The Valley of Death is blooming.
On a hot September morning, the dusty road that runs across its centre is busy with men in headscarves leading plump herds of long-horned oxen, women beneath umbrellas lugging barrels of clean water, and proud-necked camels with bushels of sorghum tied about their humps. Hazy mountains guard 50km of flat and fertile floor; in the fields, children range in the luminous green stalks of teff. It’s amazing here. It’s an illustration from a school bible.
But rotting and rusting behind a tin shed in a World Vision compound, there’s a last reminder of the event that, 30 years ago, earned Antsokia Valley, in the north of Ethiopia, its nickname. To glimpse them, dumped back here, is to experience a visceral flashback to the television news reports of the famine that those old enough to have seen them cannot easily forget. There they are, the upright weighing scales from which the skeleton babies hung, and over there, in a pile, the perishing remains of the wood and cotton stretchers that carried the emaciated corpses. I was startled when their existence was mentioned. My comment, that these artefacts should be in a museum, was met with awkward laughter.
It’s not rare, in Ethiopia, to come across the view that the famine of 1984-85 is an irrelevance, an event of distant past. You can sometimes detect a sharp note of insult when the word itself is spoken. But there’s an old man who lives around here who, more than most, will never be able to stop thinking about those years.
Girma Wondafrash is a hero of the famine, a man who risked his life to alert the world to what was happening. He remembers being told that, without the help he sought, the people of Antsokia would have been “eaten up and thrown away like a piece of sugar cane”. I meet Girma outside a bar in the centre of the small valley community. Now 75, he wears an olive shirt and a charcoal suit, the trousers of which won’t quite do up. He walks with a stick and speaks with his hands — when his talk runs to some place of special gravity he turns them, palms up, as if weighing the air in front of him. He’s spent his life here and speaks warmly of a boyhood kicking a football that had been stitched together from discarded clothes. His parents were farmers, but Girma grew to be an important man, a local leader — in the parlance of the time, the “administrator of the Antsokia operational area”. Some 30,000 people were under his charge.
During the early 1980s the shortage of rainfall must have seemed like nothing new. There had, after all, been droughts in Ethiopia for millennia. But the failure of the rains of July to September 1983 was an early warning of dire trouble. Then, in 1984, the short wet of February failed too. This was serious. “Everything was dried out,” says Girma. “The colour of the valley changed to that of dried leafs. You’d never see any green thing. We had never seen such a drought in our lives.”
The first to go in Antsokia were the animals. The emaciated bodies of wild creatures — hyenas, deer, apes — began falling on the valley floor and in the forests. Then the beasts of food and burden began to perish. “Most fields were filled with dead animals,” says Girma. “Oxen, cows, sheep and goats. A lot of the roads were filled with their bones. They were so thin, even the birds didn’t eat them. There was a very bad smell. I gave the order for people who were strong enough to collect the bones of the animals and burn them.” Next, the malnourished children began to sicken. “There was a breakout of disease,” says Girma. “One of my children died. Our youngest. A boy of eight or nine months. He had very serious diarrhoea.”
Not everyone suffered equally. “Some better- off people were using the final remains of food they had in their house,” he says. Did they share? “They didn’t have enough to support the others. They were taking care of their own.” Although most were farmers, some families, like Girma’s, had sources of income that didn’t rely directly on the land. “I had a little salary,” he says. “And my firstborn daughter sold bread. We were using that food for my family.” The lucky ones would cook small meals in secret, after midnight, so the smell wouldn’t alert the hungry.
Soon it wasn’t only starvation and disease that were taking lives. One father known to Girma was sent by his wife to search for something to eat. “He went for three days, going to many different houses, asking. He couldn’t get any.” When he returned with nothing, his wife was furious. “She said, ‘You didn’t bring anything? Then I will go!’ ” While she was gone, her husband hanged himself.
