Twenty Years on from the Annus horribilis

Day Trip Ends Night One

Queen Elizabeth described 1997 as an annus horribilis, horrible year, following the death of Princess Diana and several other events. Events where public relations were rotten adding to the profound feelings of loss people felt about the death of a young icon.

I had postponed my return to the UK as Diana’s cortège took its way up the motorway from London to her family home in Northamptonshire. Sat in Nairobi and then Milton Keynes trying to get my planning sorted to return to school – business school this time.

I felt nothing, never knew the lady. Felt the establishment had played the public relations game around the tragedy of any premature loss of life. Blair’s irreverent comments were self serving “A day like today is not a day for soundbites, we can leave those at home, but I feel the hand of history upon our shoulder with respect to this, I really do.”This reportedly had two of his advisors in ‘fits of giggles’. The patronizing nature comes through and how we, the people, no matter what happens to us, will be story fodder for when the establishment feels the need to switch to the collective as the hand of destiny sweeps across us and responsibility for action may fall on them.

I had decided I would quit my job some three months earlier in this horrible year after a set of events to cause a few moments of consternation culminating, if this is the right word, in being held captive with ten other people for thirteen days. Nothing like living on a plate of cold spaghetti and a bit of tomato paste for a few days to make you appreciate a few of the finer things to be found across this globe. My second time being held in a matter of six months – some friends were making jokes about cancelling trips if Crook was travelling. The joys of negotiating contracts, challenging the powers-that-be skimming more than the cream from the top of the camel’s milk.

Back to the cause of my decision to be sitting reflecting as Princess Diana was laid to rest. Events on a Friday afternoon in May 1997 turned sour when a rogue unit of Ethiopian soldiers stopped us saying we had entered Ethiopia illegally. We would have to pay a fine. The hell we would, we were there to look at the work we, Save the Children, were delivering to forestall the spread of cholera and other water borne diseases across the whole region. The border was not only porous but also moveable; some said it had come at least two kilometers into Somalia according to earlier lines of demarcation set at the time of independence. A good friend told of how he and his Dad stood as flags were raised for independence and said to his son – Not sure which one is yours. People, with their diseases, were moving freely around and we were working to forestall some major public health issues.

Belet Weyn District of Hiraan was subject to regular incursions of the Ethiopian soldiers who were far from the commander’s eyes and busy indulging in their own wheeling and dealing. Addis Ababa was at least two days communication away through the hierarchy, the young lieutenant’s family was far away and his girlfriend in this small town had an axe to grind with the family of one of our guy’s.

The consequences? Time to score some points between family’s draw in the clan and tribal alliances. Make some money on the back of the two white people in the group. It did not seem to matter our teams were in this town on a weekly basis with the work on public health. The fact three of our eleven had Ethiopian citizenship? Counted for nothing – United States Presidents on bank notes were being seen in the eyes of our hosts now turned captors.

Negotiations were not to be undertaken, we were not going to pay ‘a fine’. The consequences of which became we were all to be held. And so the afternoon wore on, turned to evening with the sun slowly sliding down and the temperature swiftly plummeted.

The divisions within our captors became apparent as the day’s warmth ebbed. Dressed and equipped for a three or four hour trip to show the boss our work, now became an uncalled for, unplanned, overnight stay. The boss was a woman, a strong, intelligent and opinionated person who was a woman. I always enjoyed when we met people in power in this type of place and they always insisted on talking toward me. A racist thing in itself since the white guy must be the boss. But when they found the white guy deferred to the woman this caused a few sniggers and comments about the demise of Western civilization. Then, after listening to the boss, they realize not to judge a person by their sex.

The boss is the only woman in the group of eleven and the concerns are there. She is the boss but others in the team know the setting and so we work as a team to ensure all of us stay together and stay safe. The divisions among our captors are apparent as a couple of soldiers donate their mattresses to us to sleep on. Under the clear skies, with stars shining bright and white, the stains and general filth of mattresses some years old are apparent. Laid on dusty floors and the sites of goodness knew what activities, the mattresses and general sleeping arrangements did not inspire a decent night’s sleep.

These are in the days before every last person going anywhere near a conflict has been through all those security training courses and, often, endured a few scenario training exercises where someone shouts, a firecracker goes off and a replica gun is shoved toward you.

We were now living the situation and doing what came naturally to a number of the team who had spent the last decade in conflicts. We arranged ourselves so the boss was in the middle, anyone coming to wish ill on her or any of the team would have to face off with all of us. Solidarity is always to be reinforced in times of crisis.

The cold biting in allied to the initial adrenalin buzz having worn off. A collective decision was made to defer Islamic prayers until we were sure of just what the people with guns wanted from us – we were very aware of people being disappeared for purportedly being ‘religious extremists’. Fatigue took us all into its embrace and fitful sleep was visited.

Sometime around four o’clock in the morning, I woke with a start. I was going to piss myself if I did not get up. The wind was blowing chilling me to the bones and activating my senses. I needed to relieve myself for the first time in what must have been twelve hours. I got up. Where to go?

We were being held at a little hut used by the village elders and the soldiers, a sort of liaison office since the soldiers were, to all intents and purposes, occupying troops. There was no love lost here and we were to find how the lieutenant’s lust for ‘his’ girlfriend was also a play to influence which way guns pointed in power battles in the wider area. I had spent the previous couple weeks travelling around and listened to villagers telling of their irrigation pumps and equipment being taken (Impounded? Stolen? A question of language) at gunpoint by Ethiopian troops.

No torch, only the light of the stars, I walked out onto the road, tarmac all the way to Muster Hill this side of the border, with the intention of crossing to join the camels the other side and mix my waste water with theirs. I had gotten to the crown of the road when I heard a cry ‘Awa, tewe’ or something of this ilk. Whoever it was shouting, then followed the not understood Amharic with Somali ‘ Joogsa’ – not sure grammar and context right but I got the idea. In the stillness of the night, the bolt being pulled back on a heavy machine gun being primed to fire reinforced the shouts. I understood the intent of ‘No, stop’. I stopped, put my hands up and waited. But I needed to pee and so as I heard the conversation from the guard tower on the edge of the village become more relaxed I shuffled the last few steps to the further side of the road and relieved myself. Aaaaah. Standing on the tarmac, peeing into the dust, smelling the bouquet of dust and camel. It is not an unattractive smell, however, it is not going to be promoted beyond even as a scent for camel lover’s to dab behind the ears. It cleans the palette as it assails the nostrils as it is sucked in deeply on feeling the relief of my bladder emptying.

I walked back as my colleagues started to stir. They asked about prayers, should they prayer? Would I offer advice? Go ahead; make sure to keep your Faith and your principles. I already had the feeling we were going to be sitting here for a day or two. And, so as dawn lightened the sky and warmed our bones, our attention turned to some other issues we would face. Not the least the safety and privacy of our boss in the coming hours.

The majority of the team turned toward Mecca and prayed. Interestingly, they were joined immediately by two of our ‘guards’ and we started to see just how things were being manipulated. The feelings of the majority of people in the little town were this being a huge, huge, mistake as this young lady, the girlfriend, manipulated the commander. Got him by the balls and his head followed easily is how it was described perhaps pejoratively by a few of the militia employed around the Ethiopian Army.

In the days to come: Days before mobile phone coverage. Sharing milk. Spaghetti and tomato sauce. No meat no money. How to organize team building in a hostage setting. Football: its role in breaking down captive captor settings, the universal game and the role of being English. How to wash with without water and the curse of the Quelea quelea bird. Setting time by watching satellites track across the sky. Picnic furniture, grapes and champagne onboard. Establishment BS as assess had to be covered.