Offside Press AB/Filter, 2013.
Reviewed by Jan Teeland in SBR 2014:1
Review Section: Non-Fiction
In early summer 2011, the journalist Martin Schibbye and the photographer Johan Persson set off from Sweden to investigate the activities of the Swedish company Lundin Oil and the impact of its questionable activities on the local population in the closed region of Ogaden in Ethiopia. They had done their research and were fully aware that they were taking enormous risks, not least by entering the area through contacts with ONLF, the separatist movement whose members were considered terrorists by the Ethiopian government.
438 Dagar is Schibbye and Persson’s riveting account of their important venture. They arrive in Africa in June 2011, enter the Ogaden the same month and are shot and captured by the Ethiopian military police one month later. From then on the story takes place in gaol or prison in Addis Ababa – with scenes in police headquarters and court interpolated – until they are released in September 2012. Schibbye and Persson alternate telling the story, which has several advantages, one of which is that, over time, distinct personalities emerge from – almost despite – the often terrible events they relate. Schibbye is thoughtful and diplomatic, which he notes can be both an asset and a liability. Persson is impatient and intense, but also practical and an inveterate optimist. However different their personalities, they forge a deep and warm friendship and share a total commitment to investigative journalism and to journalists who dig below the surface to expose exploitation and corruption.
In the Ogaden, they were forced by the military to participate in a false documentary and a fake execution, incriminating both them and the ONLF, and then put in detention. The central part of the book takes place in Kality prison, which is divided into zones. The Swedes were placed with other ‘foreign nationals’ in zone 6, amongst mostly ordinary criminals from all over Africa. This motley crew and many quite extraordinary events as well as the dirt and constant noise (local TV) in Kality are vividly depicted. We learn of the intricate ways of prison smuggling and the wheeling and dealing behind the scenes – the ‘silent diplomacy’ of the Swedish ambassador and foreign minister, which apparently worked. The book also contains letters to their families, songs and poems, and records the hopes and disappointments of meetings with embassy and prison officials.
Although at times the narrative lags, 438 Dagar is well written and rich in detail. It introduces us to an ugly corner of the world but, above all, I was left with some of Johan’s optimism: the very writing of this book signals hope. When the Swedes were released from prison, one of their prison mates asked them to tell the world what they had experienced and observed.
Their story is both gripping and alarming. I hope it becomes available to readers all over the world – not least in Ethiopia.