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Yes I remember holding you hostage – come and stay

John Swain with his fromer kidnapper Aregawi Berhe
Jon Swain with his fromer kidnapper Aregawi Berhe

When searching for an Ethiopian rebel who kidnapped him 33 years ago, a former Sunday Times reporter had an unexpected invitation

Jon Swain
Sunday Times
November 22, 2009

I last saw Aregawi Berhe in the summer of 1976. The big news gripping Britain was the heatwave — back then, the hottest since records began — and the dramatic Israeli commando raid on Entebbe airport in Uganda to rescue 100 hostages held by pro-Palestinian hijackers.

My mind was focused on neither. Aregawi Berhe had kidnapped me, and I was concentrating on survival.

At the time, Aregawi was a fierce young guerrilla leader in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray province. I was a young reporter on assignment for The Sunday Times, covering Ethiopia’s separatist wars.

On June 1, 1976, I was on a local bus on a winding mountain road between the towns of Axum and Mkele when Aregawi’s men ambushed it. Finding me on board, they seized me on suspicion of being an “imperialist spy”. My protestations that I was a journalist came to nothing.

For three seemingly interminable months, from June to September, they held my life in their hands as they marched me under guard through the rugged hills and barren deserts of Tigray and through the breakaway province of Eritrea.

We trudged at night under the stars to escape the unforgiving sun and to avoid being spotted and fired on by patrols of the Ethiopian army. In moonlight, we panted up steep, bare, eroded hills, scrabbled over rocks, pushed our way through thorn bushes.

On one occasion, worn out and parched in an area of desert, I had to suck water from cactuses to keep going. My 500-mile forced march under armed guard was the toughest thing I had ever done.

I was not alone. They had also kidnapped an entire British family, the Tylers. Lindsey Tyler was a veterinary surgeon working in Ethiopia on an aid project, vaccinating cattle against rinderpest. He was on a trip with his wife, Stephanie, and children, Robert, 8, and Sally, 5, when the guerrillas fired on their Land Rover. “We have children, for God’s sake ... we have little children,” Stephanie shouted as bullets ricocheted off the stones.

Ultimately, we were freed unharmed. But being kidnapped was a jarring experience — physically exhausting, mentally dispiriting and, above all, lonely.

After my release, I buried Aregawi in my memory. I wanted to forget the whole sorry experience. My life was the future, not the past. But some things one does not ever quite forget. Being kidnapped is one of them.

The tangled memories have come and gone over the years, sometimes so vivid that they hurt. Those three months as a prisoner in Ethiopia taunted and haunted me — until last week, when I met Aregawi again for the first time in more than three decades.

I had considered sometimes going back to Ethiopia to find and confront my captors; but in that vast land, I thought, I would never find them. In any case, I suspected most of them had been killed in their long struggle against the Derg, the Soviet-armed military committee that ruled Ethiopia after it overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.

One of Africa’s worst military dictatorships, the Derg held onto power until it was itself toppled in 1991 by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the guerrilla organisation that had kidnapped me.

Back in 1976 the TPLF was still a ragtag group of about 130 fighters whose goal was autonomy for Tigray province. Over the years it grew in strength, numbers and ambition, until it became the backbone of a revolutionary movement that took over the country with between 60,000 and 70,000 fighters. Aregawi, a founder member who rose to army commander, played no small part in its success. Then he vanished.

In 2004 the Ethiopian driver of a taxi I hailed in Washington DC revealed that not only was Aregawi alive; he was living in exile somewhere in Europe, after losing out in an internal TPLF power struggle. Perhaps I could find him after all.

A few weeks ago a chance discussion with Martin Plaut, the BBC’s Africa editor, put me onto my quarry. Plaut had met Aregawi recently in Holland and said that he wanted to meet me to say sorry.

I did not hesitate. After all these years I wanted to meet Aregawi again and discover what made him tick. I wanted to believe that, somewhere, there was an honourable man. I think it is a basic instinct that one does not want one’s suffering to be in vain. I wanted there to be some purpose to the hardships he had put me through.

