Duo of Swedish Journalist Reminisce Their “438 Dagar” in Ethiopian Custody


Journalists Schibbye and Persson

By: Yusuf M Hasan

Somalilandsun – The Authors of “438 DAGAR” Martin Schibbye, and Johan Persson, which is a book detailing their “438 Days” in Ethiopian custody and related experiences have now turned to exposing the ills they perceive to be ongoing in the Ogaden Region.

In an exclusive interview with journalist Mohamed Farah of Ogadentoday Press the two Swedish scribes say their motivation to pursue information on the region some refer to as “Ethiopia’s Darfur” or “Africa’s Palestine” by the burning desire to bring to light inhuman activities that were known but craftily what hidden from the International Community.

Describing their arrest by Ethiopian Counterinsurgency forces operating in the Ogaden region against the Ogaden National Liberation Front-ONLF that led to the 438 Days” in Custody Journalist Schibbye said that 150 soldiers who had been pursuing them for some time opened sporadic gunfire injuring him on the shoulder while colleague Johan got hit in the arm

Though the two faced extreme torture especially lack of medical attention, the counter insurgency forces viewed them as hostile elements geared towards disruption of national security since they, the Swede journalists undertook their coverage under guidance of and accompanied by members of ONLF, an armed group the Ethiopian government considers rebellious thence outlawed.

Below are the verbatim excerpts of the interview

Ogadentoday Press: Welcome to Ogadentoday Press

Martin Schibbye: Thank Very Much

Ogadentoday Press: What makes you to travel into Ogaden and put yourself at risk?

Martin Schibbye: Despite, many reports written about the conflicts in the Ogaden, no-one set foot in the oil-fields to report on and that drove us to try and use our legs to see with our own eyes the impacts of the Oil-Industry rather than googling to cover the story. The only conventional way into the area is to make an official visit, stage managed by the Ethiopian regime, pausing for a few hours in some well‐run hospital. These things are organised at regular intervals. At some point, you have to make a choice as a journalist. Either you produce a text in which Ethiopia claims there is peace in Ogaden, while the separatist movement, ONLF, insists there is a state of war. And you’re satisfied with that. Or you try to find out what’s true. Which of the perspectives are accurate. Either refugees were tortured by the Ethiopian army, or they weren’t. Either there is conflict in the region – or not. It shouldn’t be a matter of opinion. That is why we have to go into, so we can see with our own eyes what the consequences are of the activities of the international oil companies

Ogadentoday Press: Did you have a chance to meet and interview the local Ogadenis inside Ogaden region?

Martin Schibbye: No, not really, the conflict level is high and the area is militarized .We passed through an empty village that its residents fled due to the conflict. We pass abandoned huts, and meet an elderly man wandering the desert who says his village was burnt to the ground and everyone was killed. He planned to flee to Dadaab. We also make a long interview with the commander of the ONLF group that is guiding us about why they fight and their views on foreign oil companies. Because of the heavy fighting in the area that we passed through the Ethiopian army detected, followed and ambushed us.

Ogadentoday Press: When did you fall into the hands of the notorious Liyu Police militia? And how did they treat you?

Martin Schibbye: On June 30, about 150 Ethiopian soldiers attacked and opened fire on us I got hit in the shoulder and Johan got hit in the arm. Then, I shouted: “Media! Media! International Press!” After we were arrested, we were not given medical care, a chance to contact our Embassy, or taken to a court but instead kept us in the desert for four days. It was the longest and the worst days that I have ever experienced in my life. The army started to make a mockumentary about what has happened and they brought in military journalists and gave us clean clothes. We were told to co-operate or we would be killed. To make us cooperate they arranged a mock execution. Driving us around to different locations to act like a Steven Spielbergy film. The film’s director was the vice-president, Abdullaahi Yuusuf Weerar, conversing with the regional president, Abdi Mohamoud Omar by phone.

Ogadentoday Press: Were you imprisoned in one of Ogaden jails?

