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Historical Fiction Sad Speculative

Abyssinia – the region of the world where the best long-distance runners can be found. But Abesha cannot run, the young boy is dying of starvation.

A young child aged between seven and ten years old needs a daily average of 1800 calories per day to stay healthy. A calorie is a unit of energy or heat that can be measured in different ways. In nutrition, calories refer to the energy people get from the food and drink they consume, and the energy they use in daily physical activity. A big Mac contains around 550 calories, and a typical bowl of rice is around 400 calories. It is the fuel of life, for every single living creature, every single flora and fauna on our planet needs nutrients to survive, the nutrients are converted to energy. We all need energy. Energy is life, as well as life is energy.

Abesha was dying of starvation, he was running on empty. He hadn’t eaten his daily average for some time. He hadn’t eaten the minimum; he hadn’t eaten anything in days. He was 10 years old, but he was so malnourished he looked like a child of five or six. He was an orphan, he existed on the streets of Dessie, in the regions of Wollo and Tigray, Abyssinia. It was November 1984. He looked like a bag of bones, he sat on his weary haunches by the shade of a wall, no energy to move, any physical effort needed calories, and his limp body had nothing to offer.

When a person is dying from starvation, their body undergoes several changes that can affect their senses. The body becomes dehydrated, the mouth dries out and becomes caked or coated with thick material, the tongue swells and cracks, the eyes recede back into their sockets. The skin begins to hang loose on the body and becomes dry and scaly. The lining of the nose cracks and causes the nose to bleed. The urine becomes highly concentrated, leading to a burning sensation of the bladder. The lining of the stomach dries out, causing the person to experience dry heaves and vomiting. Brain cells dry out, causing convulsions. The respiratory tract dries out, causing thick secretions that could plug the lungs and cause death.

Abesha couldn’t run anymore, his energy level was at a dangerous low, he was dying of starvation.

In the end the body sustains itself solely on ketones during prolonged and terminal starvation. During this period, gluconeogenesis slows down, and the body is left to sustain itself solely on ketones. A sense of fullness, of satiation beyond the point of satisfaction, for the starving individual the sensation is not only false, but also the body is cheating itself, it is fatal without medical care. Abesha had an abnormal; out of proportion extended stomach, caused by the continued lack of food. He was running on empty, and he was in danger of dying where he sat, by the shade of the wall.

On the wind, the soft breeze, his nostrils flared, he smelt a waft of fried meat, the richness of the smell, created desire and panic simultaneously in his mind, as visions, like an distant shimmering mirage in the desert, the vision; frying meat over an open fire, a distant memory, a memory that provoked divided extremes of his senses, pleasure at the visual memory behind his closed eyes, but pains of emptiness in his current plight.

The smell was coming from the small hotel, behind the wall he was using as shade. The smell was coming closer, it was teasing him, it was tantalizing close, haunting him, or was he finally going insane with hunger.

The shade of the wall grew, and it was surrounding him, the shade was taller than the wall behind him, it loomed in front of him like tall trees. It had voices. Then that smell of fried food. The people from the hotel, accompanied by the security guards at the hotel gates, had brought a plate full of food for the starving boy. They now stood in front of Abesha, the breakfast plate of fried eggs, bacon, and fried bread. Both Abesha, the hotel guests, with their young children, and guards were motionless, like in a still photograph, they all did not know what to do. One of the children took the fried bread from the plate, and held it directly in front of Abesha’s face, right under his nose. Abesha had no energy, but the smell of the fried bread ignited what was left of his energy, fumes from his empty tank. He took the fried bread in his hand, and opened his mouth, his lips were already cracked, there was no saliva in his dried mouth. Before he could eat, one of the children pushed a straw into his open mouth, and miraculously there was water in a cup leading beneath the dangling straw. Abesha sucked on the straw with his last calorie of energy. The sweet liquid water entered his dry mouth, and involuntarily he coughed, convulsed, as the unfamiliar feeling of liquid cascading into his mouth, at the back of his mouth, and down his dry throat. It felt so good, like an uncommon cloud burst in a desert, he could trace the liquid flowing down his throat; down, down, rehydrating, the dried up, yet swollen part of his upper body. At first, he felt exhausted by the transformation, but the moisture in his mouth allowed him to take a bite of the fried bread.

