"We Meet The Shifta"

by John Hirsh and Jack Lapseritis

Part I

It was a beautiful day in Asmara, Eritrea in 1967 because the sky was overpoweringly blue except for a few white puffs of cloud. The anticipations of J-Bar and myself were vague but nevertheless grandiose.

There was a tremendous hunger to learn, to find out. We were going down to Keren and beyond, a land embroidered with rumor. There had been a few escorted tours in the area. But mostly there stories about elephants, kudu, bushbuck, and a menagerie of other animals. The people out there were said to be different. And out there were the shifta, the highway and by way robbers of Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. To their waylaying of even the wary traveler. And who knows what other exotic things might be out there.

There were several suggestions from a good friend, Anthropologist Curtis Pechtel of Phoenix, Arizona. Pechtel, who had also been a freelance writer, urged me to learn everything I could about Eritrea and Ethiopia. In fact the suggestions were a list of questions nearing the paint of being endless. A lot of these were about "out there."

I felt an encounter with the shifta would be a real coup. On my wrist was that which I felt was to be my reasonable price for a first hand story complete with pictures of these shadows of the Eritrean country side. I called it my "shifta watch," a Timex that I bought at the post exchange for $22.95 - battery included.

We got in the car, left the base, and drove on to Keren. Every ten miles or so long-horned cattle and camel caravans were plodding along the asphalt surface with a man or two herding. In their hands were the long, polished wooden instruments they used as defense weapons, cattle prods or walking sticks. The sticks when not in use might be held against the back of the neck and arms draped over the ends. The Eritreans and Ethiopians called these weapons the dulla. Since they could be used against highwayman, we Americans nicknamed them them "shifta sticks." We thought they were odd since we did not see them in the United States. (In the Bible, Moses used such an item to face the Pharoah with a dulla that turned into a snake and back again.)

Sometimes a pair of oxen would be pulling a cart at something around one mile per hour. There were a good number of pedestrians near the small roadside towns as well as trucks or lorries (European terms) along the way.

It was early June and the rains had not yet come. There was brown and reddish earth under the sparse dull-green trees and bushes. Mountains were everywhere. Occasionally, we spotted a small dust-devil, like a miniature tornado swirl off the top of a flat-top mountain and cross the road in front of us. At one point we drove through a dusty whirlwind with no damage to us except a little dirt on our blue genes.

The rolling countryside sloped precipitously downward. The road hair pinned back and forth as many older roads in our American mountain west. This road was narrower though with no guard rails. There were numerous crosses and miniature tomb stones reminding us that many drivers had become careless and plunged off the side of the road. We appropriately exercised our driving skills along these dangerous roads.

The road wound through a valley much more fertile than most of the countryside had been. It climbed up part of the way it had come down, went a few miles over a plateau before repeating the down-up pattern. Several times we passed stick huts cemented with mud and nestled against hillsides.

We arrived in Keren and eased our way through the people and animals in order to get to the American Rest Center. It was an old Italian resort that had been bought by the United States Army and operated by the NCO club.

We spoke with the sergeant. As we discussed the trip, he eagerly passed on the information that two Italians had been held up by shifts the week before. The bandits had then proceeded to beat their victims on the head with rocks. Since he had a lot of good connections with the chiefs in the area, he apparently had received the rumors on good authority. J-Bar and I consoled ourselves with the thought that Italians were not popular with many Ethiopians.

We made one more stop before setting out for the unknown, a visit to a Peace Corps friend, JoAnne, who lived near the Rest Center. She had heard there were shifta about, some right on the fringes of Keren. She taught biology for the Ethiopian secondary school and there was suspicion that some of her older students were shifta. Some children may have had shifta parents.

The tank was filled up once again, even though the gas in Keren cores high, and there was no reasonable expectation of using up the whole tank. There were also full canteens of water in the trunk. The expedition of J-Bar and me rolled forth. In a few minutes we were in territory neither of us had ventured into before.

The first experience of any note was a dead camel by the roadside that had begun to rot. There wasn't even a proposal that a picture be taken. Otherwise. the landscape was disappointingly similar to that between Asmara and Keren: rolling country, steep drops, or climbs negotiated by switchbacks, dry river beds, the same brown rocky landscapes, and scarce dull green.

