Archive for November, 2012

Society of Ethiopians Established in Diaspora

2010 was a good year for celebrations, it was the 50th anniversary of Abebe Bikilas victory in Rome and it was Onnis 100th birthday.
When this letter came, I was overwhelmed and full of joy for my uncle. It was Tadele Tessema who had nominated Onni for this prize and we Niskanen´s will be forever thankful for remembering Onni, 26 years after his death.
It was with sad heart I phoned Mr. Lakew and told him that it was not possible for me to come to Washington right now so dream of my surprise when he says that they will pay for my ticket and the hotel in Washington!
Ingrid and I packed our bags and went to Washington D.C. Our first impression was that it looked very much like Sweden, a very nice city.
It was memorial day so the streets were crowded with people and bikers.

I had invited Tony Marelich from San Fransisco to the SEED event and we met at an Ethiopian restaurant, Lallibella II where they celebrated Bikilas victory in Rome fifty years ago.
He had documented Onnis life for several years and he gave me all his material and I am very grateful for that. Tony, I still owe you a bottle of whiskey!

In the evening it was time for the celebrations with Ethio SEED. It was a fantastic and unforgettably evening for Ingrid and me. We sat on a podium together with the other honorees, Dr.Gebisa Ejeta, Dr.Yohannes Haile Selassie, Mr.Abate Makuria, Dr.Giday Wolde Gabriel and Mr.Bereket Woldu and posthumously Major Abebe Bikila and Major Onni Niskanen.

This evening was a great inspiration for me to go on with my work about Sweden – Ethiopia. We Niskanen´s have decided to continue Onnis legacy in Ethiopia and to do something for hiv-sick children at A.L.E.R.T. in Addis and next spring we will start The Onni Niskanen Foundation for this purpose.

A chock by reality

1971 I was a young left radical hippie that thought I had all the answers to the worlds all problems. If that wasn´t enough I also was quite spoiled and saw myself as the center of the universe …I think you know what I mean.

In the beginning of December my father, mother, sister and I boarded a plane to Ethiopia to visit uncle Onni. This trip changed my life. I was a complete other person when we came back home to Sweden three month later. I had realized in to the bone that I had absolutely nothing, nothing to complain about in my life. This feeling I still have, that impact did this first meeting with Ethiopia have on me.

Onni was off course the perfect guide and he showed us places we never could have seen our selfs. When we were there it had not rained for a very long time. I saw the dried riverbanks with no water, cows and other cattle ded or dying along the roads and people to. It was a shock to me, to see it with my own eyes and not be able to just turn off the switch. I cried, but it was more to come.

In those days Onni was Executive Director for A.L.E.R.T. ( All Africa Leprosy & Rehabilitation Training Center) and I followed him there and worked at the orthopedic workshop one week.
They had just started a new project, to produce shoes that fitted their feet with no toes inside, but was normal shoes on the outside. Oh boy, to see these people dancing out from the door so happy, now that no one could see that they had leprosy, I cried and cried…and my eyes getting wet right now when I think about all this.

Onni had three “sevants”, the cook Roman Retha, night guard Berhano Negussie and a gardener Ejigu Demetew. I was very mad at Onni that he had sevants and asked him: how can you?
Onni looked at me a little sad but did not say much about it. It was later I found out that he took care of the three families, putting their children in school and so on…typical Onni, he never bragged or told anyone about all the good he did. We had a good laugh together about this next time we met.

When the Emperror Haile Selassie heard that Onni had relatives from Sweden visiting him we were all invited to the palace for lunch and Onni instructed us what to do and how to behave…it was a Limousine with Swedish flags that picked us up and took us to the palace where the jeopard “guarding” the entrée door. The Emperor, The Empress The Duke of Harrar and his wife were there and they asked us about Sweden and how we lived and it was all very easy and nice.
The Emperors interest for Sweden goes long back in history, when Onni moved to Ethiopia 1946 he was not alone. 700 swedes, doctors, nurses, pilots, electricians, teachers and others went there to help modernize Ethiopia. But for me, a young fool, the big contrast between the unbelievably richness and the starving and dying people was to much, my brain tilted.

One thing that I understood after a while in Ethiopia was that everyone I met was very nice and it was very easy to communicate with the Ethiopians. The food was delicious, the weather was wonderful, the smell of eucalyptus in the evenings when people started their fires, the beautiful girls…I fell in love, with the people and the country.