The onlooking hotel guests, the children, and the guards were silent. The scene they were witnessing could only be viewed in solemn sadness, the event was beyond words, Abesha was one boy amongst thousands, thousands that were dying of starvation, in the lands of Abyssinia, one of the most fertile lands in the continent of Africa. Why?

 The famine of Tigray and Wollo in 1984 to 1985 would leave 1.2 million dead, 2.5 million people displaced from their homes, and 200,000 orphans like Abesha.

Famine, pestilence, war and empire building, imperialistic ambitions of many empires had created the lack of food, the resulting starvation and death to many. It wasn’t a recent event; it had been going on continuously throughout history for more than 500 years in this region of the world. Since the days of the warrior Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi, his campaigns and warfare in the 16th century, the Ethiopian–Adal War, the Somalian invader paid a heavy price – like all comers with aggressive intents to the region he created famine. It also backfired on his own army, his own ambitions. The famine of 1503 took a heavy toll on Al-Ghazi’s army, it was recorded: "When they entered the Tigray region each Muslim warrior had fifty mules; some of them even one hundred. When they left, each one of them had only one or two mules. Amongst the dead was his own young son Ahmad al-Nagasi. “

Famine was always associated with conflict, it’s the nature or consequence of causality.

It was the same story for the next 500 years. Ambition and power, invasion, war, revolving door of rulers, puppet rulers often manipulated over the centuries for the benefit of powerful European empires, but always resulting in famine, pestilence, plague, and death.

 Agriculture was the backbone of the region, of their economy, the biggest employer, and incredibly most of the income is and was made with exports of food – how is it possible that the horrors of famine and death come to this region with so much regularity with these constant natural resources. The country has a vast area of fertile land, diverse climate, and generally adequate rainfall, which makes it suitable for agriculture - food. Yes, one could argue - the region’s agriculture is plagued by periodic drought, soil degradation caused by overgrazing, deforestation, high levels of taxation, and poor infrastructure.

Nonetheless, there is no excuse for millions of dead from starvation. It’s a neglect of humanity by humanity.

This is a region of the world, relying on agricultural and pastoralism for their livelihoods, land degradation is a major concern. Despite these challenges, the region has great agricultural potential, and there is a potential for self-sufficiency in grains and for export development in livestock, grains, vegetables, and fruits. Principal crops include coffee, pulses (e.g., beans), oilseeds, cereals, potatoes, sugarcane, and vegetables. The region is also Africa’s second-biggest maize producer. The livestock population in Abyssinia is believed to be the largest in Africa.

The historical problem with the economy; it was based too much on subsistence agriculture, with a greedy aristocracy that consumed the surplus. Due to several causes, the peasants, the land workers, lacked incentives to either improve production or to store their excess crops; as a result, they lived from harvest to harvest. Despite the extensive modernization and land reform in the country during the last 120 years, especially under Emperor Haile Selassie, as of 2016, about 80% of the population are poor farmers who still live from harvest to harvest and are vulnerable to crop failures.

The greedy rulers with their short-term objectives, hoarding, creating wealth for the few, based on the toil and strife of the many, their greedy strategies will eventually run out of energy, resources, and drain the well of goodness dry. There was no plan to save in the good times, for the bad times. Abesha was a victim, as many of his fellow people were victims, the innocent. Abesha of the Habesha peoples, his name and people have lived in this region for more than 5000 years, the unusual and unique geography of the planet, a rift valley that extends from Syria in the north to Mozambique in the south.

Only a man blind to the history of the region, a new child of the universe with no other agenda, than to act in a giving and hospitable manner. At his heart, a human rights activist that became famous for his art, but turned his fame into speaking out for injustice - human rights. Only a man like this could bring the attention of the world and bring charity to the people of a reoccurring inhumane situation, where the greed of the few continued to be unaccountable to the many.

