Ethiopia: The Predators at the Northern Star
The TPLF’s creepy army of fixers for reporters
There are some great movies about journalism — and some pretty awful ones. When they make a good one about reporting in Africa, I’ll let you know. But for the Tigray conflict, my brain keeps re-running a 1982 flick called The Year of Living Dangerously, based on an okay novel by Christopher Koch, who did have some journo experience.
Sorry, it’s not set in Ethiopia or anywhere else in Africa, but in revolutionary Indonesia in the 1960s. A young, handsome Mel Gibson (long before we all learned he was a batshit crazy anti-Semite) stars as a correspondent in Jakarta on his first big assignment. And yep, as typical with such films, we see the exotic foreign world through Mr. White Savior’s eyes. Of course, there’s a love interest, there’s got to be a love interest, in this case, played by Sigourney Weaver, and okay, I am going somewhere with this, so stick with me.
You see, what makes the film relevant for us is the reporter’s “fixer” — his go-to person, his assistant and occasional translator, the person who often connects him with his big “gets” for interviews.
In this case, it’s a Little Person named Billy Kwan, played by Linda Hunt (and yes, we’ll have that conversation another day about a female actor playing yellow-face and winning an Oscar for it). Anyway, Billy Kwan — moved by the poverty of the Indonesians — has caught revolutionary idealism, and the politics don’t matter so much to us here as the point that he pretty much leads our young white hero around by the nose, getting him great stories but also ruthlessly manipulating him.
But a hungry dog has no loyalty, and our reporter, Mel, screws over his fixer and his diplomat girlfriend just to break a story about an arms shipment and how the country might soon explode.
Then in a climactic scene, our hero runs after his fixer into a dark and broken, hellish and lonely street with crackling small fires for the homeless and graffitied posters, and he finally realizes just how much he’s been used. By a short guy who’s mentally unbalanced.
“I made you see things,” says Billy Kwan. “I made you feel things about what you write. I created you!”
Yes, he did. And if that’s not enough to drive home how our reporter isn’t a hero at all, but only a clueless dumbass, even another member of his bureau staff, his driver, turns out to be a hardcore Communist agent, who later tells him, “Why should I live like a poor man all my life when stupid people in your country live well? …Westerners do not have answers anymore.”
Great movie. But okay, it’s just a movie, right?
Well, there’s a hotel in the film, just as there’s always a hotel in real life where all the Western correspondents hang out after the regular day is done, drinking, bragging, gossiping, and sharing tall tales…
For the Tigray conflict, it’s the Northern Star Hotel in Mekelle. Not only the reporters stay there, but also the NGO staff, who have been using it as their base camp. Photojournalist Jemal Countess recalls how on his trip in June, reporters would drink beer over dinner and swap anecdotes about arranged visits to one of the hospitals and to battle sites. Countess soon discovered that the story he hoped to get was a chasm away from the one pursued by his fellow reporters.
“They wanted to talk about atrocities,” he says. “They wanted to see the famine, wanted to go the hospitals to talk to sexual abuse victims. We didn’t share objectives, that’s for sure, because they weren’t interested in the rebuilding [of Tigray], they were interested in the effects of war. So it was like ‘War and the Difficulties Facing the TPLF.’”
And they brought their misinformed and deeply biased views with them. During one of the long debates around a table, a correspondent for a northern European media operation barked, “Oh, for fuck’s sake, Abiy has already given away Western Tigray to the Amhara!”
(Sigh… Not to get side-tracked into a tedious debate, but you can find several sources that make it clear Welkait was never part of Tigray before the TPLF annexed it in 1991. How do we know this? Because the Tigrayans tell us themselves. In the Book of Axum sponsored by Emperor Zera Yaqob in the 1400s, there is even a diagram of the official provinces, and Welkait ain’t in it. Neither is it included when the missionary Walter Plowden was stomping around Ethiopia in the 1840s either and then listing the provinces in his book.)
It’s worth noting that Countess found Finnish journalist Liselott Lindstrom — who earned a high profile recently by getting an exclusive TV interview with Getachew Reda — balanced on the whole in her views.
