On the 28th of June 2011 Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson crossed the border of Ethiopia. This choice was to cost them their freedom as well as 438 days of their lives, but was also to shed light on a true story of gaining the truth as prisoners of dictatorship. Cumulus has had the honor of interviewing Martin, who due to his “failed” journalistic mission together with Johan tells us a compelling story few of us will ever forget.
This story has its beginning long before Martin and Johan entered Ethiopia, long before journeys by foot in the warm desert, mock executions, isolation cells or long days and nights in a hell called Kality. Long before Martin a warm summer’s day in June 2011 sits at Arlanda airport, ready for a new mission with the new colleague Johan Persson. This story begins and ends with a journalist’s will to illuminate the truth.
The first thing Martin tells me is that he, like me, has run a school magazine. This was during his high school years at the Natural Science program at Värmdö Gymnasium. After university studies in economy, political science and eventually a degree in journalism at Stockholm’s University he realized that academic work was too tedious for him. Since then he has been free-lancing for different magazines both in Sweden and abroad, which has given him the opportunity to write about topics he himself has found interesting and important. “I wanted to get out, have more flesh and blood”, he says.
When asked what it is that makes a good journalist good – and a bad journalist bad – he has to think for a while. “A good journalist embarks without having a thesis, while a bad journalist already has a thesis and an idea of what to write about. A bad journalist decides the title before the text is written, while a good journalist starts by writing the text… a bit fuzzy, haha.” Martin giggles slightly at himself. Not at all fuzzy, in my opinion, as I understand exactly what he means. Our prejudices ruin and limit our view of the world, which of course also holds for journalism.
He continues by telling me about the turning point in his writing; the moment in his life when he realized the actual reason to why he is a journalist. “I got an epiphany when I did coverage about the slave trade in Nepal and interviewed a girl who had been a victim to slavery there. She told me: <Martin, I have talked to lots of journalists, and you come here and ask your questions and then nothing happens.> For me this was truly a revelation of what being a journalist means. As a journalist you have to ask yourself ‘why do I write this? Why do I want to know this?’”
This insight drove him to find what he actually wanted to do. How he, as a journalist, was to write about something that, in fact, was meaningful. He talks about how important it always is to show different perspectives of an event. “You have to interview both the good and the bad guys”, he explains, in order to then truthfully be able to identify what a situation or a conflict looks like.
The desire to depict the truth and all the stories belonging to it was the reason why Martin went to Ethiopia in the first place. Together with the photographer Johan Persson, he travelled to Africa in June 2011 to illuminate the ongoing conflict in the Ogaden region.
The Ogaden region was, and still is, closed, while the Ethiopian government presents a flattering image of itself to the rest of the world. Numerous corporations, including the Swedish company Lundin Oil, want to extract oil from the area, leaving the population caught in the middle when the opposition group ONLF (Ogaden National Liberation Front) and the government engage in a ruthless war. Villages are burned down, people are tortured, women are raped and the people live in a constant fear for the pure evil that the military is subjecting them to. No journalist had previously made their way into the country and portrayed the conflict from their own experiences, and this was why Martin and Johan desired to do it.
“Using the help of guerrilla groups is a common way for journalists to illegally get into areas exposed to conflicts” Martin says, and that is exactly what they did. With assistance from ONLF they entered Ogaden, but after a few days, the military caught up with them and Martin and Johan were captured.
The days to follow could have been taken from a horrid nightmare, filled with psychological and physical assault from the Ethiopian government in the shape of mock executions, an obligation to stage their own arrest on tape, and the refusal of treatment for Johan’s injured arm in a hot desert. Eventually, the journalists were taken to a remand, where they spent 28 days. Time and time again they were promised release, but it never came. After the 28 days in custody, they were put in the fabled prison Kality, where they awaited their verdict.
To cope with their stay in prison, they tried to keep a journalistic mentality, blocking out all senses but their journalistic minds. Martin wrote about everything that happened, with the knowing that they one day would write a book about their experiences. Johan, who now has lost his camera, was more practical and coped with imprisonment with more technical or handy occupations. A strong friendship started to grow between the two, which had great significance for both of them in handling the situation. Despite – or perhaps thanks to – their differences, they stuck together during their time in Kality and tried their best to look upon the situation as a journalistic mission. “I said to Johan: <this is actually pretty unique>, and then he wondered <yeah, buy how do we get out of here?>”
Accused of terrorism, sentenced to eleven years in prison, and stuck in an environment where rules were neither followed nor acknowledged, they were forced to endure 438 days in Kality. After many ifs and buts, and following the petition for mercy that was submitted, the two journalists were finally released in September 2012. Martin and Johan have now depicted the stories and the people, the journalism and the politics, in their book 438 Days (438 dagar), which was released this autumn.