One occurrence that happened one day also made me see how famous Onni was in Ethiopia. We were driving from Addis to Harrar and we were far out on the countryside when we had a flat tire. I started to change the tire when a small boy crosses the road with six cows. He stops and stare at us and when he see Onni he smiles and shouts: Onni! Onni!

Chapter One

My life is a little like Onni´s right now, I got three parallel projects going on at the same time. I have been filming for two years now together with the film club here in Borlange and we are making a documentary about Onni´s life. I have this blog and the webpage and I am also writing a book wich is not an easy thing… but with a little help from my friends I have chapter 1 and 5 almost ready.

I have chosen to start in the middle of Onnis life with the winter-war and I met one of Onnis closest friends in the war Arne Pettersson three times documenting his story. I have also quoted from the book: Fronten närmast Stockholm, with the righter´s good memory. This together with Onnis own writings and letters make this chapter very authentic and close to the truth i believe. The translation is by my dear cousin Ewa Niskanen. Enjoy…


“Full winter is almost here. The cold is hard and the snow fell rather heavily the other night. When the moon broke through the snow clouds and spread its silvery light over the ground, and the trees stood out as beautiful shadowy silhouettes against the white duvet, it was fabulously beautiful. Such magic weather conditions are not often seen. Then, when the rising sun coloured the sky and together with the moon’s fading light created a colour scheme that was enchanting, you actually forgot that there was a war. I wish I could have painted all that. It was completely silent and calm. The only sound was the birds singing. Birds, that were still there and had not been frightened away by the otherwise predominant sounds of grenades and gunshots.

Unfortunately, I was woken from all this beauty by a volley from a machine gun that hastily reminded me that I was on dangerous ground, in close proximity to the enemies.

That was fortunate, because I had to finish my job before it turned light. My task was to check our telephone lines that were not working. The connection to the firing range had to work, so that from our advanced position, we could lead the fire, make observations and make changes, so that the missiles from our canons did the greatest possible damage to the enemy.

Such is life here: a mix between dream and reality. And reality is at present far from pleasant.”

Warrant Officer Onni Niskanen crept on, closely followed by a Signaller. They exchanged password with the guard where he stood on his watch on the lookout for the enemy. They nodded and he nodded back to them when they slowly and carefully passed him and continued out through the dangerous area, over to the intended site. The Signaller peeled the insulation off the cables, so that he would not have to cut them, and connected the telephone. He tried to link up but there was not a sound from the firing range. He checked his cable connection for faults but all looked fine. In spite of that, there was still not a sound over the telephone.

Time was valuable, so a new inspection of his connection and the cables was carried out. “You haven’t connected both cables”, said Onni. “Of course I have” said the Signaller and showed Onni the telephone. At close inspection, they saw that he had connected one pole to the ignition cable to a detonator that was close beside them. If they had carried on a bit longer, there would possibly had been a very loud and painful sound in the receiver.

They had built the shelter (Korsun in Finnish) during their first days after arrival. They had dug a big hole, approximately 3 by 5 metres, and boarded up the walls the whole way round. They had covered the dugout shelter with thick firs that they had cut down and pulled up to the shelter. A range for cooking and heating had quickly been concreted up indoors. The sleeping area, for eight people, was covered with fir twigs acting as mattress. The constantly running water from the swamp area almost reached up to the sleeping platform every morning and they had to duck down not to hit their heads on the top of the entrance when they stepped inside. The christened the shelter “Grand Hotel Lappvik” (Lappvik being the name of the area).

The “Winter war”

This was the second time he was in Finland as a volunteering soldier. His older brother Wäinö, who was still a Finnish citizen, had been drafted in under the flag, and when his three years younger brother Erik volunteered, Onni could not remain passive. He had never hesitated and he too wanted to contribute. The youngest brother Arne was doing his military service in Sweden. On the 3rd of February 1940, he, together with the other Swedish volunteers in the “I.stridsgruppen” (1st Battle Group), took part in the “Great March” on skies from Kemi to Rovaniemi in Finnish Lappland.

Lieutenant Colonel Magnus Dyrssen led the 1500 men strong “I.stridsgruppen”. Some of the nights it was very cold and the temperature could plummet to minus 46 degrees Centigrade. Many of the volunteers had insufficient clothes and froze their hands and feet. Onni was probably happy about his Finnish winter clothes, especially the felt boots and the hat that covered the back of the neck.

They went by train from Rovaniemi to Kemijärvi. There they were merged with the “II. stridsgruppen” (2nd Battle Group), that was lead by Lieutenant Colonel Viking Tamm. The two groups of Swedish volunteers had marched together towards the frontline to relieve the Finnish troops at Märkäjäärvi.