About 30 miles out from Keren the road changed from hard surface with an adequate supply of various sized holes to loose gravel lying on old broken pieces of blacktop. The large wheels of the lorries traveling the road had made deep ruts in the loosely packed rock surface. Next to the ruts were large ridges. I found that the way to drive on these ridges was to try to keep the wheels of the car on of each ridge. This caused the little car to do a great deal of slithering around which, particularly on the hills, furnished an element of excitement. The stones heaved up by the wheels made a steady rat-a-tat-tat ping on the bottom of the car. The engine had been well protected by the plate installed under the oil pan.

The air was much hotter. We had been gradually descending but the ground had gradually become almost level. At the same time the road twisted between and around huge boulders.

I steered the car across a trim but narrow bridge. As soon as there was a wide enough shoulder I pulled to the side of the road. We ran back to look at the river bed. There had been no water, again like many rivers in the American southwest. There are few things so quite unintriguing, except maybe to some breed of --ologist as a dry river bed. I had heard that the Barca was not always dry. In season it might be a roaring stream.

The car, J-Bar and I sped on. I kept the gas pedal down farther than was really safe on the slithering and uncertain roadbed. The day had become cooking hot, but it was a little cooler riding faster with air blowing in through side windows.

Eventually, there was a fork in the road. This was 167 kilometers from Asmara, just a trifle over 100 miles, The right turn to nearby Aggordat, yes. The left turn to Barentu, Tessenei and the Sudan, absolutely no. By fiat of the Provost Marshall of Kagnew Station and the time and heat, we were reluctantly turned right. Here was the end of the line in sight, and there had been no adventure, no really exotic countryside. We were let down.

The car eased to Aggordat. The town was dominated by a gleaning white mosque and a large reddish Italian cathedral. On the hill to the right was an old 19th century Italian fort that once held up against the onslaught of the Sudanese Dervishes. North of the city was a white, modern building on another hill. Small square homes and shops were scattered along the dust-hard streets.

The car continued on over the one-mile-an-hour rough crossing of a railroad track. These tracks had at one time carried passengers and freight all the way from Massawa on the Red Sea to the Sudanese border.

Part II

In a day we traveled a very high level in Asmara at about 7,740 feet (about 2,225 meter), down to Karen at ... and then to Agordat which is about 615 meters. It had been very cool in Asmara; very warm in Agordat.

Ahead was a separate village, a mini-suburb. The homes seemed little more than wooden teepees. A fence made of sticks surrounded the village. Teepees in Africa? No men, women or children seemed to be around. Now, here was something different.

Here was a place that might well be inhabited by "real" Eritreans. Some who knew how to build homes that would stay cool in the hot weather without electrical or air conditioning. The whole village either was empty or was meant to seem that way.

Back over the rough crossing to Aggordat proper. A guide book said it had 25,000 people. It didn't seem anywhere near that big.

A little way beyond we met two mere in a hand Rover. A head leaned out of the vehicle, and called to us in Italian. I braked and backed until my front end was even with that of the Rover. I had the ill-at-ease feeling that many Americans do when faced with conversing in a tongue which they can't quite manage.

The man was of indefinite age, but definitely not old. His face was serious, bronzed., a bit lined.. His hair was dark and very curly. And he spoke English:

"Weren't you afraid?" he asked.

"Afraid of what?" we answered.

"That was a shifts village you were in. They don't bother me because I am a doctor. They trust me, but you, you are strangers."

J-Bar and I looked at each other. I had the sudden feeling one gets when a fast elevator brakes to a quick stow. I wondered if that village had been as deserted as it had appeared. Had we been taken for officials rather than nosey tourists? Perhaps, the inhabitants correctly assumed we were crazy Americans. Maybe they were running away from us.

We were to stunned forgetting the doctor for his name or for more information.

Somehow, it seemed the way it should have been that the shifta should be separated in their own village. I, at least, had mixed emotions: Of the obvious poverty of the place and wanting to help the residents. Of the obvious danger with all those shifta to out there who at times had been urged to cut off Italian heads. Except for its limited ability to speak the language, my black-haired head and tanned skin could have passed for Italian.

