9/05/2011

Escape from Afambo



After a candle-lit meal of injera and misri wat in the back of one of Afambo's filthy restaurants, we returned to camp in our fenced compound at the edge of town. It wasn't long before the police sent for us. Go'obo explained they were upset that we'd come without any official escorts and wanted to see our papers. We thought back to Semera, Afar's capital, where our travel permit had been issued. At the time we'd omitted mention of Afambo to avoid getting assigned official guides for the trek.

It was Go'obo's idea to forge "Afambo" into our papers. We found a blue pen that seemed to match and, as it was all in Amharic, Go'obo did the honors. Reviewing his work we all immediately regretted the decision.

The meeting with the chief of police took place just outside his house. Like Gura, Ali and Boha boatmen, the officer's tone was self-important and deeply serious, with long, drawn-out phrases that could have put us to sleep and short, emphatic bursts when he finally wrapped around to his point: it seemed we were both in trouble and in grave danger. We listened respectfully as he slouched on his cot in a blue shirt, scanning our forged papers with a weak flashlight and a lazy eye. He insisted we'd need two of his police officers to keep an eye on us through the night. We declined, thanking him for being so thoughtful. Just before standing to leave he mentioned we would not be allowed to leave Afambo the next morning until we'd met with the chief of tourism.

Heated discussion took place in the pitch black street outside. Several cops had now joined the party. Go'obo feared we'd all be arrested. Back at camp, Mohammed and Thoreau prepared for the worst, suspecting their own police force would send thieves to ransack our tents. With the aid of some fresh chat, they opted to stay up all night to keep a lookout.

Our Afar crew did end up staying awake throughout the night, but the second half was spent in jail. David woke me up around midnight to let me know they'd been taken, along with Go'obo, and that our camp was under police watch. It didn't register until morning when I woke up to see one of the cops laying in a cot outside the tents, watching blankly as we decamped. Mohammed, Thoreau and Go'obo's whereabouts were unknown.

While the cop whistled after him, David walked off to find this tourism chief. He returned with no luck and I soon took off to find our friends. The cop from our camp was in the guard post outside the prison, catching up on sleep. Without a word, he got up and led me through the drab complex, with cracked walls and barred little cells like Pol Pot's Tuol Sleng. At the very back, behind bars and spread out on a concrete floor was our Afar trio. Mohammed was most excited to see me: "Yufus! Sigara?" It was clear they hadn't slept, not did they have any idea what was going on. I promised we'd get them out.

Having confirmed that our three friends were being held in a jail cell, we began with the phone calls. David got on the sat phone in the back, hunched behind the camels, while I used my last battery to call Herman, a friend in Addis. Within the hour our situation had been raised as consular matter. About that time, blue-shirt man from the night before showed up wanting to see our papers in daylight. I refused, insisting he'd have to bring the so-called chief of tourism if he wanted to see them again. I put the officer on the line with Hermann. He translated lazy eye as saying that we weren't actually being held in Afambo. Just the other three.

He again demanded to see our papers. Again I refused. Desperate, he brought Go'obo out of jail to translate his demand. Go'obo did so softly, slowly and firmly, his face almost pale with fear, "Don't show him the papers." He finally left, but I assumed he'd be back in a less friendly mood.

Stopping back at the jail to pass our trio some cigarettes, I slipped our phone numbers inside the pack and told Go'obo we'd try and run to Asaita to get help.


Forged Papers: "Afambo" added at the end of line 2.2
David and I packed our bags for Asaita and made for the main road. As usual, an Afar crowd gathered around us. The police were soon among them. They'd brought Go'obo to translate the conversation, explaining that we were not allowed to leave Afambo. A public debate ensued between us and an irate young officer, who tried repeatedly to take the discussion away from the crowd. Go'obo translated several times the question: "Why are you holding our friends in jail?" He had no answer to give and was fast losing public face. Lazy eye arrived on the sceneas backup, shouting and spitting for us to get back to the compound, still demanding the papers. He was fuming now.

Back at the compound, David headed out back to make more calls on the sat phone. It seemed we'd be needing some outside help.

