Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye on life after coming home

This is the epilogue from the book 438 Days:

After resting up in Istanbul you were met by an enormous media scrummage at Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport.
MARTIN: It was cloudy with a light rain, we were taken off the plane first and went through a VIP exit. I remember a damp red carpet, cordons, guards trying to keep things in order, then loads of reporters and microphones.
It was chaos. When we got to where our families were standing we just hugged each other tight, so tight. My niece Tyra jumped up into my arms.
I wore a red wristband, which she’d made at nursery and I used to wear in prison. Then I kissed Linnea a long, long time, standing there in the rain.

Two hours later there was a press conference, shown live on television in front of a packed auditorium in central Stockholm.
JOHAN: In the car from Arlanda, Martin said to me: “I’ve written down a few words I’m going to say.” “Sure, you talk a bit and then we’ll take some questions, but let’s keep it short,” I said. Then we got tangled up in the stage curtain, and our host from Reporters Without Borders had to help us out.
It sort of defused the tension, anyway. Many people started laughing.
MARTIN: I wanted to lay down a basic position with my opening statement, and this was our message that journalists have to be allowed to work in all areas of the world. Regimes and their armed opponents shouldn’t be able to commit abuses against their populations without media exposure. We reminded everyone that as a journalist you actually have to be there in person and use your feet, not just rely on Google.
JOHAN: A lot of the questions were about what we thought of Carl Bildt.
We’d been in Kality Prison for 14 months, why didn’t they ask about that? The world is bigger than Bildt.

But the overwhelming tone was warm and respectful, wasn’t it?
MARTIN: In the early days in Ethiopia, when we were first detained, it was just one person’s word against another’s, and there were some who were sceptical about us and our intentions, but soon after that, Swedish public opinion began to turn. Also, the films smuggled out by the Ethiopian whistle-blower Abdullai Hussein reached Sweden while we were still in Istanbul. The mock-executions in the desert had just been aired on SVT. Probably those who still had doubts about us changed their minds at that point.

What was it like coming back to the flat that first evening?
MARTIN: I just put my bag down in the hall and went round looking at everything. Oddly enough it felt normal. I mean, it was a world I knew. It must have been worse for Linnea, who had been pacing about by herself in an empty flat.
JOHAN: I checked into a hotel. The next day I spent 8,000 kronor on clothes and felt like a film star. Everything I owned was in my home town, Gothenburg, and I more or less didn’t have a stitch to wear. After three days in the hotel I moved into Martin and Linnea’s place where I slept on the sofa.
MARTIN: Johan and I had been no more than a metre apart, physically speaking, for over a year, and of course it affected us. Down there we only had each other. I remember how when I watched a film on my own in those first few days, it seemed worthless. It wasn’t enjoyable if I couldn’t share it with him.

While you were away you also became public personalities. How was that for you?
JOHAN: It was bloody unpleasant to be recognised by everyone, and see yourself in the newspaper all the time. I became paranoid. So in one way it was useless. At the same time I could see why people were curious. And what were we supposed to do—shut up and hide? If we’d done that, we would have gone against the whole point of our journey to Ogaden.
MARTIN: We had something to say, and because of that it wasn’t so much of a problem. I mean, this was what we had been dreaming of for the past 14 months: to be able to tell people what had happened. There were also a lot of people who had engaged themselves in our fate while we were away.

Talking to all of them—not just the national media but weekly magazines and the underground press—was one way of saying thanks.Why did you touch so many people?
MARTIN: It’s difficult to put your finger on it. Some people got involved in the principle of it: “Journalists shouldn’t be locked up.” Others just had empathy: “Johan and Martin have to come home.” A third explanation is that we had challenged some strong forces to uncover the stories of people in vulnerable positions. On the desk in my study is a shoe box where Linnea keeps all the letters from the public. In one of the letters, it says: “I hope everything is and will be well, and that some good can come out of what’s happened! As a representative of working proletarians in the countryside I have to admit I wasn’t aware up until now that there were any problems in Ogaden. But now I am.” Another person offered for me and Johan to stay a couple of weeks in his summer house, so we could rest up a bit: “Not for any suspect reasons or any ulterior motives, just for my own satisfaction to be able to do you a favour, however small.”
JOHAN: We’d heard that many people were getting involved, but we still weren’t prepared for it. We got free food on the train. We were invited to have cakes at a pastry shop in Gothenburg. At Konsum supermarket we’d get hugged by old ladies and the cashier girls were very upbeat, calling out to us. Everywhere we went, we were met with smiles.
MARTIN: There’s a sort of image of Sweden as a cold country where people mind their own business. But the solidarity and love is there when there’s a need for it.

