The water belongs to God

Having wrested my next Ethiopia visa from the Embassy in Djibouti, I was free to re-enter the country and fly immediately on a field mission. The destination was Gambella, Ethiopia’s westernmost region bordering South Sudan. I was to spend two weeks there doing research among refugees and their hosts.

Gambella is beautiful. When I arrived in the spring it was green and orange, earthy, hot but not too hot. A huge river, the Baro, flows through the centre, although at the time of my visit it was so low that people could almost walk from one bank to the other. The streets were lined with coffee huts and pool tables, full at all times of day with young men and women. A visual proof of high unemployment.


The region is populated by the Nuer, the Anuak, and ‘highlanders’ – Ethiopians from the interior. The Nuer in particular are striking: very tall, very thin, and strictly geometric. Some of the men practice scarification and have thin lines traced across their foreheads. The Anuak tend to be shorter and rounder. They are both so black they glow a little. The Gambellans who speak English do so with a distinctive accent that I found hard to grasp, Ps interchangeable with Fs, so you hear we are haffy or the frocess, and pipteen or suppicient.

Gambella is one of the world’s classic refugee contexts: hundreds of thousands of people swirled together over decades by multiple layers of politics, vast, hubristic development and private business plans, ethnic rivalry, and the savage civil war in neighbouring South Sudan. I spent my two weeks interviewing a cross section of refugees and hosts, listening to their experiences of accessing the fundamentals of life: food, water, health care. Here as in other places I found the dignity and lucidity of people in sometimes deeply disadvantaged situations a humbling experience. I asked one young refugee lady how it was to have a host community village between her and her source of water: “because they are the ones near the river they may claim that the water is for them,” she said, “but actually the water belongs to God.”


I was in a team of three working to gather as much information as possible in a relatively short time. We worked all day for 13 days in a row, racking up over 100 interviews in Gambella town, far-flung villages, and one of the giant refugee camps. Interviews were punctuated by hours on dirt roads in white 4x4s and snatched meals, injera and goat at lunch and fish in the evening. It was privileged work, but hard, and tiring. As soon as my research was complete I was bidden to return to Djibouti. I needed to be in another part of Ethiopia for another mission in two weeks’ time, and as my visas only ever lasted 30 days my existing one wouldn’t cover that period.


Returning to Djibouti again was dispiriting. The guesthouse was fine for a few days but not much longer, especially over a weekend, when its shortcomings in comfort began to bite. There is precious little to do in Djiboutiville, especially during the hot season and more especially during Ramadan. In early May the temperature was building up to the debilitating summer months, peaking at 37 or 38 for the middle hours of the day and troughing at just under 30 at night. The air outside was humid and sour like a dog panting on you. I did not look forward to future visa runs in June and July.

Residency Card in hand, my time there revolved around the Ethiopian Embassy in Djiboutiville. My visa application was met with velleity by the Embassy staff, who made their counterparts in West London look like the US Navy SEALs. How long will it take for you check your emails? 24 hours? OK. And to fill out this receipt? Two days? Of course. Come back tomorrow. Come back tomorrow again. Come back at 3pm. Come back at 9. What took four hours in Knightsbridge took three working days here. I found myself getting short tempered with emails from friends and colleagues asking when I would be back in Ethiopia: it wasn’t under my control.

I coped by going running, carefully aiming for twilight when I could still see but the worst of the heat had subsided. I ran past the cargo ships coming into the port under great electric lights, the sun setting over the Gulf of Tadjourah, security guards who couldn’t leave their stations praying on flattened cardboard boxes. I ran and ran, coping, past teenagers playing volleyball in the dusk, past the high perimeter walls of the fantastic hotels, past the graffiti along the tidebreaker proclaiming Hope Is My Army.


The sun, the sea

Upon returning I was dispatched to Djibouti, partly for visa reasons and partly to do some research for the team there. Although a sovereign country, having a population smaller than any of Ethiopia’s nine internal Regions meant that my organisation’s presence there is run from Addis Ababa.

Djibouti is a strange place. Historically a territory where the Afars of the north met the Somali Issas of the south, it was colonised by the French and named literally ‘The French Territory of the Afar and the Issa’. The colonial power had no interest in the Territory as such and invested only in Djiboutiville, the capital, which had strategic importance as a port and rail terminal connecting the African interior with the sea. Today the capital holds three quarters of Djibouti’s whole population, with the rest of the country comprising a few towns and villages scattered thinly across the surrounding desert. Its most famous feature is its foreign military bases, which it rents out at great profit to various countries who enjoy the convenience of being able to operate in Somalia, the Middle East, and the Gulf of Aden. The port, though, is Djibouti’s lifeline: it handles 90% of landlocked Ethiopia’s foreign trade goods and thereby earns money to import food, water, electricity, and everything else necessary for life that is not possible to produce in a tiny speck of land that is mostly dust and stone.

