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Live Aid: The Terrible Truth

The Crowd at the Live Aid Concert, Wembley Stadium, London on 13th July 1985.; (Photo by Steve Rapport/Photoshot/Getty Images)
One night at dinner in late 1985, a friend talked about Ethiopia being in a civil war. Neither I nor anyone else at the table had heard that. It hadn’t been covered in the American press. This was just six months after the Live Aid concerts in Philadelphia and London had directly and indirectly raised over $100 million dollars for famine relief in the African nation. The next day I asked my sister Nina, an assistant at SPIN then, to research this, because if the country was at war, it would surely be difficult to move aid around and get it to people who needed it.
In those days we didn’t have the Internet, so research was done by going to the library and trawling through endless spools of microfiche — film of newspaper pages from around the world. That evening she came into my office ashen faced — she had discovered it was clear, and very well evidenced, that this famine, the awful depictions of which had pulled on the world’s heartstrings, was man made, by government planes deliberately napalming rebel farms. 
Every year Ethiopia experiences some degree of drought, the worst ones bringing famine. But the country historically dealt with this. Some years were worse than others. In 1984 the famine that inspired first Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and then Live Aid, was very bad and people were dying of starvation. But the cause was less nature than cynical genocide. A fact apparently so easy to discover that an editorial assistant barely out of college did so in a matter of hours at the library. 
I asked Bob Keating, a superb young investigative reporter who had just started working with us, to look into this for a story. The assignment was simple — all this money had been raised, where was it going, was it actually doing good?
He discovered it was not doing good, but, horrifically, unimaginably, the exact opposite. The Ethiopian dictator, Mengistu, until then deadlocked in the war, was using the money the west gave him to buy sophisticated weapons from the Russians, and was now able to efficiently and viciously crush the opposition. Ethiopia, then the third poorest country in the world, suddenly had the largest, best equipped army on the African continent.
By this time we had all seen the pictures and TV footage of Bob Geldof, the figurehead of Live Aid, bear hugging and playfully punching Mengistu in the arm as he literally handed over the funding for this slaughter. It was on TV now alright, but as an endless, relentless reel of heroic Bob Geldof highlights. He drenched himself in the adulation and no one begrudged him it, until our investigation exposed the holocaust that Live Aid’s collected donations had help perpetrate on the Eritrean independence fighters. 
Most damningly, Keating reported that Geldof was warned, repeatedly, from the outset by several relief agencies in the field about Mengistu, who was dismantling tribes, mercilessly conducting resettlement marches on which 100,000 people died, and butchering helpless people. According to Medicins Sans Frontiers, who begged Geldof to not release the money until there was a reliable infrastructure to get it to victims, he simply ignored them, instead famously saying: “I’ll shake hands with the Devil on my left and on my right to get to the people we are meant to help.”
In the course of preparing our story, we tried to interview Geldof, who in the beginning, perhaps expecting more of the same media worship, was apparently willing to talk, but as soon as he and Live Aid realized what we knew and were going to ask him about, he declined. For more than a month we kept calling and faxing requests for his comments. As we were nearing our deadline, we Fedex’ed him written questions and two cassettes, every day for two weeks. Two cassettes because I urged him to record his answers on two machines, send us one cassette and keep the other as a record, so there could be no dispute about quoting him out of context.
He never replied, and our report, in July 1986, shocked the world. That is not an overstatement. It comprehensively exposed the fraudulent use of the charitable money by unmistakably the world’s most brutal dictator, and the naive, hubris-drenched, unwitting complicity of Live Aid and Geldof. 
After the story broke, Geldof lied, claiming we published it to punish him because he wouldn’t grant us an interview. That sounded as ridiculous as it was, and, more crucially, was a pretty thin rebuttal for the serious issues revealed in the article. 
At first our story was met with a terrific backlash. We were vilified by a disbelieving media, who felt we sensationalized the situation in Ethiopia to sell magazines.  Our music industry advertisers pulled their ads. We went on the offensive and I personally did hundreds upon hundreds of interviews, with anyone who would talk to me. Every interview concluded with my saying, “You’re a news organization, look into it yourself!” Many did, and then more, and slowly the tide turned as they began to realize we were right. Live Aid had, through its missteps, exacerbated the already terrible humanitarian crisis.
Eventually, the Wall Street Journal ran an Op-Ed exonerating our reporting and commending us for being brave to uncover the real story, unpopular though it was.
This week, SPIN is republishing the stories that we ran then over a several-month period, starting with the first article today, which is the 30th Anniversary of the concerts in 1985, and continuing with our follow-up investigation published in September ’86, and the publication in the August ’86 issue of a statement Geldof distributed to the media (but not to us), which we then rebuffed, point by point.
Once again, 29 years later from the original publication of these articles, we have asked Bob Geldof to respond.

