“Do not come to Ethiopia if you don’t have a media permit. You will be incarcerated. Do not come to Ethiopia if you don’t have a media permit. You will be incarcerated. Do not come to Ethiopia if you don’t have a media permit. You will be incarcerated.”
I had to disconnect the call when the regional in charge of a German aid agency kept repeating the words. However, this strengthened my resolution to go to Gambella. The 11-month long emergency had ended in October and I was there in November.
Before leaving for Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, I emailed and called more than 50 representatives and field workers from various international aid agencies.
While some did not acknowledge my email, other refused to help with exception to just one medical caregiving organisation where the local in charge (Gambella) was willing to help but his boss (country in charge) caught us interacting and gave a non-verbal warning to his employee. The dismay was visible on the face of the Ethiopian man, in charge of Gambella, but there was little he could do. I tried to negotiate with his boss. The boss curtly told me that I will have to approach him through the spokesperson or the media in charge of Ethiopia. When I told him I have followed all the protocols before coming to his office, he excused himself saying he was really busy. His body language was that of a man wrought with fear and anxiety.
Even in Gambella, Puchhala or Pugnido, international aid workers, unlike in their own country, do not smile when their eyes meet yours. They look at you with suspicion. They sit in groups of two or three and sip beer or coffee aloof from the world. They look as if they are forced to be where they are.
A foreigner walking around with a camera is seen as a threat in Ethiopia. “It’s unusual to see somebody walking around with a camera in Ethiopia,” the boss had said when we first exchanged greetings.
This may sound absurd. Ethiopia is the most stable country in Horn of Africa. It is claimed to be the birthplace of humans. It is endowed with limitless natural bounty and should ideally attract a large number of tourists. Tourists usually roam around with cameras.
According to government reports, since 2015, Ethiopia has jumped several places in revenue generation from tourism. Good tourist inflow indicates stability in a region. But, the World Economic Forum invalidates Ethiopia’s tourism revenue numbers.
My story – Behind Ethiopia’s Prosperity: Systematic Genocide Of An Ancient Tribe – explains the rot in the country and why I was seen as a threat or why any reporter is seen as a threat or why Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye were imprisoned and tortured for doing their job in 2011.
The misuse of Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism laws has been criticised enough. For over a decade, Ethiopia has been curbing freedom of speech in the country and is known as one of the worst countries for journalist.
The arrests, killings, tortures, harassment are the order of the day for Ethiopian reporters and bloggers. Surveillance is a tool of suppressing dissent. There is just one government telecom network – Ethio Telecom. You have to be in the queue for at least an hour before getting a sim card. If you are a foreigner, you have to get your phone configured and submit a copy of a passport with the grim officials.
International journalists are mainly monitored through the Press Office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs while the International Aid and humanitarian organisations have Administration for Refugee & Returnee Affairs (ARRA) with (after) them.
There is an informal media ban in Ethiopia. Journalists have to apply for Journalist Visa to work in the country. The process is complicated and applications are often turned down. If the visa application is accepted, the reporter will be monitored all the time and there are strict no-go areas in Ethiopia.
The journalist visa process for Indians does now allow freelancers to go to the country.
From New Delhi, I had called an Ethiopian journalist in Addis Ababa, who often writes for several international media organisations, and she warned me that it was dangerous to go to Eritrean border or the South Sudan border without a media permit.
I absolutely had to go despite not having a journalist visa, a media permit, any organisation backup, enough travel funds and vaccines.
The Journey Till Gambella
The distance from Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, to Abol on Gilo, last village before the South Sudan border totals 900 km and takes 3 days to cover.
I reached Addis Ababa from Johannesburg around 8 pm. Till 11 pm, I kept calling several drivers but nobody agreed to travel the stretch and two of them who agreed charged the amount of money, I could not have afforded. I was staying in a small hotel about 2 km away from the airport from where I could easily access the slums and the refugee colonies.
My initial plan was to travel from Addis Ababa to Gambella and to enter Kenya by road through the Moyale checkpoint via the Ethiopian part of the Turkana lake. But it proved to be unrealistic to cover this stretch in 10 days with the resources I had. On the second day in Addis, I thought of trying my luck at the department of water resources. Anything on an official letterhead with a stamp could have come handy in difficult situations. Getting the permit for Turkana seemed easiest of all the options.
