By David Blair
With blazing eyes, the intelligence officer slammed a wooden ruler on his desk. “You made a telephone call,” raged the man I knew as Jamal. “You are going straight to prison.”
In few other countries would a phone call arouse such strength of feeling. But during my three days under armed guard in Ethiopia last week, I discovered the true meaning of “walking on eggshells”. Whenever I was brought before Jamal or another official, I felt as if one careless gesture or ill-chosen word could land me in prison.
Last Tuesday, I found myself under arrest in the southern Ethiopian town of Gode. Being arrested is an occupational hazard for a foreign correspondent and, in this case, falling foul of the authorities was a near-certainty.
Ethiopia is waging a brutal counter-insurgency campaign in the wastelands of the Ogaden region, where Gode is found, and the authorities are doing their utmost to shield the area from prying eyes. Any foreigner wishing to visit must seek special permission — which is routinely denied.
This presents journalists with a dilemma. Had I asked for clearance to visit Gode, the answer would almost certainly have been “no”. This would have left me with the unappetising choice of meekly obeying the ruling or openly defying the government by travelling to Gode regardless.
Instead, I chose what I thought was the least worst option. I neither requested nor received permission to visit Ethiopia’s Somali Region, as the Ogaden is called. I simply boarded an internal flight and flew to Gode.
At first, all went well. I landed in the remote town, ringed by an endless expanse of plain and scrub, at 9.30am last Tuesday and was able to spend most of the day gathering information. This allowed me to file a lengthy story about the insurgency for yesterday’s newspaper.
But shortly after 3pm, two armed policemen entered the shabby hotel where I was staying. At first, they were deferential and polite. They asked to see my passport and, after I had shown them the document, they left, apparently satisfied. Half an hour later, they returned. “Come with us,” they said insistently.
I did not argue. They led me to an anonymous building sheltering behind a high wall a few hundred yards from the hotel. Inside, I met a powerfully built man in civilian clothes who introduced himself as Jamal.
His questions were simple. Who was I and what was I doing in Gode? I came clean, stating that I was a journalist from The Daily Telegraph and producing my passport and Ethiopian press accreditation. Jamal deduced I did not have permission to be in Gode.
He promptly confiscated my telephones, notebooks and money, and decreed that I should stay in my hotel until I could be returned to the capital, Addis Ababa. I was explicitly banned from phoning anybody. While forceful and stern, Jamal remained polite. “I could put you in prison,” he said, “but we Ethiopians are hospitable people.”
So I returned to my hotel, accompanied by two paramilitary policemen, both carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles. Mahmoud and Ibrahim were my constant companions for the next two days. Both were unfailingly courteous — before long, I was sending them on errands to buy food and water.
Outside the hotel, a lone man, stripped to the waist, walked up and down the dusty street laughing deliriously. I gathered that he had fallen into the hands of Jamal’s predecessor during Ethiopia’s elections in 2005. Days of torture had driven him to madness.
Last Wednesday, Jamal dropped round, wreathed in smiles. He had good news. I would return to Addis Ababa on an Ethiopian Airlines flight the following morning.
Soon after he left, the inevitable happened. The Daily Telegraph foreign desk, having heard nothing from me for two days and unable to reach my (confiscated) mobile phone, rang the hotel. I told them what had happened. But Mahmoud and Ibrahim heard me talking on the phone. The moment I put the receiver down, I was solemnly led to Jamal’s office.
He was furious. “You disobeyed me,” he shouted. “I ordered you not to make a telephone call.” I explained that my office had called me, not vice versa. “How did they know the number?” Jamal demanded. I replied that I had given them my hotel number before leaving for Gode.
Jamal was having none of it. “You are going to prison and you are not going to Addis tomorrow,” he said. I realised that I had two options — either to become as angry as he was, a notably high-risk decision, or to grovel. I chose the latter. After 10 minutes of sustained begging and pleading, Jamal relented. I would not go to jail and I would leave for Addis Ababa as planned.
The following morning, he returned all the money he had taken and put me on a plane. An armed guard accompanied me on the flight — in case I was tempted to jump out.
My fellow passengers took one look at my escort and probably concluded that I must be a dangerous criminal. Little did they know that my chief offence in Jamal’s eyes had been answering my phone.