Abesha was a victim of the latest war – under the name - Ogaden War. Another war – another famine. A civil war, a conflict that took place in his world, causing him pain and anguish, the loss of his parents, vulnerability, lack of care and starvation. The north of the region, where he sat, in the streets of Dessie, would become yet another country, with new leaders. Would that bring relief for Abesha? He needed instant care; his life was in danger today – time was running out for poor Abesha. Did he understand that his empty belly was caused by conflict between the Ethiopian military junta known as the Derg and Ethiopian-Eritrean anti-government rebels. The war was part of the Eritrean War of Independence, the Ethiopian-Somali conflict, the Oromo conflict, and the Cold War – it escalated from a regional conflict to the hidden agendas of the great powers of the world. The communists’ sympathizers brought Cuban mercenary soldiers, and Russian advisors to protect Ethiopia in this war, after changing sides in the process. In the name of social equality for the people.

All Abesha needed was shelter, food, water, those on average 1800 calories per day to exist.

The conflict resulted in the fall of the Ethiopian Empire under Haile Selassie and the subsequent implementation of military rule. The war also led to the creation and collapse of the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia by the Derg – military junta. The TPLF-led transitional government was installed, which later became the EPRDF government in Ethiopia. The EPLF-established PFDJ government was installed in Eritrea after independence from Ethiopia.

It was all too late for Abesha, his running days were over.

Greed, corruption and power equals famine, starvation, and death. Abesha was born in the wrong place, at the wrong time. His name will never be found in the obituaries, along with the other poor souls of Tigray and Wollo.

January 30, 2024 08:47

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12 comments

Darvico Ulmeli
20:00 Mar 05, 2024

I never think about what happens to a body when you starve, and I did have that experience many times in my life (sadly). It's a terrible feeling being hungry or incapable of moving, and you did a perfect job explaining that while telling the story. Nice work.

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John Rutherford
05:05 Mar 06, 2024

Thank you for your comments, really appreciated.

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Kristi Gott
01:01 Feb 15, 2024

Combining the historical details with the character's story made the situation vivid and emotional. It drew me in and I felt engaged. The technique worked well because it gets the readers to care and to feel they are there too. The story has a strong impact. Well written and well-conceived. Good work!

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John Rutherford
07:37 Feb 15, 2024

Thanks. A lot of the story shorties are part of book, which is just about drafted. Now the interesting part of editing and laying down the manuscript.

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RC Riggs
07:32 Feb 10, 2024

I really like how you wove together the tragic story of Abesha with the more dispassionate academic details of the history and broader context - the contrast and juxtaposition of the two threads give a visceral personification to the history. The "too little, too late" is also a tragic layer to this story that adds to its impact.

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John Rutherford
07:44 Feb 10, 2024

Thanks RC. It's part of chapter in a book nearly finished. About events and people in recent history, with a journalist flavour, but with a personal perspective. Thanks for taking time to read it. Well done on the short listing.

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08:56 Feb 06, 2024

Hi John. Have to smile about your very sad story. This is the first story of yours I have read in return for your reading mine. I have a habit of writing genuine short stories which often entertain. Some of them I just can't help myself and have to mention some ill going on in this beautiful world of ours . Or I have to make some comment about a social ill. For example 'My Resolute Resolve' is more about someone trying to get over their latest alcoholic bout but ends on how Christmas is ruining the planet. And 'A Treasure of Priceless Worth'...

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John Rutherford
09:58 Feb 06, 2024

Thank you. You get the picture. All can be solved in this world. But we tend to get more excited about AI, and create icons, followers of dodgy people, just because they shock us. Part of the writing for me IS the research, and creating an angle, a version of "what if". The further you go back in history; a person's story can be retold. I enjoy interpreting. This story, I have to admit, I had first-hand experience. It's part of book I'm writing, and in this chapter, it expands out into the corruption of the NGO's, and how politics, even thi...

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John Rutherford
07:37 Feb 01, 2024

Thanks Stella. Do you think the piece is too detailed?

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Stella Aurelius
06:44 Feb 01, 2024

Oooh, what a powerful story. I love the academic feel of the piece; I think it adds this layer of detachment on the narrator's part, sort of illustrating how the world views the situation in Africa. Lovely work !

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John Rutherford
20:06 Jan 30, 2024

Yes - saw it close up. Very sad.

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Mary Bendickson
19:00 Jan 30, 2024

You must have put a lot of research into this piece. Probably remember this from your travels. Very sad facts and situations. Everyone has solutions but nobody solves it.

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