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438 Dagar Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson, 438 Dagar (438 Days)

Offside Press AB/Filter,  2013.

Reviewed by Jan Teeland in SBR 2014:1

Review Section: Non-Fiction

In early summer 2011, the journalist  Martin Schibbye and the photographer  Johan Persson set off from Sweden to  investigate the activities of the Swedish  company Lundin Oil and the impact of  its questionable activities on the local  population in the closed region of  Ogaden in Ethiopia. They had done their  research and were fully aware that they  were taking enormous risks, not least by  entering the area through contacts with  ONLF, the separatist movement whose  members were considered terrorists by  the Ethiopian government.

438 Dagar is Schibbye and Persson’s  riveting account of their important  venture. They arrive in Africa in June  2011, enter the Ogaden the same  month and are shot and captured by  the Ethiopian military police one month  later. From then on the story takes place  in gaol or prison in Addis Ababa – with  scenes in police headquarters and court  interpolated – until they are released in  September 2012. Schibbye and Persson  alternate telling the story, which has  several advantages, one of which is that,  over time, distinct personalities emerge  from – almost despite – the often terrible  events they relate. Schibbye is thoughtful  and diplomatic, which he notes can be  both an asset and a liability. Persson is  impatient and intense, but also practical  and an inveterate optimist. However  different their personalities, they forge  a deep and warm friendship and share  a total commitment to investigative  journalism and to journalists who dig  below the surface to expose exploitation  and corruption.

In the Ogaden, they were forced  by the military to participate in a false  documentary and a fake execution,  incriminating both them and the ONLF,  and then put in detention. The central  part of the book takes place in Kality  prison, which is divided into zones.  The Swedes were placed with other  ‘foreign nationals’ in zone 6, amongst  mostly ordinary criminals from all over  Africa. This motley crew and many quite  extraordinary events as well as the dirt  and constant noise (local TV) in Kality  are vividly depicted. We learn of the  intricate ways of prison smuggling and  the wheeling and dealing behind the  scenes – the ‘silent diplomacy’ of the  Swedish ambassador and foreign minister,  which apparently worked. The book also  contains letters to their families, songs  and poems, and records the hopes  and disappointments of meetings with  embassy and prison officials.

Although at times the narrative lags,  438 Dagar is well written and rich in  detail. It introduces us to an ugly corner  of the world but, above all, I was left  with some of Johan’s optimism: the very  writing of this book signals hope. When  the Swedes were released from prison,  one of their prison mates asked them to  tell the world what they had experienced  and observed. 

Their story is both gripping and  alarming. I hope it becomes available to  readers all over the world – not least in  Ethiopia.

Other reviews in SBR 2014:1

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