December 26, 2006

The continent of casual death, where good people are ruled by dark hearts

By David Blair
Last Updated: 11:41pm GMT 25/12/2006

David Blair, The Daily Telegraph Africa Correspondent, is leaving to take up his new post as this newspaper's Domestic Correspondent. Here he looks back on his time among people whose dignity and stoicism contrasts vividly with the venal brutality of their leaders. It is with the people that he sees a bright ray of hope for the Dark Continent.

How to disentangle the jumble of memories that live with me as I finish my time as The Daily Telegraph's Africa Correspondent? The clearest picture lingering in my mind is not of violence or scenic beauty or any image normally linked with this continent, but of a slender, veiled woman eating a simple meal of bread and meat inside a tin shack.

Torrential rain was turning the alleys of Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, into rivers of mud on the night I met Alemzuriash Teshome, 25.

Dignified, calm and precise, she told me her story. Ethiopia's police had killed her mother, jailed her father and tried to murder her brother. Paramilitary officers arrested Miss Alemzuriash's father at the family home simply because he served as an opposition city councillor.

As he was dragged away and beaten with rifle butts, Miss Alemzuriash's distraught mother begged the police to relent. "She kept asking them, 'Where will you take my husband, please tell me, please'," Miss Alemzuriash said.

Then one of the officers pointed his Kalashnikov rifle at the weeping mother. He fired twice, killing 46-year-old Etenesh Yimmam instantly. Her son bent over the body, trying to revive her. The man who had fired the shots received a shouted order from another officer: "Just do it."
He pulled the trigger again, apparently aiming at Miss Alemzuriash's brother, clutching his mother's body. But the bullet missed and hit a family friend, lightly wounding her. Then the police roared away in a pick-up, taking Miss Alemzuriash's handcuffed father. "I cannot describe how I felt. My mother was lying dead and my father was being taken away," she said.

After she had told me her story – a risky decision rendering her vulnerable to arrest – I left Miss Alemzuriash sitting alone as the rain cast thunderous drumbeats on the shack's tin roof.

Her tragedy drove home what I found to be Africa's most haunting quality: the contrast between the dignity, stoicism and goodness of its people and the venal, selfish brutality of those who lead them. After becoming Africa Correspondent in June 2004, I made 36 trips to 19 African countries. Wherever I travelled, I found good people struggling to lead decent lives in the face of their government's egregious cruelty, vindictiveness and paranoia.

Miss Alemzuriash's mother was an indirect victim of Ethiopia's prime minister, Meles Zenawi. This clever, articulate and ruthless man had won a glowing international reputation – often a danger signal – and was handpicked by Tony Blair to serve on Britain's Commission for Africa in 2004.

Last year, Mr Meles returned the favour by launching an onslaught against his opponents on a scale not seen in Africa for decades. When the opposition organised violent demonstrations against a disputed election, police opened fire and killed 193 people.

Mr Meles closed newspapers and arrested tens of thousands. They included senior politicians, lowly city councillors – like Miss Alemzuriash's father – and teenagers plucked at random from the streets.

Later, police secretly removed Mrs Etenesh's body from Menelik hospital. They refused to release it unless the family signed a statement blaming her murder on the opposition. With great courage, they refused. After three days, the police relented and grudgingly allowed them to bury their mother.

This was how a government widely seen as one of Africa's better administrations treated its people. Elsewhere, I encountered regimes whose reputations were deservedly destroyed long ago.

In Darfur, I met a softly spoken, courteous Sudanese official. Over tea, he commended generations of Britons – "your fathers and grandfathers" – for the "way they developed our country".

I warmed to this generous if inaccurate tribute. In reality, Britain brought peace to Darfur but did almost nothing to develop the vast area during four decades of colonial rule.

Then I asked about the fate of Gilgira village. A flash of fury crossed the official's face.

I knew that soldiers had destroyed Gilgira a week or two previously. They had killed an unknown number of its 3,000 inhabitants, forcing the survivors to flee into neighbouring Chad.

The soft voice hardened. "They were cordially accepting the presence of the Sudan Liberation Army in their village," said Mahmoud Kamel Safwat, commissioner of Kolbus district in Western Darfur province. The Americans, he added, "do not accept people hiding Osama bin Laden, so we do not accept villages hiding rebels."

I went to Darfur four times. I wish I could convey the enormity of its tragedy. Picture a landscape scarred with ruined villages, devoid of people. I once spent several days driving across the plain and desert of an especially remote area.

By the second day, I had yet to see an inhabited village. Undamaged, unburned homes – with people actually living inside them – seemed to have vanished from the earth.

The apocalyptic emptiness of the landscape became its dominant quality.

Only extreme terror can force millions to abandon their homes. The best illustration of Darfur's crisis is the simple fact that – on the lowest estimate – two million people have fled their villages.

So we return to the old question. Can any good emerge from Africa or is the continent doomed to endure one tragedy after another?

First let us avoid generalisations. Africa consists of 53 astoundingly diverse countries and 800 million people.

Botswana, peaceful and relatively prosperous, happens to share a continent with Sudan – but the two countries are as different as Sweden and Chechnya.

But even in Botswana, I watched a government force the San Bushmen out of their ancestral homes in the Kalahari Desert by sealing wells, halting food rations for orphans and denying hunting licences. By inflicting thirst and hunger, the authorities forced some 1,600 Bushmen to leave the desert, a policy ruled illegal by Botswana's High Court last week.

The harsh truth is that scarcely any African government genuinely cares for the welfare of all its people.

Doris Lessing wrote that white colonists saw Africans as an "amorphous black mass, like tadpoles, who existed merely to serve".

This is how many African leaders view their people today.

Will this change? In time, I believe it will. African elections are often flawed and sitting presidents usually manage to rig their way back into power. But regular polls in a growing number of countries have begun to introduce the principle of accountability.

They are starting to embed the notion that leaders serve the people, not vice versa.

Most of all, I am struck by the virtues of ordinary Africans. No matter how desperate the circumstances, their hardiness, selflessness and optimism against all odds shine through.

In the end, nothing can stop them from asserting themselves.

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