Martin, you started having therapy when you came home.
“Not because I was feeling bad, but so I didn’t have to start feeling bad. I felt I had a responsibility to keep things in order so I could put our story across, keep working on the book we were writing—for the sake of our fellow prisoners and imprisoned colleagues. I think I saw the therapy as a bit of an insurance policy. It was a new and exciting world. As a foreign correspondent your idea of security is flak jackets and keeping up with current political developments, but I had never before reflected on how my experiences also impacted on my psychological condition. Where is the boundary between a difficult and a traumatic experience? Prison was hard, but I was never afraid of dying there. Being shot and then mock-executed, those were traumatic experiences. Gradually the conversations I had in therapy mostly turned to the difficulties of coming home, and my relationships to Johan and Linnea, how I could go back to being Martin-Martin again, and not just journalist-Martin. My journalistic instruments, which stood me in good stead in Kality, were like an African elephant in my normal day-to-day life at home. I developed a new language to reflect on all this, and certain basic techniques. Like crossing my arms and pinching my collarbone whenever I felt very stressed. Apparently it’s a trick used in the Israeli army.”

And you, Johan?
“I have no need at this time to talk about whether I used to feel bad or not. People should just bloody leave it alone.”

What sort of debriefing did you have?
JOHAN: A lot of people thought we’d be taken care of when we got back, that there’d be some sort of programme of medical care, psychologists, and so on. But actually as soon as we landed in Sweden we were completely on our own. Not even the Foreign Office asked to see us. I mean, I do find that a bit strange. Shouldn’t they have met with us, just to run through the whole thing? Some sort of evaluation process?
MARTIN: It could have been educational for everyone. How did the Foreign Office see its side of the process? How did our families and associates perceive the work of the Foreign Office? Were there any lessons to be learnt looking ahead? The only people who seemed interested were two researchers at the Department of Defence, who were writing a handbook on coercive scenarios and hostage situations. And the Norwegian Foreign Office was interested too.

The Norwegian Foreign Office?
MARTIN: Norway has an extradition agreement with Ethiopia, which was much debated. We were invited to an open meeting with politicians and members of the civil service, where we were invited to talk about our experiences.

You were also invited to a UN conference in Vienna about what might be done to improve the security of journalists in dangerous places.
MARTIN: We had an invitation and we felt we wanted to take part, to add a bit of flesh and blood to various UN clauses. Currently, in conflict situations, a kidnapped or arrested journalist is equated with a kidnapped civilian. I feel that journalists, like Red Cross personnel, should be protected by international humanitarian law, because our work is a prerequisite for the stories of civilians getting out into the public domain. Kidnapping or imprisoning journalists ought to be a war crime.

And then you were ready to start writing the book.
MARTIN: Actually, we started before that. Every morning in prison we said to each other, “We’re not really prisoners here, we’re covert prisoners like in a Günter Wallraff documentary.”
JOHAN: Yeah, I didn’t have my camera in there, but I walked round collecting material and scenes that I reported back to Martin, who’d write everything down. That was one way of handling the craziness of it. While you were sitting there being interrogated in some crazy way, you could at least tell yourself it was going to make a really good scene.
MARTIN: Without a doubt it was a real challenge writing a book with Johan. He’s dyslexic and can’t even spell basic words. But we found a format and a method that worked. It felt important that we had two voices in the book, two subjective viewpoints sharing the experience. It was priceless in a dramatic sense to be able to shift perspective and in this way move the story on.

What were the most difficult parts to write?
JOHAN: The section about our release; I wept while we were working on that. The tough part was that we weren’t really able to say a proper goodbye to everyone. Even if they were murderers, gangsters, and swindlers, they were our family, our friends, and we got to know them in a way that was really tight.
MARTIN: When I wrote about the Swiss man, Bruno, who died, I felt a stab go through my body. Apart from that the most difficult thing was just reengaging with the impotence we felt at the time. The way fear got under our skin. How we even worried about talking in our sleep, saying something hostile about the regime. 438 days of insecurity does things to your head. Down there we were always thinking that every word we said could be a matter of life or death, and the slightest mistake could cost someone their life. We lived for such a long time in a situation where we had no power at all. It took us a while to understand we were no longer under threat.
JOHAN: That stuff can still get to me. You can be pottering about and everything’s fine, and then something comes up that reminds you of Ethiopia, anything at all, and in a second the stress is back and you’re ready to fight for your life.
MARTIN: We’ll never be completely free of these memories. I still find my mind wandering back to the time while we were being held at Maikelawi [or Makalawi—the spelling varies] Federal Police Station. That diseased cell block around the small yard, inmates coughing blood, everything overrun with lice, fleas and rats… and yet the inmates called it “The Sheraton” because it was better than the tiny basement cells where humans were kept like animals, standing chained-up in the dark until they confessed to whatever made-up crimes they were being accused of. And those screams we heard… the first screams of fear were always the worst when the beatings started, louder and more chilling than the wailing and sobbing afterwards. And then towards the end there was always that awful silence.