At its peak, up to 30 people in Antsokia were dying every day. “Many mothers were carrying their children on their back and the children were dying. They were forced to throw them away.” People began to wonder what they’d done to deserve such horrors. They’d gather together in the evening and shout to the heavens, Please save us. “They were thinking it was a punishment from God and that we would be totally destroyed,” says Girma. “I was praying very seriously. I was asking God, ‘Why did this kind of mess happen when I’m responsible for the community?’ It was at this time that I hated being born.”
Men and women began surrounding Girma’s home, begging him for help. But all he could do was write letters to his superiors. Throughout August and September 1984 Girma wrote and wrote to the zone administrators 200km away in Menz. “I was telling them we need a very urgent response,” he says. “I said the government is accountable for what has happened in this area. The government is responsible for the community.” Girma received no response. But his letters were being read. And he had no idea how much danger they were putting him in.
Ethiopia’s previous major famine had helped bring down the emperor. In 1973, between 40,000 and 80,000 had died. In the thick of the crisis, a team from UNICEF visited the area and presented a report to imperial officials, beseeching them to seek international assistance. They were told, “We don’t want assistance. The embarrassment of the government isn’t worth it. Is that perfectly clear?” Despite the banning of all news reports about the disaster, word began reaching the capital, Addis Ababa. Truck drivers returned from the north laden with ghastly tales. The crisis was finally revealed to the wider world by a television documentary, The Unknown Famine, presented by British journalist Jonathan Dimbleby. Even after its broadcast, the imperial government denied there was a problem. Spin doctors told the foreign media that Dimbleby was guilty of “distortion and exaggeration”. Soon, the imperial government’s cruel obstinacy became an international scandal.
All this was a feast for the many revolutionaries of Addis who were desperate for revolution. They remade Dimbleby’s film as propaganda. Scenes of starvation were intercut with footage of royal life, including a spectacular palace wedding, hosted by the Emperor Haile Selassie, that had as its centrepiece a delicious Italian cake. It was shown on rotation on national TV and on a vast screen in the capital’s marketplace. In the palace, the army — now in mutiny following a series of disputes over pay and food — ordered Selassie to watch it. Then, at 6am on September 12, 1974, an officer read him an “act of dethronement”. He was placed under house arrest in the Grand Palace where, in 1992, his bones were discovered buried under concrete.
For the communist revolutionaries, Dimbleby was a hero. Plans were made to rename streets for him. But the new regime, formed by the old army and known as The Derg (The Committee), soon began to fear the forces that had conquered the old. In a crackdown known as The Red Terror, corpses of potential political opponents littered the streets; 100,000 were killed. Dimbleby was denounced as a traitor to the revolution and banned from Ethiopia. So in 1984, when news of major famine emerged and organisations tried to raise the foreign media’s attention, the regime moved to halt it. The food shortages were being severely exacerbated by The Derg’s brutal anti-insurgency policies in the north. And they were planning a spectacular $75 million celebration of their first decade in power. The news was only allowed to be good.
But the letters that kept arriving from the administrator of the Antsokia Valley were anything but good. Not only was Girma describing a virtual repeat of the 1973 catastrophe that destroyed an emperor; the letters had a tone that could be read as dangerously counter-revolutionary: the government is accountable for what has happened. All Girma knew was that his entreaties were being met with silence. In desperation, he decided to go above the heads of his superiors. This time, he’d take a 25km trip to the nearest town, Kisme, where he’d made arrangements to contact higher officials by radio.
Even at its outset, his journey was eventful. As he left Antsokia, he heard a strange noise in a nearby farm — a soft, almost birdlike mewing. “I followed the sound,” he says. “It was in a field. I found a child of about six months. He had been thrown away because his mother couldn’t feed him.” Once he’d secured help to take the boy to his wife for feeding, he continued on to Kisme. There he was met by four security officers sent by the government. One, a grey-haired colonel in a military jacket, began shouting at him. “Why did you write opposition letters? You’re a rebel. You’re against the government. We’re going to arrest you.” Girma recalls, “He was very aggressive.” What if he’d been arrested? “I’d have been shot.”
