Page last updated at 11:46 GMT, Wednesday, 8 July 2009 12:46 UK

Man's 25 years on film chronicle Ethiopia's struggles

For 25 years British documentary maker Charles Stewart has filmed Ethiopian man Aklog Adarge. The BBC's Adam Mynott reports on one man's life, beset by the challenges of famine and conflict, which is emblematic of the lives of so many Ethiopians.

The human face of Ethiopia's resettlement programmes

In 1984 at the height of the worst famine in living memory thousands of people clinging to life in the highlands in the centre and north of Ethiopia were resettled.

Some were forcibly moved, others went voluntarily.

When the day becomes darker, it is not a bad thing to go away until things improve

Aklog Adarge tells his mother he must leave

One young man Aklog Adarge was amongst those who decided to leave. He lived with his mother, sister and younger brother near the village of Arb Gebaya.

The land in this remote, mountainous region had been farmed for generations, but growing numbers of people, deforestation and drought had rendered large tracts of the highlands incapable of supporting human life.

A British documentary-maker, Charles Stewart filmed Aklog at a large gathering in Arb Gebaya where regional members of the Marxist government told villagers that their only hope of survival was to leave the barren Ethiopian mountains and go to unoccupied lowland areas.

Poignant goodbye

Stewart was also filming when the young man had to bid goodbye to his mother, who was dying.

His distressed mother spoke of her unhappiness at him leaving:

"My God, do you think I could be happy about that? My family is scattering."

Aklog Adarge leaves his village
With only a handful of possessions Aklog left his home village

Aklog replied: "When the day becomes darker, it is not a bad thing to go away until things improve."

It was a heart-breaking moment and the last time Aklog saw his mother alive.

But to have stayed in Arb Gebaya could have meant death - more than one million people died in the 1984 famine in Ethiopia.

Aklog set off with his few possessions - which he could easily carry in one hand - in search of a future, and Stewart was on hand to film this important moment.

Little government help

Under the Marxist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam a programme of resettling highland villagers had started in 1975.

In 1984 the programme stepped up and the government in the capital Addis Ababa announced that one and half million people would be moved.

Arid Ethiopian highlands
The Ethiopian highlands have been left arid by deforestation

Aklog was part of this programme. He moved hundreds of kilometres to a co-operative farm at Metema, close to the border with Sudan.

He was promised help from the government, but received little assistance.

Lowland areas settled by the villagers had rich soil and better water supplies, but they were also rife with disease.

Thousands are reported to have died, but there has never been a reliable assessment of the human toll of resettlement.

Ongoing struggle

Aklog managed to carve out a living and spent 13 years at Metema. Charles Stewart returned there in 2000 to find Aklog.

He tracked down Aklog's sister, Enane in Metema and his younger brother Andarge, but Aklog had gone. Restless and unhappy he had set off again in search of land elsewhere.

Charles Stewart and his Ethiopian guide eventually tracked Aklog to the district of Arjo, about 500km (311 miles) south east of Metema.

Aklog Adarge driving his cattle
Aklog Adarge tries to support his family of six children through farming

Aklog had left the resettlement programme. He had divorced and remarried and was trying to farm new land, but he was struggling.

Aklog is a farmer - he plants and harvests crops to sustain his family of six children and sells what little excess he produces.

But his efforts have brought him into direct and occasionally violent conflict with the indigenous tribes in Arjo who are pastoralists and move their herds of cattle and goats from place to place in search of grazing.

Culture clash

Aklog had spent a lot of money buying an ox and had begun to clear the land to plant crops, but the pastoralists saw him threatening their way of life.

The trees he chopped down to make way for his plough were trees that the pastoralists collected honey from.

He was seized by the locals and thrown into prison, and his wife was forced to sell their ox and other possessions to raise enough money for him to be freed.

Aklog and his family were repeatedly told to leave the area, their home was burnt down and they lived in constant fear of being attacked. He received little protection from the authorities.

Aklog Adarge
Aklog says he would like to return to his home village

Charles Stewart returned to Arjo a few weeks ago to visit Aklog again. He is still farming and life remains tough.

He is making more than a subsistence living - but only just - and his relationship with the indigenous people remains precarious.

Aklog told Stewart that he longs to go back to his birthplace, Arb Gebaya.

But there are problems in the highlands once more. Two years of severe drought and successive years of below-average rainfall have plunged Ethiopia into food crisis again.

The United Nations has warned that the whole of the Horn of Africa faces a severe food crisis with nearly twenty million people in need of emergency food aid.

In Arb Gebaya farmers are having to sell their stock, a sure sign of desperate times.

Watch Adam Mynott's film in full on Newsnight on Monday 17 August 2009 at 10.30pm on BBC Two.

Statement from the Ethiopian Embassy
12 Aug 09 |  Newsnight

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