The same couldn’t be said for her fixer, a man who gave the game away in his private comments. He was particularly keen on Tigray breaking off from Ethiopia and forming its own independent state. Countess asked him how that could be possible when the region was surrounded on all sides — and on some sides by bitter enemies.
“That’s right, we’re surrounded by our enemies, but we have support from the U.S. and the West.”
At one point during the conversation, the fixer bragged, “We’re all talking about secession, the youth are talking about secession! I took France24 into the heart of downtown to a place where all the young men were playing games, and you should have heard them. They interviewed these young men, and they were all talking about secession.”
Countess was unimpressed. “Come on, bro. You basically took France24 to a group of men who were set up and waiting to be talked to…”
“Go to Gijet”
He says the correspondents generally “treated their fixers like ‘This is my special connection to my exclusive.’” And fixers get passed along between reporters. Lindstrom’s fixer, for instance, has also worked for National Geographic.
Countess says “all of these guys are based in Mekelle. They are Tigrayan, which under normal circumstances makes perfect sense. Somebody from the region. But the thing is, is that these guys seem to be planted or foisted upon you for the sake of showing you what they want you to see.”
They know what the reporters want, and they make sure to make themselves available. “The thing about Northern Star, to me, was just how much people watched you and waited to interact with you,” says Countess.
During his debate with Lindstrom’s fixer, the man told him, “You should go to Gijet.” He then launched into a rant over how the village had allegedly been bombed by the ENDF, and how hundreds of people had been left homeless.
Way back in February, Reuters reported that more than 500 structures had been burned down “in and around” Gijet and cited the findings of the mysterious security research firm, DX Open Network. What did the firm use for this allegation? Its analysis of satellite photos. It argued that certain “factors support the analytic judgment that this was an intentional effort by a conflict party to destroy this civilian habitation area, and not the product of combat.” The firm couldn’t say who set the fires, but then it didn’t have to, as at the time the government had the upper hand.
Of course, Lindstrom’s fixer put the blame squarely on the Amhara and the ENDF, claiming it bombed the village, even though DX Open Network, in fact, had suggested there was no evidence of this. “They always come back to blaming the Amhara,” says Countess. “If you’re south of a certain point, it’s Amhara, if you’re north of a certain point, it’s Eritreans.”
The American, however, wasn’t falling for the guy’s pitch. Countess had lived in Ethiopia before, and he knew his way around. But no sooner had they parted ways, with Lindstrom, her cinematographer, and her fixer heading out than Countess went to get a cup of coffee and wound up in a strange conversation in the hotel’s foyer area.
Two tables away, a fat man well dressed in a good polo shirt, nice slacks and a hat was moving his head side to side in a weird manner, striking up a conversation with Countess and declaring, “Oh, this is the worst I’ve ever seen it in my life, this is the worst time in my life! I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The American photojournalist simply wanted to enjoy his coffee. But the stranger wouldn’t let up. “Oh, you should go to Gijet. Gijet! They destroyed something like 600 homes with white phosphorus! They destroyed 600 homes, and those people don’t know what to do.”
Countess thought this sad little bit of theater couldn’t make things any more obvious, though he felt some of these operatives with their almost comical tactics at the hotel had the potential to be a little more aggressive. He came to think that the “Northern Star is a big holding pen.”
But he didn’t need their “help,” and besides, he had come to Tigray with a very different agenda. He wanted to document the federal and interim governments’ rebuilding efforts.
“There were people who were willing to let bygones be bygones, ‘our war’s with the TPLF,’ let’s rebuild Tigray and move on to a better country, kind of thing. If you’re rebuilding, I want to see the rebuilding. If you’re helping the people of Tigray, I want to help the people of Tigray — I want to show that.”
So, he relied heavily on the interim government for resources, which worked up to a point.
“When I got there, there had already been 35 assassinations of interim government folk.”
He was shown a couple of schools which were operating, one of them a primary school at full capacity. Why, he wondered, weren’t his journalism colleagues bothering to shoot this? He visited a couple of USAID’s seven aid distribution points. At the first one, he was given the full tour and “treated like a corporate investor” while at the second, he was hustled through in a rush job.
And being thorough in checking things out, he got a reminder of why Tigray needs the aid — not because of the war, but because it’s Tigray.