This means everything in Djibouti is incredibly expensive. A normal can of beer is six dollars, a pack of yoghurts is five dollars, a tray of six eggs is 11 dollars. Renting our joint office/guesthouse, a blemished little seven-roomed building swarming with ants in the hotel district, cost nearly 2,000 dollars a month. Fresh fruit and vegetables mostly don’t exist, even in the supermarkets frequented by expatriates. On the other hand the French legacy means genuine baguettes are sold in every corner shop, fresh twice a day, and the restaurants in town are excellent. The closest one to the guesthouse was The Melting Pot, a Japanese/French/Djiboutian fusion place where you can order a teriyaki camel burger or grilled octopus with wasabi.

The melting pot is an apt cliché for a port city. I would wander the streets of the city centre in the evenings and pass Yemeni traders, Qatari businessmen, American and Japanese soldiers with bulging muscles and crew cuts, Ethiopian chefs, and French and Italian immigrants leathery and ochre from life in the sun. Everyone speaks a mixture of languages: my new colleague Fathia spoke Somali, English, French, Arabic, and Afari, and seemed a little nonplussed when I said that was amazing.


Djibouti has three refugee camps sheltering people from Ethiopia, Yemen, Somalia, and Eritrea. It also contains a major artery of migrants traveling from various countries into – can you imagine – Yemen, where they seek to travel either north into Saudi Arabia or double back across the Straits of Bab-el-Mandaab into Sudan and there upwards into Libya. I visited all three camps and a migrant camp in my few weeks there, amazed after the vastness of Ethiopia that the furthest camp was a mere four hours’ drive from the capital. Minutes outside the city we hit fields of volcanic rock, as though we were in some Titan’s garden, that went on for as far as the eye could see. Very beautiful, in a harsh kind of way, but not something you’d want to walk through.

At every stage we passed migrants on the road, predominantly young men. Sometimes they’d shout for directions. Once one of them started running to intercept us and Fathia threw her bottle of water out of the window. “I don’t want them to die,” she said. The youth slowed and curved his run towards the bottle. Later, at the migrant camp on the coast, I would see people gathering in language groups and pooling money for food and water sold by villagers. Women arrived in groups, the men sometimes with others, sometimes alone. None of them carried anything with them; some of them were scarcely out of childhood.

Relative to the IDP camps in Somali Region I’d been in a month or two earlier, the refugee camps felt, frankly, pretty comfortable. That is highly relative of course but in the camps there were schools, health centres, solar lights, latrines, government presence, and few restrictions on NGOs beyond their own funding limits. I’m always struck by how permanent refugee camps feel: refugee response is nominally emergency work, as opposed to development, so I am forever surprised to see brick buildings and grid connections, but I shouldn’t be. The global average time a refugee spends in a camp is 17 years.

Djibouti’s biggest challenge with its refugee programme is financial: it typically receives less than a quarter of the money UNHCR says it needs each year. That’s partly, I suspect, because Djibouti is technically a Middle Income country – between the port and the military leases it generates around five billion dollars a year and has a total population, including refugees, of less than a million people. In this humanitarian’s humble opinion it shouldn’t need international aid at all: it should have a school and a hospital in every town, instead of what there is in reality, which is a barracks.


That is all a bit above my station. My immediate issue was attempting to get a Djiboutian Residency Card, which would allow me multiple entries into the country for the duration of my contract and, crucially, to get visas for Ethiopia in the Djiboutiville Embassy. I spent three weeks in Djibouti in total bookended by days filling out paperwork, submitting fingerprints, and sending a truly remarkable number of passport photos to various government offices. It was not enough. I left without the Residency, which was to take more weeks yet, but for a happy reason – a long-planned two week break in the USA.

If you are walking, run

In mid-December the email came through: a six-week consultancy in Ethiopia. Six weeks was not long but after two dozen unsuccessful job applications and counting I wasn’t in a position to negotiate. The contract was offered on a Friday and three days later I was at Heathrow.

