Welcome back everyone. Hope you had a good Christmas, not too disrupted, not spent in an Australian detention facility…
8 January 2022: Tennis star Novak Djokovich reveals that his claim to enter Australia without a vaccination is based on an infection recorded on Dec 16 in Serbia.
7 January 2022: The Kazakh president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, orders security forces to open fire on protestors killing dozens. The autocratic regime, mired in human rights violations, is being supported by Russian troops who are reportedly occupying the airport. Tokayev is a keen table tennis fan.
5 January 2022: There is widespread outrage at a vaccination exemption for tennis star Novak Djokovich, allowing him to play at the Australian Open tournament. The Australians backpedal, temporarily detaining Djokovich in the Park Hotel, Melbourne, where he can catch other diseases that he hasn’t been inoculated against. Some other residents, all asylum-seekers and refugees, have been there for up to eight years and complain the food is often mouldy and maggot-infested.
2 November 2022: Chinese tennis star, Peng Shuai, accuses former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault. She subsequently disappears.
July 2014: Boris Johnson accepts a £160,000 donation to the Conservative party in return for playing a tennis match against Lubov Chernukhin whose husband is a former Deputy Finance Minister in Moscow. (Chernukhin goes on to pay £135,000 to have dinner with Teresa May and - even more astoundingly - £30,000 to eat with Gavin Williamson. She also becomes a British citizen. The Pandora Papers make interesting reading on the Chernukhins who have donated over £2m to the Conservative Party)
In 1996 I set out on a journey that would become the book Eating the Flowers of Paradise. The idea was to begin in Addis Ababa, work my way to the Red Sea coast, sail across to Yemen, then walk through the mountains to Sana'a. The first stage of the trip was to catch the train, an ancient rattling thing, down to Dire Dawa, 300 miles from Addis on the edge of the Danakil Desert. There was just one train per day.
Outside Addis Ababa railway station was a bronze statue of a lion surrounded by the homeless and a gathering throng of passengers. On one side a small market was doing a brisk trade in oranges and cigarettes, while young boys selling little rolls of toilet paper scampered through the crowd whispering, "Soft! Soft!"
I had been given dreadful warnings of thieves on the trains so bought a first class ticket and a member of the railway staff volunteered to find an English-speaker to sit next to me. I found my seat and watched as the carriage filled up with people and luggage. One popular item appeared to be helium party balloons, already inflated and weighted down with plastic water bottles: both these items were apparently unavailable in Dire Dawa.
Eventually I was joined by a dignified, grey-haired gentleman who introduced himself as Sahle, a former railway official. "But these days I drive a taxi in Dire Dawa and play tennis." The game was Sahle's lifelong passion.
Once we were out of the city, he explained how there had once been trees lining the track all the way down the mountain to Dire Dawa. "My grandfather used to take me to hunt kudu near the line about twenty kilometres before Dire Dawa. Now you won't find a single tree there."
Sahle had done 25 years service on the railway, much of it during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie. "I often went on the train with him. He had his own carriages, of course, and they would go quite slowly along so he could wave to people from the rear platform and throw money for them. The emperor's train is still there in Addis."
In fact I’d been to see the train, a visit that required several hours of bureaucracy, then five guides and two armed soldiers to open the hanger. Inside were a set of gloomily opulent carriages: dark panelling, uncomfortable red leather chairs and a connecting door separating the emperor's brass bedstead from the queen's. The lock was on her side. The coaches had been built in Switzerland in 1934 and were the period equivalent of a billionaire's super yacht.
Sahle had lived through the abrupt transition from monarchy to communism in 1974, then the appalling horrors of the Qey Shibir, the Red Terror, when the Marxist leader Colonel Mengistu unleashed a wave of violent repression that engulfed supposed counter-revolutionaries. Haile Selassie had been strangled in 1975, his body dumped in a hole under Mengistu's desk, but now the violence spread as death squads operated with impunity. Mengistu led by example, personally garotting and shooting enemies. Amnesty International estimate 500,000 died.
Sahle recalled organising a railway exhibition in Dire Dawa during the communist period. Colonel Mengistu and other top officials came to visit. "We had some photographs [of Haile Selassie's train] and I was chosen to show the communist leaders... when we came to these photographs, one of them said, 'Ah! These must be the imperial carriages, a symbol of the decadent and corrupt regime, now owned by the people and used by the people.' Of course, I was expected to agree with him, but I told the truth. I said, 'In fact, they are now used by top communist officials only.' You should have seen their faces."
"Wasn't that a little foolhardy?" I asked.
Sahle's eyes twinkled. "These dictators are always the same. An uncle of mine was a general in Haile Selassie's army and had a habit of speaking his mind and the emperor hated him for it. Of course, he was always surrounded by people who flattered and deceived. One time all the generals were called in to pay homage. Each man had to crawl on his face up the hall and kiss the emperor's foot. My uncle was last and when he came to press his lips on the royal boot, it kicked him in the mouth."
"Did he protest?"
"On the contrary, he thanked the emperor for his kindness."
I asked Sahle if the communists had been as bad.
"Oh, worse," he said without hesitation. "During the Red Terror, my nephew was at secondary school in Dire Dawa and a spy informed the cadres that he was a counter-revolutionary. He disappeared. To this day we have never found his body or heard what happened. Then his sister was taken. They shot her in the head outside the house. We were not allowed to touch the body until we had paid for the bullet."
This had been standard practise. In other atrocities, people were herded into churches that were then burned down. Rape was widespread. In the streets unclaimed bodies were eaten by hyenas.
Soon after Sahle's neice was murdered, he was called to the presidential palace. Colonel Mengistu wanted to play tennis.
A court was built inside the palace complex and Sahle went every week to play the murderer. "Everyone was afraid of him, even the ministers. Once when they were discussing something by the drinks table, Mengistu suddenly lost his temper. He brought his fist smashing down on the table and they scattered like rabbits - even important minister ran to hide."
"Did you ever beat him at tennis?"
Sahle began to chuckle.
"He was a very good player."
"But you were better?"
"Absolutely not." His face was totally expressionless, but his eyes were sparkling. He pointed out the window and changed the subject. Looking back, all these years later, I can understand that he was being careful. Mengistu's downfall was still fresh, his supporters still active. How could anyone know what would happen? You played the game and kept your head down. You thanked the bastards for kicks in the teeth and survived.
Former president, Mengistu, was found guilty of genocide in 2007. As well as all the deaths during the Red Terror, Human Rights Watch alleged that around half the 1.2 million deaths in the Ethiopian famine of 1983-85 could be ascribed to his government's use of hunger as a weapon in the war against the Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front. It did not work. The TPLF eventually toppled the communist regime and Mengistu fled. The TPLF took part in government until 2018 when they fell out with coalition partners. Fighting broke out in 2020 and the TPLF advanced on Addis Ababa, but seem to have been pushed back by the Ethiopian Army assisted by Chinese and Turkish drones. Mengistu has evaded justice so far and lives in comfortable exile in Zimbabwe.
Backstory is free but donations are a great way to ensure it keeps going!