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Ethiopia, Sudan, and a Strange Visitor Named Hope

Ethiopia, Sudan, and a Strange Visitor Named Hope

Monday, 5 August, 2019 - 09:30
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

I visited Ethiopia only stealthily in the mid-1980s. Eritrean armed groups had invited some journalists, including me, a delegate from Lebanon’s An-Nahar newspaper.

The name of the country’s leader was Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. He was a staunch Soviet agent in Africa. He did not tolerate spies, traitors, opponents, dissidents, or separatists.

We have put our fates into the hands of our hosts. Their only concern, in the infiltration operation, was to avoid the President’s aircraft, which are usually merciless.

Our tent was in the middle of a camp, hiding in the shade of slender trees. One night, we heard the clatter of arms and discovered in the morning that the organizations were on the verge of fighting over Eritrea’s identity, which had not yet been liberated. The bread was like bread but from afar. The water was water-like but very turbid. But cruelty seems exciting to a young journalist, who thinks that the profession is worth the effort.

The journey left a certain amount of depression inside of me. The conflict seemed to be a fierce battle between the poor, and the war of independence was a long journey on the brink of hunger.

That was not the hardest chapter of the trip. We visited refugee camps on the Sudanese-Ethiopian border. We heard in the news before we came that people were dying of hunger there. I refused to believe that the world could allow people to starve in a known camp. The profession later taught me that the world can allow even worse than that.

During our camp visit, weeping sounds rose. One of them said a child has died because of hunger. I had doubts. I waited. Minutes later, I saw an elderly man carrying a small body whom he was going to bury at the edge of the camp.

The man was holding the body of his grandson calmly as if death had become a daily occurrence in that abandoned spot of the world.

Thus, Ethiopia, in my mind, has been associated with the tragedies of poverty and hunger and the wars in which poor people are dying and growing poorer. The same can be said about the long and bitter conflict between the Khartoum and southern Sudan authorities.

Before that, I visited Sudan, which was under the grip of Field Marshal Jaafar Nimeiri. A friend advised me to visit the Attorney General, who was named Hassan al-Turabi. I spoke with Turabi about the situation in Sudan and the ambitions of the team he belonged to. He was skilled at concealing intentions and wounds, using soft expressions.

Before leaving his office, I asked him playfully: “What is a man like you doing in a regime like the Nimeiri’s?” He replied with his famous smile and said: “We are Islamizing the regime step by step.”

I later recalled that phrase, especially when Turabi summoned an officer named Omar al-Bashir, arranged a conspiracy with him and told him: “Tomorrow, you go to the palace and I go to the prison.” The two men will exhaust Sudan as Mengistu did in Ethiopia, but of course with differences in the sources of each of the two teams. This is without forgetting that the love between the President and the Sheikh who made the president was not final. The feast of whatever power does not sate the hunger of those wishing to control the country.

Two days ago, an Ethiopian worker asked me about my profession. I did not expect her to be very involved in the affairs of her country. Sometimes, we ignore this remarkable ability of social media to connect threads between the cosmic village. With a clear sense of trust, she gave me her phone to see a picture. It is Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed planting a tree in the framework of a campaign launched to combat desertification creeping on his country. She proudly said the government’s campaign resulted in the planting of 350 million trees within 12 hours.

I had a desire not to believe, especially since I came from a failed republic, where failure is its only heroic achievement.

The cultivation of a handful of trees in Lebanon requires a bitter national dialogue and a fair distribution of the seedlings purchase deal to ensure that environmental balances between regions and sects are not disturbed. Dialogue often ends with the postponement of the afforestation campaign and the preference for desertification.

Out of the arsenal of Lebanese diseases, I asked her about Abi Ahmed, whom I saw as a guest at Davos.

She said: “I don’t care if he was from the Oromo, Amhara or Tigray. I don’t care about his religious beliefs. I am interested that he re-launched the hope of a nation fighting poverty and injustice, especially after he stopped the war with Eritrea.”

I understood that she was using her phone to incite her countrywomen to uphold their rights in the countries where they work and gave me examples of exploitation and oppression that I cannot describe due to lack of space.

The talk about hope drew my attention. It is a rare coin in this difficult part of the world, which in my memory was associated with scenes of famine, ethnic ruptures, and wars of the poor.

Another point also drew my attention. A forty-year-old man named Abiy Ahmed could give hope not only to the residents of his country but also to those abroad, working to bring a few dollars back home if they find in it a government that defends their dignity and gives them bread, work, and medicine.

It is difficult for a mobile journalist like me to write about hope, as I have often returned to the office with quite a bit of depression and uncertainty. But the news from Sudan has left me in a state of hope without forgetting the reservation that accompanies experienced journalists.

It is clear that the agreement between the military council and the “forces of freedom and change” turns the page of the Bashir regime and paves the way for the establishment of a civil state.

The journey will not be easy, but it is clear that Sudanese youth insists on taking the historic opportunity, saving the country and compensating for the lost decades.

Hope is a strange visitor in this part of the world. The bet is that the people embrace this visitor.

Hope is now knocking on doors it has long forgotten.

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