Siwan: Live to tell the tale

The term boat people came into the political lexicon in the 1970s with the Vietnamese escaping communism to settle in other countries. Then the term started to be used in other spots of the world, including the Caribbean in the 1980s when Cubans and Haitians flocked to the United States fleeing political and economic downturns.

In the past couple of years Ethiopians and Somalis are joining this group in leaps and bounds; Somalis fleeing chaos, and Ethiopians leaving their homeland for a myriad of reasons. The latter are an odd addition to the club in that they are boat people of a landlocked country.

The boat people of the Horn of Africa begun grabbing world attention with reports of hundreds of people drowning in the high seas. While there have been some attempts to document these treacherous sea journeys, its full story is far from being told.

Among such attempts is Daniel Gezahegn’s work entitled Siwan, the word-we are told-means May in Hebrew. The 279 page story written in Amharic is a first hand account of a refugee heading to Yemen by all means available. There lies the main advantage of the work as opposed to reports of the media that happen to write the news from exhausted survivors of the arduous sea journey. Daniel says he was fleeing persecution for stories he published while working in the private weeklies of Moged and Gemena which he edited at different times.

siwanThe book explains in detail the routes the writer took to get to the waters of Yemen, starting from the good old long distance bus terminal locally known as Atobis Tera at the heart of Addis in December 2005 following the chaos of the general elections earlier in May. He talks of his childhood villages on the way to Jijiga and then to the port city of Bosaso in the self-declared state of Puntland. The situation where gangs and warlords control large swath of territory and even levying tax begins in the peripheries of Ethiopia.Then that pattern follows the immigrants all the way to the shores of Yemen.

It is difficult to track how many days and nights the writer spent before crossing the Gulf of Aden. In those circumstances days and nights lack meanings. One hardly tells what day of the week is any given day. All that matters is getting there at all cost. However, the most dangerous trip was the over forty hours journey on the water where about 150 people are crammed into a rickety boat made for a dozen people. Some of the stories told in this fateful journey are too gruesome to mention. Suffice to say it is a life and death situation. The harsh circumstances, however, hardly deter refugees from getting to the Middle East. According to the UN Refugee Agency,UNHCR, only last year 84,000 Ethiopians crossed the Gulf of Aden in similar manner.

The writer is lucky in that he lived to tell the tale. Somehow the risks paid. His four years sojourn in Yemen was concluded with a resettlement to the US. Many have not been as lucky.

The book is informative and gives a good picture of life of refugees in that part of the world. One cannot help but pointing that readers could have benefitted from some images of daily life in Bosaso, Aden or Sana’a.

Among the challenges of writing such stories is authors’ exclusive reliance on personal memories. The problem arises when conversations begin. One can hardly remember each and every sentence as spoken. Years back when veteran journalist and a one time minister Ahadou Saboure wrote his memoir, some of the criticisms revolved around the conversations aboard a vessel in the port of Djibouti, most of which were held in French.
While these exchanges are important to stories, there must be other ways of presenting them; at least not in direct quotes.

That in general becomes a challenge to all those who embark on such endeavor.
This article is hardly a review, rather an appreciation to a writer who brought the story against all odds.Thank you!

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