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  • Will Hide

Interesting People I've met travelling: Firew Ayele

Firew Ayele, 50, is an Ethiopian tour guide and owner of Addis Ababa-based Across Abyssinia Tours. Last year I spent two weeks travelling across the country with him. From the age of nine, he was held as a child prisoner of war in Somalia for 11 years before being rescued by the Red Cross.

I clearly remember the day I was captured

It was early morning and Somali artillery was strafing my town, Dire Dawa, as part of the Ogaden War. People started running across an open area, but two friends and I went left to hide behind a big termite mound…most of the former were killed. About midday we came out and were found by a Somali soldier. He was going to shoot us but a colleague of his said: “they’re only kids, you can’t kill them.” Instead, we were marched to trucks with other survivors and taken away. When we crossed a bridge, we had to step on lots of dead bodies. I still remember that to this day.

Once we were in Somalia we were moved quite often.

I preferred the north to the south because in the latter the people really hated Ethiopians. We slept about a hundred to a room and lots of people died because of malnutrition and disease – I got malaria eight times. Sometimes, because we were kids, we were let out of the compound. Once I just escaped being crushed by a hippo that was being chased by an elephant! Another time three people literally just in front of me were hit by lightning as we collected firewood. I hadn’t really heard of the concept of “a cat with nine lives” till recently but I think that must apply to me.

Eventually, some Russians and Cubans were held with us, and their governments looked for them and so we were discovered too. Most people back home had thought we were dead. After I returned, I went to university and worked for the Ministry of Agriculture before setting up Across Abyssinia.

I definitely have my favourite areas of Ethiopia

Many visitors come and do a “classic” northern circuit – Gondar, Lalibela and Axum and there is nothing wrong with that at all. There’s a southern circuit too, based around the Omo Valley. I prefer that because of the interaction with the local people. I’m fond of the Hamer people especially. The boys jump naked over a row of bulls as part of their initiation to manhood, and women coat their hair in clay and butter. They are just as fascinated by outsiders as tourists are by them.

If you want to see a different side of the country, I’d recommend Harar in the east, which is a centre of Muslim culture in Ethiopia. And not many people know about Gambela National Park, which has one of the most spectacular migrations outside of the Serengeti.

Famous people are no different from anyone else

I’ve guided former US president Jimmy Carter as well as Microsoft-founder Bill Gates, several times. Bill is very down to earth and has a tremendous knack for remembering everyone’s names even several years after his last trip.

(c) Will Hide 2020

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