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ETHIOPIA 1984–A Short Story


    Locked in a pointless war with Eritrea, Ethiopia looked on as drought brought the nation to its knees. Then the harvest failed. The stock, cattle and goats, the source of tribal and individuals worth, dried out and died. As though obeying a ghastly script, the region collapsed into famine.     Overwhelmed, Ethiopia asked for help. The Sultan of Oman sent us with a pair of our DHC5D Buffalo military transport aircraft. A team, five pilots, three loadmasters and three engineers, lads from the hangar. All in the Sultan’s service. Ten Baluchi soldiers for security came with us. They carried small arms, as did we, a measure authorised behind the scene.  We flew down to Africa in early December with Band Aid’s anthem ringing in our ears. Our soldiers were quiet, a first for them. They had fought courageously and won a war against an insurgency during the ’70s, yet seemed gripped by a sombre sense of purpose. Perhaps what they read in our faces, set the scene. 

    Within eighteen hours of arriving, we started moving food up-country from Addis Abba. We  could carry a payload of around 18,000 lbs.  of flour, grain  in sturdy 110 lb nylon sacks. These were stacked, unrestrained, on top of wooden pallets, ideal for low-level, free-fall delivery. Each sack of flour brought salvation to a family of five, for a month. In the early days of the operation, we barely slowed down the rate at which people died. It was exhausting, but with other nations becoming involved, we  made headway.

    Don’t we always say, “It’s an ill wind that benefits neither man nor beast"? Vultures wheeled and soared thermal updraughts with an effortless grace on the lookout for a gory buffet. While beautiful from a distance, the spell broke when closer. These pug-ugly scavengers were a hazard during the drop. They were everywhere, and though agile, they could not get out of our way even if they felt inclined to. All eyes on the flight deck, inspired by vested interest, sought them out. One of them bouncing off a windscreen, or worse, could spoil the weekend. We found low-level delivery by airdrop rough. The desert floor beneath kicked off strong thermals. The pallets, piled with white sacks, were pushed straight down the ramp by our loadmasters. As soon as the airstream hit the load, it separated. The bags tumbling within a scattered cloud to the ground 150 feet below. After a short decelerating ride down, the rations landed in a swath, slamming into the scenery, parched trees, sand and rock. Some bursting, most not. Earlier, the bush telegraph lines had gone white-hot. After the first drop to a reception team, people appeared at the drop zone in their thousands. Fathers, sons, mothers and daughters swarmed across the target area before the last bags landed. They fought over them. Desperate hands scooped up the remnants and spirited them away to awaiting mouths.

    On the third day, we landed in the late afternoon to refuel from the cached 45 gallon barrels before returning to Addis for the night. We had used this airstrip before, now nothing more than a dirt runway carved out of the scrub with fuel. The locals, migrants from the cruellest areas of drought, had recently been lifted clear of starvation, but only just. I was on my haunches examining tyres when I felt a gentle tug at my arm. This was not unusual; inquisitive locals were part of the scene, always curious or hoping to cadge something. 

I spun around on my heel. 

    She must have been fifteen, barefooted and painfully thin, but with the carriage of a princess. The dust falling from her caught the setting sun like fine particles of gold.  Green and ochre rags hung around her body, masked her frailty. Grasped to her chest was a raffia basket squashed flat with a broken handle. Beneath a fringe of straight black hair shone a shy, toothy smile. She pointed to the cavernous interior of our aircraft, then her bag, and finally, placed a hand to her stomach. She looked up and held eye contact for a few moments, her dignity intact. We had dropped or given away every scrap of food we carried, even our packed lunches. 

    Feeling inadequate, I pulled out the empty pockets of my flying suit; with my best sad Chaplin totter without a cane, I pointed to the aircraft and gesticulated “finished, all gone!” She laughed, politely covering her mouth and lowering her eyes. I faced away briefly to look for Steve, he was never short of a snack tucked somewhere .  I turned back to find she had vanished. The moment passed, swept to the horizon by an arid breeze scented by mass humanity. It must have been twenty minutes later when she caught me with the same tug at my sleeve.
I turned and there she stood, the princess in dusty rags, smiling for Africa with her left arm outstretched. In her open palm was a high-fibre biscuit.

I had no food; therefore I must be hungry. The strangest of all Christmas Days: the most beautiful of all gifts.

In my opinion, Mengistu’s policies contributed to the famine, and without doubt made it worse. He then manipulated the situation for counterinsurgency purposes. The famine provoked international criticism of the Ethiopian regime, and influenced changes in future aid policy. Not least since the government blocked aid to rebel-held areas. However, at the time all we knew was the urgent human catastrophe wrought by the famine.

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Comments (2)
  • My first question is: is this autobiography or fiction? If the former, fine; if the latter, you're taking a big risk with something so sensitive on the other side of the world. Assuming it is autobiographical, I liked it and found it well-written. The ending is lovely. My only thought is, as I'm sure you well know, there is a mass of politics around that famine. There will also be politics around the Sultan of Oman. While you might not want to go down the rabbit hole of trying to take a position on that, I think you should acknowledge it, otherwise you invite criticism. For instance, saying Ethiopia was overwhelmed and asked for help would be challenged by plenty of people, who would argue, Mengistu's policies partly created and certainly exacerbated the famine, and he then manipulated it for counter-insurgent purposes. Why not have a phrase or two to say, eg, "the famine provoked criticism of the Ethiopian regime, and influenced changes in future aid policy, not least since the government blocked aid to rebel-held areas. At the time, however, all we knew was the urgent human catastrophe ... " or similar?

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    • Hi Paul, first, thanks for the debrief on the story and your compliments.

      Yes, it did happen, not to me but to a former collegue who is also a friend. He took part in the original RAF operation with the C130 Hercules. During his account of the event it clearly affected him emotionally, though it's fair to say it was lunchtime. I could not write the story with the RAF at centre stage, so I indulged my former self by granting myself a wish I had at the time. I also wrote from an Omani perspective I understand, flying an aircraft I flew in the Sultanate.

      As for the famine, Ethiopa's respnse was, as I understand it, chaotic, inadequate and unequal to the task. Who would think after years of internecine squabbling and cross-border strikes, they could do anything but be overwhelmed by a famine? The militias from both sides stole food for their soldiers and bata currency. Perhaps the cruelist trick was played in the customs shed of Djibuti. The food landed on the dockside was held in bond until import duty was paid. Nothing much happens in Africa without presents.

      Worried? Not really, though I do take your point seriously and thank you for making it. I will tend to your suggestion when I awake. My (forlorn?) hope must be-this is a writing workshop; my work was offered for feedback, not published in a media outlet. I noted the quote below after it leapt off the Kindle at me yesterday.

      “When you first start writing stories in the first person if the stories are made so real that people believe them the people reading them nearly always think the stories really happened to you.”  Ernest Hemingway on Writing

       HRH Sultan Qaboos died on January 10, this year.

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