The Winter War had been a fight between David and Goliath. You have to go far back in history to find a war where such a superior great power country suffered such humiliating defeats as the Russians did at the beginning of this war. On the 30th of November, the Soviet troops crossed the Finnish border at the Karelian Isthmus without a declaration of war. At 9.30 a.m. Helsinki was bombed. Stalin calculated that Finland would be taken over in two weeks. Finland turned out to be a prickly fruit to swallow.

The Soviet power was superior. A total of four armies of 24 divisions, six tank brigades and a number of special forces were employed. The Finnish army consisted of nine divisions. A Finnish division consisted of 14.000 men while the Russian division contained 18.000 men. In spite of the fact that the Finnish army was small compared to the Russian army, the Finns had certain big advantages. They were used to the cold and the snow, they had warm clothes and boots and they were good skiers.


The Russian tanks were big and heavy and often got stuck in the swamps. There, they were easy targets for the Finns. The Russian soldiers had the choice of staying put and freeze to death or try to run. If they chose to run, they risked being shot down by the Finnish soldiers who were hiding in the woods all around. The Russians wore their green summer uniforms, many lacked warm shoes and very few had skies. They had to stick to the roads and formed convoys that were kilometres long. The Finnish soldiers came quietly whizzing on their skies, threw grenades and “Molotov cocktails” at the stationary vehicles and disappeared quickly back into the woods. In similar ways, the Finns sometimes managed to split the Russian troops into smaller groups that the Finns called “motti”, so that they could attack each group separately with their full force.

Slowly but surely, one Soviet “motti” after the other perished from starvation, cold and the continuous guerrilla attacks by the invisible enemy. Many fled in panic. The Russian 44th division perished this way and the Finns took rich spoils of tanks, trucks, rifles, machine guns and huge quantities of ammunition.

Finally, the Soviet forces were too superior. By Christmas time, Stalin replaced the military command and sent over Semjon Timosjenko as the new Commander-in-Chief. He changed tactics and moved 500.000 men to the Karelian Isthmus – the bridge to Helsinki. The Finns held out against the horrible cannonade for twelve days but were finally forced to surrender to the superior forces.

Under the heavy peace terms, Finland was forced to hand over large land areas to the Russians and the harbour and seaside town of Hangö in southwest Nyland, including surrounding archipelago was compulsory leased to the Soviet Union for a period of 30 years. Stalin envisioned that the Russian base at Hangö, together with similar places on the Estonian side of the Gulf of Finland, would close the entrance to the Gulf. Thereby, Tsar Peter the Great’s sea fort from 1914 would be resurrected.

The Continuation War

One year later, in 1941, Onni was at Hangö in the Gulf of Finland as a volunteer in the so-called “Continuation War”. The two wars were very different from each other. At Salla up north, they had fought a mobile war; at Hangö, they fought a stationary positional war that was more stressful on the nerves and the mood. The constant tension, the guard duty and the inactivity took its toll on the psyche. It was essential to keep the spirit up and resist the negative thoughts that occurred.

Onni’s suggestion that they could read poetry to each other in the evenings was received with joy by his comrades and, as soon as they were inactive for a while, there was always someone who reached for a book or recited a poem by heart. One of Onni’s best friends, Second Lieutenant Arne Pettersson, also wrote poems of his own. Onni himself had a copy of Fänrik Ståls Sägner from which he read to the others when his turn came.

A sad thing happened on the 14th of October, when three soldiers from the platoon were injured by shards from a shell that exploded in a treetop. Sandberg, an unusually fine and quiet young man, died from his injuries. He had his arm torn off and a shard penetrate the left side of his chest. Another one of the three, Thomas von Kantzow, had one of his buttocks ripped off and the blood flew copiously. Thomas was nearly two metres tall and most probably weighed 110 kilos. Arne Pettersson, in his white winter uniform, grabbed Thomas and carried him through the woods and over a big mere. Muddy, bloody and dripping with sweat, he managed to where a horse and carriage stood. Thomas was taken in the carriage to the road where the ambulance was waiting. From there they took him to the field hospital.
The “Snuff Line”

