out nice and soft and got toughened up because they were just plain beaten half to death every day. Once it was at my friend Calvin’s birthday party. His dad was this mean, seldom-seen Portugese asshole who happened to be home, unfortunately for everybody, and drinking. He didn’t like the noise we were making and chased Calvin all through the house while the rest of us pretended not to see anything, cornered him in the garage and beat the shit out of him with that belt. Happy tenth birthday. I thought the party was over but Calvin’s mom laughed it off and told me to sit down because we were going to have ice cream. And Calvin came back in sniffling—I was amazed he was still alive—and ate with us. It was just another night at that house, and later I found out that was SOP when Dad was ashore.

The point is Calvin grew up to be the toughest kid around, even though he was only about five-seven. Tried to teach me to fight a few times, but he believed in the full-contact approach, whereas me, as I’m happy to admit, I was always more theory than practice. Then there was my friend Brian, very smart kid, dad was a mechanic at JiffyLube, kept his arm limber by beating the shit out of his kid after work. Mom helped too. I used to wait out in the yard down by the creek listening to the thuds and the screaming. Brian got tough too, prison-tough, probably a shot-caller at Folsom by now. Which is too bad because he had the highest scores of anybody in those IQ tests they gave people at age seven. We both got in the MGM program but Brian was the school star. Smartest guy never to graduate from high school.

When you add a little trickle-down commie ideology to an upbringing like Nega’s, you get pure weapons-grade raw material for an African war. And that’s what happens when Nega goes to school—setting up schools is always a mistake for Shahs, emperors and such, brings them nothing but trouble—and finds out that one of his friends says calmly, “My father is a serf.” It’s the first time Nega learns what life is really like up in the Amhara highlands, where the “time-honored aristocratic code” means keeping families of defeated non-Amhara tribes like the Omoro in time-honored serfdom.

The most dangerous element in any third-world dictatorships are elite high-school kids and army officers. The first to revolt in Ethiopia in the 1970s were the students, and Nega was one of the first to go. He does something so brave and stupid I can’t believe he survived it: he joins the Somali rebel army in the Ogaden desert, despite the fact that he’s one of the hated Amhara occupiers.

He ends up with the usual reward of middle-class lefties from the wrong tribe, if they’re lucky: fleeing from his life from his comrades. This is one of the big lessons of the 20th century, one that really bummed out (or killed) a whoooooole lotta commies: blood is way thicker than ideology. Bad news for the Amhara in the ranks: “The [Somali] rebels had become less and less tolerant of non-Somalis…the other fighters were supplied with the newly-acquired AK-47s [but] we were only permitted to carry WW II-era rifles.”  Nega has two career prospects: “We would either be killed by the Ethiopian Army…or be disposed of by the Somali rebels themselves…Death was inevitable and dishonorable, either way.”

He runs back to the lovin’ arms of his Amhara brethren. You can guess what happens next. Yup, they set about trying to kill him in a more urban commie-style, because by this time the Derg, the secretive officers’ clique that deposed and killed the emperor, has turned on itself and two nearly-identical socialist Amhara parties are at each others’ throats. Nega makes it to an elite school in the capital, Addis Ababa, but that turns out to be a dangerous place to be. A quick tip if you ever find yourself in a real revolution: aim low. Be a toilet cleaner or a cafeteria worker. They don’t get massacred quite as much. Never, ever go to an elite high school in the capital city. Nega eventually has to sleep in alleys because if he goes back to his dorm, da regime is gonna come for him. He describes what happens when those goons catch up with a comrade:
“One day I saw a young mathematics teacher being followed by three cadres in a Toyota Land Cruiser…They told him to…freeze in his tracks. The young man didn’t oblige, and started fiddling with a charm that was hanging from his necklace, while walking backwards…he managed to untie the small capsule [of poison] in time. He bit into it, infuriating the cadres, who tossed him in mid-air with a torrent of machine-gun fire. I hope the cyanide killed him first.”

The Meison, the faction on top at the moment, doesn’t take kindly to student troublemakers either. They stop by the dorms most nights to see if anybody’s grafitti’d the toilets, and stomp the dormies with rifle butts or make them clean the toilet with their tongues. That’s if they’re in a good mood; if not, “they took somebody for the road.” By 1978 the cadres are killing a hundred kids every night, and if their families can’t pay to reclaim the corpses within 24 hours, they’re tossed outside the city limits—some local bylaw, I guess, one of those weird laws that make the goofy news: “In Addis Ababa, it is illegal to dump a dissident student’s body within the city limits.” So they’re trucked to the outskirts to become a “feast for countless hyenas and vultures.”

Just imagine going from that world, where the jokes are really good and bloody, to Canada, where it’s illegal to hurt anybody’s feelings. Where it’s even illegal to torture a cat. Where you can get dragged into the torture chambers of the Ontario Provincial Cats Rights Commission and never be seen again.

