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Already she was too old to run…

1987 October 10
tags: ,
by Paul Vallely

Already she was too old to run, this little woman of 13 years. Haste was the unseemly mark of a child; she would leave that to her little brother who was only six and to me, the peculiar journalist from Europe who had brought to Africa with him the pointless urgency of an alien way of life.

Berhana Nagash walked slowly, as befitted the dignity of a Tigrean woman who, in the ancient culture of the Abyssinian highlands, was already two years past the marriageable age.

Three days earlier her father had died of a bloody diarrhoea by the dusty roadside on the long trek from Tigre to Sudan in search of food and away from the war between the Ethiopian government and the Tigrean rebels. Berhana and her brother Kassa, whose name in Amharic means consolation, were left alone five weeks walk from their home in the Tembien Plateau.  They had not seen their mother since their parents quarrelled five months before and she moved out of their home to live with their uncle’s family in another village. Divorce is that easy in the highlands.

It was 1985. This was the other side of the Ethiopian famine which was making so many airtime minutes for television and column inches for newspapers out of Addis Ababa.  The mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of peasants to Sudan was never such big news.  Two years later many of those peasants who made the long trek have made the arduous journey home  and now this story is no longer news at all. Yet this is the story which remains with me.

For two days after the death of their father the children had walked with the straggling crowd until they reached the town of Angerab where the rebels’ own relief society, REST, had established a feeding point for the migrants.  There Berhana spotted a man from her uncle’s village. He was one of the handful of Tigreans who were heading in the opposite direction. He had gone to Sudan some time before but found no hope there – no work, no prospects of emigration, and no sign of any remission from the terrible oppressive heat of the malaria-ridden lowlands camps. Now he had decided to make the long journey home to where he had hidden a small supply of seed grain in the hope that he would be able to plant a crop in the season of the short rains. In the chaos of conflicting desperations in this forsaken part of the world these returnees had stopped to eat in the same transit centre used by those leaving Tigre after having finally given up hope of trying to eke out a survival from the dry impoverished soils of their homeland.

The man told Berhana that her mother Mebrahtu had been in the Sudanese reception camp at Wad Kowli and might be there still.  The girl approached the REST officials at Angerab and asked to be sent to Wad Kowli.  The two exhausted children were put with a group of 15 orphans to travel there in a food lorry which was returning empty to Sudan.

They arrived at Wad Kowli in the middle of the night and Berhana had to wait until morning to tell the REST officials of her hopes. Perhaps they had too many other problems to deal with.  Perhaps their priorities were different. At any rate they did nothing. Until, that is, the Western journalist arrived.

I interviewed a number of people at random.  Then I came across Berhana and her story. I demanded that something be done. They said it would be, when they could find the time. No, I insisted, it must be done now. They looked at me as if I was odd but agreed and looked up her name on the camp plan.

We went in a line – the boy and I hurrying and Berhana, with quiet dignity, following behind and gazing without apparent curiosity at the haphazard collection of yellow straw shelters around her. But when we reached the mother’s hut it was empty. A blank incomprehension clouded their features. Mebrahtu had been taken ill and was in the camp clinic, the people around said.

At the hospital the REST official made them wait outside as he searched the long lines of figures slumped against a mud wall, waiting for treatment.

The children moved slowly when he came to fetch them. Their mother was sitting on the hard earth in the middle of the massive gloomy ward, leaning against one of the poles which supported the straw roof. The woman was aged 40 but she looked 30 years older. Her bony face was drawn with pain and her limbs were too weak to move in salutation. Berhana and Kassa moved to stand before her. Only her eyes betrayed the recognition.

There was no sudden drama to the reunion, only a tense formality. Berhana stepped forward and kissed her mother eight times on alternate cheeks. Then she stepped back and little Kassa did the same. Not a word was spoken.

The woman began a low ceaseless muttering which was painful to hear.  This was not what I had expected of the situation I had engineered. I took out my camera. The newspaper would like a photograph. “Move the children in by their mother,” I instructed the officials. The children stood beside her and looked at me, uncomprehending. They had not read “happy family reunion” stories in Western newspapers. “Tell them to put their arms around her,” I demanded. It still did not look right. They were stiff and unnatural. “Tell them to kiss her cheek.”

They did as they were told. The camera flashed in the darkened hut.  Then Berhana turned away.  Slowly she moved out of her mother’s sight and, silently, she began to weep.  The little boy was shooed out of the hut by a camp official. He went without a word and only a slightly puzzled backward glance.  In the corner Mebrahtu continued her whispering wail and waited for the doctor.

Outside, filled suddenly with self-disgust, I opened the camera and, under the rays of the merciless lowland sun, pulled out the film and threw it away.


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