Four Hundred and Thirty Eight Days

A lesson in surviving through purpose instead of hope  

438 Day tells the true story of two Swedish journalists, Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson who were sentenced to 22 years in Ethiopia’s notorious Kality jail for entering the country without a visa.  The pair began their journey into Ethiopia from Somalia, arriving via the Ogaden Desert, accompanying the rebel group Ogaden Liberation National Front.   Their aim was to report on the human rights consequences of international oil companies in the region.    Unsurprisingly, the Ethiopian government at the time, Mengistu’s Tigrinyean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), took a dim view of the journalist’s presence and they were caught by Ethiopian soldiers.   

Somehow the journalists took the view that entering countries without visas is normal practice amongst the press in order to report on immoralities and they should somehow be immune from prosecution.   This was naïve in the face of a regime known for its poor human rights record and habit of incarcerating journalists and members of any opposition. Passed into the hands of the notoriously brutal commanding officer Abdullahi WerarWerar subjected the two to a mock execution in the desert and denied Persson medical attention for a bullet wound in his arm the size of a fist.  Eventually they were transferred to a police cell in Addis Ababa, accused of being terrorists, subject to a sham trial and finally locked up in “Zone 8”, the shed for foreigners, in Kality Jail.  

The trials of Kality were many: sleeping on the cold hard floor (the only way to commandeer a mattress is to wait for one of the many deaths), the watery diarrhoea that swept through the inmates, the relentless blaring of state propaganda on the television, lack of water, raids by the guards.  When Bruno, a Swiss man convicted of drug smuggling, was sick with a heart condition, he begged to be taken to hospital or the sick bay, but he was refused until finally, the two orderlies bring him briefly to the sick bay and then dump him back in Zone 8 the prison shed for foreigners, where he dies on the floor.   

In many ways, Schibbye and Persson had it better than many.  They received regular visits, books and food from the Swedish Embassy who attempted to turn the wheels of diplomacy for their release.  Their other saving grace is that they were never taken to the “Discipline Block”.  Those in there, emitted screams of terror followed swiftly by howls of pain and then, even worse, silence.  The cries when they realised what was about to happen to them were worst of all.  

Physical hardship was not the biggest problem in Kality.  The problem was lack of all hope.  Hope of release, vague promises made, hope rising and then dashed, again and again and again.  Many in Zone 8 had no help from their embassies and had been forgotten by the outside world.   

In life on the outside, in ‘normal’ society we are taught always to have hope.  But in Kality,  the prisoners learned that hope was exhausting and fruitless.  Each time it flew away from them, the sense of loss was too much to bear.  They scoured booked written by other prisoners, smuggled in, to find the meaning to help them survive.  Within each one, a common theme emerged: that what was required of them was purpose.  Instead of sinking into the lethargy of prison life, of sleep, tins of tuna and the exercise yard, the journalists found they needed to create purpose to each day in order to survive. 

Thus they built their routine around their morning exercise regime, reading and creating a library to help educate other prisoners.  In this way, by focussing on the purpose to each moment, they managed to survive and submit to a sham trial and effectively being forced to submit an apology on Ethiopian tv in order to secure a pardon for their release.  By the time they gained their freedom, Persson had gone from doing 30 to 500 press ups at a stretch, even though he still had the serious bullet wound to the arm.  

What can we learn from this book?  As the world sits watching for the pandemic of COVID 19 to unfold, many of us are fearful and a quarter of the world is in lockdown.  Every day seems to bring hope for a new drug which is then dashed, the numbers of cases and deaths keep rising and every day a country that hopes to be spared starts to see the terrifying spikes of cases.  Although there is always hope – all pandemics come to an end – it may be hard to see it day to day.  In those times, we then must learn from those who have survived such incarceration and instead, create purpose to our days.   



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