Martin Schibbye: We spent a couple of nights at the police station in the regional prison of Jigjiga but then we were taken to Maekalawi prison in Addis Ababa. In the beginning, we thought that if we could prove that we were journalists we would go free, but the opposite happened. We were sentenced and charged as terrorists because of being journalists. They made an assessment. At one hand international criticism on the other hand to scare away both foreign journalists and the local ones. Meles Zenawi was on top of our case from day one and wanted to make an example.

In detention we realized that we were not alone as all the cells from right to left where crowded with politicians and Journalists charged with terrorism. It was obvious that we were in the middle of crackdown because of Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law restricted freedom of expression and used it as a tool to crackdown on dissidents.

Ogadentoday Press: How do you describe Kality jail to people that have never been in it?

Martin Schibbye: Its impossible. Its eight zones with 800-1000 prisoners in every zone. Basically its crowded like a music festival, but without beer, without music and with a lot of soldiers with guns. It was 200% overcrowded, hot, dusty, lack of water, full of rats and fleas and many people were very sick among them, people with HIV and tuberculosis infections. But the conditions were not as significant as the other inmates. What is concerning is not the condition but who they put in there: Journalists and political opposition figures. There was also something else in Kality. A friendship between prisoners. The first word I learned in Amharic was “nubla”, “come and eat”. We hade a lot of support from fellow prisoners.

Ogadentoday Press: Ethiopia government regards jailed Journalists in Kality as terrorists, do you agree?

Martin Schibbye: No, we have been accused of the same things, we had been to the same prison and had the same sentences-but that is where the parallel ends: Eskinder Nega, Woubshet Taye, and Reeyot Alemu and many others still there. Only me and Johan are free.

All these young Ethiopian journalists faced a tough choice. They are intelligent, and well-educated .They could have chosen an easy life. They could have chosen another profession, but the love for the truth to their country for their human being made them journalists. They stayed and continued to write, and that decision brought them to Kality.

With nine detained journalists left in Kality, Ethiopia today is one of the leading countries in the world when it comes to imprisoning members of the press. Repression of the media has also made the country a world leader when it comes to running journalists out of the country.

Ogadentoday Press: Do you believe that your book for “438 days” can expose both the plights of Ogaden people and Prisoners of conscience in Ethiopia?

Martin Schibbye: Since our release I have often been asked if the attention helps the imprisoned or not. My answer is that it is far more important than food and water. When you’re locked up as a prisoner of conscience, the greatest fear is to be forgotten. The support from the outside is what keep you going and international coverage does provide a certain level of protection. Prison guards and administrators will think twice because they know the world is watching. But we should also be aware of that the arrest of me and Johan Persson made evident the damage to its reputation the Ethiopian government was willing to accept in its effort to silence independent reporters.

One positive outcome of our book and a newly released documentaryfilm based on material smuggled out by Abdulahi Hussein (a former adviser to the state president Abdi Muhamud Omar and now a refugee in Sweden) is that The International Public Prosecutors Office in Sweden has decided to start an investigation of suspected war crimes against a number of identified politicians and military personel in the Ethiopian region of Ogaden. Pointed out are the regional president Abdi Muhamud Omar and the vice president Abdulahi Werer. I hope that the ones responsible for the terrible atrocities can be held accountable.

As long as Ethiopia can commit crimes, jail journalists and get away with it, it is a cheap and easy way of censorship. To jail a journalist should be regarded as a crime against humanity. But in this regard, I don’t put my hopes to international pressure. For now, the jailed journalists are nothing more than “an irritant” in the diplomatic world. It’s business as usual.

I put my hope in the young generation which I shared the concrete floor with in Kality. Despite, the daily propaganda on the Ethiopian state television, ETV, very few in Kality regards the jailed journalists as terrorists.

I have an unquestioning faith in Ethiopia’s young people.

Ogadentoday Press: Thank you so much, Martin Schibbye for your time.