Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Sir Bob Geldof returns to Ethiopia

With Christmas music on the airwaves many are again hearing the song "Do They Know It's Christmas." The song was the featured single on the album Band Aid, a project that Bob Geldof put together to raise funds for the Ethiopian famine of the mid 1980s.

The royalties from the music sales not only fed the Ethiopian people at the time of the famine. As the years have gone by and the sales of the music continued, the money has helped to build Ethiopia to make sure the country can withstand any future calamity.

Twenty Five years after the project, Bob Geldof returned to Ethiopia to see how the country has changed. The story from the UK's Independent is long and reads like a book at times. We encourage you to take a look at Paul Vallely's story, as our snippet (although longer than usual) does not do it justice.

Bob Geldof sat uncomfortably in a vast field of igneous rocks scattered apparently at random among the sere grass. But the rocks had been placed deliberately on the volcanic soil of the great plateau which had been lifted by magma from the earth’s mantle millions of years ago to form the mountains which are the roof of Africa. Each stone marked a communal grave in which between eight and 20 people were buried.

Tens of thousands of children, women and mainly elderly men were interred here in the fields of Korem when famine swept the desiccated Ethiopian highlands in 1984/5. Around a million are said to have died. A sizeable number of them perished here on the great plain where stood the camp of 300,000 people who had fled their homes, days and weeks walk away in the remote mountain fastness. They had come to Korem in the hope of finding food. But many found nothing except a place to sit in slow silent eye-glazed apathy as they waited to die. Twenty five years ago I had been in that terrible camp and watched the tardy response of the international community arrive too late to save so many individuals.

It was around the same time that Bob Geldof had first come to Korem a few weeks after he galvanised the pop world to make the Band Aid record which was to go on to become the biggest fundraising effort in human history. £100 million was given by the public for the stricken people of Africa.

Last week he returned. And in the very place where so many people had died, he came face-to-face for the first time with some of the survivors. “What I remember of the people was their immense dignity in the face of everything,” he told them.

They smiled wanly, and thanked him, but it was not how the victims remembered it. A quarter of a century on they told him how it really was.

“It is a challenge to the imagination,” said Gebremedhin Alemu, now aged 60, who had walked 100 kilometres with his wife and six children in search of food aid which took two years to materialise in adequate quantities. “We were reduced to a sub-human situation. When someone died, we went to bury him, and by the time we came back someone else had died.”

“People were buried like animals,” said Haile Melicot, now 50. “There was no system. No honour. People were just put into mass graves without anyone knowing who had been buried where. We were so weak that the aid agencies had to pay people to carry the bodies from the camp up here to the burial place.”

“Our respect for you, our brother in hard times, is boundless,” Gebremedhin told Geldof. “At a time when our dignity was questioned, you came and paid for people with energy to bury our dead.”

This was not what Geldof had expected. But the wave of gratitude, for whatever the perceived priorities of the one-time famine victims was overwhelming and humbling. “We have just come back to pay our respects,” the singer told the men.

“We want you to pass on our thanks to the brothers and sisters outside Ethiopia who helped us,” said Alana Abraham, 52, who had arrived at Korem with three brothers and was the only one of his family to survive.

“Is there anything else we could do for you?” asked Geldof. In reply the men told him of their lives since, of years of good harvests, of the economic booming of the little town, of plenty and prosperity. “One farmer even has a minibus,” said Alana Abraham in total awe.

But there was one thing they lacked, because it was not a priority for the government or within the development mandate of the aid agencies. They would like a fence around the mass grave areas – both the Christian and the Muslim one – to stop animals from trampling on the dignity of the dead.

Band Aid would build one, Geldof said, from the royalties which still, 25 years on, come trickling in. The joy of the survivors took him utterly by surprise. They shrieked their pleasure, hugged the Irishman and turned around to share the good news with the rest of the crowd.

“If we lose our sense of shared humanity,” said Geldof quietly, as he walked away to the church at the other side of the graveyard, “something withers inside us”

1 comment: said...

Good to read the Sir Bob Geldoff returns to Ethiopia story. Poverty can be eradicated if enough of us care. I deal with this in my new book 'Beyond Reach?' which tells the story of the Make Poverty History campaign in a novel way. There are detaisl on