Magazine article The Spectator

We Should Treat Grand Theories about the Ethiopian Kidnaps with Great Scepticism

Magazine article The Spectator

We Should Treat Grand Theories about the Ethiopian Kidnaps with Great Scepticism

Article excerpt

As we go to print the five kidnapped tourists in Ethiopia have been returned alive, but mystery still surrounds the circumstances of their capture and the motives of their kidnappers, while some of the Ethiopians who were captured with them are still missing. I expect a good deal of theorising in the week ahead. Some of it, like the speculation we've been hearing over the last ten days, will be wide of the mark. The released tourists are themselves likely to be confused about what was going on. This, I believe, may well be because their kidnappers themselves were confused. Chaos and misunderstanding are the explanation for so much that baffles us in Africa, and attempts to explain events within the framework of European logic are often misplaced. Local knowledge -- but, more than local knowledge, a sense of how people think -- is the key.

I was in Hamed-Ela, where these people were kidnapped, a year ago. I slept in the yard where they were abducted. And while it would be idle to pretend to any great knowledge of this godforsaken yet weirdly beautiful place or of the notoriously volatile Afar tribe who inhabit it, I have learnt (in two visits) more than most outsiders know.

The Danakil Depression is not (as one BBC report claimed) 'a vast desert'. It is a small desert, mostly less than 20 or 30 miles across, shaped like a long trench (an arm of the African Great Rift Valley) and running north-south. The frontier between Ethiopia and Eritrea runs with it. To each side are ranges of dry mountains. The western range lifts the terrain towards the escarpment of the Ethiopian highlands, a couple of thousand metres up. The eastern range (in Eritrea) holds back the Red Sea.

A channel excavated through the Eritrean mountains would turn the depression into an inland sea, up to 300 feet deep, with a handful of volcanic cones poking through.

Otherwise the bed of the depression is astonishingly flat, with a couple of dead, stinking salt lakes (their size depending upon season) strewn across what is otherwise rock-hard caked salt in strange pentagonal shapes, lava rubble, or sand. By day, air temperatures vary between 40ºC and 50ºC, and by night there is little respite from the heat, though some from the flies. There is no running water and there are very few wells.

Since time immemorial the Afar tribe, semi-nomadic pastoralists, have lived here.

Slight, very dark, and famed for their mercurial temperament and suspicion of strangers, the Afar have resisted being 'settled', and roam freely across borders. They carry guns, herd goats, keep a few camels and live in low huts made of bent sticks covered in matting, proof against the prowling jackals and hyenas who threaten their herds by night. The nocturnal shriek of the hyenas and the smell of the humans -- predominantly wood-smoke and rancid fat -- is unforgettable. I found the Afar hospitable, but the other peoples of Ethiopia fear them as ferocious, unbiddable, hard to read and more attached to tribe than country. There is, though, wonder and admiration at their ability to live in a place few other Ethiopians want to go anywhere near. One told me there is a giant magnet in the Danakil, and outsiders simply disappear.

Here are four likely mistakes which I think have bedevilled the speculation about the kidnap, and should now be put from our minds: (1) That the hopes of the kidnappers cannot have included robbery, because the vehicles, some luggage and mobile phones were left behind. …

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