The next official to make an entrance was Ali Mirah, head of the Eduction Office, (as the sign read). I wasn't at all sure how his field played into the whole matter of travel permits, but he drove a big SUV and wore a suit. He also spoke basic English and seemed friendly. He asked for the papers.

Trying my best to keep calm and collected, I pulled them out of my pocket. A suspicious huddle quickly formed around Mirah and the forged papers. Qalem (pen) was shouted several times as they hovered over the word "Afambo," written slightly smaller and in a slightly different shade of blue. The old white-haired man behind Mirah shook his head with a knowing smile. Mirah looked me over, then put his eyes back on the paper. Finally, he broke out, "Enough! They are tourists." Before driving off in his SUV he promised to call within ten minutes and have our friends freed. As the words came out a couple voices were still shouting wereqat! (papers). Ali ignored them.

Mirah's ten minutes multiplied into four hours. The town fell into siesta mode all afternoon. Ali's phone was switched off. Nothing to do, I checked on the jailed trio. No guards were in sight so I walked in alone, then returned with water and a plate of injera and misri. Up the street, Sudanese Ali charged my phone while David and I chatted the afternoon away with Yeyu, the boy we'd met weeks ago on the trek in -- he still wanted to be an engineer. Finally a clan meeting was announced and the appointed time came.

I kept an eye on our camp while David attended the fateful meeting with Go'obo. Yeyu kept me company. A half an hour later David walked back into the compound at a brisk pace.

I feared the worst, thinking they'd reached Semera and the original copy of our permit papers. All he said was to "get rid of the rocks!"

He then described the meeting as a chat-chewing bunch with the town's elders taking the lead. They'd asked why we were trying to hide from the police and why we'd snuck through the bush on the way in. The US Embassy had called at the height of the meeting. A couple voices has tried persistently to bring up the blue pen but David managed to change the subject each time. In the end, their only concern was that we might be thieves stealing minerals from Lake Abhebad. It was decided that if our bags were clean, we'd all be good to go. Before the cops came for the search, we quickly disposed of our handful of colored rocks. They weren't worth us staying in Afambo any longer.

The search was far from thorough. David immediately regretted getting his hands dirty to toss his beautiful stones down the toilet. Minutes later, Mohammed and Thoreau showed up, all smiles. Mohammed's family was all there, his frail little mother smiling with the same high, pointy cheekbones and wild eyes. We gave her our excess pasta, berbery, lentils, sugar and tea. Like every other Afar woman we'd passed on the trip, she loved the UNHCR cans. We arranged to meet

Mohammed and Thoreau a few days later in Asaita to re-sell the camels and celebrate the end of the expedition.

Backs at the road, we were horrified to learn there were no more buses to Asaita. The prospect of another night in Afambo City was dreadful but seemed likely. Unlike the day before, the town was completely dead, struck by an epidemic of boredom. Many occupied themselves with empty staring, most in our direction but some targeting the trash-heaped mud puddle at the town's entrance. A few seemed to mix things up by alternating targets from minute to minute. Unable to cope, one poor boy resorted to sucking on a balloon. We drank copious amounts of tea to pass the time, our eyes on the road.

Our hopes of escaping Afambo that night about dashed, we were on the verge of resorting to balloon-sucking ourselves when an Isuzu truck rolled along, a beautiful dust cloud billowing up in its wake. In a state of pure euphoria we hopped in back and watched the Afar countryside breeze by, mosquitos splatting in our faces all the way to Asaita. Lavly Kaafe and its ice-cold Mirindas awaited.

That night in our cot-filled courtyard, I sent a text to Denmark to say I'd made it back. Joanna woke me with a 23:30 phone call, after which I couldn't get back to sleep. Wheezing donkeys, vicious cat wars, whooping hyenas and what sounded like a man being torn to pieces by a pack of dogs kept me wide awake. Even Asaita, our longed-for beacon of civilization during the trek, felt like the edge of the earth, a world away from home. As for our days of berbery pasta and Harissa dates, they were already fast becoming a fond but distant memory. Within the next few long days in Asaita we sold Tony and Bolbirri, said goodbye to our Afar friends and began the trip back to Addis.






The Oxford Danakil Expedition Team (right to left): Mohammed, Go'obo, Thoreau, David and myself. 

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