I enter the fortified building and ask people where the office of the department of water resources was. A ministry official sees me ambling on the corridors and takes me to the press office where a very presentable young man (a deputy director), with a smile too sly on his face, comes to speak to me.
I tell him I am not a journalist but a researcher forced by her PhD advisor to get water samples from Turkana lake. I throw biology terminologies I remembered from high school at him. Within minutes, he loses interest in me but the director walks in. She repeats the same questions more sternly and gets equally disinterested when I tell her I am a research scholar at a fictitious university in India. I always travel with fake university id card. I am taken to the department of water resources again but the official who was supposed to issue permission letter was on leave and I am asked to come again after two days.
I walk out, jump in the car and ask my drivers to take me as far as possible. That is when he asks me who I am and I tell him the truth. He remained the only one to know till I left Addis. He starts driving silently and took me to the top of Mount Entoto chasing the setting sun so I get to experience from what Addis Ababa was founded by Empress Taytu Betul (1851–1918). He takes me to the Lion of Judah Monument too but it had turned dark and embarrassed with the stench of urine all over the place, he hurries me to the hotel.
I ask him if he can take me to Gambella. He says if he had a vehicle of his own, he would. At the hotel, I start making calls to drivers again but the same story is repeated. I look up on the internet about bus services from Addis to Gambella and scribble down the names of the travel agents or bus agencies who run the service. I decide to take the early morning bus to Gambella.
I start for the bus stand at 6 am. The government-run bus had left at 4 am. I ask visit offices of about 7-8 private bus services who have advertised online but come to know all of them had discontinued the service and taking the 4 am bus the next day was the only option left. Time was running out so I decided not to waste another day in Addis and took a bus to Jimma, a commercial town 352 km west towards Gambella.
This is still the Oromo region. It takes 8.5 hours to reach and the roads are terrible. People are really warm and friendly and the bus trip was fun. Probably, because I had consumed two bundles of Khat leaves. I did not know anything about it though. I saw my fellow travellers of the bus buying bundles after bundles and chewing away. Curious, I asked a man through sign language what it was. I am probably not a good actor and he did not understand till I had to roll my head to show whether it affects the brain. He said yes. He was the one who gave me a handful of the leaves. I quite liked the chewiness and ended up finishing two bundles laughing and joking all the time about life in the outskirts of Addis Ababa.
Most of the people in the bus were Oromia. I met several government employees who, just like India and any other country, have moved to the capital for better job returns. They all had a very relaxed disposition though I cannot single the quality out since most population I saw in the country looked relaxed. It took me a week to understand how that look of relaxation is that of defeat and hopelessness.
Thanks to the 10-day Ethiopian movie/video binging session back in India from the day I decided to visit the country, I had started understanding words and tones if not entire sentences. I could smell monotony and fear. I was lucky enough to get at least 1 person in the vehicle who knew English better than the others and was eager to talk to me. Most of the time, I was called Shahrukh Khan or Amitabh Bachchan, popular Bollywood actors. When I ask what about Aishwarya Rai, former Miss World and Indian actress, they all seem to believe she has grown old and so they had lost interest.
So, after joking around a bit, when I asked my co-passenger about life there, a gloom descended and shadowed his brilliant smile.
“Life is okay. There are problems like everybody. We Oromia are strong people.”
After a bit of more probing and pinching, “Our people are killed. Land problem.”
In bits and pieces, he told me about the general mood of the people. At times, other curious men would come to hear our discussion and after coming to know what we were discussing seemed to agree with the man, go away and take their seat again.
I had booked my room online in a hotel in Jimma which turned out to be really shady. So, I took my bag, cancelled my booking, took an auto and went to live in Jimma Central Hotel bang on the bus stand.
From 7 am to 11 am, I could not understand the time of the bus to Gambella. Direct bus to Gambella takes about another 8 hours. No information on websites, hotel people have no idea, shopkeepers and travel agents don’t know about the bus schedule, nobody at the bus stand knows except one man in uniform who does not speak English and does not understand English time. Beware of the Ethiopian time for it can simply blow away your carefully planned schedule. I did not have a schedule and so, had nothing to worry about till it made me miss my direct bus from Jimma to Gambella.
