There are, of course a number of things which a traveller should avoid doing, and any guidebook, as would Bob Cranwell, will tell you to avoid photography in sensitive areas like military camps, ports, even railway stations and bridges in most third world countries will be regarded as strategic targets.
No finer example of the latter could be the bridge over the river Awash en route through southern Ethiopia to Djibouti which carries the only railway in the country and as such, carries a large proportion of the countries imports and its negligible exports. A road shadows this rail line for much of the time, and we were traveling on it to Harar located in the recently lawless southeast of the country, where raids by Somali bandits were not unheard of.
As we approached the area of the bridge I stopped the minibus for a leg stretch and fag break and to make sure everyone knew what we would encounter. I explained the strategic value of this bridge and assured the group that there would be soldiers guarding this bridge, whether we could see them or not, and that they were armed and not blessed with a lot of education or diversions.
“So please,” I said, “when we come near to the bridge, make sure you do not photograph the bridge – do not even point a camera or binoculars at it or it could mean trouble.” We carried on, passing a huge sign warning in large letters NO STOPPING. NO PHOTOGRAPHY then dropping into a dip as we approached the bridge and noticing a couple of soldiers at the roadside 500 metres further on.
A shot rang out to our right, apparently from one of the piers of the bridge, and the soldiers on the road sprang into our path, pointing AK47s straight at us. I looked around and saw Paul, a likeable but quiet trainspotter-type stuffing his camera back into the top of his day sack. “I was just looking at it through my telephoto lens, – I didn’t take any pictures !”
Other members of the group looked aghast at him as we were forced to a halt and the soldiers hit the door with the butt of their rifles, I rushed forward and opened it for them. “Camera !” the older of the two shouted, “give it !”. Paul had just used most of his film taking some stunning wildlife shots in the Awash game reserve where we had stayed for two days and protested that he had not taken any photos. This did not impress the soldiers, who despite my apologies and milder protestations, boarded the bus and told the driver to carry on along the road.
Dressed in rough unbuttoned fatigues and laceless old boots, the soldiers were covered in sweat and dust and rather red eyed, perhaps from endless hours staring at traffic in this blasted rocky wasteland, perhaps from last night’s rough country liquor which often forms a part of daily life in remote unpopular postings. In any case, they didn’t look happy at all, and directed our driver to a compound a kilometre beyond the bridge where we swung in and were surrounded by platoons of dusty, sweaty soldiers in similar attire and desperate for some interest, but none of them were smiling.
It felt very threatening as we were clearly guilty of taking photos of a strategic site, which to anyone in the third world, means spying.A man in more complete and cleaner uniform marched out of an adjacent building and addressed us in decisive and faultless English, “Give me the camera, and I will destroy the film”. This was serious news for Paul who started protesting loudly about never being able to get his wildlife pictures again and he hadn’t taken any pictures of the bridge and please, he was really sorry and wouldn’t do it again.
He seemed to go on like this for ages, but in reality it was only a minute or two. “The camera, now please ! Or I can keep you here until you do” said the man who was clearly an officer of some sort. “You can’t do this, we are British tourists bringing money to your country” Paul had started to argue but I intervened, saying “stop, and give me the camera Paul – you can get replacements for most of the shots from other people in the group, but we have to give him the film whether you like it or not. You’ve had enough warning and took no notice so if we are all to get away from here today you have to do as he says.”
Paul sullenly gave way and I took the camera from him, then handed it to the officer who obviously knew what he was doing for he flicked the catch, deftly pulled the film out of the canister and onto the ground and gave me the camera back.
“There, now you can go” he said, flashing a warning glance at Paul. Everyone else had their cameras safely tucked away in their packs and were looking both nervous and peeved with Paul who was obviously irritated by what he saw as rough justice from a tinpot soldier and muttered so under his breath.
“Wait !” said the officer as we were climbing back onto the minibus, “ do you have another camera ?” he asked Paul. “No, just this one”, he replied, dropping into a sulk and threading his way back to his seat on the rear right of the bus. With mixed feelings of irritation and relief we pulled away saying nothing until a few kilometres beyond the camp we stopped the bus and I turned to assess how everyone was feeling. Paul’s voice piped up from the back, “A good job he didn’t see my other camera in the top of my bag” he said, “he’d have had the film out of that too.”
“You what ?” I turned on him, “do you know what you’ve just done ? You’ve been stopped for taking photos of an important rail bridge and had your film destroyed and even worse you lied about having another camera. If that officer had decided to search your bag he would have found the camera and then you would have been definitely under arrest, perhaps even for spying.
If you’d tell one lie, you’d tell a thousand as far as that guy was concerned and there would have been nothing anyone could have done. The guy with the gun is the law around here. We would have had to leave you here and the best I could have done is to try and contact the British consul in Addis Ababa when we reached Harar and let him know what had happened.”
(This is standard procedure on an organised tour, if a group member commits an illegal act they can be put off the tour, usually with no comeback) Paul blanched at the thought of this and I just gave him an exasperated look to let him know how close he had come to ruining other people’s holiday almost as much as his own. He seemed contrite at the time but later just laughed it off, but he was the only one who found it funny.
Catch yer later !
Bob Cranwell, Amateur Emigrant