(OPride) ― On Nov. 14, tens of thousands of people, including prominent artists and Oromia State officials, attended the funeral of celebrated Oromo hero, Aliyi Cirri Jara, who died on Nov. 11 at Goba Hospital after a long illness. He was 96.
Colonel Aliyi Chiri, as he is known, was one of the last remaining revolutionary fighters who in the early 1960s launched the Bale Oromo resistance against the imperial Ethiopian state.
It’s a fitting tribute to the veteran hero whose struggle and bravery transcends space and time. A celebration of a life well lived in the service of others. As soon as the news of his death broke, delegations of mostly young people from across Oromia began posting images of a fleet of buses heading to Madda Walabu, where he was buried. His tomb will be erected on the same strip of land that Waqo Gutu and Adam Jilo’s remains rest with eternal glory.
Madda Walabu is a magical place in the Oromo imagination. It is the cradle of Oromo civilization and the birthplace of the Gadaa system. It also produced numerous Oromo heroes who have been a thorn in the side of Ethiopia’s successive rulers and whose names are part of the collective Oromo consciousness.
Col. Aliyi was born in 1921 in Bale region, southeastern Ethiopia, Dalo Mana district at a village of Cirri. The struggle for freedom and justice was a family affair for the Cirri’s—as was the case for many in the Madda Walabu area. Aliyi’s father, Cirri Jara, was a freedom fighter himself. When Aliyi was a boy, his father was captured by Haile Selassie’s army and held at Goba prison for five years.
Aliyi and his siblings grew up witnessing the daily indignities and subjugation of local Oromos. Their father’s arrest and punishment did not deter them. In fact, Aliyi joined the liberation struggle at the tender age of 12 shortly after his father’s release from prison. His brothers ― Abdulrahman, Awol, Usman, Isaac and Harbise Cirri ― also fought against Haileselassie and the communist Derg regime. Aliyi’s own children fought against the Derg.
The young revolutionary, who went on to fight against three successive Ethiopian regimes, including the current one, made a name for himself at a very young age. He was later mentored by and fought alongside other pioneer Oromo freedom fighters, including Muhammad Gada Qalu, a man who preceded even the likes of Waqo Gutu and whose legend and exploits inspired such luminaries as Waqo Lugo, Haji Gobana Yubo, Samo Korme, Cols. Adam Jilo, Dubro Waqo, Hussein Bune Dara, Kadir Waqo Shaqe and many others to join the fight for Oromo freedom.
Today, the armed struggle launched by Col. Aliyi and his contemporaries is seen as the embodiment of courage and the indomitable spirit of Oromo resistance. It is a reference point for historians who study Oromo history, as well as ethnonationalism and the struggle of Ethiopia’s peasantry against that country’s backward settler colonialism. It’s the first major organized effort by the Oromo to militarily challenge the feudal system that enslaved and reduced them to serfdom.
The Sixties was a remarkable decade of change around the world. For the Oromo, it marked a turning point―the birth of Oromo nationalism as an organizing principle against the feudal Abyssinian state and its settler colonialism.
As Col. Aliyi and his legendary colleagues challenged the feudal system in the southeast militarily, Oromo resistance was gathering momentum in the center in the form of subversion and a mutual self-help association, the Macha and Tulama Association, and in Eastern Oromia in the form of a cultural revival, the Afran Qallo Movement, the likes of which would take the Oromo three generations to replicate.
The coalescing of the three seemingly disparate and localized efforts by the early 1970s marked another turning point in Oromo history. Neither of the three movements fully succeeded in ending the marginalization and suppression of the Oromo against which they fought in their own separate ways and they were actually suppressed. But the brutal actions taken by the regime to deal with these movements provided the impetus and inspiration for the birth in 1973 of the Oromo Liberation Front—the first pan-Oromo movement whose ideological position resonate strongly among the Oromo nation to this day.