We went on into town. It was an unspoken decision. An unconscious act brought on by the meeting with the doctor. We pulled up in front of a little hotel run by Italians. For two obvious whites running around in a very conspicuous car in an area hostile to this breed, the proprietors were a refreshing sight.

We entered a porch enclosed by x-crossed slats of green-painted wood, but with a view of the street through diamond-shaped openings. It was a bit cooler there. At least we didn't have that feeling of being baked in plenty of time for a seven o'clock dinner. We were delighted to find roast beef sandwiches on the menu. We both have large appetites, but we ordered sandwiches and cokes because the weather was too hot for anything more.

The cost of food was wonderful. Two sandwiches cost Eth $1.50 which was equal to U.S. $.60 cents. Two cokes cost Eth $.50 or U.S. $.20.

For we Americans the flies were bad. We shooed them off as we waited for the food. J-Bar remarked that they had to be out killing the cow to get the beef. I had already been surmising this. When they finally brought our food we thought it delicious. While eating we discussed the possibility of going along with the doctor on his rounds, and really learning something. Going back to the village to look for that white man would have been asking for trouble now, and we decided to chalk it up to one of our "missed opportunities." We digested our hindsight with our roast beef and coke.

Tiny town that Aggordat seemed, and unaccustomed to travelers and particularly GIs in civilian clothes, there were town children who were begging here just as in Asmara. Their behavior was different - they began to wipe the dust off the car with their shirts. At first I thought it might be an alternative to a car wash, but then I feared that they might be scratching the finish.

Along with a "gracia" when we paid the check, came information about Tessenei more than a hundred miles west on the road. It was an armed camp. Against what? The shiftas? Help for the shifts may have beers corning from a sympathetic Sudan, which, however, couldn't be too open about it far, fear the Ethiopians might get a bit too enthusiastic about supporting Southern Sudan's own separatist movement using Gambela in southwest Ethiopia as a staging base. At any rate: Tessenei was an armed camp into which strangers were not welcome.

There was a story told to us by a missionary that in the midst of all these soldiers, a shifta had strode into a bar, took a machine gun from under his loose clothing, and with a stocatto burst tore apart the chest of an influential but unfriendly judge. The pattern of the blast was vertical so as not to injure others. The bar was directly across the road from Tessenei's local police station. Either because of the shock of the machine gun, pure incompetence, or healthy cowardice of the police, the shifta rare out of Tessenei without hindrance.

J-Bar and I left the relative cool of the porch for the penetrating heat of the dusty street. Immediately, we were surrounded by children offering merchandise (candy, chewing gum) or services (tours of the city). J-Bar, on the one hand, felt that to reward their efforts would result in encouraging their persistence. On the other, it would have been a way to learn something new.

Then a dark-skinned man came from nowhere. He gave the children an order in a polyglot of languages: Bani Amir, Tigrinya, and Arabic, the languages of the area. He gestured up the street and they left. To introduce himself he pulled his identification card from his short-sleeved European shirt. He was a member of the police force. Then he insisted on taking us on a tour of what there was to see in Aggordat. We hoped that we could learn something of the behaviors of these peoples and get some delicious anthropological type data.

We saw a mosque which had been built at the direction of the late Haile Selassie though the Emperor is Coptic Christian. His purpose was to buy the loyalties of Islam. Inside the mosque a lot of people were sleeping around the building during this hot afternoon hour.

As I started to pull out for Keren, J-Bar looked around suspiciously. I had only gone two or three blocks from the hotel when he told me to stop the car. I wondered what he had in mind.

The little Italian car has first of all a base around the top of the trunk which can be lifted a bit, liver this is a convertible tap which we had manually folded down. And over this goes a cover. J-Bar was taking no chances. He reached across the well between the seat and the trunk, and lifted the leather sheath that covered the top. Under the base at the bottoms of it all he put his wallet with the Spcidel band of his watch wrapped around it. He demanded my wallet and watch, but I only gave up my wallet thinking all of this wasted effort. If we met someone who wanted my watch, he could have it. I would have preferred to have had that camera out as a recorder of the historical event which didn't seem likely to happen. Besides, the camera made a bulge in the sheath which J-Bar took care to smooth out.

I looked to see if anyone was watching us. A woman a block away was staring. Our activity was so unusual that it would be abnormal not to look at us. But I felt that she might call ahead to her friends if she knew which direction we were going, if the shifta to had phones in the bush, and if the police let her.