I flew to Addis Ababa, and on arrival instead of going into the city I switched terminal and flew directly to Jijiga, the capital of Somali Region. Somali is one of Ethiopia’s nine devolved Regions and covers most of the country’s eastern flank. Jijiga is comfortably the biggest city and is towards the north, near the intersection of Ethiopia with Somalia and Somaliland. I was met and would be accompanied for my stay by Abdullahi, enthusiastic chauffer, city guide, and all-round companion. His first action was to drive me from the airport to a hotel so new he didn’t know its name – Blue Hotel, I ventured, as it was indeed painted a royal blue.

“Blue Hotel!” Abdullahi cried in delight and agreement. Blue Hotel it was. Blue Hotel had a restaurant that only served breakfast and large rooms that curved around a circular central reservation, giving the space a somehow nautical feel. The bed was as solid as a plank, but I had Al-Jazeera English on the TV and an en-suite bathroom with running water.

Jijiga felt more Somali than Ethiopian, although many women wore western clothes and had their heads uncovered. The days were punctuated by calls to prayer from the mosques. The weekends were Saturday and Sunday: despite an overwhelmingly Muslim population the Regional President a few years ago changed the working week from Sunday-Thursday to Monday-Friday as a gesture of harmony with the Ethiopian state. Camels sloped down the roads. Khat houses lined the street. Khat is a green shrub that when chewed produces first a mild, coffee-like boost and then a lengthy lazy come-down. Trade in khat is at the heart of all the Horn of Africa’s and Yemen’s economic and conflict dynamics and the first foreigner who maps its pathways through the region will be rich and sought after by western academies for life. In Jijiga the khat houses were little booths with mats spread over swept concrete floors, often five or six in a row, and every evening they would be filled with men chewing and chewing into the night. Women only chew in the home, but control the retail: Blue Hotel was owned by a particularly successful individual.

My own working weeks were spent meeting the DRC team, being driven around by Abdullahi, and interviewing anyone who’d speak to me about the displaced people in the Region. Internally displaced people – IDPs – are essentially refugees in their own country, lacking the same legal identity and internationally accepted protections available to a refugee. Here in Ethiopia there were almost a million IDPs each in Somali and neighbouring Oromia Regions, the product of an internal border conflict that no-one was eager to investigate too closely. My job was to discover what the political stakes were around the IDPs and advise my organisation on their humanitarian response accordingly.

After a couple of weeks in Jijiga I transitioned to a second location, Dolo Ado. Dolo Ado is five hundred miles to the south where Ethiopia meets both Somalia and Kenya, and is a town of corrugated iron shelters on orange sand with the occasional glareal shrub being nibbled by goats.

Upon landing, absent Abdullahi, I became in many ways an infant. I was reliant on other people to talk for me, to feed me, to transport me, and to shelter me. This they did with diligence and courtesy.

From Dolo Ado I visited the remotest places I have ever been. Dolo itself is a two hour flight from Addis; from Dolo, I drove a whole day in a 4×4 to a town called Filtu, where I was to be based for a few days, and after a night there drove a further half day to Deka Suftu. From Deka Suftu it was an hour or so to the IDPs.

I was gratified in Filtu, a mixed Oromo/Somali town, to find that the differences between the two were apparent to me. Somali people have distinctive features, angular faces with round eyes, and are almost universally Muslim and dress accordingly. Oromo shops and restaurants tended to have colourful banners or displays and serve traditional Ethiopian food; Somali restaurants were more reserved and the food much less good. Perhaps the biggest giveaway was music – both Oromos and Somalis like to play loud music into the street, and it’s easy to tell them apart because Ethiopian music is a strident disaster and Somali music is excellent.

The IDP sites around Deka Suftu were desolate. They were sticks and sand. We picked over rock for an hour in our 4×4 to get to them. I don’t think it would be physically possible for a water truck or food trailer to make the journey.

More than anything, I was struck by the dignity of the people I interviewed. Most of them had fled violence from people they had been neighbours with for decades; many of them had lost children in the flight. They had been living in these desperate scrublands for months, sometimes years. All of them, without exception, were courteous, respectful, and patient. I remember talking to a woman whose arm had obviously been broken and reset where it was, twisted and scarred, telling me that what people needed apart from food and water and healthcare was clothes. Most of the people in the community had run away in what I saw them wearing today. This conversation took place in a shelter made of dry branches: the floor was covered in a rug and my colleagues and I were presented with tea. At the end all I could do was to say that I hoped my visit would enable my organisation to help them. “If you are standing, walk. If you are walking, run”, replied an elder. I left and have never been back.