Tall and handsome, Col. Aliyi was revered among his comrades for his fierce bravery. He fought many battles in and around Dalo Manna, Angetu, Bidire, Oborso and most notably at the pivotal battle of Malka Anna.
”By nature, Aliyi was a person who could not look the other way in the face of injustice,” his brother, Adam Tina Jara, an oral historian, told the BBC Afaan Oromo service. “He was beloved and known among freedom fighters for his astute leadership and bravery.”
As we wrote in 2013, “the Bale Oromo movement, a watershed event in the history of Oromo struggle, began with a simple motto immortalized by a saying of its leader, Waqo Gutu: To uproot injustice for once and all, or to raise a generation of revolutionaries to fight on and finish the job. The rallying cry, which captured the imagination of a whole generation, was the seizure of farmland back from feudal landholders and making the state cognizant of the masses growing social and political discontents.”
Col. Aliyi and many of his venerated peers fought long and hard, but they did not live long enough to see the freedom of Oromo people. But they raised a generation that appears ready to take the torch. This was clear at Col. Aliyi’s funeral on Tuesday. The youth came in droves, from all over the vast Oromo country, some driving more than 1,000 km to pay their respects and get a glimpse at history.
Attendees included famous Oromo singers Haacaaluu Hundessa and Galana Garomsa, among many others. Aliyi’s gallantry and the war of sowra dhombir were famously memorialized in Haacaaluu’s 2013 album, Waa’ee Keenya. “Aliyyii Cirriitu beeka…isa beekaa…karaa dhoombiriin dhukaate,“ Hacaaluu sang, extolling Aliyi’s exploits using the non-automatic rifle called Dhombir. It was at the battle of Malka Anna that Aliyi and his ragtag band of Bale fighters indelibly seared their names in Oromo history: Devising a deadly wait on a hilltop to down an Ethiopian military helicopter on a murderous run using Dhombir, a simple machine gun.
The chorus of calls today for emancipation are eerily similar to those from the 60s. The Oromo is still yearning and fighting for freedom, its rightful place in Ethiopia. But Col. Aliyi can rest easy knowing that the generation his contemporaries vowed to raise to fight on and finish the job has finally arrived and already shaking the foundations of a repressive state. He is lucky to have lived enough to witness the remarkable events of the last three years. He seemed in awe.
“I am blessed to have lived long enough to witness this day,” Col. Aliyi told a reporter a few years ago. “I grew up in the struggle. I have fought for the Oromo. It is up to you [this generation] now. I have nothing left to offer. Leaving it up to you.”
He added that he had children and raised them in the forest while he’s actively engaged in the struggle. “All of my time and energy was spent shooting at the enemy and never was there a time when we raised cattle or cleared their dung.”
When they were not fighting, the Bale fighters used humor to keep up their spirits. Like all youth, they also played pranks on each other, sometimes even in the middle of fierce fightings, and had fun fighting like Oromo warriors do—as if scoffing at death itself.
The master storyteller, not to mention prankster, the late Haji Adam Jilo Webo often recounted a prank he played on Aliyi. Aliyi was the type who survived and saved his units on his wits and known for taking his fights to the enemy and thus needed no provisions, be it of food or weapons, from central command. Jilo, the commanding superior officer, was away on a brief visit to Mogadishu and he summoned Aliyi and his unit for inspection and briefing upon his rerun.
Apparently, Aliyi had gotten a bit spiritually superstitious in Adam’s absence. Unknown to Aliyi, Adam had brought a tape recorder, a novelty in those days. Jilo recorded his voice on it and placed the cassette player between the branches of a huge sycamore tree under which they were meeting. He pressed the play button and sat quietly in his mischievous poker-faced manner hiding the smile that always lurked under the stern face.
Aliyi was perplexed. He could hear a speech but the speaker was sitting right in front of him and not saying anything. And the speech was about him—an equal measure of criticism and praise on his performance in his brief hiatus. “Duruu durii, Abbaa Muhaammad amma ammoo muka keessan nutti haasayuu eegaltee?” Meaning: Mohammed’s father, possessed that you already are, did you now start talking through a bewitched tree that speaks?