How was it to relive everything again when you wrote the book?
‘’Yeah, to relive is the right word. It was really hard. It was like going back into that prison again every day.’’
At the same time he continues to point out that, despite the hardship that came with writing the book, the actual process of it all gave the time in Kality meaning. Not only did the book allow Martin and John could work through everything by themselves, but also highlight the issues that today reign in Ethiopia and make a journalistic piece from a ‘’failed reportage’’.
Regarding the working process, I asked about the expression ‘’save your shit’’ that Martin and Johan are said to have used during the editing of the book. The expression is taken from a podcast by ‘’Alex & Sigge’’, which they listened to diligently during the summer. ‘’That pod came right on time, just when we were editing,’’ says Martin and laughs. ‘’Save your shit’’ means to save what you like, in contrast to the expression ‘’kill your darlings’’. Martin adds that it helped them when it came to separating whether something was too private or not, and if they would keep something which may have been a bit too ‘’disturbing’’ in order to be as personal as possible.
What happens now? Is the story over now? Will Martin and Johan continue their lives, while everything stays just like it always has in Ethiopia? Despite the attention the whole incident has been given, the country has not made any progress regarding the oil production or the conflict between the military and the ONLF. Journalists are still being imprisoned and the demands have only become tougher than before. After all, according to Ethiopia, there is no conflict.
‘’I will never be able to let go of Ethiopia. Every time I brush my teeth, I see the bullet wound in my arm. But eventually we will be able to start seeing what is now and what was then. The book was then. Now is now.’’ Now is also the time to cast the spotlight towards those who are still left there. Martin and Johan’s story about Ethiopia is over, but the story about Ethiopia and the imprisoned journalists that are still enduring the misery continues. Journalists with a shared desire to shed light on the truth are instead being silences and locked away to atone for their so called ‘’crimes’’.
”It’s important to make the most of the attention. We want to put the focus on those who are left, because there are many people who go through far worse things than we did”. He means that it is crucial that people continue writing despite the oppression in the country. I ask him if he thinks one journalist can influence a whole society and he answers with determination: “I definitely think a journalist has the power to affect people and their way of thinking; to awaken their minds.
Through that you can eventually change things. However, politicians are of course needed in order for something to be able to happen. When the circumstances are poor it’s important that there are people writing about it and politicians listening to them.”
“There is a young generation I believe in who see through the propaganda” he points out. He clarifies that social media has caused cracks in the wall and that hopefully one day the wall will collapse. He also hopes that the oil companies will abolish their oil extraction until they get confirmation that the local inhabitants are living under decent conditions. Until that day comes it’s important that we continue to make our voices heard.
The journalism will probably continue to play a central role in Martin’s life. “The drive I felt before Kality remains and I will keep on travelling and making reportages in the future” he says. Up until the year-end, Martin and Johan will continue their book tour through Sweden, and when finished, Martin will carry on with his profession as a journalist. It is possible that he and Johan will attempt to make another reportage. “Since it was the first time we worked together, it would be fun to complete a mission.” “Well, you started out well”, I point out, which makes us both laugh.
My conversation with Martin is an event I’ll never forget. He is an extremely inspiring person, who with his knowledge, good values and ideas is a wonderful example of a great journalist. In a world where media seems to only focus on depicting the journalist’s own accomplishments and pride, Martin instead strives to unravel the history and what’s actually substantial.
This story ends where it started; with a journalist’s wish to illuminate the truth. This conversation has given me new insights on why I am and want to be a journalist. To be a journalist is about telling a story – your own or someone else’s – and by doing so, bringing change for the better in the world. To be able to achieve this we have to open our eyes and see the world through everyone’s eyes; both through the hunter’s and the prey’s eyes and the devil’s and the angel’s eyes. We need to open our eyes and write, film and photograph in order to be able to open the eyes of more people and in that way change the picture we observe right now. It’s then, and only then we can make a difference.
Originally written by Lisa Svenhard.
Translated into English by Astrid Boström, Lydia Öberg, Frida Habbe and Cecilia Wallbäck, IB12.
Photos: 438dagar.se, pressbilder (presspictures)