A Diary of Uncertainty
The optimism I expressed at the end of my last post may have been slightly misplaced. That Sunday we were anticipating the Ethiopian New Year holiday two days later, and the events of the weekend had suggested the country was moving forward into 2011 with a brighter outlook. Little did we know that the next ten days would involve some of the greatest uncertainty we have experienced. Here’s what happened.
Monday (10th September 2018)
New Year’s Eve. Haile drives me to the HQ clinic from Bingham Academy as normal, and my staff turn up dressed in traditional Ethiopian clothes looking nothing short of spectacular (I regret not taking a photo). They are gunning for an early departure – food preparation for New Year’s Day is a time-consuming process for Ethiopian women, and will occupy them well into the night. No-one wants to see the doctor today – everyone wants to go home. Being invited into Ethiopian homes for New Year meals is not unusual, and while driving me back to Bingham in the afternoon Haile invites Chris and me to his home for lunch next Sunday. Something to look forward to, as Bezu is an excellent cook.
New Year’s Day. A lie-in and some of our neighbour’s chickens’ eggs for breakfast mean a slow start. There’s little reason to go out, so I work on publishing the blog, which needs a lot of video editing. The city is quiet, and the gym is closed.
Next week I will have to be “acting SIM Ethiopia Country Director”. The director is going away for a week, and next-in-line Mark and his wife Debbie are leaving this evening for three weeks in Germany, so I am the only ex-pat left at HQ to hold the reins. Hence I have a meeting this morning with Mark, Debbie and the director to apprise me of SIM Ethiopia security protocols, “just in case”. As we are meeting and as my name is added to some “WhatsApp” groups used for security information sharing, news starts coming in about riots around the edge of the city, particularly near Bingham Academy. I’m handed a satellite phone – something I have never seen before and something that no-one seems to know how to make work, or who to call were it to actually function. A discussion ensues around ten Australian satellite phone SIM cards (which haven’t been activated). There should be other satellite phones somewhere in HQ – probably in a deserted office the other end of the corridor. During the afternoon I go on a search and find a large amount of phone equipment that’s going to take some time to sort out.
As I’m trying to work out what to do with all this stuff, the security situation around the city deteriorates – there are riots approaching Bingham Academy, which is in “soft lock-down”, meaning none of the students and the parents and drivers who have come to collect them are allowed out of the compound. Gunshots have been heard. The SIM Ethiopia Crisis Management Team assembles, and I discover by email some time later that I am now chairing it. We decide Bingham Academy has to close tomorrow, and we will cancel the SIM “Family Day” on Saturday which was also to be held at the school. Given the developing unrest, travel around the city will probably be disrupted and we don’t want to put anyone at risk. The area in which Bingham is situated seems to be a bit of a flashpoint.
Once my clinic staff have left, Haile comes for me. We must go back to Bingham - but getting there may be problematic. Clutching my bag full of multiple and seemingly random bits of satellite phone technology, we set off. The traffic is awful. We can’t go our usual route, as the roads are jammed and there are reports of rioting on the ring road towards Bingham. An alternative route takes us to a large roundabout where we would like to go north towards the bus station, but marching purposefully down that road and towards our normal route is a posse of 20 or more federal police in riot gear, so Haile takes a rapid detour south. A complicated back-street route sees us arrive at Bingham shortly before the students are allowed to go home – the situation is settling and the rioters are dispersing (perhaps something to do with the tear-gas fired at them). Inside the guarded Bingham compound surrounded by high walls topped with broken glass and razor wire, we feel safe.
This morning I’m supposed to have my first Amharic lesson of the semester, after which I’m due to talk to the parents at the Bingham “Homeschool Conference” on one of my specialist subjects – internet porn and sex education. As the school is closed both are cancelled, so after a leisurely breakfast whilst keeping an eagle eye on the security WhatsApp messages, I head off to HQ. I know my senior nurse isn’t going to be there, so the running of the clinic will be in the hands of our lab technician and I don’t want to leave her on her own. Due to the unpredictable nature of this morning I told Haile not to come, so I drive myself. Apart from a truck full of federal riot police at the junction with the ring road near Bingham, the journey is uneventful.
Six patients later I’m glad I made the effort. After a WhatsApp video conversation with someone in Australia about satellite phone SIM cards, I head off back to Bingham. All is well until I arrive at the same large roundabout as yesterday. This time the federal police in riot gear are standing all over the middle of the roundabout, armed to the teeth with rifles and truncheons. I decide to go south. Bad move. In front of me people are turning round and coming back up the wrong side of the dual carriageway. In the distance I see some buses at jaunty angles blocking the road, and a crowd of noisy youth festooned in Oromo colours making their way towards me. I turn round, and make my way back towards the roundabout, but I have to stop to let the phalanx of riot police cross the road right in front of me, heading for the noisy youth. The adrenaline surge I experienced at this point was physiologically interesting. Fortunately the road north towards the bus station was now free of riot police, and the rest of my journey home was uneventful. Chris and I settled down for a peaceful weekend.
Little did we know that in a nearby suburb, very soon at least 58 people would be dead.
Next time I’ll describe how the events of the weekend would explain some of this unrest. Then there was an exciting Monday, and an embarrassing (for the US Embassy) Wednesday. More to come.