Countess took a shot of one local practically plowing rocks in his field. All you have to do, he says, is compare the land between Tigray and parts of Amhara and Oromia. “You’ll realize that’s exactly why they took Welkait because that soil is black, it’s black for miles, it’s rich, dark, nutrient-dense Earth.”
The Hollow TV Set
But after his visits to the aid distribution points, “everything started to fall apart.” The drivers for Countess didn’t show up. Or were unavailable. Contacts suddenly became less useful. He lost a day in foiled logistics and abandoned plans, but finally managed to get help from an interim government media attaché, who agreed to show him around.
He was able to visit two centers for Internally Displaced Persons, which were of course, rough — 35 to 40 people bunking down in the same room. Interestingly, says Countess, some of the IDPs were reported to have come from Mai Kadra and Humera. He had heard about folks pushed out of Humera by Fano and Amhara militia, but when he was in Humera, he found the community largely empty with a few locals “walking around, looking shell-shocked.”
“And this is the kind of thing that really burned up my craw because I see all these propaganda reports, these interviews — ‘Oh, these people did this to me, these people did that to me’ — but when you’re in a city, and you see that that city is barely functioning, you’re like, ‘Well, what you’re saying doesn’t match the reality here.’
“And I think what’s happening is they’re depending on the fact that nobody is going to follow up, and all of the Westerners who were coming in, especially from Europe and from the States, they already have it in their minds, Abiy’s the bad guy, the Ethiopian government’s the bad guy… and we got to go around them and get the real story from Tigray.”
But as we’re all discovering, the real story is more complex and contradicts the “scrappy” underdog portrayal of the TPLF pushed by the New York Times and others. There are reports of parents resisting the efforts of TPLF recruiters to take their children — and in at least one reported case, folks in Qwiha took it upon themselves to murder the recruiters.
For Countess, the issue is personal, given that his niece and nephew in Mekelle are both at an age where they could be forced into the TPLF ranks. When he asked the interim government about photographing child soldiers, he wanted to do it in a way that didn’t re-traumatize the children.
“These are young impressionable kids who are suffering from PTSD, obviously traumatized, brainwashed, so why would I go so far as to show their faces?”
This is not to say the TPLF hasn’t still got its hardcore supporters. Countess cites the example of his own cousin in Mekelle. “Her husband was a truckdriver for the TPLF. He supposedly died in fighting. Then he died at a church massacre. Then he died when they [the enemy] threw gasoline on his car with him in it and set him on fire. And the problem is she would give you two of these different causes of death within five minutes, right?”
He says his cousin watches Tigrai Media House non-stop. And since we started with a movie comparison, Countess has one of his own. He thinks of her cousin’s devotion to TMH like a haunting shot from the first Terminator film, a quick glimpse of a child staring at a fire inside the cavity of an old, busted television set.
“You don’t realize there’s not even a TV there. You’re so zoned out, you know? But yeah, it’s like Fox on steroids.” He says his cousin has been so brainwashed, she claimed that there were no schools open, that any report of them operating is “all propaganda, these schools are being used for IDPs.”
Countess, of course, had visited a school practically around the corner from her house two days before. His cousin wasn’t interested.
What we also know now from sources working for the interim government is that UN officials actively collaborated with the TPLF to sabotage efforts to keep the schools running and interfere with national exams.
Meanwhile, Countess is waiting for the release of photos by a correspondent friend with a solid reputation and a good head on his shoulders, shots which he says, “completely, completely, completely exposes everything.”
In fact, his friend bemoaned to Countess in private how he was forced to shell out $300 a day for TPLF fixer, plus $115 a day for the vehicle rental and driver. “So,” says Countess, “that’s basically $500 a day to be served propaganda.”
In Ethiopia’s long year of living dangerously, the fixers prey on the ignorance of Western reporters, whether it’s their cavalier photographing and filming of child soldiers or… well, pretty much everything else.
When it came to shooting pictures of the TPLF’s lambs for the slaughter, Countess says, “I think that the problem is that there was no familiarity with the TPLF in the situation at hand. All of these journalists did not know the history of the TPLF. I will say that. I even ran into a colleague on Capitol Hill who welcomed me back last week, and he said, ‘Yeah, nobody did their homework. Nobody asked, There’s a war, but why? What came before the war?’”