Tale of two funerals
In April, another Ethiopian revolutionary, Col. Jagama Kello, died at the age of 95. He was sent-off with a massive funeral in the capital, Addis Ababa, that’s broadcast on state media. The parallels between Cols. Jagama and Aliyi’s lives are striking. A closer look at their funerals also underscores a tale that’s so common in Ethiopia’s history.
Both Jagama and Aliyi left home to fight at a young age. Jagama was only 15 when he went to fight during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Aliyi embarked on his own battle — for Oromo emancipation — a few years earlier. They fought on opposite sides. Jagama performed his heroics fighting the Italians on behalf of the very imperial regime that Aliyi and his contemporaries challenged. Later, their paths crossed and the two men fought each other when Jagama was appointed a provincial military commander and sent to Bale to put down the uprising. In the end, Jagama prevailed over Aliyi and his comrades.
“It was Jagama Kello who persuaded the heroes of the Bale movement to surrender,” according to Aliyi. But not for long as the Bale fighters resumed their struggle.
Both men left remarkable legacies in their own right. But in the end, as is often the case, only one of them received a national state recognition: One who served the system that enslaved his people, the Oromo. To this day, even after ethnicity became the sole organizing principle — both in life and in death — an Oromo is celebrated only when in the service of the central state.
The Bale fighters did not have modern or enough weaponry. But they had a significant natural advantage. They knew the terrain where they operated so well. The Ganale, Weeb and Walmal valleys, as well as the Harana forest, were their impregnable natural garrisons. They registered many glorious victorious against heavily armed imperial army here. Today, all across Ethiopia, the mention of Ijjoollee Baalee (a son of Bale) itself evokes the fearsome bravery of Aliyi and his illustrious comrades.
Col. Aliyi, who spent his entire life fighting for the Oromo, once reportedly told Haile Selassie’s emissaries: “We fight you because you are our enemy. Even if we die battling you, we will earn a place in history. If we defeat you, we will regain control of our land, this beautiful land upon which the Oromo grazed their cattle, harvested bounties, made just laws, spoke its language and lived peaceful lives.”
That was in the 1970s. Aliyi’s age-old sentiment underscores the importance Oromos place on land: The matter of land is a matter of life. As with the 1960s movement, today’s Oromo protests, which is radically transforming the Ethiopian political system, were sparked in 2014 over land disputes—the Addis Ababa Master Plan, which sought to displace Oromo farmers from adjoining Oromia towns and villages and gobble up a massive amount of land.
The emotional send-off for one of the trailblazers of the Oromo struggle was an affirmation by the new generation that they are ready to take up the mantle and not only fight on but also take the fight all the way to the finish line. His influence and inspiration were visible and evident in the massive and unprecedented turnout at the funeral.
One hopes that today’s youth won’t be so hard-pressed to raise yet another generation to fight on to make Madda Walabu a place where just laws shall be made and the Oromo will have its days under the sun.
A renowned hero and one of the leaders of Bale rebellion, colonel Aliyi Chiri has passed away. He fought the oppressive emperial regime heroically in 1960s alongside Wako Gutu. RIP, hero. 😢😢😢
— Tumsaa (@booranticha) November 11, 2017
A prominent revolutionary, Colonel Aliyi Chiri who ignited the flame of Oromo emancipation has passed away.
Qabsa’an ni kufa, qabsoon itti fufa.
— Soretti A. Saleh (@realsorettis) November 11, 2017
— Najat Hamza (@najathamza6) November 15, 2017
The legacy of our vetern heros had been transferring from generation to generation, above all, the momentun seen at the funeral ceremony of Major Aliyyi Chiri is quite historical and re-assure the fundamental reunification and unity of us, the Oromo!!
— Bona (@bilisuma2007) November 15, 2017