On the 30th October, it was Arne Pettersson’s 23rd birthday. All “guests” from the heavy company has gathered at “Grand Hotel Lappvik”, where they presented an address and a big bunch of carrots to Arne. Greatly appreciated! He had also received a parcel from his mother in Sandviken, a pair of fine gloves. In the afternoon, Onni and Arne crawled over to the so-called “Snuff Line” to look for a firing place for the grenade-thrower. The “Snuff Line” was a boundary-line, which the Russians had chopped clean and that divided the two countries’ frontlines. Simply like a “no man’s land”. That boundary-line was covered with sand. The Russians raked the “Snuff Line” every day and kept it nice and smooth. That way they could easily see if an enemy patrol has passed over it during the night and so they knew what to expect. Strong machine-gun nests were placed along the open area. Arne was just about to pass a thick, felled tree-trunk when a bullet, from a sniper in a tree on the Russian side, went through the new glove and gave him a bleeding wound on the back of his right hand. It could have been Arne’s last birthday. In the evening, a nice fruit soup was served as a change from the unbalanced diet.

“It is night. It is freezing cold and the moon lights up the terrain and makes it hard to move around, both for the Russian and for us. To go on a reconnaissance mission is such weather conditions can be risky. You are too visible.

Hush! I listen. A faint crackling sound is heard. Slowly I raise my weapon. Now I can clearly hear that the sound is approaching and I prepare to meet the enemy. Then all is quiet again. I hold my breath to be able to hear better and not lose contact with the enemy. But everything is quiet. Quite some time passes without anything happening.

Had I really been mistaking? No! Now I clearly sense the suspicious sound again. Some exciting seconds pass. Long seconds. Now I can clearly hear the sound getting closer. I hold my breath and slowly raise my arm with the weapon. Cannot see anything suspicious but hear that the sound from the enemy is quite close. Will I be able to get him? My hand that holds the weapon is almost trembling from the effort to hold so still. It is exciting. Will I succeed?

But no. Quick as thought the rat scurries out of its hole and over to another hideout and I squat down in the shelter with the knife still raised. Fooled by the quick enemy. The moon is still spreading its silvery light over the front-line with its trenches and barbed wires.”


The Russians had kept a strong offensive fire towards the frontline in the Lappvik area. Onni, who was the commander of a machine-gun troop, had to get to the new machine gun, which was taken as booty from the Russians and had a very important task to fulfil in the defence of the left wing opposite Ekön. The Russians knew it as well and preferably aimed their anti-tank missiles at the strategic area. The Russians had twice had direct hits and twice Onni had been forced to renew people and material. This time, the Russians obviously regarded as third time lucky. The Russian anti-tank cannonade was terrifying with the drumfire of seven canons.

Onni, who had crept far in front of his piece of ordnance, pressed, pressed and pressed to the ground for all he was worth. It is his only chance. Crash-bang followed by a nerve wrecking “spsi-spsi” as if the air was filled with swarms of buzzing bumblebees when the splinters from the shell fire established its wild war dance in the air. Onni crawled metre by metre, back from the target area – the inferno. In the evening, they served yellow pea soup for dinner at “Grand Hotel Lappvik”.

The following morning, running water from the swamp area almost reached up to the sleeping platform. Someone started bailing out the water, someone else started making breakfast, and as usual, it was porridge. Porridge for breakfast and yellow pea soup for dinner, day in and day out. Everyone longed for something else but nobody complained. There were those who had a worse life.

Onni put on his warmest clothes and went out to see what had happened during the night. He had finished inspecting his second machine gun group and was on his way to see the first group, the one based opposite Ekön, when, without warning, a Russian anti-tank canon started “playing”. He just caught the characteristic sound of the launch and threw himself face down on the ground. A single thought kept going round in his head. It was “get away from this dangerous spot before they fire the next shots”. It was not until he stood up to run that he noticed that he could not put any weight on one of his legs. At the same time, he felt a pain in his back and saw that he was bleeding from his right hand. The shell splinters had done their job. He was injured. He eventually managed to crawl over to the shelter. His friends telephoned from there for a couple of paramedics, who carried him through the forest to the road where the “death cart” waited. Onni lay on his back on the stretcher that the paramedics had to put down on the ground to take cover from the Russian anti-tank cannonade. The trees around them broke likes matches. The paramedics lay in hiding in a small hollow in the ground a short distance away. The cannonade was terrifying and aimed directly at them. He opened his eyes… “If I make it this time, I’ll survive anything”

It was as if “Ivan and his crew” had decided to do anything to bump him off. He felt hopelessly helpless just lying there not able to do anything. He felt the pain from the grenade splinters in his back and in his foot.

