Part VI: Ethiopia, 1990-91
After my trips to Israel and Egypt I returned to England in October 1990 with my mind made up: I would have to go to Axum, and the optimum time to travel there would be in January 1991. If I could arrive before the 18th of that month then I would be able to participate in the Timkat ceremony, during which I hoped that the Ark itself would be carried in public procession.
Raphael Hadane, the Falasha priest whom I had interviewed in Jerusalem, had doubted whether the genuine article would actually be used: ‘I do not believe that the Christians would ever bring out the true Ark,’ he had told me, ‘they would not do that. They will never show it to anyone. They will use a replica instead.’ Coming as it had from a man who had himself journeyed to Axum in the hope of seeing the sacred relic, this warning bothered me a great deal. Nevertheless I saw no alternative but to go ahead with my plan – and that meant confronting my own fears.
With Ethiopia’s civil war continuing to go against the government there would no longer be any doubt that I would have to put myself into the hands of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front if I was serious about getting to Axum. Over the years I knew that they had taken dozens of foreigners into the areas they controlled without the slightest harm coming to anyone. I, however, was terribly afraid that harm might come to me. Why?
The answer to this question lay in the close links that I had established with the Ethiopian regime over the period 1983–9. At the end of 1982 I had abandoned journalism, my former occupation, and had set up a publishing company of my own, the purpose of which was to produce books and other documentation for a wide range of clients, including a number of African governments. One of my earliest deals had been with the Ethiopian Tourism Commission; indeed, as reported in Chapter I, it had been that deal that had taken me to Axum in the first place, way back in 1983.
The result had been a coffee-table book1 which had been liked by senior members of the Ethiopian government and which had led to the commissioning of several similar projects. In the process I had met and got to know many powerful people: Shimelis Mazengia, the Head of Ideology, other Politburo and Central Committee activists including Berhanu Bayih and Kassa Kebede, and last but by no means least Ethiopia’s so-called ‘Red Emperor’, President Mengistu Haile Mariam himself – the military strong-man who had seized control of the country in the mid 1970s and whose reputation for ruthless suppression of dissent was virtually without parallel anywhere in Africa.
There is a sense in which when you work closely with people you gradually begin to see things their way. This happened to me during the 1980s and, by the second half of the decade, I was one of the Ethiopian government’s staunchest supporters. Though I never approved of that government’s use of domestic repression, I managed quite successfully to persuade myself that particular initiatives taken by it were justified and helpful. Notable amongst these was the policy of resettlement inaugurated in 1984–5 with the goal of moving more than a million peasants from famine-stricken Tigray (then still under government control) to virgin lands in the south and west of the country. At the time I was convinced that this ‘was necessary’ because vast areas of the north had become ‘uninhabitable wastelands on the verge of total, irreversible ecological collapse.’2 The political leaders of the TPLF, however, looked at resettlement in quite a different way, seeing it as a grave threat to the rebellion that they were then desperately attempting to consolidate. The real aim underlying this ‘sinister’ policy, they were convinced, was to deprive them of vital grass-roots support in their own home region (since, obviously, every peasant removed from Tigray represented one less potential recruit for the Front).
By backing resettlement, therefore – and I did so publicly on a number of occasions – I had worked directly and explicitly against the interests of the TPLF. Moreover I had identified myself closely with the Ethiopian government in other ways as well. After several meetings with President Mengistu, for example, I had been asked to profile him for the BBC World Service. That profile, aired in 1988, had portrayed him in a far more favourable light than most people believed he deserved. What I had said had been a genuine expression of my own views – having got to know the man quite well I had concluded that his character had a great deal more depth and subtlety to it than he had ever before been given credit for. The end result, however, had been to make me vastly unpopular with his legions of critics and to give the TPLF further reason to conclude that I was firmly in the government’s camp.
Finally, in 1988 and the early part of 1989, my involvement with the Addis Ababa regime had taken on a whole new dimension. In a bizarre series of journeys spread out over a period of more than a year I had carried messages back and forth between Ethiopia and neighbouring Somalia, where another African dictator with whom I was on friendly terms, President Mohamed Siyad Barre, was then still in power. The purpose of these trips had been to lend support to a faltering diplomatic peace process between the two countries, and my main role had been to reassure each head of state that his opposite number was in fact serious about negotiating and subsequently respecting a proper treaty.
At the time I had thought that what I was doing was honourable, worthwhile and manifestly in a good cause. Moreover it had flattered my ego to play the part of ‘honest broker’ between opponents as powerful and as dangerous as Mengistu and Barre. Such psychological inducements, however, had completely blinded me to the downside of my activities – the extent to which the close personal relationships that I was obliged to build with these cruel and calculating men might corrupt and compromise my own character. There is an old proverb which recommends that anyone planning to sup with the devil should use a long spoon. During my little burst of amateur diplomacy in 1988 and 1989 I supped with two devils – and unfortunately I neglected to use a spoon at all.