— Bob Guccione Jr., founder of SPIN, July 13, 2015

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[This story, written by Robert Keating, was originally published in the July 1986 issue of SPINIn honor of SPIN’s 30th anniversary, we’ve republished this piece as part of our ongoing “30 Years, 30 Stories”series.]

The truth is shocking in its clarity. “People are dying because of their government,” says Jason Clay, an anthropologist studying famine in Ethiopia. “And what groups like Live Aid are doing is helping the government set up a system that is going to cause people to die for decades to come.”

“Western governments and humanitarian groups like Live Aid are fueling an operation that will be described with hindsight in a few years time as one of the greatest slaughters in the history of the twentieth century,” says Dr. Claude Malhuret, whose relief agency, Medicins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), has been kicked out of Ethiopia for speaking up against “the most massive violations of human rights we have seen in recent ?ears.”

The reality of Live Aid is that it cannot accomplish what it set out to do for the starving in Ethiopia. It never stood a chance. And evidence indicates that it is actually hurting millions of people there.

It was so simple at first. There was Band Aid and a song called “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Then Live Aid and USA for Africa and a brood of sub-‘Aids’, the trustees of compassion, bearing money and food, planning airlifts and rescue caravans, buying trucks and planes, selling records, and singing songs. But what began as the most spectacular musical event in history has become an instrument in the greatest of Ethiopia’s many tragedies. The road of misery for millions of Ethiopians is being paved with the good intentions — but misguided or ill-planned or just plain irresponsible execution — of Live Aid and its spin-offs.

It is hard to make sense of what is going on in Ethiopia, because not much makes sense there ???m???.

On the one hand, it would seem all that matters is that the aid projects were done for the right reason. But ultimately, it isn’t. Right now, the reality of aid in Ethiopia is the reality of war. Brutally executed mass resettlements of millions of men, women, and children, concentration camps, and bombings that go with the manipulated drought and starvation are all killing more Ethiopians than the famine ever did.

So where are the stories about all of this? Some get out. But the few reporters who remain mostly cover the region from the relative country club luxury of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, filing their stories drawn from government handouts and guided tours of model feeding centers and resettlement sites — well distanced from the war zones and primitive holding pens. Few outsiders get to see what is going on. And so, understanding what is really happening in Ethiopia is difficult. The truth is elusive, obscured but not entirely lost in the contradictions that are as numerous as the dollars of aid flowing into the country.

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Problems plagued Live Aid’s efforts in Ethiopia even before last year’s July 13 concert. The Band Aid Trust (which was formed shortly after the “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” record brought in $9 million and which today allocates all Live Aid monies) began shipping food and medicine to Africa ?nly to realize that there was ?? adequate way to transport it once it hit the docks in Ethiopia.

Live Aid had come face to face with the morass that is Ethiopia. Because of the antiquated railroads and tortuous roadways and the Marxist government’s stubborn refusal to divert any of its fleet of vehicles from its ongoing wars and resettlement programs, little food and medicine left the port cities of Assab and Massawa, while priority was given to unloading military hardware from Soviet ships.

A year ago, hundreds of thousands of tons of food rotted on the docks beside the Red Sea.

Band Aid Trust decided to buy a broken-down fleet of trucks in Sudan, repair them, and go into the transport business. But while it might have been quicker than importing new trucks, five months passed before the fleet of 80 trucks was operable. Meanwhile, the drought and famine took a greater toll.

Band Aid Trust devised a system of chartering ships so that goods could be transported into Ethiopia at a moment’s notice. By the end of last year, 19 voyages had brought in more than 100,000 tons of food. It was then that Live Aid again ran into the single greatest obstacle to feeding the famine victims in Ethiopia — the Ethiopian government. Tons of food transported by Live Aid have been confiscated by the government to pay its army in grain or to trade for arms from the Russians. (An echo of September 1984, when the government of Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam cut off all aid to famine victims so he could throw a lavish, $200 million celebration of Haile Selaisse’s overthrow and inauguration of the new Communist Workers Party, with free-flowing liquor and nonstop festivities. During these days of plenty in the capital the western press got its first glimpse of the starving masses in Ethiopia who wandered near death into the capital from the distant countryside, where they had been left forgotten by the government.)