Lying helpless on a stretcher in the Finnish forest with the Russian offensive booming in his ears, a memory from an orienteering competition outside Stockholm popped into his head. This was not the first time he was injured.


There was a club championship in orienteering in the terrain outside Saltsjöbaden on the 20th of September 1936, and Onni was there with his friends from Duvbo IK. Onni was in a good position when he arrived at Källtorpssjön, on top of a hill that was 10 – 12 metres high. “Crumbs”, he thought. “Do I really have to get down on the side of the hill and run around it and lose several minutes”? Then he saw a tree, a Birch that grew on the steep side of the hill. “If I lean out and grab that, I can make it”, he thought. “Then I will slide down the trunk of the tree to get down from the hill”. He leaned forwards and fell headlong down. His feet slipped on the wet moss and could not get any grip.

There he was lying unconscious among rocks. He had got the first hit on a small ledge on the way down. That is where he cracked his skull. That emerged later when they saw that there was blood on the edge. When he woke up and was alive, he thought he was in Heaven. “It is incredible, how beautiful it is”, he thought. Then he wiped his eyes and could see again. There was blood everywhere. He had not been able to see anything at first, because he had blood over both eyes. His whole shirt was full of blood. Everything was full of blood. He lay there and thought, “Now, what do I do?” Then he looked at the map that was tied to his wrist. He saw that there was a stream right below. He crawled down to the stream with his cracked his skull. Not only that, all his teeth were loose. He could have played the piano on them. When he pushed them up, they fell over again. He lay there in the stream for a while and just let the water rinse through his mouth. Then he washed his face, covered with a large leaf and over that a handkerchief. He started walking in the direction he was supposed to go and after a while he ran into a friend, “Muren” Strandberg, who was also one of the good runners. He had started after Onni so he had caught up with him. He had lost his check card so he was in trouble as well. They teamed up, walked to the next checkpoint, and asked if they could help them with bandages. They did not have any, but they gave Onni a cup of coffee, which he hardly dared to drink. They stamped their cards and walked to the next checkpoint. The same thing happened there – they did not have any dressing material. Onni looked horrible! They met a Scout patrol and they dressed Onni’s wounds, very quick and very nice. His whole head was covered in dressing material. They gave him a pack of cotton wool to put in his mouth to keep his teeth in place and so that he should not poke them with his fingers. They arrived at the finish. “Muren” won and Onni was third – can you imagine? He did not miss a metre to the last checkpoints, and he must had done a good race before that as well.

They took Onni to the hospital in Saltsjöbaden, where they stitched up his head and brushed his mouth clean. They gave him a rubber plate to put in his mouth. “What will happen to my teeth?” he asked. “Time will tell”, said the doctor. Then he just pressed them back up and put the rubber plate in. “If your teeth are good, nothing will happen, but the can turn black after a year”. Then they sent him home but told him to go to a hospital if his pulse got very low during the night.

At that time, Onni lived at Observatoriegatan, next to Sabbatsberg Hospital. His pulse went down to around 35 during the night, due to the concussion and the bleeding. The doctor should not have sent him home.

He was sent to Sabbatsberg Hospital. Professor Crafoord was there and he called the other doctor in Saltsjöbaden Hospital on the telephone and gave him a real telling off! The idea to let a patient with concussion and such serious injuries out, that was inexcusable.

He had a concussion and he was not allowed to read, but the let him draw since that affected different nerves. The nurses fetched a drawing-table that they mounted above the bed. There he was, drawing and making pictures. His teeth grew back onto the jaws. Time and again, he got up to look in the mirror. He was in the Sabbatsberg Hospital for over a month after that incident.


Now, he was lying in deep pain on a stretcher in the middle of the firing line in a forest in Finland and felt hopelessly helpless. The end felt nigh…

“If I make it this time, I’ll survive anything”

The paramedics carefully lifted the stretcher and hurried through the forest to the battalion’s site, where he had a bandage and an injection for the pain. After that, it was a 20 kilometres ride in the ambulance to the field hospital.

The Chief Surgeon, whose name was Pitkäräinen, made a deep impression on Onni with his excellent calm and amazing skill. He managed to locate and remove every splinter, except for one that had unfortunately lodged itself crosswise between the bones in the right ankle. Pitkäräinen regarded an operation in that part too risky. It could cause disablement for life for Onni. His advice was to leave it to, so to say, grow together. The soreness would go away in time and he promised that Onni would be able to manage without crutches in a relatively short time. However, any more athletes’ competitions in the future were out of the question.