Did I emerge from the experience tainted in any way? The honest answer to that question is a resounding Yes. Certainly I did. I could also add that I regret my actions and that, if I had my time over again, I surely would not allow myself to be lured by flattery and personal ambition into such vile company.
The fact was, however, that I now had to live with the consequences of my own mistakes. One of these consequences was that the Ethio-Somali peace process in which I had played a part had involved an agreement by both sides to cut off all the finance and arms that they had hitherto provided to each other’s rebel groups. This naturally affected the interests of the TPLF who, over a period of several years, had built up a substantial support-office in Mogadishu, the Somali capital. Once again, therefore, I had demonstrated myself to be an enemy of the Tigrayan cause and a friend to Mengistu Haile Mariam, the dictator whom they regarded as the very incarnation of evil.
This was the background against which, with considerable trepidation, I made my first overtures to the TPLF’s London office in November 1990. I expected that the most likely result was that they would flatly refuse my request to go to Axum. Alternatively, however, paranoia and a guilty conscience had conspired to produce a different and even more worrying scenario in my own mind: the guerillas would agree to take me to the sacred city; then, after I had crossed the border from Sudan into Tigray, they would arrange a fatal ‘accident’. Melodramatic and even absurd though this fear might seem, it was very real to me.
Quest or cover story?
The response of the TPLF to my initial approach was underwhelming. Yes, they knew who I was. Yes, they were surprised that I should want to go to Axum. But no, they did not object to my plans.
There was a problem, however. A visa would be required from the government of the Sudan before I could even fly to Khartoum. An internal travel permit from that same government would also be necessary to enable me to cross the hundreds of kilometres of desert between Khartoum and the Tigrayan frontier.
Unfortunately neither visas nor permits were readily forthcoming for British citizens in the closing months of 1990. By then a major conflict in the Arabian Gulf looked unavoidable, and Sudan had thrown in its lot with Iraq. Britain, by taking the American side, had therefore rendered its nationals virtually persona non grata in Khartoum.
Didn’t the TPLF have ways to get around that ban? Yes, they told me, they did. However, they reserved their efforts for visitors who were their friends or for visitors who could actively assist their cause. Since I was not a friend, and since I did not appear to be offering them anything that was to their immediate advantage, I would have to make my own arrangements with the Sudanese authorities. If I succeeded with that and if I could get myself as far as the frontier town of Kassala, then the TPLF would take me across the border from there and would allow me to proceed to Axum.
My contacts with the Sudanese Embassy in London only added to my growing sense of futility and depression. As a writer I was obliged to lodge my visa request with the Information Counsellor, Dr Abdel Wahab El-Affendi, who turned out to be a dapper young fellow in a suit. He told me, very politely, that I should abandon hope at once: in the present political climate there was absolutely no chance that I would be permitted to enter Sudan and even less that I would be allowed to travel internally from Khartoum to Kassala.
‘Would it help if the TPLF supported my case?’ I asked.
‘Certainly. Will they?’
‘Er … not at the moment. They have other priorities.’
‘Well, there you are,’ sighed Dr Affendi with the air of a man who has just proved his point, ‘you’re wasting your time.’
I asked: ‘Would you mind forwarding my application to Khartoum anyway?’
The Information Counsellor smiled broadly and turned both his hands palms upwards in an eloquent gesture of insincere apology: ‘I will be happy to do that, but I assure you that no good will come of it.’
Throughout the month of November I stayed in touch with Dr Affendi by telephone. He had no news for me. And after my first discussion with the TPLF on 2 November I went back to see them again on the 19th, this time for a meeting with Tewolde Gebru, their head of mission. During that meeting I had the sense that my motives were being skilfully probed by a clever negotiator whose aim was to find out whether I could be taken at face value or whether my real reason for wanting to go to Axum might not have more to do with the military ambitions of the Addis Ababa regime.
Of course, I knew that I was only interested in the Ark of the Covenant. Not for the first time, however, it occurred to me that my so-called ‘quest’ could easily look to the TPLF like the cover story of a spy. I was therefore not sure whether I should be elated or alarmed when, at the end of our conversation, Tewolde told me that he would ask the Front’s Khartoum office to facilitate my visa and travel permit applications.
During the next three weeks I heard nothing further from the TPLF or from the Sudanese Embassy in London. A stalemate seemed to have set in and I began to realize that I was going to have to do something to force the pace.
The idea that I finally came up with was very simple. It was clear that an intense propaganda campaign was being waged alongside the war on the ground in Ethiopia. As part of this campaign the government had accused the TPLF – probably wrongly – of looting and burning churches. I therefore decided that I might have a chance of securing the rebels’ co-operation if I could offer them the prospect of a television news report about religious freedom in Tigray under their administration – a report in which they would be given the opportunity to refute the allegations that had been levelled against them.
