November 6, 2004
Thanks to God, Michael Buerk and Mr David...
The obligatory Live Aid 20th Anniversary story, this time in the UK's Leicester Mercury. The photo shows 1984 famine survivor Girmay Assefa and family outside their home in Mekele, northern Ethiopia.
By Andrew Heavens
Girmay Assefa has a single piece of paper fixed to the wall above his bed at his home in the dusty northern Ethiopian city of Mekele. On it is he has written "Because of God, Mr Michael Buerk and Mr David... the door has opened and I am getting through".
You will already know God and Michael Buerk, the BBC journalist whose harrowing report from northern Ethiopia 20 years ago shook the world's conscience and inspired Bob Geldof to organise his historic Band Aid and Live Aid relief efforts.
Mr David, however, requires an introduction.
David Stables, of Evington, is the driving force behind a small charity which is dedicated to delivering education to students across Ethiopia.
Among the pupils is Girmay. Two decades ago, he was one of the starving, rootless children brought to the world's attention by Buerk's landmark broadcast.
Thanks to a combination of amazing luck and the food relief that flowed in after the BBC report, Girmay survived the drought that eventually killed more than one million of his fellow Ethiopians.
Today, he is safe and well, married with a young son of his own. He recently enrolled on a diploma course in software engineering.
That last achievement is largely thanks to that third name on the hand-written dedication above his bed.
David, 65, founded A-CET - the African Children's Educational Trust - after returning to the UK following a career working in some of the most troubled areas of the world with the Red Cross.
His last posting was in Ethiopia in the 1990s, when the country was recovering from its latest civil war.
"The war left millions of orphans - far more than could be accommodated by the admirable African extended family system," he remembers.
"For some largely bureaucratic reasons, there always seemed to be a number of youngsters who fell between stools and could not be helped by the Red Cross or other support programmes."
He started looking after those lost youngsters on an informal basis when he was in Ethiopia, putting a roof over their heads on the condition they went to school.
When he returned to Leicester, he recruited a management team, filled in all the necessary forms and carried on working. It was this zest for action - at an age when many of his peers are dreaming of easing towards retirement - that has made such a difference in the life of Girmay.
The Ethiopian has come a long way since he struggled through the famine in the closing months of 1984.
He does not know his date of birth, but guesses he must have been between five and seven at the time.
He has strong memories of his ordeal. When the Western world woke up to the drought, Girmay was staggering along roads in the northern Tigray region searching for food with his mother, brother and two young sisters.
"I was traumatised. I got confused. The only thing you think and care about is to feed yourself and to stay alive," he says.
"Life was very cheap and a lot of people died all along the way.
"People were flowing along like a river and everyone was walking with no energy. If you collapsed, nobody could stop to help."
He remembers arriving at a feeding camp after five days' march without food and going to a river to collect water.
When he returned, his entire family had disappeared.
He says: "I just sat down and cried.
"That was an unforgettable feeling."
It turned out his family had been separated in the chaos of the camp. It was another two months before he found any of them again.
When he did, passers-by told him bluntly that his mother had died. No-one knew how. "By that time, I did not cry. There was no energy for tears."
One of his sisters was also nowhere to be found. To this day, he does not know what happened to her.
After a number of years in the camp, he was taken to an orphanage in Mekele, the region's capital.
After another two years, he was told to leave and fend for himself and his surviving sister. By this time, his brother had died of an unknown illness.
"It was tough for me because I wasn't used to life in society. I had to get on with it because that is the only way to face any challenge."
He rented a one-room house in Mekele where, over time, he fell in love with the landlord's daughter, Mulu, and married her. Two years ago they had a son. He named the boy Michael.
Youngsters are usually selected for A-CET grants by committees in Ethiopia.
Girmay was an exception. He was tracked down by none other than Michael Buerk, who returned to Mekele last year to film a documentary on how Ethiopia was coping, 20 years after the famine.
After the filming had finished, Buerk contacted A-CET, asking whether it could help Girmay.
A-CET, funded by its army of sponsors - most in the UK - went on to track down the college, pay for the course and support Girmay through his studies.
He has already made a strong impression on David and team.
"He's a very deep young man. I think it is because of what he went through," says David, who is in Ethiopia, checking on the charity's operations.
"It has made him very composed, very determined. Nothing will faze him again."
It is a rare and hard-fought happy ending to have come out of such a devastating famine.
Today, there are fresh signs of drought emerging in Tigray and other parts of Ethiopia.
Girmay, though, remains determinedly optimistic.
This time, government plans are in place and food aid is promised, to prevent the drought turning into another humanitarian disaster.
Then there is his family to focus on.
"Before, I didn't have to care about education. I didn't have to care about anything. The only important thing was to find food.
"Now, we are very healthy. Thanks to Mr David and A-CET.
"We are going to a college and we have even produced a baby who has a bright future. A lot has changed."
Posted by aheavens at November 6, 2004 1:58 PM