The guy who wrote this book actually got trapped in a hilarious Canadian mess when the woman who edited the book, a Canadian poet lady named Anne Stone said she ghostwrote most of the book because Nega Mezlekia couldn’t even speak English, never mind write it, when he came to Canada. She said he took the whole credit for the book when she should have gotten at least a co-write credit. This is a classic example of Africa meeting Canada. And from where I’m standing, Africa ought to win hands down. First of all, Annie, what’d you expect? You’re a woman, for starters, and you think an African immigrant desperate to make it is going to play Oxford rules with you? This guy crawls out of the pit of Hell with nothing but his stories, and you want credit for putting them into nice grammatical sentences in your own native language? How much credit does that rate? Everybody speaks their own language; it’s no big thing. If you made up these stories I’d give you credit. If you lived through them like Nega did I’d give you credit. But just fancying them up, getting poetic and interfering with the gory jokes, doesn’t rate much more than maybe a t-shirt that Nega could have printed up for Annie at the local Canadian mall: “Nega lived through Hell on the Horn and all I got was an editing credit.” Just count your little Canadian oatmeal blessings, Annie. You could’ve been the poor bastard who had to live through all those cool stories in this book.

Gary Brecher is the author of the War Nerd. Send your comments to

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Add your own

  • 1. Raad  |  November 17th, 2008 at 12:46 pm

    Gary, as this points out, the US is entering nuclear primacy, thoughts? Or is this BS?

  • 2. LB  |  November 17th, 2008 at 6:56 pm

    Largely irrelevent. The US will never be given teh opportunity to use its arsenal because everyone else is playing smarter. The world will continue to discreetly chip away at American power and independence via non military means.
    Modern empires end due to financial collapse, not military defeat, in general.

  • 3. Raad  |  November 17th, 2008 at 8:13 pm

    Well that didn’t occur to me. Good to know ’cause it seemed like spoiling the fun if you could haul that status around to end wars.

  • 4. uhg  |  November 18th, 2008 at 8:30 am

    They’ve added a comments section. Jesus, no. (Yes I’m aware of the irony of appearing in the comments section to denounce it … to paraphrase an episode of the “sainted” Simpsons.)

  • 5. Tam  |  November 18th, 2008 at 9:12 am

    yeah, uhg, I’m already nostalgic for the old ‘we don’t care about your worthless opinions’ Exile. Oh well, I hope it’s been motivated by bone idleness, (there haven’t been any letters here for ages) rather than because they actually care what anyone else thinks.

  • 6. Tim  |  November 18th, 2008 at 12:11 pm

    When I was six years old, my mom got mad because I didn’t clean up after my new puppy. So she made me shoot it and then she skinned it and I had to wear it for a day. My mom was strict because there are always consequences in life. I am not a violent person and have only killed in self defense.

  • 7. ZJ  |  November 18th, 2008 at 2:18 pm

    Downsides of comments section: Evil eXile turns more into beigist blog.

    Upsides of comments section: The eXile, and especially the war nerd, draws out psychotic comments like Tim’s.

    Fair trade, so far.

  • 8. Jim Pivonka  |  November 18th, 2008 at 3:29 pm

    @ Raab & LG:

    Nuclear primacy may be irrelevant in warfighting; it may be that it is not irrelevant, strategically. First, it may have misled US’rs into thinking that it solved a problem – any given problem. Probably not true. Probably led us into a very dead end in our foreign policy and overall strategic postioning over the last 8 years.

    It may also have nearly eliminated the possibility of attack against the US by another organized state or group of states, and forced problems into new shapes. But it has not changed any of the conditions which lead to competition and hostility among states.

    And it has probably not changed the “balance of power” among states. The CheneyBush wanted the US’r people to accept unilateral and preemptive war and use of nuclear weapons, which might have had an impact on strategic power balances. But they have not yet sold that agenda to the people, and we’ll probably not be using nuclear dominance to enforce access to Khazakh, Uzbeck, and Turkmen natural gass, etc., as Zbig. Brzezinsky had hoped.

  • 9. JFreshInEffect  |  November 18th, 2008 at 5:48 pm

    I will buy this book. Fascinating.

  • 10. Erik  |  November 18th, 2008 at 7:01 pm

    It does seem like the Exiled is a bit tamer than the Exile…I feel like I have lost an old bitter angry sadistic friend

  • 11. Eren  |  November 19th, 2008 at 6:51 am

    Nice article Gary, its particularly relieving after you left us with no updates for so god-damn long.
    Hey, why don’t you do an article on Ottoman warfare? As a Turk I’d really like that, cause you’ve only done one piece on turkish history and we’ve spent the last two millenia raiding and pillaging from Manchuria to Vienna – I mean come on, don’t you think we deserve more then one fucking article?
    I’m guessing your fanbase is predominantly Western orientated, so yeah they wouldn’t give a shit about Turkish history, so maybe instead you could do an article about the Nagorno-Karabakh War of the early 90’s. You’ve never even mentioned it once, although you’ve gone in depth about more obscure wars.
    Or maybe I should just be grateful for any update you give us. Just remember Gary, the rest of us office-job slobs are relying on your cold-blooded humour for our sanity – so please don’t keep us waiting.

  • 12. K Desouki  |  November 20th, 2008 at 11:54 am

    I read the novel 4 to 5 years ago, and liked it very much, that is why I feel qualified to say that your review sucks; actually the worst review on one of the best African novels.

  • 13. Leo  |  November 26th, 2008 at 9:29 am


    Speaking of Portuguese (i’m one), can you write something of our colonial war? It was the last Euro-vs-colony war, and i’d like your take on it

  • 14. JSJ  |  December 4th, 2008 at 7:45 am

    Your comments suck, all of you. How dare you inflict your consciousness on other intelligent(?) beings!?

    Except for Tim… you are a hero among commenters.

    P.S.: this comment sucks too.

  • 15. Esn  |  December 12th, 2008 at 8:20 pm

    I have never read the book, but this was a wonderful review. Thanks for writing it.

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