I did not want to make a public statement in the media in favour of the TPLF – partly because of a residual sense of loyalty to people in the government like Shimelis Mazengia who had helped me over the years, and partly because I found the prospect of a complete volte face distasteful. It was true that my views on Ethiopia’s political problems had already changed, and that they were still changing. Nevertheless to stand up and support the TPLF now just because I needed to get to Axum was precisely the sort of behaviour that, in recent months, I had come to despise most in myself.
The solution that I had thought up to get around this problem was, however, almost equally devious. I would not make or present the television news report on Tigray. I would get someone else to do it for me.
The person whom I had in mind was an old friend, a former BBC producer named Edward Milner who had gone freelance some years previously. He had recently come back from the South American country of Colombia where he had filmed a special report for Britain’s Channel 4 News. I therefore thought there was a good chance that he might be interested in doing a story on Tigray for the same outlet. Of course there could be no question of steering him in any particular direction. I knew him to be a man of integrity and I knew that he would insist on complete editorial freedom to film and report exactly what he saw in the field. Nevertheless I thought that the TPLF might show more interest in my application to go to Axum if, by this device, I could connect my own proposed trip to an important piece of television coverage. All rebel groups, in my experience, are keen on publicity and I did not think that the TPLF would prove to be any exception.
Accordingly, on Monday 10 December, I telephoned Tewolde Gebru again. When I had met him on 19 November he had told me that he would request the Front’s Khartoum office to facilitate my visa and travel permit applications. I now asked him if there had been any progress on this.
‘None at all,’ he replied. ‘Our people in Sudan are very busy and your case isn’t really a priority for them.’
‘Would it make a difference if I was able to offer you some television coverage?’
‘Depends what it would be about.’
‘It would be about the whole issue of religious freedom in Tigray – and about the relationship between the TPLF and the church. You may be winning the war on the ground but it seems to me that you’re losing the propaganda war …’
‘What makes you say that?’
‘I’ll give you an example. You’ve been accused recently of looting and burning churches, right?’
‘Which presumably has done you some harm?’
‘Actually it has done us a great deal of harm both with the people and internationally.’
‘And is it true?’
‘No. Not true at all.’
‘Nevertheless it’s been said – and once mud of that sort has been thrown it tends to stick.’ I played my trump card: ‘It’s quite obvious that it’s part of a well planned government propaganda campaign against you. Listen, let me quote you something from a report in The Times of 19 October.’ I had in front of me a clipping that my research assistant had given me. ‘The Ethiopian government’, I now read, ‘particularly wants church support in its struggle against further disintegration of the state. President Mengistu said recently: “Our nation is the product of the process of history and it has existed for thousands of years. This is proved by existing historical relics.” Ironically, the President also wants to contrast his liberalizing regime with what is perceived as the continuing communism and anti-clericalism of the secessionist movements …’
‘I am familiar with that report,’ Tewolde interjected. ‘Any liberalization that Mengistu is doing is just a cynical measure designed to win popular support now that he sees that he cannot defeat us on the battlefield.’
‘But that’s not really the issue. The point is that you need to do something about your anti-clerical image. A proper news story televised nationally here in Britain would help you a lot. If we filmed that story at Timkat – which is when I want to be in Axum – then the processions and the whole atmosphere would help to demonstrate that the TPLF aren’t against the church and that you are the responsible guardians of the most precious historical relic of all.’
‘You could be right.’
‘So shall I go ahead and see if I can organize some television coverage?’
‘That would be a good idea.’
‘And if I succeed do you think you’ll be able to arrange the visas and permits in time?’
‘Yes. I think I can guarantee that.’
The eleventh hour
After finishing with Tewolde I got straight on the phone to my friend Edward Milner, explained the situation to him and asked whether he was interested in offering the Tigray story to Channel 4 News.
He was interested and, by Wednesday 12 December, had secured a written commitment from the channel which we faxed to the TPLF together with Ed’s passport details. We also sent a covering letter saying that we would have to leave for Tigray no later than Wednesday 9 January 1991 – well ahead of Timkat.
Two more weeks went by and still we had heard nothing definite from the TPLF. The visas and permits, although now forcefully requested, had simply not come through. ‘Check with me immediately after the New Year,’ Tewolde advised.
By Friday 4 January 1991 I had given up hope entirely and was beginning to experience an odd mixture of regret and relief: the former because I had failed to complete my quest; the latter because I had at least satisfied my own sense of honour by trying my best – and because I now seemed to be safe from all the dangers, real or imaginary, that the journey into Tigray had threatened. Then, late in the afternoon, Tewolde called: ‘You can go ahead,’ he announced, ‘everything is arranged.’
Ed and I flew to Khartoum on 9 January as scheduled. From there an overland trek of less than a week would bring us to the sacred city of Axum.