The book was published exactly a year after you came back to Sweden.
MARTIN: That day I was kind of happier than when we were released from prison. “Yes! Now we have the book here and we can talk about it!” We were free in a real sense. With that book in our hands we didn’t have to carry the weight of the experiences inside, we could share it with others. Instead of a release party you arranged a seminar in collaboration with Amnesty and Reporters Without Borders, to turn the spotlight onto your imprisoned colleagues.
JOHAN: It would have felt so wrong getting drunk on champagne while Ogaden was still closed and our colleagues still in prison: Reeyot Alemu and Eskinder Nega are in for 18 years, Wubshet Taye for 14 years. So it was better to try and focus on the prison. That same week Reeyot Alemu went on hunger strike in Kality to protest about being denied proper healthcare and contact with her family.

You also set up a fund – The Kality Fund – that gives support to reporters and photographers all over the world who are imprisoned, persecuted, forced into exile or in any way end up in trouble as a result of doing their job.
MARTIN: We know from our own experience that supportive statements are not edible. We know the importance of food and medicine when people are locked up. As far as we’re concerned, the Kality Fund is a way of continuing the fight for press freedom that we started when we crossed the border into Ethiopia, and it’s a fight that will carry on for the rest of our lives.
JOHAN: Among other cases, were are supporting the appeals of Eskinder Negas and Reeyot Alemus to the African Commission and Court of Human Rights. All the lawyers are working for nothing, but there are expenses for travel, copying, and translation. People can stay informed about the campaign under the hashtag #kality.

You gave talks on the book, and they were sell-out events all over Sweden.
MARTIN: I think there’s a real desire for books that question a world dominated by geopolitical manoeuvring and power games.
JOHAN: The book is also about survival, how you can cope with a place that does everything to crush you. It’s not only an exciting book, it’s funny, and we laughed a lot while we were writing it. We also have a lot of laughs when we’re making presentations about it.
MARTIN: Humour is the last line of defence for people, and it’s also a sort of armour as far as journalists are concerned. It’s basically how we made it through sometimes. You just have to laugh. Like when we were shot in the desert and the first thing I said was: “Fuck, we blew the story.”

Later you sent copies of the book to individuals including Ian Lundin, Carl Bildt and the CEO of H&M, Karl-Johan Persson, with an open invitation to a book group. They declined. What did you want to say to Carl Bildt?
JOHAN: Of all the companies out there why did he decide to join the Board of the Lundin Group? With their background of investment in South Africa during the apartheid era, the Congo, Syria, Iran… why specif­ically Lundin? It was a bit odd.
MARTIN: At least if one is concerned at all about human rights. The classic defence of oil companies investing in conflict zones is that in this way they can have a positive impact on the prospects for peace. And it sounds very nice. But unfortunately there’s no empirical foundation to back that up.

And Ian Lundin?
MARTIN: I found a polemical article that he wrote while we were locked up, where he suggested that they’d created peace in Sudan. Again there was no sort of evidence offered, and this was while there was an ongoing police investigation into the period of their activities in Sudan. Six months after our release, Africa Oil invited a group of Swedish journalists for a stage-managed trip in Ogaden Province. The journalists were allowed to stay a few hours, and visit a school and two villages. The company consistently refused to comment on human rights violations by the Ethiopian government, and as usual Ethiopian politicians refused to even countenance that there were any violations to discuss. In a filmed interview, the representative of Africa Oil said: “We have not seen anything that goes against our corporate ethics in these countries.” If Ian Lundin doesn’t see it as a problem that his company depends for its security on a person like Abdullahi Werar, that actually makes me afraid of the dark. We played our part very unwillingly while we were in his claws. We know what he’s capable of.
JOHAN: The Lundins brag about how their business concept is all about taking political risks. That’s their whole driving idea. Ian Lundin goes around in a cowboy hat. But what do they really mean by “political risks”? Do they mean being prosecuted for crimes against humanity? As we speak, the people they are dealing with are being investigated for crimes against humanity.

