- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2008

The most senior foreign ambassador in the United States — the man other diplomats seek out for advice and the only ambassador still in Washington who presented his credentials to President Reagan — keeps a toy train on his desk.

Ambassador Roble Olhaye said the train reminds him of his boyhood days spent with his family, which was in the railroad business in the Horn of Africa. He would ride from town to town, through dusty villages from the port city of Djibouti to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.

“On the railway, you never knew your nationality. The railroad didn’t have any nationality,” he says.

The toy train is symbolic of Mr. Olhaye’s journey from the tiny country of Djibouti — a nation of 467,000 citizens (a population smaller than Washington’s) over 8,800 square miles (about four times the size of Washington) — to the United States, where he is the senior ambassador at the United Nations and dean of the diplomatic corps of about 180 ambassadors here in Washington. He usually spends part of the week in New York on U.N. business.

“It was a journey in my mind, one of those things you would call destiny,” he says. “Nobody in my family thought that one day I would be in America, presenting my credentials to President Reagan. It is one of those life stories, but nobody knows how it happened.”

Mr. Olhaye delivered his diplomatic credentials to Mr. Reagan on March 22, 1988. Ahmed and Omar, two of his five sons, accompanied him to the Oval Office meeting.

“The president was in his final year in office. He seemed distracted,” Mr. Olhaye recalls.

That was a different Washington and a different era. Cracks were beginning to appear in the foundation of the Soviet Union. The Reagan administration was reeling from the Iran-Contra scandal, which involved selling weapons to Iran and using the proceeds to fund anti-Communist rebels in Nicaragua. Eritrea, Djibouti’s northern neighbor, had won its independence from Ethiopia.

Before the end of that year, George H.W. Bush would be elected president, Benazir Bhutto would become prime minister of Pakistan, the Iran-Iraq war would end, and terrorists would bring down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Today, as the longest-serving ambassador in Washington, Mr. Olhaye has completed 20 years of diplomatic service here and is closing in on the record of 22 set by former Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who left in 2005.

When he arrived in the United States, Mr. Olhaye’s country was unknown to most Americans. He used to receive mail addressed to “Mr. Djibouti.”

“I think we have overcome that now,” he says, explaining that even schoolchildren from throughout the United States write to him asking for information about Djibouti for class projects.

Asked why they chose his country, the affable 64-year-old diplomat shrugged his shoulders.

“I have no idea,” he says.

Soon, however, the answer to that question could be self evident if investors complete a massive and ambitious project to build a 17-mile-long bridge from Djibouti across the Red Sea to Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula. Each side of the bridge would feature a luxury resort with a five-star hotel and marina.

“That would be one of the wonders of the world,” Mr. Olhaye says.

Djibouti already is well-known to relatives of about 1,500 U.S. troops stationed there. Djibouti became a U.S. military outpost in the war on terrorism in 2002.

“We hear from their friends and relatives. They say, ‘I know Djibouti. My cousin is there, or my husband is there,” the ambassador says. “We feel like an extended family of the United States.”

At the United Nations, Mr. Olhaye has been at the center of history. He served on the U.N. Security Council as the former Yugoslavia was breaking up and war erupted in Bosnia.

“It was a very intense, a very painful experience because of the human rights violations Serbs committed against Bosnians,” he says.

The ambassador was not in New York on Sept. 11, 2001. He was having breakfast at his home in Potomac when the first hijacked plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. Like many others in Washington, Mr. Olhaye thought it was a tragic accident. When the second plane struck the South Tower at 9:03 a.m., he knew it was a terrorist attack and rushed to the embassy in an office building on 15th Street Northwest.

“I saw this whole city turned upside-down. The streets were swarming with people,” he said.

At the time, Mr. Olhaye was dean of the African diplomatic corps. He began work on a statement of support for the United States that all of the African ambassadors in Washington would later endorse. The statement remains displayed in the embassy’s conference room.

“I read the whole statement on the eighth floor of the State Department,” he said, referring to the elegant top floor reserved for the highest diplomatic functions. “Secretary [of State Colin] Powell was there. All of the African ambassadors were there.”

The statement expressed their “profound horror, shock and grief” over the terrorist attacks.

“May God grant us strength and patience,” it read. “May Peace Prevail!”