A reporter meets Ethiopian rebel boss after 33 years
By Jon Swain
Nov. 26 2009
I last saw Aregawi Berhe in the summer of 1976. The big news gripping Britain was the heatwave — back then, the hottest since records began — and the dramatic Israeli commando raid on Entebbe airport in Uganda to rescue 100 hostages held by pro-Palestinian hijackers.
My mind was focused on neither. Aregawi Berhe had kidnapped me, and I was concentrating on survival.
At the time, Aregawi was a fierce young guerrilla leader in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray province. I was a young reporter on assignment for The Sunday Times, covering Ethiopia’s separatist wars.
On June 1, 1976, I was on a local bus on a winding mountain road between the towns of Axum and Mkele when Aregawi’s men ambushed it. Finding me on board, they seized me on suspicion of being an “imperialist spy”. My protestations that I was a journalist came to nothing.
For three seemingly interminable months, from June to September, they held my life in their hands as they marched me under guard through the rugged hills and barren deserts of Tigray and through the breakaway province of Eritrea.
We trudged at night under the stars to escape the unforgiving sun and to avoid being spotted and fired on by patrols of the Ethiopian army. In moonlight, we panted up steep, bare, eroded hills, scrabbled over rocks, pushed our way through thorn bushes.
On one occasion, worn out and parched in an area of desert, I had to suck water from cactuses to keep going. My 500-mile forced march under armed guard was the toughest thing I had ever done.
I was not alone. They had also kidnapped an entire British family, the Tylers. Lindsey Tyler was a veterinary surgeon working in Ethiopia on an aid project, vaccinating cattle against rinderpest. He was on a trip with his wife, Stephanie, and children, Robert, 8, and Sally, 5, when the guerrillas fired on their Land Rover. “We have children, for God’s sake ... we have little children,” Stephanie shouted as bullets ricocheted off the stones.