Onni eventually came to the war hospital in Paimo, 10 kilometres east of Åbo (Turku), to recover. He got round on crutches. Onni celebrated Christmas here together with several injured friends from the Voluntary Army. I was a bit of bad luck that it was at the end of the war that he was injured. To avoid transporting all ammunition away from the place and also to cover up the retreat, the Russians had started a manic cannonade towards the enemy, which was later named the “Hangö Concert”.

The Soviet supreme command had ordered evacuation of the Hangö base. On the 30th of November, a large marine division arrived to evacuate the men at the Soviet base. The cargo ship “Josef Stalin”, which was full of people and equipment on the return trip, was seriously damaged by a mine. The surviving passengers were taken prisoners by the Germans on the Estonian coast.

Early in the morning of the 3rd of December, the Swedish Voluntary Army and the Finns started the advance towards Hangö.

With the fall of Hangö, the Swedish Voluntary Army’s mission was accomplished and they faced disbanding. In a roaring snow storm on the 15th of December, Field Marshal Mannerheim formally discharged them at a farewell parade at Harparskog. After having inspected all the companies in the Voluntary Army, Mannerheim stopped in the middle of the parade square, where all the officers had gathered in a line. The Field Marshal here started awarding the Cross of Liberty 1st Class. In a strong and powerful voice, the Field Marshal then read his order of the day to the Swedish Volunteers.

“It is with warm feelings, filled with devotion and gratefulness, I remember the brave Swedes who sacrificed their lives for our joint mission, for the future of the Nordic countries. My grateful thoughts also go to those among the volunteers who were wounded in battle and have lost their ability to work. The Finnish people’s gratitude shall endure for all time.”

The finish

Three days later, the battalion was transported by train via Skogsby to Turku (Åbo). They were drawn up for formation outside the railway station and then marched a short way to the market place. Onni, who had been transported there from the hospital, was reunited with his friends and they were formally discharged again. After a quick feeding on pea soup and sandwiches in an old girls’ school, the heavy company marched down to the harbour. After a long wait, the boarded the S/S Mode, that would take them home, and were sent down into the front port cargo hold.

On Saturday the 20th December, the ship called at Skeppsbron in Stockholm. When Arne and Onni were unloading their belongings, two shabby boys came up to the fence and called out to Arne, who was inside: “Come here!” “What do you want, lads?” said Arne. One of the boys took out the snuff he had under his upper lip and said “How the hell can you ally yourself with those slant-eyed Japanese?” Arne was somewhat stumped. The Germans helped the Finns and the Japanese were allied with the Germans – there by that comment. He threw the lump of snuff through the fence but missed Arne, who said. “I know why I was in Finland, but you don’t. Oh, sancta simplicitas! Long live Finland!”

Their luggage was picked up and loaded on trucks and the men were drawn up for marching off. The battalion Commander, the battalion Aide and the company Commanders all rode on horseback. All other men walked. On Skeppsbron, a large crowd was waiting, among them Onni’s mother, father and brothers. Everyone was cheering and shouting. It was the same all the way to Storkyrkan. Lots of people everywhere who were shouting “Long live the Voluntary Battalion!”, “Long live the volunteers!”, “Long live the heroes from Hangö!” A lot of policemen were out, also some on horseback.

In Storkyrkan was held a memorial service for the volunteers who had been killed in action. Their names were read out. The battalion’s pastor, Hans Åkerhielm, gave a speech. Thereafter, they were gathered on parade and marched past Crown Prince Gustav Adolf and several others.

After that, they marched on to the City Hall. The streets were filled with people who were shouting and cheering. At the City Hall, Governor Nothin greeted them in the Blue Hall. The whole thing was concluded with a banquet, after which the volunteers dispersed. The Swedish Voluntary Battalion, or the Hangö Battalion as it was also called, had thereby gone down in history.

Who was Onni Niskanen?

This is not an easy question to answer. In Sweden most people don’t know about him but in Africa lots of people know what he did and they still remember him with love and respect. Since 2008 I have done research about Onni´s life and still there is so much I don´t know about him.
I have a large archive, documents, images, interviews, films etc. but who was Onni?

To quote Tim Judah again: “As Niskanen emerges from the shadows of the past, it is clear that he was a person who lived several lives at once. He did not live a proverbial double life – he was far more complex a character than that. He was a man who, at his prime, lived at least three utterly separate lives at the same time. While this makes him a fascinating study it also makes him hard to research, because those that thought they knew him, in fact knew only part of him. They know nothing of his other lives or the people that lived there.”