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These facts alone should have given Bob Geldof pause in his future dealings with the Mengistu government. Mengistu was following a very different agenda than Live Aid, which was made starkly clear when he refused to allow aid to be delivered across the lines of his war with the rebels in Tigre, Eritrea, and the northern portions of Wollo, where 60 percent of the country’s famine victims live. When an illegal cross-border operation was started from northern Sudan, Mengistu made “concessions.” In return for a scaling down of the cross-border operation, he agreed to allow food to be distributed behind the march of his troops as they made their advances into rebel-held territories.

“No food is moving across the battle line,” says Chris Carter, who has spent time in Eritrea and took some of the photographs on SPIN‘s pages. “It’s nothing more than a pacification program, meant to remove the rebel forces’ base support among those who live in these regions. They think the food’s coming from Mengistu and that they’re safe as long as they stay on his side of the line.”

“Food is one kind of ammunition that a government at war can use to exercise control over a population,” says Terry Norr of Mercy Corps International, a relief agency.

“For every person saved in front of the camera, getting food and moving from a desperate situation to smiling and playing Frisbee, there are a lot of other things in motion behind the scenes,” says anthropologist Bonnie Holcomb. “And the relief groups are totally irresponsible for not finding them out.”

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The Ethiopia that Live Aid began raising money for is not the Ethiopia to which the money has gone. That is the simple, harsh truth. Ethiopia, which has the largest standing army in Africa, is embroiled in four internal wars, the major fighting going on against revolutionary forces in the northern provinces of Tigre and Eritrea. There government troops have systematically scorched the farmlands, destroying crops and killing oxen, used napalm on starving noncombatants, and according to U.S. intelligence reports, employed chemical warfare and nerve gas on their own people.

To the outside world, the Ethiopian government portrays resettlement as one of its projects for the salvation of its people in the north. In reality, it is a vicious and brutal plan carried out by the army, using food to lure the peasants into camps.

“Food has been given to Ethiopia for humanitarian purposes,” says Bonnie Holcomb, “but it has served as bait in a trap that is part of an ongoing program to restructure Ethiopia’s society.”

In concept, resettlement is a voluntary program to help the people of Ethiopia. But it is neither voluntary nor a help. Last October 25, a unit of Ethiopian soldiers invaded a relief center at Korem in the province of Wollo, looking for “volunteers.” Run by the Save the Children Fund and Medicins sans Frontieres, Korem is one of the largest feeding stations, attracting peasants from miles around. Three times before, it had been hit by government troops. As the army poured into the center, 20,000 people fled in terror into the bitter cold of night, but an unlucky 600 were rounded up at gunpoint, loaded onto trucks — three of which belonged to Save the Children — and driven off to be resettled.

“Don’t take these horror stories lightly,” says Terry Norr. “They’re just the tip of the iceberg.”

Before they are sent to the resettlement camps, the victims are taken to a holding center to await transportation. There are no latrines and little food or water in the overcrowded and disease-ridden centers. Those who have escaped to refugee camps in Sudan tell horror stories of being beaten, being shot trying to escape, or of watching their families separated and brutalized. The survivors are loaded on trucks and planes for a long and horrible journey. Soviet Antonov planes, designed to carry 50 paratroopers, were put into duty moving 350 to 400 people more than 500 miles to the camps in the south.

“People were crushed to death on the impact of takeoff and landing,” says Holcomb, who interviewed scores of survivors. “They were suffocating, throwing up on each other, literally being asphyxiated. One woman was standing on a body that she didn’t know if it was dead or alive — but she couldn’t move. Children had to be held over people’s heads so they wouldn’t be smashed. Women miscarried and bled. And then the army would come in with a hose, wash the plane out, and go back and do it again.”

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More than 600,000 people were relocated this way, and 100,000 died in the savage transport. Last spring, 70,000 people were being moved this way each week. Today, the resettlement program has slowed while another plan, called “villagization,” which will move 33 million Ethiopians, more than three-quarters of the population, to state villages, has been stepped up.

The terrible truth of what is really going on in Ethiopia has been kept an ugly secret among the relief agencies who are in business there. It is a business that some don’t want to see end or have jeopardized.

“We’ve put years into Ethiopia,” says Brian Bird of the World Vision organization, “We cannot in good conscience sacrifice all that work to make a grand political point. We are guests of that government, and our entire program rests upon their approval.”

“If they start raising a ruckus or shifting their policy around, they’ll lose their money from the public,” countered a fieldworker, who asked not to be named. “Then their own bread won’t be buttered.”

