A MIRAGE [CRUEL ILLUSIONS]
For narratives of individual images, please view slideshow.
I found myself in a semi hypnotic state of observation. I was immersed in the tempo and pitch radiating through the airport bus, much like where I've come from. I reminisced away, retreating into my own little world, when a man clothed in a red tracksuit jacket hollered across the bus, interrupting the trance I was in. He gestured vehemently at a somewhat elderly man, a good distance away from him. They knew each other I thought, as the man in the red tracksuit wore a wide smile on his face. The elderly gentleman placed his palm to his chest and shook his head, signally he was ok. This to’ing and fro’ing continued for a while when suddenly a third young man stood up from his seat, made his way across to the elderly gentleman, shook his hand and guided him towards the seat he’d just given up. The smiles, chatters and general happiness amongst strangers resumed on the bus, at the same affable loudness and pitch. I haven’t been back to Ethiopia for 10 years and I felt this fuzzy warmth that was richly evident in Ethiopian culture, recalling the same morals drummed into me in Singapore where I grew up.
Ten years ago, I visited Ethiopia for the first time, greeted by the same beautiful hospitality. I’d documented the HIV/AIDS epidemic that marked this part of the world, leaving behind an entire generation of children to head up households and fend for themselves before their time. I recalled distinctly how little these families had, barely enough to sustain themselves in fact. However what they had, they shared with me. Something I will never let slip even if my mind failed. The project was based in Tigray, the northernmost regional state in Ethiopia. I had hopes of touching base with the families I had met 10 years ago but that was not a possibility. Tigray, as I write, was inaccessible due to the present conflict which continues to afflict pain across Ethiopia. It appears the war as resumed despite attempted negations for the past couple of months, amid impending floods and the worst drought in four decades!
We drove through the Danakil Depression, one of the hottest places on earth. I have a habit of falling asleep on rough roads. A very strange phenomenon! However I kept my eyes peeled, intrigued by the monotony in the space-like landscape, devoid of much life. There had been nothing but desolate grounds, vast yet infertile, with barely any greenery for hundreds of kilometres. I could feel the heat radiate through the windows in the car, despite our air conditioning being at full blast. At one point we drove through an extensive distance where a volcanic eruption had painted about 50km of land black. Large shards of blackened rocks, as far as the eye could see, jutted out of the earth. Finally, after much tedium of nothing but barren land, I spotted a hopeful reflection of a lake in the distance. Astounded I exclaimed that finally there was some signs of life after hours upon hours of driving. It was none but a naive notion however. There was no lake. Once river beds were parched. Deep cracks have established permanence on these lands. That hopeful reflection was simply a mirage, an artless hallucination.
This collection of images is a snippet of the lives of people I have met, their journey of survival and continuity, despite floods, droughts, famine and conflict happening all at once, devastation and destruction in every form, with compounding reverberations.They had basic homes and small pieces of agricultural land that sustained their families. They had lives and were content. Suddenly they didn’t.
Whilst some have lost the little that they had in the floods of 2018 and are yet to recover, others are preparing to face the same plight, as another flood is probable due to heavy rains forecasted in the neighbouring highlands, threatening to destroy more homes and lives. The last flood in 2018 displaced nearly 200,000 people and destroyed livestock and crops en masse in the town of Asayita alone. Warning via the usual channels of communication was untenable in this part of the world. We looked out across the plains from higher ground, trying to picture women, children and the elderly running for their lives, being hoisted up onto trees and roof tops, when the floods precipitated the last time. We tried to picture as a local survivor described the expansive amount of water that covered the area from where we were standing all the way to the base of the mountains far beyond, watching as their livestock were being carried off by strong currents, amongst homes and debris. It was difficult to estimate the distance and area under water, but it was considerable. This is expected to occur once again.
In a different part of the country, others are witnessing their goats, sheep and camels slowly starve and die of thirst as ground water continues to dry up and food for the animals became scarce. There is still no signs of rain. The air remains thick and furnace-like. Deep crevices scarred the earth where water should have been. With temperatures soaring well above 40ºC and not a drop of rain, the communities in this region face a very bleak future. The horn of Africa is currently experiencing the worst drought in 40 years. People are walking great distances for water and water isn’t guaranteed at the end. Livestock numbers have dwindled significantly whilst surviving livestock are selling for much less at the markets due to reduced weight. We walked across the parched terrain with Mohammed Sabri and his family in the Kori township of Afar, where the carcasses of his livestock laid, some partially swallowed by mother earth. He had 300 shoats and there are only 20 left. He explained that whilst he hasn’t lost any family members, they are suffering immensely of malnutrition, impacting especially the children. Access to food is problematic. Remote communities such as these depended heavily on their livestock for dairy and meat. Since this is no longer viable as livestock are perishing at a frightening rate, they now have to travel a long distance through unforgiving lands in search of food. The cycle is dire and there isn’t a way around it.
Conflict has plagued the country for a long time. Many have had their lives and homes turned to rubble because of internal conflict, typically driven by complex ethnic land rights that I do not purport to understand fully. Agaritu Beleta, a woman I met in an IDP (Internally Displaced Person) site whose face I cannot get out of my mind, defeated yet finding strength in the possibility of a better future said, “we used to be the one people came to when they needed help. Now we have nothing at all.” She looked around the small tent that she has called home for the past four years, mended with bits of plastic and canvases from discarded tents to stop the rain leaking through during the rainy seasons. She pointed to the hard, bare grounds they slept on as mattresses had to be sold in exchange for food. She talked about the latrines on site that were filled to the brim and that were completely obsolete. This is a single story that is common across the lives of many people whom we’ve met and thousands whom we hadn’t. This is in the present tense. It was all still the case as I left, heavy hearted. Meanwhile, higher level political conflict between the government and militia in the northern part of the country, have seen major facilities including hospitals, hospital equipment, medicines, schools, market places and homes stretching across the North Eastern region of Ethiopia, utterly destroyed. Most of which can't easily be replaced, at least not without substantial foreign aid.
People are dying of starvation and dehydration, especially women, children and the elderly. The flow on effects of the war in Ukraine has further impacted the supply of food aid, the last rations of food were delivered 4 if not more months ago. A local doctor said to me, "I need to help this child now, not after your images has informed the world as this child would not make it!” I grappled with my own emotions as I watched young children being fed from large tubes as acute malnutrition rage across the country. I fought back tears as I watched a little girl, the same age as my own daughter, knowing that her fate is in question and if I’d visited again in a few months, I am unsure if she would still be alive.
Sometimes I wonder where these communities find the strength and resilience to keep going, to keep surviving, to keep walking towards that never ending mirage, an illusion so cruel where I have witnessed the most admirable human characters and resolve. Every step I took, every little turn I made, I questioned my own determination for survival should I be immersed in the same arduous circumstance. They keep going, a step at a time, with hope and a vision for something as simple as to return to what they had, even if they had to rebuild it all again. Rudimentary yet elemental.
So I do ask that you connect with the people and their stories in these images, even if for a short moment, and understand that they real. As real as you and I… and that they are living in hell but that hell is situated on earth.