How come he became like this? To understand that we have to go back to the winterwar in Finland 1940.
Swedish evening paper Aftonbladet wrote a full page about Onni January 1942

“My running life is over now,” says Finland-volunteer Onni Niskanen, Duvbo IK

Russian splinter puts an end to the active career as an athlete for the Chairman of Duvbo IK. “It will have to be ‘inside duty’ instead”. The front at Hangö on the 4th of November 1941 … the Russians launched one of their offensives… violent artillery showers sweep the forefront of the Finnish lines on Lapplandsavnittet, which is defended by volunteers… one of them, Warrant Officer ONNI NISKANEN. He is Chairman of Duvbo IK and one of Stockholm’s best-known cross-country and orienteering runner and walker and is officer in command of a machine gun section. He has just inspected the new machine gun, which by the way is taken as booty from the Russians and has a very important task to fulfil in the defence of the left wing opposite Ekön… the Russians know it as well and preferably aim their anti-tank missiles at the strategic area.

The Russians have twice had direct hits and twice Niskanen has been forced to renew people and material… this time, the Russians obviously regard as third time lucky… the Russian anti-tank cannonade is terrifying with the drumfire of 7 canons… Niskanen, who has crept far in front of his piece of ordnance, presses, presses and presses to the ground for all he is worth… it is his only chance… crash-bang followed by as nerve wrecking “spsi-spsi” as if the air is filled with swarms of buzzing bumblebees when the splinters from the shell fire establish its wild war dance in the air… “if I escape this time, I will do it every time”, Niskanen reasoned with himself, where he, metre by metre, crawled back from the target area – the inferno…

“I DID make it that time”, says Niskanen to Aftonbladet’s correspondent, who has looked in on the soldier/athlete in his home in Råsunda. “However, already the next day they had done it and so bad that I have to use crutches, at least for a while”. He returned to Sweden at the same time as the voluntary army returned and., as he said, he returned on crutches. Onni Niskanen – the name reveals that there is Finnish blood in his veins – is an ordinary and sympathetic man, who immediately draws interest to his person. When you look at this calm and modest man with his open, frank face, you understand that it has not only been a love of adventure or a “shallow” motive that has driven him to do his part for Finland. “I wanted to make a contribution and when my two brothers, who at the time when the war broke out were still Finnish citizens, were drafted under the flags, I could not stay passive”, Niskanen simply says. He was, by the way, a volunteer already in the Finnish “Winter war” and is a Sergeant in the Swedish Army.

The “death cart” waited.

“What happened when you were injured?”
“Well, it was on the 5th of November, the day after I had been so lucky to get away unharmed from the Russian artillery fire. I had finished inspecting my second machine gun group and was on my way to see the first group, the one based opposite Ekön, when, without warning, a Russian anti-tank canon started “playing”. I just caught the characteristic sound of the launch and threw myself face down on the ground. A single thought kept going round in my head. It was “get away from this dangerous spot before they fired the next shots”. It was not until I stood up to run that I noticed that I could not put any weight on one of my legs. At the same time, I felt a pain in my back and saw that I was bleeding from my right hand. The shell splinters had done their job. I was injured. I eventually managed to crawl over to the shelter. My friends telephoned from there for a couple of paramedics, who carried me through the forest to the road where the “death cart” waited. I will never forget that trip on a stretcher through the forest. The Russians had started an intensive artillery and mortar fire in exactly that direction where we advanced. It was as if “Ivan and his crew” had decided to do anything to bump me off. That did not work. However, I have to say that I have never felt as hopelessly helpless as at that point, when the paramedics had to put me on the ground, due to the intensity of the cannonades, and take cover themselves. When you are not able to move out of the way when the shell splinters are raving around you and the trees break like matches, it is horrible, to put it mildly. Eventually, I got to the battalion’s site, where I had a bandage and an injection for the pain. After that, it was a 20 kilometres ride in the ambulance to the field hospital, where the Chief Surgeon, the Viktor Sjöström-figure Pitkäräinen, himself took care of me and removed the splinters from my back, my hand and my foot. This Finnish surgeon worked and still works with an excellent calm and amazing skill. He managed to locate and remove every splinter, except for one that had unfortunately lodged itself crosswise between the bones in my right ankle. Pitkäräinen regarded an operation in that part too risky. It could cause disablement for life for me. His advice was to leave it to, so to say, grow together. The soreness would go away in time and he promised that I would be able to manage without crutches in a relatively short time. The Swedish doctors have come to the same conclusion, but there will not be any more athletes’ competitions for me in the future. I can possibly do some exercise sports sometimes.