The main games going back was figuring out which rock the shifts would pop up behind. The only other activity, and a most unpleasant one, was surviving the dust storms cast up by an occasional vehicle. These lasted longer if they were caused by a vehicle passing us in the same direction. When we were the ones doing the passing, there was a combination of guilt and satisfaction that it was the other guy eating (or at least getting his mouth full of) the dust and gasping for enough oxygen to survive.

All the while the steady ping of rocks against oil plate, transmission and differential kept a steady arid rapid rhythms. The transmission and differential were protected in sealed boxes but was this protection enough against this constant battering? Driving through Eritrea was are adventure.

At the 145 kilometer mark I pulled off the road by an oasis. It looked like a small banana plantation. The camera was duly produced from its hiding place and a photographic record of this part of Eritrea was made. J-Bar combed his hair and posed for a picture to be sent home to his mother.

Someone in what looked like a fire tower on a hill, some distance away yelled something at us. We erroneously decided we were being told to stay off the road as preordered by the Provost Marshall of Kagnew. So we jumped back in the car, and stay on the road we did. As we passed by, he shook his head no.

We had the feeling that this picture stop was the last of a disappointing adventure. No Tessenei and the border. No shifta. Nothing very exotic. Of course there would be the story of how these things weren't achieved or encountered.

At the 142 kilometer marker I rounded a curve. Ahead was a small assemblage of trucks, a bus and a group of people huddled beside the road.

Part III

A man, casually leaning against a lorry, waved our car around., Ahead and to the side were motor vehicles blocking the road. To the side of the road white bundles were scattered on the ground. I had to pull up.

I decided we had come on the scene just after a group '.of Ethiopian soldiers had killed sore shifta. The uniform for each man was different and it was a motley collection of weapons they held. One man wore khaki shirt and shorts and had bullets strung across his chest in good Mexican bandito fashion. Others wore olive shirts instead of khaki. I thought the government did not have the money to supply uniforms and boots for all the soldiers, and an army away from the glare of public relations here in the hinterlands may not have had to dress formally.

It was at the point that the weapons were aimed at us that my logical arguments fell apart.

I have made it a life-long habit to be very skeptical that I will achieve what I set out to do. I certainly had expectations of encountering shifta. So, my mind quickly searched for other explanations. That these Ethiopian soldiers wanted something from us. For instance, there was the story of how are Ethiopian soldier on night maneuvers near Kagnew Station stopped an American sergeant and demanded and received some cigarettes. The soldier himself was relieved of his prize by other more virtuous comrades who returned the cigarettes to the American, and gave the soldier a beating for his efforts. Ethiopian military recruiters ask the village headmen for the most honorable men in the community but exceptions do slip through. There was also a possibility that these were local police -- scrounging up a little extra cash during the afternoon rest period. Either that or they were holding a surprise inspection in search of shifta on the bus or something. But why ware the weapons trained on us at the moment: They weren't speaking the local dialects They had to use the M lorrie driver, the man who had signaled us to go around, as are interpreter.

A man whose ancient Arabian long rifle which had a silver band around the stock stationed himself a few feet away. Another man with a different weapon kept pulling back the bolt on his rifle. He meant to appear threatening and he

was definitely succeeding. I remember these weapons being on a par with Civil War rifles. Such devices might appear inefficient, close up they are all the more threatening. One didn't know what to expect from them. One of them might explode in their face. At least these are some of the thoughts that race through the mind when something is aimed at the chest by someone intending to be nasty.

I thought to myself: "What would the University of Wisconsin - Madison Psychology Department say about this? Motivation? Emotion? Social Psychology? Animal Behavior? Where was Dr. Harlow or Dr. Mote when you needed him?" What about the old SAT? If A: to B: and C: is D:? If one shifta is to a rifle....? Nothing came to mind.

One thing was obvious. These men wanted money. They expected to make a haul. After all, "all" European types are rich. Another man pulled out an Ethiopian five dollar bill and pointed at it. J-Bar was the first to show his pockets were empty. There was no wallet, the man with the bill violently stabbed at it a few inches closer. J-Bar held out his hands empty palms and shrugged his shoulders repeating "No, no" (pause) "No, no." One of the shifta frustrated there was no money slapped J-Bar on his cheek. I, remembering the Italians who allegedly had been beaten on the head with rocks. I contributed: "Americano, Americano."