You are plaintiffs in the investigation in Ogaden.
MARTIN: Abdullai Hussein smuggled out films that were made into a documentary shown by SVT, and after that he handed over a total of one hundred hours of raw footage to the War Crimes Commission of the National Board of Prosecutions in Stockholm. It was unique material that would usually only turn up after a revolution – in this case the regime had documented its own crimes. Mock-executing someone is torture, a crime under human rights law. You can be arrested for that all over the world. And this material ended up in the hands of seasoned, honest police officers who were able to scrutinise it without any political interference. They confirmed that a crime had been committed and that the available level of evidence to back this up was good. They began an investigation — and the ball was set in motion. They have now pointed out ten individuals by name, including the President and Vice-President of Ogaden.

At the same time, Sweden’s Finance Minister, Anders Borg, was in attendance in Addis Ababa with a Swedish trade delegation, for the opening of the new commodities market.
JOHAN: Isn’t that absurd? And not only that: Abdullai Hussein is living today under constant death threats, and under the protection of the Swedish Security Service. So at the same time as Swedish tax receipts are being used to protect an Ethiopian whistle-blower, Swedish politicians and finance bigwigs are going down there to discuss investments.
MARTIN: Anyone not blinkered by political or financial factors can see the problem here. But those who wear such blinkers tend to speak of investment as a way of exerting influence. The frustration is that it’s as if nothing has changed. Those 14 months Johan and I spent in Kality Prison, the mock-executions, the fabricated evidence, legal abuses — Sweden just moved on and strengthened its bilateral relations with Ethiopia. We risked a lot to begin to see how Ethiopia works, but it had no political or diplomatic consequences at all. It was like throwing a big stone into the water. It just made a big splash.

So this was what you wanted to discuss with Karl-Johan Persson?
JOHAN: Yes, if you ignore the most basic aspects—that H&M want to pay as little as possible to those who manufacture their clothes, and that the minimum rate of pay in Ethiopia is very low—what this is about is that Ethiopia is not just like any other country. Investment shouldn’t be unethical, there are many other countries in Africa where the authorities do not wage war on minorities or lock up the opposition. You don’t have to mingle with people who are politically heavy-handed. Ethiopia is a repressive one-party state.
MARTIN: If we agree that we should have environmental responsibility and respect union rights in factories, then we should also be able to make demands in terms of human rights. Reeyot Alemu, very ill with cancer, was kept in Kality prison just a few kilometres from where Persson used to have his business meetings.

The response of the Ethiopian regime seems to have been to put more effort into their PR.
MARTIN: We probably contributed to the image of Ethiopia hitting rock bottom for a while. Then, for example, the national carrier, Ethiopian Airlines, approached a Danish PR agency, Related, which started inviting journalists down for free trips. The outcome of that, among other things, was a big article in the travel supplement of Dagens Nyheter. I got so irritated that I sent an email to the correspondent, even though I knew I wasn’t actually angry at him. There’s a generally held view that people are tired of negative reporting on Africa—SVT has even agreed a policy of depicting the continent in a more positive light. But if you replace the standard picture of children with flies in their eyes with another picture of everyone happy and eating ice cream, what have you gained by it? The challenge has to be that you show both pictures, without either negating the other.

The direct style of 438 Days precluded any sort of hindsight on the event—the perspective of the book is that you describe how you experienced things as they were actually happening. Once you had time to look back on it, what was your view of the Foreign Office and its contribution?
JOHAN: I’m certain that everyone did what they thought was best. Everyone, even me and Martin, were sure we’d be released and there wouldn’t be a problem.
MARTIN: At the same time a lot of possibilities were ruled out. There was a certain period, before the Ethiopians decided to prosecute, when Sweden could have clearly emphasised that this was about press freedom and human rights. Instead there was a decision to treat this as a consular matter to be solved by the local ambassador, and by the time the strategy proved ineffectual it was already too late. Whether that line was chosen by the decision-makers in Stockholm or by Jens Odlander himself, we’ll probably never know. His interpretation of the situation was in any case just as wrong as everyone else’s.
JOHAN: But the question is, would it have made any difference anyway? If Carl Bildt had jumped on the first plane to Addis Ababa and Sweden had immediately brought up the question at EU and UN level, would that have helped us? Well, it couldn’t have made things worse, anyway.

Johan, soon after the book was completed you headed out again, to cover the bloody conflict in the Central African Republic.
“I think I wanted to prove to myself that I could still work, I could travel to a place without ending up in prison and losing my camera. I’ve chosen to work in Africa, and the situation in Bangui was terrible, it was important to get the information out so the outside world could react to it. Obviously it was bloody terrible down there. I was probably more careful than I used to be.”

What did your parents say?
“It was fine. Kjell and Kickan understood that I wanted to work again, and they were probably more worried about me in the period before I went off, because I was so restless. I just wanted to start living a normal life again.”