If I escape this time, I will do it every time! This is a crucial turning-point in Onnis life. It became his motto and if he could not be the best runner in the world himself he could see to that someone els did.

The Swedish-Ethiopian Association

At the Swedish-Ethiopian Association I met so many nice people that I can´t count them all. One that I met 2008 was Carmen Rubin, a 92 year young woman. Oh boy what stories she gave me…

I give you one now, but I will come back to this one later.

The excursion to a wedding in Kenya
As told by Carmen Rubin

Onni and a lad from the Air force, who they called “Rundis” – you could say that he was a keen adventurer – they were both invited to a wedding in Kenya. They were both at the Air force at Bishoftu and had managed to borrow an airplane, a small, light two-seated plane. They did not have room for a lot of luggage, so they dressed in dinner jackets and patent-leather shoes before they left.

They had a very good time at the wedding, but when they set off home… well, that did not work quite so well. The plane had an engine problem and they had to make an emergency landing in the desert, still dressed in black suits and patent-leather shoes. And there, when this plane crashed down, things turned very, very exciting for them, I can tell you, because these Afar people arrived… they are a people who live there in the desert. They are very fierce and they think it is wonderful if any strangers arrive, whom they can “take care” of … they cut the strangers’ willies off. Before the Afars can get married, they have to show like … it is so horrible! I can hardly tell you! But they should preferably have a loop of penis skins that they hang around the horse’s neck, reaching the whole way down to the ground. Then they can ride at full gallop to the bride to be and show that he is a man and a warrior and then he can get married.

So Onni and Rundis were naturally terrified! They did all they could to divert the attention from these Afars, who were so fierce and angry. They did all sorts of tricks to make them go away, but they were hard to please.

Later, it was probably Rundis who tried to explain to them that: “we must go home now, we have small children who we have to take care of”. I cannot say if it is true, but that is the way the story goes. Finally, the Afars let them go and so they had to walk in their patent-leather shoes and black clothes in the desert. It was such a horrible trip that it has gone round as a legend, so to say, for many years. Onni liked to tell it. Then it was so fun that I met Rundis and had it confirmed, the whole story.

Oh dear, what times!

You must keep in mind that this happened 1951

In the blogroll you can also find the link to the webbpage to the association.

Bookfair in Mellösa

Two of the first people I met during my way finding out about Onni was Barbro and Belete Ergetie. They live in a house full of books, from floor to the rof. Barbro is a writer and have published a book; a black and white life, witch is about their lives. Belete is a godsend storyteller, I could easily sit for day´s listening to him…they told me what they knew about Onni and pointed out that I should contact the swedish-ethiopian association

In September we went back to Barbro and Bel to take part in their book fair in Mellösa. They also started the book town there some years ago.

The starting gun…

2008 05 22

Dear Ulf
I am not sure if you will remember me. I am a British journalist who came to see you in Mora in 1997. I had been asked by a French film company to research the life of Abebe Bikila and Onni Niskanen. You and your parents were extremely hospitable in receiving me and I have fond memories of my time with you.
In the end the company never made a film but I wrote a short book-like manuscript for them. Now, all these years later, I have retrieved it from my archives, am dusting it down and preparing it for publication:
First of all I wanted you to know this. I tried several times to find you on the internet but failed. Then I got the idea to write to Marianne Sautermeister, who may have already told you I was looking for you.
She told me the news about your mother so I would like to express my condolences for that. Please also pass my respects to your father.
The book is almost done now but I think I will have some questions and so I was wondering if it would be ok to check some things with you?
One important thing: I have quoted quite a few times from the book by Tsige Abebe and I would like to contact her for copyright permissions. I have had no success in finding her anywhere. Are you in contact with her by any chance?
A portion of the proceeds of the book will go to charity. We have selected Swedish Save the Children, Ethiopia which was of course once headed by Onni.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Tim Judah

Offcourse I rememberd Tim!

When his book, Bikila Ethiopia`s Barefoot Olympian was ready Ingrid and I was invited to the bookrelease in London. It was great fun and Tim told me that someone must write a book about Onni Niskanen and it has to be a swede that do it. This was the starting gun for me. When we came back to Sweden we started to intervju many people that met Onni and this work, documenting Onnis life has giving me so much. I have met fantastic people and went to places round the world because of “my uncle from Africa. This is what I want to share here with you!