Peter Gill is a journalist specialising in developing world affairs, and first travelled to Ethiopia in the 1960s. He has made films in and reported from Gaza, Lebanon, Afghanistan, South Africa, Uganda, and Sudan, as well as Ethiopia. He recently led BBC World Service Trust campaigns on leprosy and HIV/AIDS in India. His new book is Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia Since Live Aid, which is the story of what has happened in the country since the famous music and television events 25 years ago.
Kicking off three great OUPblog posts on this fascinating book is a short excerpt from the first chapter. Come back tomorrow for an exclusive Q&A with Peter Gill, followed by an original post by him on Thursday.
The most remarkable thing about Korem in the Ethiopian highlands is its location on top of an escarpment that lifts the traveller several thousand feet up hairpin bends into the mountains of Tigray. A generation ago, through much of 1984, this road was the final barrier to bringing food to the many thousands of starving people who waited outside Korem for help to arrive—and waited.
I went back to Korem as the twenty-fifth anniversary approached of television’s first reports of the famine. There is no disfiguring distress now, but the memory of that time is burned into the consciousness of everyone who was there then and every official with responsibility for the town today.
There is no effort to conceal the awfulness of those events. There are even the stirrings of a famine heritage business so that no one will ever forget Korem’s suffering and the role it played in changing the face of aid. Perhaps one day, as in towns and villages in southern Ireland, there will be a visitor centre with special famine displays.
After you negotiate the final hairpin and surmount the edge of the escarpment, a few miles of broken ground give on to the Korem plain and then past fringes of eucalyptus leading into town. It is a thoroughfare, and few travellers stop on their way to the bigger towns of Tigray. Fewer still will see Korem when it is soon comprehensively bypassed by a new Chinese-built highway.
My first stop was in the corrugated iron compound housing the town’s administration. Stuck on the outside gate were a number of black and white posters promoting an anniversary symposium on the famine. ‘No More Deaths from Hunger’, said the headline in English and the local language Tigrinya. In the text I read, ‘Never Again, End Hunger’. Around the edges was a border of computer-generated runners drawing attention to a two-kilometre race to publicize the symposium. Along with famine, Ethiopia is also famous for its long distance runners.
The original plan had been to hold the anniversary conference in Addis Ababa, the capital, 400 miles away. Researchers from the university in Makelle, the capital of Tigray, would travel there to share their latest study on the famine. Government officials would present papers on the progress they were making towards eliminating hunger. International experts would join them in the comfort of the big city. But the locals in Korem, epicentre of the worst famine of modern times, were having none of this and forced the authorities to relocate the meeting to the seat of the disaster.
‘Korem was known throughout the world as a town of famine, of hunger and of drought,’ said the chief administrator. ‘So now everyone should realize that Korem is no longer in that condition. It is now a town of development.’
In October 1984 I was the first journalist in months to travel to Korem. The military regime in Addis Ababa was celebrating the tenth anniversary of its coup against the emperor, and it did not want the party spoilt—a too consistent response to exceptional suffering. I had been allowed to go north with a TV documentary crew because we were also investigating why the European Community, blessed with record harvests and a record grain mountain, had not chosen to use some of the surplus to feed the starving.
On the morning we arrived at the relief camp at Korem, the Ethiopian official in charge showed me the little black notebook where he had diligently recorded daily events. For the first time since the camp had opened, there had been more than 100 deaths in the previous twenty-four hours.
Ever since 1984, the very number of the year has been unlucky for the people of this region—except in the Ethiopian calendar, it is not 84, but 77. Ethiopia never adopted the western Gregorian calendar, and remains on the Julian, seven years and eight months behind.
In 1984 the grass land was parched brown and covered in tents. Upwards of 50,000 hungry people had trekked here from the countryside to find food. There were tents for families, communal tents, tents for therapeutic child feeding, and tents for the dying. The warehouse tents for grain were empty, and whenever trucks did come in a plume of dust through the camp there was a mad scramble to pick up every grain that spilled from the sacks—one of the enduring television images of a starving Third World.
Today the site of the camp had a flush of green to it, even four months into the dry season, and there were long-horned cattle, sheep, and goats grazing in the sunshine. The area is bisected by the gully of a little river which was flowing that day. Throughout 1984 it was bone dry.
The town’s administrator pointed to all the changes there had been in the past twenty-five years. In one corner of the big site there was a primary school. The building that had once been the camp pharmacy was an adult skills centre. The twenty-fifth anniversary of the famine would also be marked by the construction of a hospital for Korem to add to the services of the town’s over-stretched clinic. The money was coming from Band Aid, the charity created by Bob Geldof in the weeks after those first famine reports on television.
By his own account, Geldof was ‘only a pop singer’ and ‘by now not a very successful pop singer’ when he saw the first television reports of the famine. ‘A horror like this could not occur today without our consent,’ he wrote in his autobiography Is That It? His first idea was to donate the profits of the next Boomtown Rats record to Oxfam, but he knew that would be a pitiful sum. He was trying to promote a new album In the Long Grass, but not getting far. ‘We were at our lowest ebb.’
Then Geldof formed Band Aid, which made £5 million for Ethiopia with the record ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’ As Ethiopians have pointed out ever since, they did of course know it was Christmas because the starving were mainly Christian. The Band Aid venture was matched the next year in America by USA for Africa for which Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie wrote then ‘We are the World’. By July 1985 the overwhelming international response to the Ethiopian famine was symbolized by the Live Aid concerts at Wembley and in Philadelphia.