Police, soldiers, rebels? It was a shifta operatiion. They were not political rebels. I believed rebels supposedly didn't wart to get involved with Americans. The American base at Kagnew would benefit them if their revolt succeeded, and presumably, they wouldn't want to make enemies of the powerful American forces. As I thought about it later, the shifta probably didn't care much whether we were Americans, Yugoslavs or Chinese.

A shifta on the side lines did see my watch. The Timex close to instantly became part of the loot. I had just received an expensive maroon shirt from my cousin in Milwaukee as a birthday present. One of the shifta fingered it admiringly. Twenty seconds later my outer garment was my t-shirt.

The shifta knew Europeans were supposed to have wallets. Yet, obviously, neither of us did. J-Bar was being openly cooperative and there was certainly no wallet concealed on his person.

The highwaymen turned to the Italian car. The seats and glove compartment revealed nothing. They started through the folded roof and its cover. I was certain they would see the bulge of that camera which should have been left out to record all of this. I would gladly have paid them the money in my wallet for a couple of good pictures. But J-Bar had hidden it well, and these men were not familiar with cars that had folding roofs and other modern devices.

They turned to the trunk only to encounter another obstacle from these frustrating Americans. Car trunks normally have a handle which opens them. Not so this Italian car. It has a lever in the door frame on the driver's side. After letting the shifts puzzlement and frustration build, I started toward the door frame. One of the shifta immediately sprang to a threatening pose with rifle and face. I held up a hand to reassure him and levered the trunk open.

The heads and upper torsos of three shifta darted into the trunk. The one with a chicken-bone-stuck-in-his-hair, the leader I guessed, came out with one of the water canteens in hand. The things had been roasting in the trunk since early morning. The man screwed off the cap and held the canteen to his lips. The gaunt shifta obviously expected a cool drink. He spewed the hot water out of his mouth in disgust.

We two had arrived after everyone else had apparently been stripped of whatever valuable they had had, The shifters obviously felt that we two European-types ire a sports car should be a tremendous prize - if not a curiosity. They weren't ready to give up. I took out my chit book for the Oasis Club and pointed to the figures on it, indicating it was as good as money. Old Chicken-Bone-In-The-Hair pushed it back.

By this time I had decided that the whole thing was a farce, part of a poorly written comic opera. These guys were being horribly incompetent. I felt I could teach them a thing or two, that I could do a helluva better job at being a shifta than they were doing. I shoved the Oasis Club chit book forward again. This time old Chicken-Bone-in-the-Hair grabbed and threw it to the ground.

But the situation was getting ugly. The shiftas took us over to a ditch and rapidly and angrily spewed out the phrases which were obviously a demand for the hidden wealth or else. Jack shrugged. The demander slugged him. I responded with "Oooff." The men looked at me in surprise. J-Bar, unhurt, smiled.

The man kept shoving his rifle at J-Bar's chest. J-Bar starting backing step-by-step, and the mars followed step, jab, step, jab, step, jab. J-Bar pointed to his shirt, and started to take it off. He knew it wasn't what Chicken-Bone

wanted, but he was out to protect his U.S. $6.95 box camera. J-Bar's shirt was not maroon, not new, and had not been expensive. The man violently shook his head. "No, no", and roughly shoved the shirt back over J-Bar's shoulder. Actually, he tried to help J-Bar get the shirt back on again. But J-Bar started to

back again. Each time Chicken-Bone jabbed with his gun J-Bar gently shoved it away. He didn't know what else to do so he smiled and played the injured innocent. Trained in judo, Jack could have grabbed the gun away, and beaten his fragile-looking persecutor senseless.

He was thinking of doing precisely this when he turned to see me being forced to kneel under a tree with two rifle muzzles in the back of my neck. J-Bar was sure that with one of us on the way to being beaten senseless, the others would. be indiscriminately pulling triggers. He continued to back away.

I didn't know about J-Bar's thoughts. My own were racing through my head. This was no loner a joke. Rag-tag riff-raff incompetent they might be. But unreasonable, erratic, impulsive they were also proving to be. Those rifles could instantly bring things to a bloody end. And that is precisely what I expected to happen. And yet at the same time I couldn't believe this for an instant.

