Dark Star Motorcycles: imprisoned in Addis Ababa

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“Adventure is something that, while it is happening, you wish it wasn’t”.

Dark Star Motorcycle’s Richard’s story from Ethiopia. Favourite read.

Afternoon Sunday 14th April.

I’m riding out of Addis on the Debre Birhan road to meet a Belgian lawyer friend in Legetafo. It’s 4 or 5 in the afternoon, sun warming the leather on my back. Roads are empty. The wide central reservation on this 6-lane arterial, usually a hive of activity under massed labour excavating light-rail foundations by hand, is completely devoid of people and long sections are hoarded off.

At a dip in the road before a shopping mall on a small rise I close the throttle and take the left lane, noticing a trio of women waiting to cross right-to-left from just inside the middle lane beside a waiting Anbessa (Lion) Addis city bus. They’ve not moved a muscle in over 5 seconds of my climb and only in the last meters of approach do they begin to make up their minds. The nearest takes a rock-step, out-and-back, deciding not to cross. I brake. The farthest (with infant swaddled in cotton wound ruck-sack over her back) dashes fully across. “YOUR CHILD!” I think but she makes it. I brake harder. Finally, maybe prompted by those peripheral cues, the middle woman commits without looking and without the slightest urgency. Tracking across it was only when she was directly ahead that her peripheral reactions displayed better judgement, prompting a dash. I leant the bike hard on its right shoulder attempting to avoid collision but clipped her left leg with the front wheel, tossing her aside and spilling myself and bike onto our right hip. The lateral impact shattered the headlamp glass which skittered like hail as the bike came to rest on its side, my right leg saved from the falling bike by the foot peg.

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I jumped up and was surrounded by a sea of tiny Ethiopians: some out of rubber-neck curiosity; others trying to capitalise on an accident involving a Farengi “high speed crash high speed crash!” one bawled with open palm. Back-stepping I found the woman, now clearly just a teenage girl, conscious but holding the guilty expression of a person yet to acknowledge a piece of them is broken. Tom, a short distance away where we’d lunched, arrived within minutes to take charge of the bike, pushing it to a nearby friend’s house allowing me to join the girl at a nearby clinic where she was seen. There the medic delivered the stomach churning news that her femur was broken.

I’d been in the country almost 2 months and was well aware of Ethiopia’s non-existent traffic awareness. In the countryside in particular, the road serves as playground, meeting point, pavement, and restaurant with less than scarce regard for motorised users of the same space. By way of further caution, our dear friend and fellow over-lander, Chuck, who we’d met weeks before at Wim’s, had had his own more severe, though thankfully not fatal, accident under similar circumstances 6 months before. So to now find myself involved in and responsible for, at least in part, such a situation was harrowing.

-:-

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Midnight. Finally we found a hospital, the 4th we visited, with that rare combination of spare bed and orthopedic specialists on staff. These last however had clocked off at 5pm and wouldn’t be roused till next morning. So the girl, Serkalem, was placed in traction overnight and I collapsed on a hospital trolley, in the first moment of relief from hard-won progress. Two men, Tewodoros & Birhanu, who’d arrived at the first clinic shortly after the accident, introducing themselves as Serkalem’s brothers decided that now, after midnight, and in total contradiction to their initial stance, was a good time to see the police. At the 3rd police station we visited that night, the commander informed I’d paid the requisite cash deposit for Serkalem to be admitted to hospital, asked I merely left ID and return next day to leave a statement.

As agreed with the family I returned to hospital 9am next morning and continued to pay, as is Ethiopian societal stipulation for the driver involved in a pedestrian:vehicle accident, to cover amassing medical fees and ensure Serkalem received surgery that day. Waiting for me at hospital, contrary to agreement with Bole’s police commander was an officer. Feeling isolated I reached out to the British embassy to gauge the official line. Consular emergency services, it turned out, was an automated voicemail service and no support was forthcoming.

Orderlies wheeled Serkalem away for surgery while the officer and I returned to the crash scene, communicating solely by gesticulation. I cynically wondered what unfavourable picture he was choosing to interpret from my description. Then on to Bole police station where Aylwyn met us to translate my full statement. Concluding his interview the officer presented a list of documents (besides the passport they already carried) he wished to see, interrupting himself in subsequent conversations to make additions. I proposed to collect these on Aylwyn’s bike and return within 2 hrs but was told that now, having presented myself of my own volition, and with no formal charge or arrest, I was simply not permitted to leave. For how long? It was implied that it was mere formality and I’d only be held overnight till the police had sent an officer to the hospital to verify Serkalem had received treatment. Local friend’s of Aylwyn tried to help, generously offering their own details by way of guarantee but I was ushered into a side room where a policewoman, plump as a pincushion, asked for belt and shoe laces (anything I could hang myself or others with) and mobile and wallet (anything of any value that could be snatched inside). It seemed a pointless and inherited routine, like something the commanding officer had seen in a movie, given I’d be getting these back tomorrow. “Wodeva, take ‘em” i thought.