Martin, how were you changed by 14 months in prison?
“I think I’ve become a better journalist, because I have a different level of understanding for powerlessness and suffering. I’d never choose to disown those experiences. I’ve gone from being an observer to a participant. Earlier I would have looked at photos from Syria, for instance, as a journalist; now I have a different perspective, and I see pictures more as a fellow human being. I’ve become more sensitive. In a good way.”

Your book became one of the bestselling non-fiction books ever in Sweden, and will also be turned into a major motion picture. What are your thoughts on it being translated into English?
MARTIN: The last thing our fellow prisoners told us when we left Kality was, “Please tell the world what you’ve seen.” Our work began on that same day, and publishing it in English is yet another way of fulfilling our obligations.
JOHAN: The book is also being translated into Finnish, Czech, Turkish and Polish, and we hope more languages will follow.
MARTIN: When you’re locked up as a prisoner of conscience, your greatest fear is to be forgotten. Sending letters and campaigning may not lead to prisoners being released tomorrow, but it makes all the difference to them in prison. They keep their heads held high and remember that they are there for a good cause. Their pain and suffering has meaning. Support from the outside world and international coverage may also provide a level of protection. Prison guards and governors will think twice if they know the world is watching.

How has the situation evolved in Ethiopia since you were released?
MARTIN: Ethiopia is still one of the worst countries in the world in terms of imprisoning members of the press. Today we have 17 jailed colleagues in Kality. The country is also a world leader at forcing its journalists to flee to other parts of the world. For a nation that courageously liberated itself from the yoke of a terrifying dictatorship, it’s a sad legacy. In 2014 the Ethiopian government intensified its campaign to silence criticism and continues to use draconian terror laws to repress journalists, opposition activists, and critics.
JOHAN: Dozens of journalists have fled the country following threats. In July 2014, the government charged seven bloggers known as Zone 9 and three journalists under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. In August, the owners of six private publications were charged under the criminal code. The government blocks websites and blogs and regularly monitors and records telephone calls. The choice is between self-censorship, harassment and arrest, or exile.

Reporting has become more dangerous in other parts of the world as well.
MARTIN: This has always been a dangerous profession, but I would venture to say that we’re now facing a situation where there’s an open season on journalists. Some organizations that have expressed concern about this, have spoken of it in terms of a perfect storm: messier conflicts, media companies with scarcer resources and, most importantly of all, a realisation among states, militias, and armies that violence against journalists is effective. By killing the messenger they can silence the message.
JOHAN: If we look at Ethiopia’s neighbour, Egypt, its current leader has declared that there are only two sides: his own or that of the terrorists. He has turned Egypt into one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists—it’s now the third deadliest country to work in after Syria and Iraq. In this political tug of war, journalists have become pawns in a game, targeting the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who still dare to oppose the regime.
MARTIN: The mass detention of journalists in Egypt and Ethiopia is unique in its sheer scale, but the alarms have been sounding for a while now. What was referred to ten years ago as “the wolf at the door” argument—namely that terror laws could be used against journalists—has now become a reality in an increasing number of countries. In the annual statistics compiled by press freedom organizations, each set of figures is always compared with the year before. But if you zoom out, the really significant increase took place after September 11, 2001. Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Ethiopia, and China are using terror laws to silence, persecute and incarcerate inconvenient voices. Even the USA is sinking like a stone in press freedom rankings, as a result of its increasingly aggressive pursuit of whistle-blowers.
JOHAN: At the same time, my perception is that more people than ever are interested in hearing both sides of a conflict. I report on whatever issue I choose, whenever I choose. I don’t care if a person is on a terrorist list, I don’t need permission from any government. If you only report one version of events, you don’t get the whole picture.
MARTIN: Our plan was to write a story about oil, but we came back with another one about ink. Some people ask why we did it, why we took such a huge risk. I answer that our colleagues in Syria are also there illegally, after entering from Turkey with rebels, and it was the same in Libya during the toppling of Gaddafi. In a way it brings up a good discussion about when it’s admissible to break laws. It helps people understand how news stories make their way into their living rooms. Without journalists taking risks, the world would be a silent place. While we were in prison, we could pay to get hold of provisions, clothes, even medical supplies—but there was one thing we couldn’t get hold of, no matter how much we were willing to pay: banned literature. That says something about the power of words. Our hope is that people who read 438 Days will help us keep this story alive.

There’s a Facebook group for the book, and a Twitter account to keep people updated about the latest developments. Let’s meet there and carry on the struggle for those who remain behind bars.

Interviewer: Mattias Göransson, Editor of 438 Days.

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