Finally, I had to take a share taxi to Bedele, 140 km away. I wait at the bus stop for 1.5-2 hours before the 12 seater tempo traveller fills. I pay for the two seats beside the driver so I don’t have to smell another passengers armpit but a man comes and requests me to share my seat with him since he is in a hurry. He says he is a PhD student (which his id card confirms) and I agree because I thought it would be useful to travel with a person who could speak English.
Bedele & Metu
Just after Jimma, the road improves drastically and I see a large military compound. The condition of the road before and after the army compound says a lot. The PhD student gets down and Bedele and takes another vehicle to Nekemte while I take a tempo traveller to Metu, 12 km away where I had planned to stay the night. But before leaving, he gives me the phone number of a doctor in Metu and asked me to call him if I run into trouble. I take down the number reluctantly now knowing that the phone number will save me in unimaginable ways.
From Bedele to Metu, the landscape starts changing and so does the physical appearance of the people and their facial expressions. It does not appear easily on Google search and I could not book a hotel in advance. It was 7:30 pm. The driver dropped me at a place that looked like a posh brothel. Six men surrounded me when I peeped into the room they were offering me for the night. I sensed trouble and called the doctor whose phone number the PhD scholar had given me.
His clinic was just a kilometre away and when I asked the men where it was, they said five. They started telling me how difficult it was to go to the clinic. I knew they were lying so I walked out with my bag and stood on the road where I could get maximum light from the lonely lamp post. During the 10 minutes or probably less I had to wait for the doctor, about 10-15 men surrounded me. The only thing I am scared of is mob frenzy and there I was standing still while the men kept pulling my bag, clothes, whispered all sort of things in my ears. Going to police would have meant end of the assignment I had taken up. I absolutely had to avoid police and the army.
The doctor, a polite soft-spoken person, arrives and chases the people away and we reached the Bethlehem Hotel the one my fellow passengers had suggested. I was given the best room in the hotel.
Metu to Gambella
Next day, 6 am, my most anticipated journey to Gambella, which is 170 km away, starts. Once again, I take a share taxi from Metu bus stand in front of which I had spent the most horrible 10 minutes of my life.
The taxi goes through beautiful valleys intermitted with four police checks. During the first two checks, the officers just look inside the car to count how many people are travelling and let us go. The next two was when each passenger was asked to get down and show his or her id cards. Their bags are checked. I was asked a couple of questions. I showed them my tourist visa and explained I was a wildlife researcher who wished to visit the Gambella National Park that hosts world’s second largest Wildebeest migration, next to Masai Mara in Kenya. Some zoologists say that the migration in Ethiopia is the largest but not on record because of the government, busy in managing the migration of refugees, does not have the time for animal conservation.
I asked them whether there were tigers and lions in the valley where they had stopped us. I was let off with a laughter as an answer.
I repeated this at the second checkpost which was after we crossed the charred remains of the bus in which 19 people had succumbed. The attack was, according to various news reports, carried out by the Gambella Nilotes United Movement/Army (GNML). The GNML has refuted such allegations.
On reaching Gambella, I check into the biggest or the most reputed hotel of the city where most of the foreigners stay. At the hotel reception, the people are curious to see an Indian woman travelling alone. They are surprised every time I order a beer (just like in most of the places in India). I tell them I am a wildlife researcher and I had come to witness the great wildebeest migration in the Gambela National Park. November wasn’t the month when the animals migrated but nobody seemed to know of such a phenomenon when they have the ethnic violence to save themselves from every now and then.
After four days, I ate good, took a nice long shower and slept for 2 hours before my first appointment. I was to fix a vehicle and a trustworthy driver to take me further west.
The person I was supposed to meet does not turn up. The friendly hotel manager offers to takes me around the electronic shops in Gambella from where I buy a tripod; that broke before I could start shooting the next day.
I woke up at 5 am out of excitement. Reach the meeting place at 8 am, wait for three hours on a road crossing when my guide arrives and we go to the Gambella bus stand. We were so late that most of the vehicles were already hired and we had to settle for a transport van which I know was a misfit for the road we were supposed to travel but hardly had any other option.
