Sept. 14, 2009

Ethiopia in Minnesota: The Local Front of a Distant War

By Douglas McGill
The McGill Report

 

ROCHESTER, MN – What am I, truly? Saint or sinner? Hero or boob?

When I report the harrowing stories of the torture and persecution of Ethiopian refugees who now live safely in Minnesota, am I being  “noble” and “brave,” a “freedom-loving” journalist who is “a friend to the voiceless ones"?

Or am I – as dozens of riled-up critics of my reporting charge – in fact being a sucker for refugees who lie to win asylum status, and even worse being a “biased,” “ignorant,” “confused white man” who “sits down in [my] luxurious home in the Twin Cities to write about what happens in the Horn of Africa,” believing that I am helping to heal the world while in fact I am only “fostering more violence”?

When I published two recent articles reporting crimes against humanity that refugees in Minnesota claim are being committed against their families who still live in Ethiopia, a roaring Niagara of comments flooded the Twin Cities Daily Planet. Most of the commenters listed me in one of these two categories – as a magnificent fellow or as a dupe, as a paragon or a propagandist, as a saint or a fool.

Justly Famous

This strange purgatory is well-known to human rights activists and aid workers around the world. Delivering food to starving refugees, they are vilified because the food is sometimes stolen by partisans, diverted to feed militias, or sold by profiteers. Giving medicine to those wounded in war, they are accused of aiding the enemy, fattening soldiers, or choosing sides in the continuing violence.

And yet, I am not reporting from the front lines of an Ethiopian war, drought or famine.

My accounts of the strife of war, which elicited such anguished and desperate response, originated from far behind the front lines, indeed from right here in Minnesota, where I live and work as a journalist. Our state is justly famous as a safe harbor and place of healing for traumatized refugees – so what is going on?

What reality does this depth of response in Minnesota point to?

One way to answer this – and thus to show how the worsening war in Ethiopia is concretely degrading life in our state  – is to return to the more than 100 comments posted at the Daily Planet and take a closer look. In particular, in the criticisms of my reporting I see several themes that, were I to engage them, might help to illuminate the strange territory that is diaspora politics – the politics of “here and there,” where “here” is Minnesota and “there” is 8,000 miles away in Africa, yet where the one affects the other like two billiard balls colliding on green felt.

Armchair Journalist?

Here are the four main threads of criticism of my reporting, as I see them, and my response to each:

1.   I’m an armchair journalist who is blind to America’s own faults. I should focus on those faults and keep my nose out of Ethiopian affairs.

My answer is that I don’t primarily report on the civil war that is being waged, at various intensities and on several fronts, inside Ethiopia today. Rather, I mainly write about the social, economic and psychological impact of Ethiopia’s civil war on the tens of thousands of Ethiopian refugees who live in Minnesota and beyond, in the U.S. and global diaspora. To understand these impacts on our state and its people, I must, to some degree, and with the help of many sources and readers who are better-informed than I am, try to explain and describe conditions past and present in Ethiopia.

2.   I’m a pushover for Ethiopian refugees who invent and  exaggerate hardship stories in order to win political asylum in the U.S.

Of course, fabricating persecution stories does happen. But I do my best through various interview procedures to screen out such claims. For example, I try to interview people as close to the time of an actual reported event as possible; and I try to interview people who witnessed an event firsthand if possible. I also find people to interview who are presented to me not through intermediaries and handlers, but rather by approaching people randomly at markets and by reading every email and comment posted to my stories. Finally, I interview a great many people for each article so that patterns of stories, and patterns of details within stories, appear.  A pattern is by no means a conclusive verification of fact, because rumors create patterns as well as truths. But when mixed with other elements of reported narratives, such as closeness to the time of an event, the vividness of idiosyncratic detail, and when physical or photographic evidence is also present, patterns of reported stories can solidify trust in a given account.  

3.   The families of Minnesota refugees live 8,000 miles away in a desert with little communication infrastructure. Why give Minnesota-based accounts of present-day conditions in Ethiopia any credibility at all?

There are two answers to this. One is that cell-phone connections, and in some cases land lines, exist in most of the major cities of the Ogaden region including the capital city, Jijiga, as well as in Dhagahbur, Wardheer, Fiiq, Kabridahar and Gode. Most of the Minnesota refugees from the Ogaden region maintain frequent telephone contact with their families and friends in those cities, as well as in smaller towns and villages throughout the Ogaden. Second, Because Ethiopia has banned foreign journalists from the Ogaden region, information that is passed to Minnesota’s Ogaden refugees and elsewhere in the diaspora over telephone connections is one of the few steady sources of up-to-date information on conditions in the region. Those accounts can be very accurate.  On December 22, 2003, by interviewing refugees from the Anuak tribe of Ethiopia who lived in Minnesota, and by interviewing eyewitnesses living in Ethiopia myself over a cell phone, I reported that about 400 Anuak men had been killed by Ethiopian soldiers in the town of Gambella nine days earlier, on December 13, 2003. A year later, in March 2005, Human Rights Watch published its own report on the December 13 massacre, concluding that 424 Anuak were killed that day. (Parenthetically, to the critics who say I’ve never been to Ethiopia, I did travel and report from there, as well as from Sudan and Kenya, in 2004.)

