by Graham Hancock

Sign and the Seal

1983: A Country at War

On 28 May 1991, after years of brutal fighting, the government of Ethiopia was finally toppled by a formidable coalition of rebel forces in which the Tigray People's Liberation Front had played a leading role. When I went to Axum in 1983, however, the TPLF was still a relatively small guerilla force and the sacred city, although besieged, was still in government hands. Other than myself, no foreigners had been there since 1974 when a team of British archaeologists had been driven out by the revolution that had overthrown Emperor Haile Selassie and that had installed one of Africa's bloodiest dictators, Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, as Head of State.

Lamentably the free access that I was granted to Axum did not result from any special enterprise or initiative of my own but from the fact that I was working for Mengistu. As a result of a business deal that I was later bitterly to regret I was engaged in 1983 in the production of a coffee-table book about Ethiopia - a book that Mengistu's government had commissioned in order to proclaim the underlying unity in the country's cultural diversity, and to emphasize the ancient historical integrity of the political boundaries that the rebels were trying so hard to redraw. It had been agreed before I began work that there would be no overt promotion of the government's cause, and it was written into my contract that no particular individuals (Mengistu included) would be praised or vilified. Nevertheless I was under no illusions about how the project was viewed by senior figures in the regime: they would not have footed the bills, or permitted me to visit historic sites forbidden to others, if they did not think that what I was doing would be helpful to them.

Even so it was by no means easy for me to get to Axum. Intense rebel activity along the main roads and around the sacred city itself meant that driving was completely out of the question. The only option, therefore, was to fly in. To this end - together with my wife and researcher Carol and my photographer Duncan Willetts - I travelled first to Asmara (the regional capital of Eritrea) where I hoped that it might be possible for us to hitch a ride over the battle lines on one of the many military aircraft stationed there.

Sign and the Seal

Standing on a high and fertile plateau overlooking the fearsome deserts of the Eritrean coastal strip, Asmara is a most attractive place with a markedly Latin character- not surprising since it was first occupied by Italian forces in 1889 and remained an Italian stronghold until the decolonization of Eritrea (and its annexation by the Ethiopian state) in the 1950s.(8) Everywhere we looked we saw gardens erupting with the colour of bougainvillaea, flamboyants and jacaranda, while the warm, sunny air that surrounded us had an unmistakable Mediterranean bouquet. There was also another element that was hard to miss: the presence of large numbers of Soviet and Cuban combat 'advisers' wearing camouflage fatigues and carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles as they swaggered up and down the fragrant pastel shaded boulevards.

The advice that these thickset men were giving to the Ethiopian army in its campaign against Eritrean separatists did not, however, appear to us to be very good. Asmara's hospitals were crammed to bursting point with casualties of the war and the government of officials we met exuded an air of pessimism and tension.

Our concerns were heightened a few nights later in the bar of Asmara's rather splendid Ambasoira Hotel where we met two Zambian pilots who were on temporary secondment to Ethiopian Airlines. They had thought that they were going to be spending six months expanding their practical experience of commercial flying. What they were actually doing, however, was ferrying injured soldiers from the battle fronts in Tigray and Eritrea to the hospitals in Asmara. They had tried to get the airline to release them from this hazardous duty; on checking the small print of their contracts, however, they had discovered that they were bound to do it.

After several weeks of almost continuous sorties in aged DC3 passenger planes converted to carry wounded troops, the two pilots were shell-shocked, shaky and embittered. They told us that they had both taken to the bottle to drown their sorrows: 'I can't sleep at night unless I'm completely drunk,' one of them confided. 'I keep getting these pictures passing through my mind of the things that I've seen.' He went on to describe the teenage boy who, that morning, had been dragged aboard his aircraft with his left foot blown away by a mine, and another young soldier who had lost half his skull after a mortar bomb had exploded nearby. 'The shrapnel wounds are the worst... people with huge injuries in their backs, stomachs, faces... it's horrible... sometimes the whole cabin is just swilling with blood and guts... we carry as many as forty casualties at a time - way above the operating limits of a DC3, but we have to take the risk, we can't just leave those people to die.'

Sign and the Seal

They were required to fly three, sometimes four, missions each day, the other pilot now added. In the past week he had been twice to Axum and on both occasions his plane had been hit by machine gun fire. 'It's a very difficult airport- a gravel runway surrounded by hills. The TPLF just sit up there and take pot-shots at us as we land and take off. They're not fooled by the Ethiopian Airlines livery. They know we're on military business...'

Overjoyed to have found some sympathetic non-Russian and non-Cuban foreigners to share their woes with, the Zambians had not yet asked us what we were doing in Ethiopia. They did so now, and seemed highly amused when we replied that we were producing a coffee-table book for the government. We then explained that we needed to get to Axum ourselves.

'Why?' they asked, dumbfounded.

'Well, because it's one of the oldest and most important archaeological sites and because it was there that Ethiopian Christianity first got started. It was the capital for hundreds of years. Our book's going to look really sick without it.'

'We might be able to take you,' one of the pilots now suggested.

'What - you mean when you next go to pick up wounded?'

'No. You definitely wouldn't be allowed on those flights. But a delegation of military top brass are supposed to be going there the day after tomorrow to inspect the garrison. Maybe you could hitch a ride then. It would depend on what sort of strings you're able to pull back in Addis. Why don't you check it out?'

Return to Ethiopia Index
Initiation: 1986 | A great mystery of the Bible | 1983: a country at war
Into Axum | Palaces, catacombs and obelisks | The sanctuary chapel


"The Sign and The Seal" © Graham Hancock, All Rights Reserved - Photo Credits, © L.Jauregui - Web Production and Design, OneWorld Magazine. - OneWorld Magazine is hosted by The EnviroLink Network - OneWorld WWW Site © OneWorld Magazine - All Rights Reserved.