But my life and times were not to end on this dusty Eritrean roadside. Suddenly, the shifts, dashed to their bundles of loot, put them on their heads, and walked rapidly away from the road covered by their hill guards.

My emotions whirled. There was the exultation of not having my brain stem, and occipital cortex splashed over the countryside. But this I could not conceive of anyway. And the motivations of this would-be reporter-writer were in high gear. Here was a chance for a real beat--pictures of retreating shifta. At this time I knew of no other pictures of shifta. whatever. I screamed at Jack to get his camera out and get pictures of the retreating bandits. To throw the camera at them if nothing else.

Jack didn't know why the retreat. There were still two rifles pointing in our direction. He didn't propose to find out whether the holders of those rifles were marksmen. He ignored my frantic demands for camera! action!

Less than a minute later the reason for the sudden departure, an official green Land Rover, rolled into view. This vehicle was similar to those used by the Ethiopian military. There was one man in it, a representative of the Ethiopian Conservation Service which specialized in locust control. His first words were "What happened here?" He didn't realize the role he had played.

The truck driver, who had been leaning against his lorry and motioned our car by and had at times acted as interpreter, came to life. "You are Americans. Don't you have a gun? You could have shot them."

In a sense he was right. A shot shifta would have brought at least a medal from the Emperor. It was later made very clear that shooting a shifta would have also involved a nasty investigation, a rapid trip home as a result of international embarrassment.

As soon as two of the lorries pulled out, I was able to ease the car past, and shoot ahead of the rest of the traffic, and the extraordinary cloud of dust it would create. The car sped around some rocks and the base of a hill, and then the highway went straight and level for almost a mile. The shifta, had chosen their ambush spot well. Their two men on the hill could see danger on the highway in plenty of time to start for the protection of hills, valleys and rocks.

As we neared Keren, J-Bar remarked, "With his attitude they probably wouldn't have let him in the Oasis Club anyway." I immediately recognized the reference to Chicken-Bone who had rejected my chit book. Cruising down the highway with many non-shifta people around, this seemed like the funniest comment in the world. It was followed by a series of others in similar vein as we released the tensions we weren't aware of having.

The dead camel was still on the road outside Keren. It smelled even worse than it had in the morning. There was a coating,. a black cloud over it. No one had chosen to move it off the road.

Page IV

We immediately reported to the sergeant who operated the Keren rest center. We told him how Jack had hidden the wallets, how we had received a warning at the oasis, how we had been stopped because we couldn't get through, how the shifts had vainly searched for the wallets, how Chicken-Bone had spat out the hot canteen water and thrown down the Oasis Club chits, and how we had escaped.

Then, we had to retell the story to the Mayor, the Police Chief and finally, the Governor of Cheren. Each time over glasses of Heineken beer--the first tire I ever liked the stuff. Each official listened with rapt attention for a few sentences, then would break out in vigorous laughter before listening again. Jack and I laughed along but didn't understand what was so hilarious.

The official visits over, we went over to see JoAnne of the Peace Corps. She continued the laughter. JoAnne had already heard the story from one of her students who had heard it from peopple on the bus. The other victims had appreciated the show put on by the two Americans and the shifts, and which had also left them out of the center of attention.

JoAnne was bemused: "Isn't it amazing. We were joking just this morning about your getting held, up ...."

I wasn't amused or bemused.

Naturally, the story had to be told and retold at Kagnew Station. Once a story enters the base it is not allowed to stop until it has come at least full circle - and then some.

Actually, stories such as this or things of a personal nature are supposed to be treated hush-hush. But any news that is

In retrospect, I have to say a couple of things. We weren't trained journalists. Because of that, there's a lot of missing information we could have had. If we had been journalists, we would have asked more specific questions whenever, whatever and wherever we went. We picked up information but we weren't able to double or triple check. We were just a couple of GIs going around Eritrea and eventually Ethiopia.

And another thing. Whenever an ATM or automatic teller machine charges me $1.50 or more for my own money, I just say "A shifta got me at a shifta bank!"

The End


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©Copyright Rick Fortney 2002 All Rights Reserved