In 2011, two Swedish journalists came face to face with the shady reality of geopolitics in a series of terrifying events. Reporter Martin Schibbye and photographer Johan Persson traveled to Ethiopia, where they ended up being shot, kidnapped, mock executed, and then imprisoned for over a year by the Ethiopian authorities. Their book, 438 Days, a bestseller in Swedish, has just been translated into English.
From their shared office in Stockholm, Martin and Johan tell me that they traveled to the Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia hoping to investigate the presence there of Africa Oil, a Swedish company heavily connected to Lundin Petroleum. Lundin has, in Johan’s words, a “dirty record when it comes to getting oil in these environments… the trip was a big risk but it was important because it was a Swedish company and we wanted to know what affect they were having there.”
For years, a conflict has dragged mercilessly on in the vast desert scrub of Ogaden. A rebel group, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), fights assorted Ethiopian forces in the hope of achieving self-determination for Ogaden. Ethiopia views the ONLF as terrorists.
“The Ogaden is closed and that means all foreign journalists are kicked out of the region,” Johan says. “There are two ways to enter the region as a journalist,” Johan told me. “You can go with the Ethiopian army for a propaganda tour or you can go in with rebels fighting for independence.” Out of these two “bad options,” the journalists went for entering Ogaden with the ONLF, who would take them to the oil fields.
They crossed the border with a smuggler and were almost immediately detected by the Liyu police, a notoriously unpredictable regional security force. There followed a car chase through the desert but, says Martin, when it looked as if they’d got away, “the smuggler overturned the car and ran off into the night. We met a group from the ONLF and started to run.”
The group walked for three days, barely sleeping or eating, attempting to escape their hunters. And then, on the next day, they heard shots. Ethiopian soldiers were attacking their group, which scattered. Johan was shot in the arm and Martin was shot through the shoulder. They shouted that they were journalists and as they watched the ONLF fighters disappear into the bush, they were seized by the Ethiopian soldiers. Martin’s first thought was, Damn, we lost the story.
The Swedes talked soccer with their captors to try and establish a rapport. Martin’s big nose drew comparisons to Zlatan Ibrahimovic. But the Zlatan-LOLs soon ran dry. Martin and Johan were given no medical attention. Johan’s gunshot wound got worse and worse. They weren’t allowed to call their family. They weren’t allowed to call the embassy.
Instead, Abdullahi Werar, the vice president of the Ogaden region and a government loyalist, flew down to meet them and told them that they had to participate in a film in which the Swedes were to recreate their “liberation” by Ethiopian forces. “Basically, he was fabricating evidence to use in court to show us as terrorists,” Johan says.
If the journalists didn’t cooperate, they’d be shot and the shooting would be blamed on the ONLF. “These people are crazy,” Johan tells me. “They are psychopaths, and foreign companies are using them for protection.”
They demanded a doctor and a lawyer but none came. At one point, Martin was forced down on his knees and a gun was put to his head. He thought he was going to be executed. But the shots that were fired were into the air, not into his head. While this elaborate piece of propaganda was taking place, Abdullai Hussein, a member of the film crew, had come to the conclusion that what he was seeing was wrong. He would go on to escape to Kenya and then Sweden with the staged footage, which was later shown on Swedish TV.
Johan and Martin spent two and a half months in an anti-terrorist prison before being transferred to the notorious Kaliti Prison in Addis Ababa. They had been charged on a number of counts of terrorism. By embedding with the ONLF Martin and Johan became, in the eyes of the Ethiopian authorities, terrorists themselves.
Kaliti was dusty and overcrowded, full of rats and fleas. Disease was rife, with many of the inmates suffering from tuberculosis and HIV. A brief scene in 438 Days illustrates the dire conditions. A Rastafarian prisoner from Trinidad looks helplessly around him and screams that the prison resembles the cramped bowels of the slave ships. He asks his guards how they could do this to fellow Africans. The guard tells him that he doesn’t give a shit because, he says, Ethiopians were the slave traders, not the slaves.
“We heard other prisoners being tortured,” Martin recalls. “We heard the screams and also realized there was a pattern to them: at the beginning they were very loud and then you could hear body-on-body contact and in the end they were silent… Had we been Ethiopian journalists, we would have been tortured or shot in the desert.”
For Martin though, “The worst thing was not the lack of food, or the violence or that people died and were carried out feet-first, the worst thing was that you were afraid to speak. Every night we had to watch Ethiopian state television and people who talked politics were taken away. Our conversations became more and more rudimentary. It got under your skin. You would wake up in the middle of the night, covered in sweat, wondering if you’d said something bad about the government.”
This internalizing of totalitarianism has not left them. “Even speaking to you, I’m thinking about how you might use it against me,” Johan says.
A few months into their ordeal, Johan and Martin were taken to court. “Everyone knew that the trial was a play—that it was a piece of theater. And we had to play it as good actors because if we didn’t, they’d give us a higher sentence and would find it harder to get a pardon,” remembers Johan. Still, they were sentenced to 11 years in prison.
After their sentencing, the journalists met more frequently with Swedish ambassador Jens Odlander. “He was very frank about the realpolitik of the case,” Martin says. “After we were sentenced, he said we had two options: either appeal or ask for a pardon. And he said that if we appealed, we should know that there was no country in the world, not even Sweden, that will risk its relationship with Ethiopia because of us, and that we would be sacrificed on the geopolitical altar.”
Martin and Johan were eventually given a pardon when, as Martin says, “Ethiopia realized that it was beginning to cost more than it takes to have two international journalists locked up in the Kaliti prison.” On their release, they gave an interview to Ethiopian state television in which they laid it on thick, thanking the government and admitting to being terribly wrong about what they’d done. “To be honest, the Ethiopian government played us really good,” Johan says.
When they got back to Sweden, Martin began seeing a therapist. Johan didn’t. He checked into a hotel for the first three days he was back and then moved in with Martin and his wife Linnea. Johan slept on the sofa. After 438 days together in prison, the two journalists needed to be with one another.
On Sunday, Barack Obama flew into Ethiopia. It’s the first time a sitting US president has visited the country. At a press conference with the Ethiopian prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, Obama said that, “continued growth in Ethiopia depends on the free flow of information” and that the US would “continually bring up” human rights concerns. But the American president also praised the “democratic” nature of Ethiopia’s much criticized recent elections, in which the ruling party won every single one of the country’s 546 parliamentary seats. First of all, his government would keep working to “continue Ethiopia’s economic progress” and “further open US markets to Ethiopian products.”
With Ethiopia still a key ally in the War on Terror, Obama’s “concerns” about human rights and the freedom of the press may amount to nothing more than diplomatic posturing. Martin and Johan are out of prison but the free, honest reporting they tried to engage in remains illegal.
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