Read and Review: 438 Days

Correspondence journalism in matchboxes and shampoo bottles

Review by Alice Olsson

On the 28th June 2011 Swedish journalist Martin Schibbye and photographer Johan Persson cross the border between Somalia and Ethiopia. Five days later they lie shot and bleeding in the sand. They are on a mission to research human rights violations in the closed Ogaden region, looking into the involvement of international oil companies such as Swedish Lundin Oil, when they are captured. Over three months later they are charged with illegally entering the country as well as supporting and participating in a terrorist organisation. In December 2011 they’re sentenced to 11 years in the Kality prison in Addis Ababa.

Kality has been referred to as “the Robben Island of Ethiopia” and holds more than 10,000 prisoners, many of them prisoners of conscience. Martin Schibbye describes the chaos as well as the inner struggle they face as they step into the prison for the first time: “I stand and waver on the thin threshold of the Kality prison’s innermost. And step in.

“Bodies. Bodies everywhere. Stretched, crouched, newly awakened, asleep, tensed, drugged, rigid, snorting, slumping, half naked, angry, scared, resolute, proud…” An inmate says: “You shouldn’t have let them take you alive. It’s better to die like a lion than to rot away in here.

Schibbye and Persson narrate the book alternatingly, telling their story of 438 Days in prison for the words they didn’t have a chance to write. It becomes 438 days of struggling to stay alive and sane in the world on the other side of silent diplomacy; they are refused medical care, have to fight to for their own beds to sleep in, and a fake documentary is made to portray them as terrorists before the judges in the trial. Towards the end of their time in prison, the two manage to get books into Kality. Being able to read Orwell and Malcolm X changes everything for them. “What if one day, I’ll write a book about what I see now,” Martin writes. “The thought is overwhelming. Up until my deathbed I’ll be able to recount in exact detail what I see in front of me. With a book we’ll be able to separate the past from the present. And what if our book will one day stand on a shelf in Kality.

Schibbye and Persson’s very personal account as prisoners of conscience reveals a world of confusion, where the justice system cannot be trusted and propaganda supplants the truth. The clash between international politics and the single fates of human lives renders them in a limbo of hopelessnes; promises of their release are continually broken, but, afraid of disturbing the workings of silent diplomacy, they endure.

The text takes the reader through the very real struggles of the victims of freedom of expression violations. Before being transferred to Kality, Schibbye and Persson met Ethiopian journalist and fellow prisoner Reeyot Alemu. Exchanging messages concealed in matchboxes and shampoo bottles, they hid their correspondence from the guards. The two Swedish journalists were pardoned in September 2012, and have since received a number of awards for their struggles, including the 2012 Anna Politkovskaya Memorial Award and Reporters Without Borders’ 2013 Press Freedom Prize. Reeyot Alemu and other journalists they met, however, still remain in prison.

Schibbye and Persson’s sentence ended after 438 Days. But many people are still serving theirs. Read more about their cases and what you can do to show your support on PEN-International.org.

438 Days is so far only available in Swedish, and is published by Filter. The above quotations are translated by Alice Olsson.

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