438 days in Ethiopian prison

Martin Schibbye

By Oliver Gee | The Local

Martin Schibbye, 33, has been back in Sweden since September last year. He was freed, together with Swedish photographer Johan Persson, from the Kality prison in Addis Ababa after being sentenced to 11 years for terror crimes.

His crime? “Doing my job,” he tells The Local.

Schibbye and Persson had illegally entered Ethiopia from Somalia to write a report about how Swedish mining company Lundin was affecting the region after it set up operations there.

“From what we understood, there were no good guys. There was human rights abuse, government militias and rebels accused of committing war crimes, and a Swedish oil field in the middle. We had to go to the crime scene, we couldn’t just base the story on testimonials.”

But both reporters were caught by the Ethiopian army along with rebels from the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), shot, mock executed, and sent to prison.

After serving 14 months in jail, or 438 days to be exact, both were pardoned and released on Ethiopian New Year, when national tradition sees many prisoners freed.

While the experience may still be as fresh as the bullet-wound scar in his right shoulder, Schibbye felt “locked up” ever since he returned to Sweden. He’s worked non-stop on a book about the ordeal, 438 dagar (438 Days), which has since become a runaway success.

“We immediately started writing when we came back, we locked ourselves in the office. It made an ordinary life impossible,” Schibbye tells The Local. “I spent more time with the character of my wife than with my real wife in our apartment.”

But when he dropped the finished manuscript off at a publishing house in Gothenburg, he says he felt truly free for the first time, and even happier than the moment he was released.

“When I got back to Stockholm and met my wife, I really felt like I was home. It was bigger for me than hugging and kissing her at Arlanda airport when we got back. Writing has been a way of becoming free.”

“I started noticing things around my apartment, all these small details, and I’m slowly recovering.”

Indeed, it’s not only small changes. The pair recently announced they were expecting a child.

Schibbye and Persson’s book, meanwhile, which publishers confirm is already one of Sweden’s best-selling reportage books of all time, is under consideration for an English-language deal too.

The first 100 pages have already been translated and submitted, and offer a brilliant and gripping ride through the dirt roads of Africa and into the hands of the army and their mock executions and fake confessional films – the first quarter of the story.

Told chapter for chapter by the two reporters, the non-fiction piece follows the pair from Sweden to Ogaden, and comes with a surprising smattering of humour.

In fact, humour is something of a habit for Schibbye, whose Twitter account is underscored by the text: “Freelance journalist, with in-depth knowledge of detention facilities in Ethiopia.”

“When we were shot the first thing I said was ‘Fuck, we blew the story,” he explains. “Humour is a bubble, the last line of defence as a human, and a journalistic armour. But it’s how we got through, you have to leave your emotions at home as a reporter.”

At the story’s lowest point, Schibbye recounts life in solitary confinement in a room that measured just two by three metres, and shares tales of the other prisoners, those who died, and those who still remain.

“We were in isolation for 28 days with daily interrogation. You can’t get used to being alone. We were only allowed three minutes outside everyday, and were left with only our thoughts.”

The 33-year-old explains that he took to “naming the strange birds” to stay sane, and walking in figure eights around the cell, after learning that walking in circles made him instantly dizzy.

“They don’t teach you these things in journalism school. And they don’t teach you morse code either. I could have really used that… Why didn’t I learn that?” he laments.

But, managing to steal a pen and paper, the journalist took note of everything he could, hiding the papers in a rat’s nest and smuggling them out to any visitors, which included Swedish ambassadors, Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, and his family.

The hardest part of the ordeal, he says, was losing the freedom of expression. He explains that he was afraid to even speak Swedish with Persson for fear of being overheard and understood – and ultimately reported.

For both readers and critics, the entire experience begs the question of why. Why sneak into a country to tell a story about oil? Why risk your life for a byline?

“We went to write a story about oil but and came back with one about ink,” Schibbye tells The Local. “When people ask me why we did it, I explain how journalism works. Our colleagues in Syria are there illegally after having entered from Turkey with rebels, and it was the same in Libya with Gaddafi. This is a standard way to cover closed areas as a foreign correspondent.”

“It brings up a good discussion about when it’s OK to break laws, and it helps people understand how these pictures and radio stories make their way into people’s living rooms. After a while, people understand that without journalists taking risks, the world would be a silent place.”

Schibbye says that journalism is a deadlier profession than ever before, but is gladdened to note that consumers are showing more of an interest in “journalism that doesn’t ask for permission”.

“The other kind of journalism – ‘on the one hand, on the other, and only time will tell’ – will kill the business. ”

Now, even though the book is done and dusted, the story continues. Swedish prosecutors are taking up the case against the vice president and president of Ogaden. They stand accused of violating human rights, as mock executions violate the Geneva Convention.

The probe was facilitated by Abdulahi Hussein, a former adviser to the state president Abdi Muhamud Omar, who defected with taped recordings of Schibbye’s and Persson’s interrogations, which the journalist explains aided both the case and his own accuracy in retelling the story.

“It’s unique material. I was so happy when the news came out that someone had the films, and we’d always wondered if someone would defect. In fact, we were worried that no one would believe us otherwise, everything was too crazy – it was like a Steven Spielberg film.”

The whistle-blower’s evidence allows prosecutors a chance to see current documents that aren’t usually available until after revolutions, coups, or wars, Schibbye notes. The defected Ethiopian is currently living under protection in Sweden, after being hunted from Ethiopia and through Kenya.

As for Schibbye himself, besides book tours, an upcoming Swedish movie about his tale, and the potential launch of the English version of the book, he plans to continue blowing the trumpet for the prisoners he left behind.

“The story is still alive, all the prisoners you read about in the book are still there,” he tells The Local. “The worst fear of a prisoner of conscience is to be forgotten,”