By day five we are ticking along nicely. Well, all things are relative and, in the days before near universal cell-phone coverage and the desire to take selfies, then we are settled to the inevitable. We have to wait for people well beyond this dusty little town to decide our futures. There will be no ‘fine’ paid, no retroactive ‘visa’ fee. So, settle, read a book, have loads of conversations about why we are here, both the practical level and going far deeper with some truly existential thinking after evening prayer time with the stars shining through bringing on sleep with the chill of the night.
The boss is an introspective person who announces around night 7 or 8 she can see a satellite. And so, the next evening the militiamen find us all laying out side-by-side as the hour approaches and, lo and behold, we watch this object zoom across the clear night sky. As bright as a star, faster than any aircraft and cutting a straight track across our piece of the sky. We have a new timer set to cut off the heat of the day from the cold of the night.
Apart from exploring the night sky, the boss wants us to have a programme meet. We have virtually the whole team here, will do us good to sit and talk about what we are doing plus come up with new thinking as to how we develop the next steps. Good grace to the people of Ferfer, this dusty town, does not figure highly in the geographic scope of works as we sit down on mats to give one of our days some purpose. It is relaxed and does offer fresh perspective on things. This is not quite the tone I take at the time but the boss is right, we need to use the time to good effect and the practical development of the programming is something we can do together. Maybe a lesson for one meeting of our respective government cabinet meetings – held hostage for week, no washing, basic diet and then sit on mats to talk policy and strategy? I am sure we can get something out of this approach to strategic development.
As I look back there is a sense of pride of acknowledging the team of the time. Quality people who set the basis for Save the Children to still, still, twenty years later, be delivering quality work in this whole region despite the manmade disasters befalling people through these twenty years. They are part of the communities and have stood together as extremist have swept, are sweeping, through the region causing trouble for one and all. I have travelled the region and listened to stories about different places where people have hidden from the tyranny of despots in previous times. The place is one not so rich in farming land but one blessed by people who will stand for what is right. Will stand in support of each other when crises have hit. When crises continue to hit as regional politics generates more conflict and climate change (maybe not a reality in Washington DC but a definite issue in these semi-arid lands dependent on climatic cycles).
Beyond debating, no paper, no flipcharts and definitely no Powerpoint, how we build the programming, there are practical matters. Standing up in the same clothes been in now for best part of ten days brings home some of the little comforts and cares we take for granted. I have been given a ma’awiis, the Somali version of the sarong David Beckham made famous ‘for wearing a skirt’. It is my blanket for the night and my sitting-around-staying-calm-can-we-get-out-of-here garb for the daytime.
With a three-litre oil cooking oil plastic container, top cut open so one can pour, as the washing tool and water-rationing guide. I have a bar of soap and decide to try and have a decent wash one morning before people rise for prayers. Little bit of water, lather up across my upper body and round other parts where sweat congregates, I then find a major problem. Even with the extra three litres of water I manage to gain at 4:30 in the morning, getting the soap out of my hair is a real problem. I am destined to have a coat in the hair of my arms and chest for the remainder of the time we are being held. At least the soap is fairly mild, but the hardness of the water means it just cannot lift all of it out of my hair.
The guys are making fun of me by this time saying I look like a cut price Arab trader come to buy camels; at cut prices, everything on the cheap including, it seems, sleeping rough and not washing. This is the team spirit we had and now solidified as we share every waking and sleeping minute with each other. Yes, escape to your dreams from this nightmare but open your eyes and we are back together. Together.
Our Belet Weyn team have organised a Coca Cola supply – warm and flat – for the boss. Being practical, we have a debate as to how long we are to be here. Three days, send warm clothes as we are headed to Addis. A week, then the message will come for the Ethiopian Army to release us ‘from the clutches of the Somali militia who are holding us’.
Yes, stories developing as people start to cover their positions as the Irish Times runs a front-page story about an Irish aid worker being held hostage. Meanwhile the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office are reading it differently and want a softly, softly, approach working with the Ethiopian Government to have us released from our transgressions; in essence making us prisoners of a bone fide state and having us say we broke (Ethiopian) law. This latter course is not on and we later find there are power plays and blame game manoeuvres going on as we become the collateral in some damage limitation and point scoring between people wanting profile and institutions needing the right kind of news.
I am kicking stones around as we have organised our own version of petanque when an Ethiopian soldier comes to talk. A few words of English add to the communication and I am asked if I am going to play football in the evening. Ah, now we have read the Stockholm syndrome pieces and here the playing out of changing roles comes through. Having stuck my body hair together into a soap induced matted mess, I bargain – yes, will come play football; if you organise water enough for all to wash and some privacy for the boss. This is beyond this conscript’s capabilities. In fact, given the parlous state of any water supply, it is beyond anyone’s ability in the town. We continue developing our stone petanque and amble over to watch the football come the late evening.
All this is getting too much for the lieutenant and he must have heard the reports of the local militia’s offer to come fetch us back ‘home’ to Belet Weyn. His troops may be in uniform but they would be no matches for battle-hardened militia who are possibly better equipped and certainly better motivated. We have already turned down the offer from the militia head to come fetch us but the lieutenant is worried so we are moved to a thorn enclosure at the northern end of the town, almost in Ethiopia proper and a decent kilometre from how the border is nominally shown when we arrived.
The watching of the satellite continues, the routine of eating spaghetti, with the bit of tomato paste sauce for the one meal of the day is there. We swap books and stories. Strange books being read Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, lucky not in a depressed mood! A copy of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting is floating around. Getting people to read out loud the Scottish vernacular conversations in Trainspotting keeps us amused for a few hours. Then there is a panic attack the lieutenant or his crony will come saying this is all subversive culture rather than a signpost to the parlous state of our own wellbeing back on the British Isles. A touch of paranoia comes in as some are over thinking. Trainspotting is disappeared into the pit latrine – visions of Spud going down the disgusting toilet after his fix raise a chuckle but I will be hanged if I try to explain the comedy of this to the rest of the people in Ferfer.
We know the end game has started and now it is a matter of making sure egos are not bruised and we can quietly go back to work without there being any grandstanding and point proving may yet cause harm to us. The heavy machine did not fire the first night and we cannot be disappeared now for sure; but tempers flare and guns can too easily slip from safety to rapid fire. Let us have damage limitation and salved egos on a mistaken visa fee issue rather than some people trying to justify accidental shootings of us Save the Children people.
Release, responsibilities, repercussions and flying back to Kenya on garden furniture