Instead, he protested. “Come to Antsokia and you’ll see why I wrote the letters.” The colonel reached for his gun. “You can’t do that,” Girma shouted. Then he pulled out his own gun. At the moment the argument threatened to turn fatal, some onlookers pushed between them. Another of the security officers presented Girma with a challenge. He must prove the dark claims of his letters. “Show me where five to six people have died in a household,” he said. “Show me where seven people have been buried in a single grave.”
In Antsokia, Girma gave them the full tour. “First I showed one household in which five children were very seriously sick. They were weak and bony and at [imminent] risk of dying. The security men took a picture of this. Then I took them to a grave where 10 people were buried. Then I came across a man called Afso whose six children had died. I told him, ‘You talk to these guys.’ He explained the whole story.” How did the security people react? “They were convinced. They said, ‘We’ll take these pictures with us to Addis. And you are also to come with us.’ ”
In the capital, an urgent meeting was called. The administrative heads of 20 affected districts were instructed to attend. Girma was told to present to them all. “It was my first time on such a stage,” he says. “I prayed to God to give me the courage and wisdom to speak to these people.” He talked, without notes, for 90 minutes. Afterwards, it was decided that Girma should have an immediate audience with the vice-president. “I told him the whole story.”
On the way back from the vice-president’s office, Girma asked if any humanitarian organisations could offer urgent help. “I’d heard about one that was based in a rented office in Addis,” he says. “It was called World Vision. There were only four people working there. I said to them, ‘My people are dying.’ But they said, ‘We’d need to study the situation. And to do that we’d have to be invited by your government.’ ” Before the end of the day, Girma had secured that invitation. “They were so happy. They said, ‘We’ll assign one person to go back with you to Antsokia.’ He came, documented, took photographs. Then, after eight days, came the aid. Flour, biscuits, medical supplies, doctors, oil and clothing.”
World Vision also arranged for international media to visit the starving. One of them was the BBC’s Michael Buerk. Although there had been some reporting about the famine prior to the government clampdown, it was Buerk’s words, accompanied by the shocking images, that electrified the world. The NGO had flown the journalists not to the Valley of Death but to the northern town of Korem, where about 40,000 of the dying had fled. The now iconic seven-minute film began: Dawn, and as the sun breaks through the piercing chill of night and the plain outside Korem, it lights up a biblical famine now, in the 20th century. This place, say workers here, is the closest thing to hell on Earth. It was shown on more than 400 television stations around the globe.
And so began a collective effort that took in Bob Geldof and Band Aid (the single Do They Know It’s Christmas? sold 12 million copies), Michael Jackson and USA for Africa (We Are the World sold 20 million) and the 1985 Live Aid concerts (1.9 billion people in 150 countries watched the events in London and Philadelphia). Donations of $4 billion helped Oxfam, Save the Children, MSF and a host of other organisations to assist the starving. World Vision alone spent $70 million in Ethiopia and recruited almost 800 staff to tend the crisis. By the time the famine was over, at least 400,000 had died.
After I’ve said goodbye to Girma, my hosts from World Vision are understandably keen to boast about what they’ve been up to since 1984. It’s undeniably impressive. They’ve planted 22 million seeds, dug eight reservoirs, laid 98km of water pipes, built 12 schools and 4000 latrines. Today, 90 per cent of the people of Antsokia have been vaccinated against disease and 99.4 per cent of the children are adequately nourished by World Health Organisation standards. Three-quarters of the population has access to drinking water. The land is lush with mango, red onion, papaya, maize, bananas and oranges. Then they give me the news that, by the end of 2016, World Vision will have gone and the people of Antsokia will be left alone with their beautiful valley, its cruel moods and all of its restless memories.