You enter the cellblock with a knock at a flimsy eucalyptus frame, corrugated-iron clad door next to a small cut-out window where visitors bring food to their relatives inside. A narrow alley runs between 3 cells on the right and the guard’s office and storerooms on the left. At the alley’s end another officer guards the entrance to the facilities, the use of which was, ironically, timed – as if you’d be found dead in such a place. And there’s no other destination to go to in that direction but without fail each time you did the guard would ask “HEY FARENJI, WHERE ARE YOU GO?”, “outta this shithole before you, dude.

Led to Cell 1, a 7 x 9m cube with low ceilings, painted concrete floor and poor ventilation. I meet inmate Abiy, who offered a shoulder-width and man-length of floorspace beside him against a wall in the far corner. Totally unprepared, he kindly offered me a spare Gabbi, the ubiquitous cotton throw worn by Ethiopes across the country, for use as tent-like protection from flies. A fight erupted over 400 birr (USD20) that had disappeared from a man’s pocket whilst he slept and just as quickly subsided when a sage old man collected small contributions from each man to make up the sum. The cells walls are a lurid pink. 3 green steel windows are entirely hoarded save for a 12” grille at the top of each. Evening role call comes at 5pm and then the cell’s stable bolt is drawn and audibly padlocked outside. What little ventilation the open door provided is gone and the temperature soars with 50 echoing voices of jabbered amharic, somali and tigrinya. As the sun sets the lightless room darkens, fed only by a diffuse fluorescent aura from outside the cell. 15 men stand up and form up in 2 lines facing almost North. The men still seated hush themselves and those around to pin-drop silence for Islamic Maghreb. Afterward the remaining 35 form up in rows facing east for Orthodox evening prayers. Food brought to the visitor window during the day and stored for the evening is collected from small pots in one corner of the room. Those without are invited to share with neighbours. After dinner the cell’s MC addressed the inmates. Every evening there’s entertainment called “program” when new inmates or talented past performers are invited to stand before the room and give a performance: a dance; a joke; a story; a song. Those too unimaginative to deliver are heckled into giving a performance of the room’s choosing, such as mimicking calls and movements of domestic animals, or, failing that humiliating test, contributing to a pot for the cell’s janitors. The janitors are inmates who have no family or friends on the outside to bring them food and earn keep and favour sweeping the cell and emptying the bright yellow pee-bucket (brimming from 13hrs’ rough trade) each morning. I sung a song in the darkness and was rewarded with thumb clicking (clapping aggravates the guards) and a grubby 10 birr note saliva-stamped to my forehead and returned to my area of floor to enjoy the far more impressive Oromo tribal songs and dances: shuffling stomping feet and leaping through the air with spears improvised from broom handles.

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I woke up covered in flea bites. An officer unlocked the door and after three attempts at counting to 50 was satisfied all were present. All inmates from three cells, 150 men, piled into the alley where a guard began calling names. The names, boys with skinny legs and beano comic round knees, men covered in scars and tattoos (some traditional like a filled dark green monobrow; others less so “thug life”, “2-pac”, “50-cent”) formed a crocodile of hand-cuffed pairs behind the entrance. We were taken by mini-bus to the local courthouse where Aylwyn and friends (though no rep. from the FO) snuck me food and cigarettes and I waited to be called before a judge. The hearing, conducted entirely in amharic, was over in 3 minutes. 5 interminable days later I was finally released when my local friends could provide proof of assets, it turned out to be an ancient Peugeot that hadn’t moved since the 80s, that would guarantee bail on any future case.

Returning to the hospital I discovered Serkalem had been unhappy with the triple post-op room she’d been allocated and had decided, at my expense, to be moved to a twin room. I found it hard to sympathise but talked to Tewodoros and Birhanu, every bit as warm and assuring as just before the visit to the police station. 24 hrs later I presented them a drafted letter exonerating me from further liability if they accepted my settlement of providing enough cash for a 2nd op Serkalem could need one year on. They sneered and demanded we met the following day when 5 hob-nail booted new members of the family demanded USD5,000 on top of medical fees. I dropped red-herrings about a job interview in Bahir Dar, needing a few days to contact my family and that I’d be in touch early next week and left to plan my escape.

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It took 4 days to conclude the essential departure plans (Kenyan visa, bike repairs, all spares from both bikes, retrieve docs from Bole) sneaking around Addis one eye over my shoulder paranoid that someone would be following, listening, taking notes and contacting their friends in the police, customs, immigration or worse. I re-drafted the settlement letter, left enough cash in escrow to cover the 2nd op and left Addis without a single goodbye. 2 days on the road and with 24 hours remaining on my Ethiopian visa I potholed the bike almost within site of the border on an awful dirt road, irreparably damaging the forks. Trucked to the border, I pushed the bike into Kenya the next morning and smiled with relief. An uncertain journey (26 spine-jolting hours atop a kidney bean and Ethio trafficking truck) to Nairobi down the notorious Moyale road lay ahead but arriving in Kenya I was intensely happy.

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