We first go to Pingudo and then to Puchhala. From Puchhala, where Murle attacks are quite frequent, I travel further to Abol along Gilo. It takes an hour in a boat to reach Abol and half an hour extra to return. You already know what I found there if you read the story. This is the place where a 100 children are kidnapped and sold as child militia in South Sudan, women are raped and over 50 people killed every year with nobody batting an eyelid.
On our way back, the driver of the tempo traveller, refused to drive further. He had seen me talking to the Anuaks during the journey, this made him suspicious and he alerted the group of people in Pingudo. The group of men were all employed in various aid organisations that have set up refugee camps in the town and were Nuer by ethnicity. They let me go only when I made them believe that my tourist e-visa was an official media permit and bribed them with bottles of beer.
We start at 3 am the next morning. The rain has worsened the road conditions and our vehicle got stuck on the periphery of Gambella National Park. While crossing the Gilo river, we had heard a lion roar just 25-30 ft away from us. The locals in Pingudo had warned us of encountering lions on same road were we stuck from 3am till 7am. We kept ourselves locked in the vehicle. With day break, we finally got somebody to help us out.
From Gambella, I took a flight back to Addis and from Addis to New Delhi.
Story Of A Story
“Do not come to Ethiopia if you don’t have a media permit. You will be incarcerated.” These words kept ringing in my ears throughout the journey till I reached Addis. Why should international aid and humanitarian organisations adhere to or play complicit the media ban or censorship imposed by the government? The most obvious answer is that journalist would report and go away but the field workers will have to be there working along with the government and they need the government to cooperate with them. Yes, we have heard this innumerable times.
In July 1986, SPIN magazine published an expose – Live Aid: The Terrible Truth – Robert Keating that claimed that the money raised by Bob Geldof, the ‘figurehead’ of Live Aid.
On March 4, 2010, BBC’s Africa Editor Martin Plaut published an investigation – On the trail of Ethiopia aid and guns – alleging that the aid money raised during the famine in the early 1980s in Ethiopia was used by the ruling government to buy weapons.
Band Aid Trust filed a complaint against the article and was supported by supported by Oxfam, Unicef, the Red Cross, Christian Aid and Save the Children. On November 4, BBC had to apologise for the story.
‘South Sudan Intercepts UN Trucks Carrying Weapons‘ was published on March 7, 2014. On December 17, 2015, the story of ‘UN accused of ‘gross failure’ over alleged sexual abuse by French troops‘ was published. On October 5, 2016, the story ‘UN peacekeepers refused to help as aid workers were raped in South Sudan – report‘ was published.
In the article – Is Ethiopia Violating UN Sanctions against North Korea – published on December 23, 2014, the author claims that “since the 1970s, Ethiopia has been in the company of North Korea’s most loyal military customers. Amongst other things, Pyongyang has been a source of munitions, armoured personnel carriers, tanks and tank parts, artillery and rocket fuel. In addition to these forms of assistance, North Korea has helped Ethiopia construct, operate and upgrade two weapons factory complexes—today is known as the Gafat Armament Industry and Homicho Ammunition Industry. From Ethiopia’s perspective, contracting to North Korea for the initial supply of weapons production technology was a means of reducing long-term dependence on foreign military suppliers. (More comically, according to the Ethiopian Chief of Defence Staff, North Korea’s help in this regard also allows Ethiopia to meet its peacekeeping obligations).” The author sourced this information to a Wikileaks document.
While travelling, I kept wondering why the aid organisations won’t help a freelance journalist like me who had come to report on her own volition. I wondered why the Anuak genocide continues. I wondered how.
Almost 50% land in Gambella, the name originating from Gama-Bela (Anuak word for a man holding a bundle grain), is open for foreign investment and rest is being used to resettle thousands of refugees pouring in every day and the rape and killing of the indigenous Anuak population go on unabated.
And yet, Wikileaks throws up communication dated April 26, 2006, that say “the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative in Addis Ababa and other embassy contacts confirmed mid-April reports of Ethiopian troop movements along the Sudanese border in the Gambella region of western Ethiopia, but deemed media reports of widescale attacks against the Anuak ethnic group “exaggerated”.
It was only when I travelled to Gambella, I understood why the aid agencies do not help journalists and when they do, they show them a selective picture. Probably because they are complicit in hiding what the tainted ruling government of Ethiopia whats to hide. And this was the story of the story I found in Gambella.