When I telephoned Aregawi, I recognised his voice immediately. But I was surprised by his next words: “Come and stay.”

We laughed at the absurdity of it. While I bore him no grudge now, I would have liked to choose whether to be his guest or not 33 years ago.

Last week I drove in a taxi through the tranquil streets of the Hague to confront him. I never dreamt I would find my old kidnapper in this lawabiding city where the international criminal courts are trying Radovan Karadzic and Charles Taylor, the former leader of Liberia, for crimes against humanity.

I felt a twinge of apprehension as the taxi approached Aregawi’s flat in a working-class district. I need not have worried. In 1976 Aregawi was a strange, taciturn man. A political science graduate at Addis Ababa University, he had become a fanatical Marxist. Tall and thin with a wispy beard, he spouted wooden communist jargon and fiercely defended kidnapping as a legitimate political weapon. He gave me the impression that the sacrifice of an innocent life was less important than his own political ideals. His opinion of Britain seemed to have been fashioned by the day he stood in a line of Boy Scouts and welcomed the Queen, opening Axum cathedral during her royal visit to Ethiopia.

Now, instead of the rabid revolutionary I remembered, an avuncular figure stood before me, his hand held out in friendship. He said he was genuinely sorry for the hardship and trouble he had put me through.

We talked in his flat. On the wall was a small reproduction of that famous portrait of Che Guevara in his beret. It was clear Aregawi could not quite bring himself to turn his back on the revolutionary hero of his youth, even if he had ditched communism and no longer believed in armed struggle as the way to change Ethiopia.

“If I calculate the cost benefit, I would say gradual change would have been better than revolutionary change when I look back,” he said. “Revolutionary change was meant to transform society quickly, abruptly. But we were naive. You cannot switch on change like electricity; it has its own dynamics. We were not mature enough to see these things.”

Later, as we walked on a windy Dutch beach — I used to dream wistfully of the sea while I was being held in the hot Ethiopian desert — I asked Aregawi to give me his side of the kidnapping story. He was anxious not to be put in the same league as the vicious kidnappers who behead their hostages today. These vile killings horrified him.

“These days kidnapping has been given a religious dimension. There is no reasoning at all,” he said. “Today’s kidnappers are broken, blinded by hatred, not even merciful for their own life. You cannot compare their kidnappings with ours, which were for publicity, for a bit of money.”

Aregawi was adamant that he wished no harm to me or the Tylers. Of course I did not see it like that at the time. I was concentrating on surviving from one day to the next, on building the sort of relationship with my captors that would make it harder for them to kill me if I outlived my purpose.

As we talked, he seemed mildly hurt at having read in a book I wrote after my release that being his prisoner had been a low point in my life. “Nothing bad happened except taking you against your will,” he said, with a plea in his voice. “I had rough words for you. We had a cause. We had certain objectives. But I felt we were handling you as best we could.”

He still did not see that there were moments when, as a prisoner, I had feared circumstances might arise, as the unexpected tends to do in guerrilla struggles, that meant I might not survive. I don’t think Aregawi realised how difficult it sometimes was to feel I could be struck from the book of life and nobody would ever know what had happened to me.

After that interminable march through the mountains, I ended up in a guerrilla encampment in the northern desert of Eritrea, living under a bush, still under guard, while Aregawi decided what to do with me.

There followed more weeks of despair, during which I exchanged hardly more than three sentences a day with my captors. But on that long march I had begun to appreciate the misery and injustices that had driven Aregawi to rise up in armed rebellion at great personal cost to himself.

One in three children born in the villages we passed through died in infancy from disease or malnutrition. The nearest health and educational services were at least two days’ walk away, the nearest well three miles.

As the son of a district judge, Aregawi had been brought up with a sense of right and wrong. His social conscience made him aware of these glaring inequalities, and he wanted to change them. The pity of it, as he now recognises himself, was that he chose to do it by armed struggle. Despite thousands of deaths and regime change, that part of Ethiopia is about as backward and impoverished now as it was then.