The IDPs were “sensitive”. Every interview I conducted was off the record; very quickly I reached a limit of what it was possible to learn. My research established a crude portrait of the conflict, a mix of competition over land, competing trade interests, and political rivalry that resulted in IDPs being regarded as pawns rather than people. Because the IDPs were so politicised, the international community was at a loss. If you accidentally help one side in a conflict, you violate the core humanitarian principle of impartiality.

I hoped my work was able to help, in some indirect fashion. The final two weeks of my contract were spent in Addis writing reports and presentations that were delivered first to my own organisation and later, with redactions, to a wider audience of donors, diplomats, and humanitarian agencies. The gap between the needs and response seemed enormous but I had a sense that there was a possibility, at least, of helping in some small way to narrow it by giving the people with the resources a slightly better understanding of what it was that needed doing.

To my great relief, as the consultancy drew to a close I was offered a staff contract. In early February I was obliged to return to UK for a new visa. In characteristic humanitarian fashion it was never clear to me exactly when my consultancy ended and my staff contract started, but no matter – after another appointment with the Embassy in London I was set to return to Ethiopia for another six months.

The Vote on Drugs

This article was first published by The Student Journals

Against the plethora of speculation over the identity of America’s next President, it took a more-than-casual interest in US politics to glean any more detail about what happened on Election Day. Peeping out from lefty campaigning websites and freelance journalists’ columns, there emerged a small detail that may in fact turn out to be a turning point in the USA’s longest-running war: the War on Drugs. On Tuesday, November 6th the states of Colorado and Washington voted in favour of legalising, regulating and taxing marijuana.

Two states. Marijuana. It may seem a little innocuous compared to, say, Obamacare, or negotiations with Iran. But consider that the War on Drugs has killed at very least sixty-thousand people since 2006 in Mexico alone, and small pieces of legislature like this suddenly take on a new relevance. In Mexico, President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto was sent scurrying to a press conference by the events in the US, sending a senior aide to speak of the need to “review” Mexico-US security policy.

Mexico gets the bad press – Guatemala and El Salvador less so, despite suffering appalling levels of drug-related violence. In Honduras, a coup in 2009 derailed the country’s political system. Drug cartels have capitalised on the breakdown of security, and their contribution to almost indiscriminate trafficking and violence cannot be underestimated. The situation is so severe that there are warnings the country is on the way to becoming failed state. How soon before the Caribbean, a smuggler’s paradise of un-guardable borders and airstrips, becomes the site of the next turf war? The bodies are now piling up too high to be dismissed as unfortunate collateral. Earlier this year, the presidents of Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala issued a bold statement demanding that the War on Drugs be brought under review. Uruguay is currently processing a bill legalising the production and sale of marijuana. These are actions which had previously been politically unthinkable.

In Europe, it is generally accepted that Portugal’s decision in 2001 to treat drugs as a health and safety issue rather than a law and order one has been a resounding success, if kept strangely quiet. Drug use there did rise once it was no longer illegal, but mortalities, petty crime and youth use dropped. By 2011, a decade after decriminalisation, the number of hard drug users in Portugal had halved.

Here in the UK, just last month there was a call for decriminalisation from a group of scientists, police officers and research academics who had recently concluded a six-year-long study into Britain’s drug laws. Britain in the 1980s held a relatively progressive stance towards drugs and initiated systems of needle exchanges, treatment and rehabilitation programmes. Today, it seems to be lagging, going so far as preventing medical research into the potential capacity of psychedelics to help those suffering from depression or even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The spread of those two conditions shows no sign of slowing – saying that researchers may not continue their promising studies with ecstasy or MDMA because the substances are prohibited is a clear example of a complete loss of sensible context. Thinking on drugs has instead solidified into a truism that “drugs are bad and must therefore be illegal.”

The votes of Colorado and Washington may not, at the moment, mean very much: there’s still a good chance that legal challenges and/or federal policy may scupper these two states’ plans. But considering that just two years ago California, one of the most liberal states in the US, failed to vote in favour of legalization, this step shows that the political and social attitude towards drugs is changing. History looks back on the Prohibition of early twentieth-century America and says, “wow, that was a bad idea”; one day, it will do the same to the War on Drugs on both sides of the Atlantic. Let us hope, with the tentative steps in Colorado and Washington, the growing confidence of Latin America, and increasing attention on the counterproductive and outdated drug laws in Europe, that that day is sooner rather than later.