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Eyewitness: A day out in Ethiopia

09-04-2003 Feature by Roland Sidler

Roland Sidler has worked for the ICRC in war zones for the past 20 years, in a variety of positions including head of delegation. Photo-journalist by profession, he covers stories that the media can’t get to – or haven’t time for. After a recent mission to film in drought- and conflict-stricken Ethiopia, he shared his thoughts on what he calls the “humanitarian back-stage”.

 



 
 

It’s my first night in a tiny room at this tiny hotel in the Ethiopian backwoods. Why is it always in situations like this that I feel this terrible need to get up and find the loo in the middle of the night? First question: what did I do with my torch? After a hand-warmjng search with my cigarette lighter I find it and set off to find the WC. It took a long time, a very long time…. Once back in my room I while away the rest of the night by killing a few dozen mosquitos and a handful of cockroaches. Charming.

I’m happy to see the first hint of the dawn. Day has broken faster than… well quicker than it had taken me to find the lavatory. I find my four colleagues in the inner courtyard: Karl is looking for his glasses, Colin is trying to explain something to the owner’s son while brushing his teeth, Gerry is tucking into to some kind of omelette before launching into his first joke of the day. As for Steve, he’s quietly checking through a pile of lists, tables and scribbled notes.  

 


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My job is to film one of the biggest relief operations the ICRC is currently undertaking – yes, in Ethiopia. Before I left HQ in Geneva I had been briefed about some 800,000 people desperately affected by an enduring drought. Because of the war in Iraq this crisis was passing virtually unnoticed – pushed aside by the media, totally unknown to the public.

At about 8 a.m. I find myself sitting in a Land-Cruiser, one of those ubiquitous Toyota workhorses used by most of the humanitarian organizations. I’ve got my water bottle, some biscuits, my video equipment, my ID papers, my notebook, a hat to keep off the sun, a plastic cape in case of a sudden storm – I’m ready to face a day in the field.

 Bumpy start to the day  

OK, I’d been warned: I must have been told a dozen times that the roads were stony tracks, or dry river beds. Now I could confirm it – I’m being thrown around all over the place. For the first time I am glad of our frugal breakfast…. Despite the discomfort, I try to get out my camera, thinking this will make a terrific shot. I manage to get it out of its case, but it’s just impossible to fit the viewfinder to my eye or work the buttons. I give up before getting even more annoyed and decide to wait patiently until the vehicle stops…

…We’ve been traveling now for about an hour, under a relentless sun. Steve tells me what he’s been doing in the two months he’s been here. I’m amazed at this bloke of 35, from a comfortably-off family, with a good university degree, whose girlfriend works in Myanmar and who finds satisfaction in this job, with all its hardships and frustrations.

 


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I ask him about his ambitions, what he wants from life, his goals (that always sounds professional…). I’m actually interested to know what has brought him here, what motivates him. Steve is still struggling to find the answer when we arrive at the village of Milgaayee. I postpone our chat – I really ought to get on with my job, specifically to film the distribution of seeds and food to 3,500 people.

A team from the Ethiopian Red Cross has been here for two days: they have built make-shift shelters to store the sacks of flour and beans, and have tried to organize the waiting crowd so that the distribution will go ahead without too much chaos. But despite their valiant efforts, the show goes a bit wobbly and Steve has to intervene, sometimes quite sharply, to re-establish a semblance of order.

 
 Even donkeys have limits  


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But all this is quickly forgotten. There are people here who have walked a whole day to get to the distribution point. I’m intrigued above all by the women in their brightly-coloured clothing. It’s hard not to gawp at them, so simple yet so noble, so modest… they have come in small groups, their children with them, and their donkeys, probably their most valuable possession, leading the way. I’m surprised that none of them is riding, but Steve explains that it’s n ot in the nature of things here – and anyway, the animals will have their work cut out on the way home, with sacks, water-containers and boxes tied to their backs. The food ration provided today by the ICRC and the Ethiopian Red Cross should be enough for about a month.  


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I move away from the group around Steve to take some shots of these epic scenes. But it’s rather hard to pass unnoticed with all this technology hanging round my shoulders – not exactly what people see every day here in this arid, dusty region, somewhere past the back of beyond. The kids quickly realize what I’m going to film and then, as always, stand right in front of the lens. Amazingly, I manage to get some shots worth keeping. The day goes by so quickly that we have to step on it to get back to our base by nightfall. And I forget to press Steve to answer my question about what makes him do this crazy job.
 

 The eyes have it  

Once back in our one-horse hotel I have second thoughts about it and reflect that we are pretty lucky staying here, compared to the sort of lodging enjoyed by the people we were with during the day. Our team sits down to a hearty meal of tinned spaghetti before reviewing the video we took during the day, watching the pictures on a mini-screen.

It’s always funny to see people’s reactions: “Oh no, don’t tell me I look like that!!” exclaims Steve, while the others fall about laughing. But although he appears very critical of his “look” and comes on all modest, his eyes give me the answer I’d been waiti ng for earlier: Steve's proud of his work. He really loves helping people – and he knows he does it well.

Time for bed. There’s nothing else to do anyway. No cozy bar, no running water, no electricity, no satellite TV… but I mustn’t forget to get my torch ready. With all the water I’ve been drinking, it wouldn’t surprise me if I have to go for a little wander in the wee small hours…