My captivity went on and on until one day, after a long camel ride through a sandstorm, I was finally freed into Sudan. Soon the Tylers were released too, after being held even longer than I was. The guerrillas did not collect the $1m ransom they had demanded from the British government.

So, after all these years, what is Aregawi’s story? In exile, unable to go back to Ethiopia for fear of losing his life at the hands of his former comrades, he wonders whether the huge sacrifices he and other young idealists made were worthwhile.

Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country, is still confronted by extreme poverty and massive rural starvation. Its leader is one of Aregawi’s old revolutionary comrades, Meles Zenawi. This former medical student has turned into a virtual dictator — little better, said Aregawi, than those he replaced.

The need to strive for a brighter future for his people still dominates Aregawi’s life, although the reasons “are not the same”. He is driven by the memory of those countrymen whom he brought into the struggle and who “paid with their lives” for something good to come. “I must not betray these people,” he said.

He and his comrades shared a fine, idealistic vision, but, he admitted, none had a clue how to implement it. For a while their politics was inspired by Enver Hoxha and his mad Albanian “road to socialism”. Soon there came years of infighting within the TPLF, and disillusionment set in.

In the mid-1980s, during one of those terrible famines that have gripped Ethiopia in the past 30 years, millions of dollars flowed from western donors into Rest, the so-called Relief Society of Tigray, which was purportedly the humanitarian wing of the TPLF.

Aregawi told me that, instead of using the money to save lives, Rest gave it to the TPLF. He remembers sitting with central committee members preparing a budget; they agreed that 95% of the Rest money should be used for the cause.

“It bought weapons, ammunition and clothes for the fighters and paid for TPLF propaganda work,” he said. “It was very depressing. It made me very angry. The leadership literally had no sympathy for the people.”

Aregawi noted that western aid organisations had allowed their money to be misappropriated and that massive armaments flowing into Ethiopia from outside made the conflict more deadly. No power had offered the help that, in Aregawi’s view, they really needed to “give them the correct orientation to help themselves to establish a stable government”.

When, after building up a secret power base of loyalists within the TPLF, Meles Zenawi seized control of it in an internal coup, Aregawi finally split from the movement he had helped to build. He had enough friends to be able to escape with his life, first to Sudan and then to Holland.

Others were not so fortunate. Shawit, the handsome young fighter who in 1976 had led the attack on my bus and made me a prisoner, was imprisoned and killed by Zenawi for opposing his control, Aregawi said.

The TPLF developed into the mighty military machine that took over Ethiopia, and now “again we are in a situation where another dictator is in power. Getting rid of one dictator does not mean bringing justice, fairness and democracy. In fact we ended up changing the face of the dictator only. That is a tragedy”.

By kidnapping me, Aregawi caught me up for a very short time in his struggle for Ethiopia. If I feel personally disappointed that the struggle has not led to something better, how much stronger must the feelings be of a man who has devoted his life to this cause?

He confessed he had no real family life as such. He had had a fiancée when he was fighting in the bush, “but we couldn’t agree on many things so we separated”. He married much later in life, but the woman he calls the “mother of my kids” lives separately in Geneva with his two children. He visits regularly, but it is clear that family takes second place to Ethiopia.

He still harbours a strong vision for his country and a driving sense of duty to see this vision through.

The last time Aregawi and I parted — in 1976 — neither of us knew what the future held, but both of us had hope. Mine was immediate and selfish: I wanted to be free to get back to my own life. His was generous: he wanted democracy for his people and was prepared to make tremendous personal sacrifices for them.

Our parting this time was different. I am glad to have met him again. Hearing his side of the story helped to lay my old ghosts to rest. At the same time there was something sad about this goodbye.

He hopes his dream of a better future for the Ethiopian people can still be realised, and as I walked away I hoped so too. But the world, I felt, had let him down. It has, over the years, backed wrong-minded rulers in Ethiopia, set on repression and dictatorship, instead of supporting those who reject violence.

It is my strong wish that this ageing revolutionary, who once held my life in his hands, should be able eventually to go back to Ethiopia in peace. That would be a clear sign that one of Africa’s many shameful scars had begun to heal.

Source: Sunady Times

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