The Live Aid concert of July 13, 1985 is one of those events when it comes up in conversation that is prefaced with the question of ‘where were you when’...
Thirty years have now elapsed since the foul language of Bob Geldof shocked us as he roared into our living rooms that sunny afternoon, ‘give us your f--king money!’ Down the years debate has taken place about the actual usefulness of the event since a lot of the millions of pounds donated never actually reached their intended targets. However, what cannot be denied is the remaining visual power of the initial BBC reports of a famine of biblical proportions .
This was the motivation taken by Bob Geldof to gather together the cream of world music simultaneously at Wembley stadium and in Phildaelphia to perform to raise vital aid for the stricken African nation. Some of the performances of that day remain legendary and helped boost flagging musical careers in some cases. The sets performed by Queen, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones and Led Zepplin have stuck in many memories. Phil Collins who landed in Philadelphia on the same day to perform there too after a previous performance in London also captured public imagination.
The famine that raged between 1983-85 was attributed to severe drought. However, Before the 1983–5 famine, two decades of wars of national liberation and other anti-government conflict had raged throughout Ethiopia and Eritrea.
The most prominent feature of the fighting was the use of indiscriminate violence against civilians by the Ethiopian army and air force. Excluding those killed by famine and resettlement, more than 150,000 people were killed.
As ever, Derry and Donegal were not found wanting when it came to helping to contribute to the fundraising effort. Yet, it was the tale of six Ethiopian refugees who were found in the cargo hold of a ship that landed in Derry docks that captured the imagination of the local public that summer.
A week after the Live Aid concert on Friday, July 19, 1985, the front page of the Derry Journal carried a small report in its front page which read: “A meeting will be held this morning between representatives of the International Red Cross, the British immigration authorities and Foyle MP, John Hume to discuss the future of the six Ethiopian stowaways who landed in Derry last month.
“The six were informed by the Home Office that they will be allowed to remain here for at least a year. The Ethiopians asked if to be allowed to stay as they claimed they would be conscripted to the Ethiopian Army to fight in their country’s civil war. Foyle MP, John Hume has been campaigning to have the six men granted political asylum and has welcomed this week’s news. At present the six men are staying at the Carmelite retreat house in Derry, but it is not known if they will be remaining in Derry.”
By late August, the fate of the men had become a bit clearer. The Journal of Friday morning, August 30, 1985 carried a lengthier report on the six men. It stated: “The six Ethiopian refugees who arrived in Derry as stowaways aboard a Cypriot cargo vessel in June, and have amazed everyone by adapting so well to their new life here, will be among the hundreds of new students enrolling for courses at the North West College of Technology next week.
“The image that many people have of the of the Ethiopians as bewildered and confused could not be further from the truth. They are friendly, open and trusting with their confidence growing daily as they learn to cope with day to day life in Derry.
“They are also very grateful for the hospitable reception they were given in Derry. After they were given temporary leave to stay here and said their goodbyes to the German Captain of the ‘Elise Schulte’. Friedemann J Meinhard and his crew, offers of help came flooding in. Three have been given full refugee status and the others granted ‘exceptional leave’ for a year. This means they are now eligble for most citizen rights and qualify for supplementary benefit. As they are still in the process of learning English, they are not required to be eligble for work.
“The refugees are all single and aged between 18-38 and came from the northern province of Tigre and Eriticia where their native tongue is Amharic. After leaving the relative safety of the boat they stayed at the Iona Retreat Centre at Termonbacca which helped lessen the culture shock. The monks were more than good to them and are still in touch with the Ethiopians now that they have moved to their new house in Galliagh.
“Okwebe, the eldest is sort of a father figure and seems to be unofficially head of the household. Back in his own country he was a painter by trade and was the ‘foreman’ when their new home was being redecorated. He also enjoys cooking and prepares most of the meals. They are extremely house proud and cannot believe their luck at being given such a beautiful house. Okwebe says that in his home town, which is much the same size as Derry, only someone very rich like a government minister could afford such a house like the one in Galliagh. The house is well furnished thanks to the charitable donations of groups such as the Red Cross and St Vincent de Paul.”
The Journal also reported that voluntary workers who had spent time in Africa, social workers and indeed local children had all beaten a path to the home of the Ethiopians in order to help them settle in as much as possible.
“Their greatest asset,” said the paper, “is fellow countryman Mehary Araia who is now settled in Stranorlar and speaks English fluently.
“Mehary who trained as a nurse in Ethiopia, arrived in Ireland on October 19, 1983 with his wife and five children. His sixth child, Rebecca was born shortly after their arrival here. He has visited them regularly, first at Termonbacca and more recently at Galliagh.”
Mehary Araia acted as the men’s interpreter and conveyed that although they obviously missed their families that had been in regular contact with them.
He told the Journal: “They felt that they had no choice but to leave. Even if the boat had sunk it would have been better than staying in Ethiopia. There is no democracy in Ethiopia, no freedom of speech. There was no future for my family, that is why I left. In this country everyone is treated as a human being. The military regime in Ethiopia has no room for poor people. They are left to fend for themselves. Maybe in the future if the political situation improves, I would consider returning home, but I have to think of my own family and what is best for them.”
The Journal report concludes: “Their adventures on potato boats are a thing of the past and they just want to all that behind them and concentrate on settling in Derry and repaying some of the kindness of the local people.”