Arrested by the Somali militia
Harar, Eastern Ethiopia, 20 Sep 2022
I wanted to see the ancient city of Harar since hearing about it from Henri de Monfreid himself in a recorded interview. His words about it dated from a long time ago and I guess much had changed since. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to find a museum dedicated to Arthur Rimbaud’s time living in Harar, featuring some black and white pictures of 1900 Harar, a couple of them being from Monfreid himself.
Unfortunately, I was having a hard time enjoying Ethiopia. While there seemed to be much to love on the side of beautifully green panoramas, surprisingly different calendar and time, good (for African standard) vegetarian food which is served on top of a crepe called “injera”, it could also be annoying and sometimes nerve-wracking in almost equal amounts. It is the first country I have been to where people don’t ever leave you alone. And there is people everywhere, all the time. I soon gave up on the good habit of stopping by the side of the road to brew coffee or cook myself a meal as this would immediately attract a group of spectators which would stand about half a meter from me. Imagine a row of six or seven human beings of various sizes watching all your moves and putting their heads in your car to look at everything you have, not leaving you any personal space. The children would run at me shouting “Farenjo” (foreigner) which is inevitably followed by “Money Money Money!”.
To continue to Kenya, I had to go back to the Addis - Moyale road that leads South of Ethiopia. I didn’t want to drive back the same way toward Addis so I found a secondary road on the map turning South just before Jijiga that would lead me to Bale National park. I checked the map and it looked like it would be no problem. In a day or two, I would join the main road South even if the road was in bad condition. I took the turn before Jijiga heading towards Fiq. The road changed to a nice dirt track with potholes. Villages looked more simple without the usual small supermarkets and restaurants. People lived here in mud houses and seem to have nothing else to do than taking care of cattle. In the middle of the village there were a dozen of big blue tanks standing on the road which I assume were containing water and where people would gather to get their share.
Quickly, the day announced itself to be a bad day. I had finally spotted a shade on the roadside with no-one around (too good to be true) so that I decided to stop and make myself a coffee and spread some peanut butter on a piece of bread. As I lighted my fuel stove on, three kids came out of the bush and ran to me in order to satisfy their curiosity. As I didn’t want to eat in front of them, I went to put my bread, peanut butter and knife on the front seat so that I would finish the job later. When I came back, a fire was quietly starting on my mattress with the three kids simply staring without a word. I had let my stove too close in the hurry (or more probably in the discomfort of being one more time the center of attention). I immediately dragged my mattress out on the ground and used my yoga mat to asphyxiate the fire. The kids still holding their pose like wax statues in the museum. I wave goodbye to them and keep going.
The road had some high and steep bumps that looked tricky to climb over even with a 4WD. A few minutes later, I got stuck in the middle of one, my car literally sitting on the middle of the bump with not enough traction on the wheels to go neither backward nor forward. Great! Fortunately two men arrived on a motorbike and kindly helped me by pushing the front of the car up which allowed me to slide back.
Soon enough, I reached one of the many checkpoints that are all around Ethiopia. They mostly consists of a rope in the middle of the road that is pulled up to stop you. When this happens, I try my best to be friendly, show my passport and let them look into my car if they want to. Usually, I am gone in a minute but this one was a little different. What I didn’t account for in my choice of itinerary was that I would have to go through Somali region. There, the checkpoints were much more thorough and the officers unfriendly and annoying. The man had red eyes due to being high on chewing khat all day. He didn’t speak English and simply motioned me to take everything out of the car, in the dirt. I was tired and hungry and I was not thinking clearly, I just didn’t feel confident in taking all my stuff on the floor and I didn’t trust him not to steal anything. So I tried to talk to him so that he would just have a look inside and let me go. He simply didn’t care, nodded no and went to sit back chewing more khat. That’s when I did this move which I still can’t believe how (!?) I even thought for a moment that it was going to end well.
I saw the rope hanging on a nail on a pole, I calmly walked toward it and put it down. Then ran to my car, closed the door and forced through the checkpoint. My heart was racing a bit but I still wasn’t thinking much. I got a stretch of good road after that so I tried to drive fast to get away. Slowly my mind started to realise what would happen. Yes, they don’t have car to chase me but they have phones. And even if those are like Nokia 3210, they can still call the next checkpoint. I was fucked!
Three men in the middle of the road were pointing their AK47 at me and yelled at me to stop the car. I went out with my hands visible and tried to talk to them to de-escalate the situation which they didn’t like. They came at me aggressively, one of them threw a handful of small rocks to my face while the other came to hit me so that I would get down to the floor. I got on my knees and stopped talking. They took the car keys and my phone. They brought me to a large hut in the village which was a little see-through and made me sit in the center while one kid which must have been like nineteen year old guarded the door pointing his rifle at me. Four other men started to take everything out of my car. There was for sure not any respect for anything they touched and I knew it was my fault and that I had no power against it anymore. It took a long while and I was starting to wonder how long will I be detained here. When they finished they made me put everything back into the car. Then the oldest man sat on the passenger seat holding his rifle across his chest so that I had the cannon pointed to my face the whole time and led me to the police station in Fiq.
The police there did the same all over again, ripped everything out of the car and checked all items thoroughly. The chief interrogated me about my itinerary. One officer told me that it was dangerous and that there in the bush were nothing but lions. All I saw where villages and cattle. They couldn’t understand why I was doing what I was doing or how I was able to navigate. I answered all the questions and even showed them my intended itinerary on my printed map of Ethiopia. They forced me to pose for pictures, holding my map in front of my car. Who knows what they did with those pictures. I’m sure I looked like a fool who was exhausted and hungry because that’s what I was at this point. It took a long while as well before I finally got escorted to the police station in Jijiga. We arrived at night.
In Jijiga, the commissaire was friendly and let me have my phone. They confiscated my Garmin GPS, my drone and some stones I had picked up along the way, for investigation they said. I would never see them again. They sent me to an hotel which was high priced and I told them it was out of my budget so they offered to pay for it. I got a nice room and dinner. I tried my best to get some sleep…