4.   I’m being manipulated by the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), a separatist group that fights against the Ethiopian government to achieve autonomy or independence the Ogaden region.

The ONLF is the rebel group in the Ogaden whose attacks on Ethiopian government troops and foreign commercial operations in 2007 unleashed the brutal government counter-insurgency that may have sparked crimes against humanity on the scale of Darfur. The ONLF is represented in the West by educated, fluent English-speaking members of the Ethiopian global diaspora, including perhaps some who live in Minnesota, including some perhaps whom I have met – I just don’t know. This ambiguity is part and parcel of reporting on such a complex situation, and it needs to be kept in mind by journalists and readers alike. This is not to disown my particular responsibilities as journalist, as I’ve defined above in relation to avoiding partisan accounts, and will expand upon below in relation to human rights reporting in particular.  It’s only to say that to insist on certainty – “Is so-and-so a member or a sympathizer of the ONLF?” – is both utterly impossible, and utterly a dangerous road to follow. It’s impossible because the ONLF is, with some significant exceptions, a populist militia whose members are drawn deeply and broadly across the Ogaden. It would be impossible in many villages to find a single family that didn’t have a son, daughter, or close relative who had either joined the ONLF or given them aid at some point. And it’s a dangerous road to go down because to demonize such a group is to demonize an entire people, which is the road to genocide. Many human rights groups believe that line has already been crossed and compare the tragedy of the Ogaden to Rwanda and Darfur.

The Human Truth

Defining the proper role of journalism in human rights reporting, to me, is the crux of the matter.

Because the role of the journalist, if journalism means anything, is to find and report the truth. But what truth? The political truth or the human truth?

To which truth does journalism owe its first allegiance? The two truths can collide.

Here in Minnesota, based on what I’ve seen, every single refugee from the Ogaden region is suffering from the loss of close family members, friends and other loved ones. They’re suffering from their separation from their homeland and at times they wonder, in their nightmares, if a single person in the Ogaden will be left alive.

This, as I’ve seen it, is the human truth of the Ogaden diaspora in Minnesota.

The Political Truth

But the political truth is different. When it comes to who has committed atrocities and who has not; and who has committed crimes of war and who has not; these are altogether different questions. Not all victims are necessarily innocent of such crimes, and not all soldiers or government officials are, de facto, guilty of them. In the present case, no one disputes that both parties – the ONLF and the Ethiopian government – have acted atrociously and inhumanely at times.  

In my coverage of how the Ethiopian civil war plays out in Minnesota, I follow two rules of thumb to navigate steadily through complex terrain.

The first rule is to remember that those parties who wield the most power – in this case the Ethiopia government by far -- need the most careful journalistic scrutiny and attention. There is no doubt that the ONLF is sometimes brutally violent. But it is ridiculous to compare their rag-tag militia to a modern army equipped with tanks, helicopters and fighter jets, that has been supported by U.S. military training, and that receives hundreds of millions of dollars of total foreign aid.

More fundamentally, my second rule of thumb is to seek the human truth beneath the political truth, and to report the underlying human truth as best I can. In saying so, I’m saying no more than that politics itself is meant to serve humans, and that a useful and human politics must be built on sound and accurate human truths.

It’s not only reasonable but necessary for journalism to ferret out, to accurately describe, and to widely share the human truths of our lives on this earth.

Reasonable & Necessary

This is a reasonable journalistic goal, because journalism is a literary form that at its best can convey the authentic poignancy of human suffering, which has proved itself to be one of the strongest motivators of collective global aid and cooperation.

And it’s a necessary goal, because power usually seeks to hide the truth of human suffering. It is doing so with a vengeance in Ethiopia today, barring reporters any access to the Ogaden region, and imprisoning reporters who manage to sneak in.

But in Minnesota, the Ogaden refugees are free to speak. That’s why I sit down with them and listen. Not to determine their “guilt” or “innocence,” their level of “membership” or “sympathizing,” or whether they are politically pure at heart.

Rather, I sit down to listen to their human stories of fear and flight, hope and struggle, suffering and release. Because that’s where good politics must begin.

Copyright @ 2009 The McGill Report
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