Saturday, January 21, 2012

The scare

Just after I posted our program, last Sunday, the internet media brought the news of five foreign tourists that had been killed in Ethiopia. They had been part of a group of eight, or 22, or 27 – the news is not very clear here – that had been traveling in the Danakil Depression (also called Afar Desert). Apparently, according to the Ethiopian government-controlled television, they were attacked by a group of Eritrean rebels at dawn, last Tuesday morning, near the Erta Ale volcano. Five were shot dead, two got injured and one got away unhurt. Later, it transpired that two more tourists and two of their Ethiopian guides had been kidnapped, and were being held across the Eritrean border.
Further reports talked about 3 tourists hurt, and two who escaped – which still leaves 10-15 foreigners unaccounted for. And another mentions a group of 11 returning by plane to Addis Abeba. The Eritrean authorities immediately denied their involvement, blaming Ethiopian bandits instead: in reality, I wonder whether there is a lot of difference on the ground, between bandits and rebels, often they are one and the same. All over the world criminals hide behind a political motive to justify their activities, and political activists use crime to finance their objectives. The Danakil area has been a lawless expanse of inhospitable land for as long as people can remember. There are also no less than five independence movements known to operate in this area, bordering Djibouti, Ertirea and Ethiopia. The Danakil – the ethnic group also called the Afar – live in all three countries, and no doubt cross with impunity, despite border tension, especially between long-time rivals Eritrea and Ethiopia.

(a few maps to illustrate where the Erte Ale volcano is, the likely place of the incident. Thanks to the Windsor Star and the BBC sites)

This is not the first incident here. Five Brits from the local embassy were kidnapped in 2007, when they toured the Danakil Depression, ironically against the travel warning of their own Government (and that of many others, of course). Then, as now, the Ethiopians were quick to accuse the Eritreans, when, in the end, it turned out to be a home-grown independence movement that claimed responsiblility (and who later released the hostages unharmed to the Eritrean authorities, who may well have supported them). Yet insider reports suggest that this rebel movement was in fact after the money of a local tax collector, but stumbled by accident on the group of Brits, after which they decided to kidnap them and their Ethiopian guides. Also, in 2008 the Ethiopian army apparently foiled another kidnap attempt, this time involving French tourists. Further back, in the 1920s and -30s, it was worse, foreigners were routinely slaughtered if they dared entering the Afar Region. These days, the only foreigners venturing here are researches, aid workers and adventure tourists.

And this is where this information becomes relevant. As adventure travelers, of course we were going to go through the Danakil Depression. Of course, we were going to walk up the Erta Ale Volcano! Now the Ethiopian authorities have closed the region for tourists! Even without this we might have decided to adjust our itinerary somewhat, of course – or not: with so much Ethiopian army now being mobilised, the place is probably safer than ever before! But what bad luck.

Of course, our bad luck is totally insignificant compared to that of the tourists killed, injured, kidnapped, even those who survived unharmed, but no doubt have been traumatized for the rest of their lives. You don’t wish this to anybody, not even your worst enemies. And there seems to be something of a trend developing, with this indiscriminate killing of tourists, first in Mali some months ago, where four tourists were shot in cold blood when they protested against their kidnap, then in North Kenya, where a man was killed before his disabled wife was kidnapped across the border into Somalia. Very disturbing, all of this. And very frightening.

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