17 MARCH 2007, Page 32

We should treat grand theories about the Ethiopian kidnaps with great scepticism

As we go to print the five kidnapped tourists in Ethiopia have been returned alive, but mystery still surrounds the circumstances of their capture and the motives of their kidnappers, while some of the Ethiopians who were captured with them are still missing. I expect a good deal of theorising in the week ahead. Some of it, like the speculation we’ve been hearing over the last ten days, will be wide of the mark. The released tourists are themselves likely to be confused about what was going on. This, I believe, may well be because their kidnappers themselves were confused. Chaos and misunderstanding are the explanation for so much that baffles us in Africa, and attempts to explain events within the framework of European logic are often misplaced. Local knowledge — but, more than local knowledge, a sense of how people think — is the key.

I was in Hamed-Ela, where these people were kidnapped, a year ago. I slept in the yard where they were abducted. And while it would be idle to pretend to any great knowledge of this godforsaken yet weirdly beautiful place or of the notoriously volatile Afar tribe who inhabit it, I have learnt (in two visits) more than most outsiders know.

The Danakil Depression is not (as one BBC report claimed) ‘a vast desert’. It is a small desert, mostly less than 20 or 30 miles across, shaped like a long trench (an arm of the African Great Rift Valley) and running north–south. The frontier between Ethiopia and Eritrea runs with it. To each side are ranges of dry mountains. The western range lifts the terrain towards the escarpment of the Ethiopian highlands, a couple of thousand metres up. The eastern range (in Eritrea) holds back the Red Sea. A channel excavated through the Eritrean mountains would turn the depression into an inland sea, up to 300 feet deep, with a handful of volcanic cones poking through. Otherwise the bed of the depression is astonishingly flat, with a couple of dead, stinking salt lakes (their size depending upon season) strewn across what is otherwise rock-hard caked salt in strange pentagonal shapes, lava rubble, or sand. By day, air temperatures vary between 40°C and 50°C, and by night there is little respite from the heat, though some from the flies. There is no running water and there are very few wells.

Since time immemorial the Afar tribe, semi-nomadic pastoralists, have lived here. Slight, very dark, and famed for their mercurial temperament and suspicion of strangers, the Afar have resisted being ‘settled’, and roam freely across borders. They carry guns, herd goats, keep a few camels and live in low huts made of bent sticks covered in matting, proof against the prowling jackals and hyenas who threaten their herds by night. The nocturnal shriek of the hyenas and the smell of the humans — predominantly wood-smoke and rancid fat — is unforgettable. I found the Afar hospitable, but the other peoples of Ethiopia fear them as ferocious, unbiddable, hard to read and more attached to tribe than country. There is, though, wonder and admiration at their ability to live in a place few other Ethiopians want to go anywhere near. One told me there is a giant magnet in the Danakil, and outsiders simply disappear.

Here are four likely mistakes which I think have bedevilled the speculation about the kidnap, and should now be put from our minds: (1) That the hopes of the kidnappers cannot have included robbery, because the vehicles, some luggage and mobile phones were left behind. (2) That the government of Eritrea may have been involved because Eritrea is hostile to Ethiopia. (3) That al-Qa’eda may have been involved because predominantly Christian Ethiopia is in bad odour with Islamists. (4) That, at any rate, something mysterious was afoot because the captives were held for so long without word — perhaps as part of an Afar separatist plot to gain attention or leverage.

There need be no mystery at all. The Ethiopian government will have reasons of its own to talk up the involvement of the Eritreans. My guess, however, is that simple, opportunist seizure is more credible as a motive, with Eritrea not the sponsor but the hoped-for sanctuary. There is (in Afar terms) great wealth and influence in Hamed-Ela at this time of year because winter is the high season of the camel trains’ carriage of salt up into the highlands. Here Afar villagers, joined by nonAfar seasonal workers, lever slabs from the salt pan, cut and shape it, and load camels with blocks, on each of which the village exacts a small tax. It is important to appreciate the likely ignorance of any wandering band of Afar towards the wide world beyond. They are unlikely to have appreciated whom their captives were, beyond the fact that they looked rich or perhaps important. They may have hoped they could get something precious from them but been unsure what. That is how Africa is.

As to the theory that the Eritrean government is behind this, we should dismiss it. Asmara has no interest in a diplomatic rift with London. What is true, however, is that Eritrea’s attitude to Afar bandits has been tolerant (I was told this by an Ethiopian who had been kidnapped himself, ending up on the Eritrean side of the frontier) because thorns in Ethiopia’s side please Eritreans, who talk up the ideological element in the actions of those outside the law in Ethiopia. A self-styled Afar ‘separatist’ movement may well, as claimed, have had some involvement with these kidnappers, but be sceptical of too political an explanation. Neither Robin Hood nor the Elizabethan pirates were the last opportunists to seek comfort in ideological justifications for larceny. Afar separatists would have little idea how to use white hostages for political leverage, and wiser Afar heads should have been able to talk them out of it.

The attitude of local Afars to Afar outlaws was, so far as I could tell, ambivalent: more fearful that supportive. In this affair (and as attempts to investigate the outrage proceed) local people may well keep to themselves what knowledge there is of what and who was involved. We may never know.

My guess is that the tourists will have been captives to a bunch of outlaws who never thought their ambush through, who fled in the night with hostages and then found themselves deep in something bigger than they intended. They will have had no particular desire to kill their captives, and will not have been sure what the attitude of the Eritrean authorities would be, but hoped they were safer on that side of the border. Treat grander theories of what these brigands were up to, and talk of regional tension, with — if not disbelief then scepticism. Ignorance and cock-up is the reason for many African mysteries.