“People should be more discriminating,” said an official at the U.S. Agency for International Development, who spoke on the agreement he not be named. “They should say, ‘As awful as this is, and even though we’re partially condemning a lot of people to a lot of suffering, resources are scarce, there are other people who would be able to use them more wisely, and we should shift the aid in that direction.’”

“I take the position that aid should be stopped until the situation can be turned around,” says Bonnie Holcomb. “More lives can be saved by stopping aid.”

The dilemma creates a compromise that is a chilling reminder of the deal struck between Adolph Eichmann and American Jews during World War II. Suffering a shortage of trucks to ship Jews to the death camps, Eichmann reached an agreement with a number of wealthy Jews in the United States: For every truck they provided him, he would free 100 selected Polish Jews. Assured that they were saving hundreds of lives, they didn’t realize until too late that they actually helped send thousands of other Jews to their deaths.

“That,” says Bonnie Holcomb, “is the moral dilemma that I see [facing] Live Aid and other people who are getting involved in this thing blindly.”

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In London’s West End, Live Aid’s executive director, Penny Jenden, is near exhaustion. After several weeks in Africa, she’s just emerged from an all-day advisory session, sifting through the more than 600 proposals for projects to be funded out of Live Aid’s enormous bankroll.

“We really can’t justify not getting involved,” she says, “so we’re constantly making deals with the devil. But we’re trying to limit our deals and be very careful that the money we have been given and are spending goes directly to the people that need it. If in the long term, that means that it’s in line with the Ethiopian government policy, that is something we can’t afford to weigh our decisions on. Our decisions are based on where the need is.”

The burden of being the conscience of millions is beginning to wear on Jenden. “It might sound glib, but these decisions have taken us a long time to make. And they are our decisions for better or worse,” she says, “So far, we’re confident that we’ve made the right choices. I mean, who can say what we’ll think in ten years time?”

As Jenden speaks, Bob Geldof, Midge Ure, (cowriter of “Do They Know it’s Christmas?”), and others in Live Aid are posing in Sport Aid T-shirts at an athletic track in south London. Meanwhile, it is Jenden who runs the Live Aid operation and wrestles with the difficult choices.

“Aid has always got political ramifications,” she says. “Just as famine has. It’s not just a matter of feeding people and that’s where the story ends.”

Asked what it would take to bring the starvation of millions in Ethiopia to an end, Jenden faces a hard truth and says, “Well, you would either have to be the Ethiopian government or the Russians.”

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Ten miles off Ethiopia’s 620-mile coastline on the Red Sea sits a tiny cluster known as the Dahlak Archipelago, lazy tropical islands in sun-splashed seclusion. The quiet is routinely broken by the movements of heavily armed military ships and the whirring of radar antennas. Workers in jumpsuits rush about constructing an ominous structure — a strategic missile site.

This idyllic setting in the Red Sea has slowly been transformed into the powerful base of operations of the real force behind the Ethiopian government’s war with its own people: the Russians. From here, Russian engineers monitor all activities in the region, poised to put a choke-hold on the vital shipping traffic in the business end of the Suez Canal.

Since their arrival in Ethiopia less than ten years ago, the Russians have turned what U.S. officials claimed would be their “Vietnam of Africa” into a decisive strategic advantage. Today, they have a powerful presence in the Horn of Africa. They’ve provided the Mengistu government with a stockpile of chemical weapons and more than $4 billion worth of heavy arms. There are 5,000 to 8,000 Russian military advisors in Ethiopia. Today, the riverfront capital of Addis Ababa, displaying giant portraits of Lenin, Marx, and Engels high above Revolution Square, has come to be known as “Moscow on the Awash.”

Until 1977, the United States was the superpower doing business with Ethiopia, operating a strategic telecommunications center and enjoying a friendly Red Sea coastline for 25 years. But when the U.S. refused to meet the high demands for military aid by the new government that had toppled Haile Selaisse, the Soviets moved into Ethiopia.

Famine relief in Ethiopia is being largely dictated by foreign policy — the U.S.’s and the Soviet Union’s. All U.S. relief efforts in Ethiopia are coordinated by the National Security Council, and the Reagan Administration does not take well to shoring up a Russian stronghold. A secret White House report dated May 5, 1984, indicates that the Administration was aware of a “disaster situation” in Ethiopia, but chose to keep hands off for political reasons. The Administration accused the Ethiopians of selling what little grain the United States had committed to Ethiopia to the Russians to purchase military supplies. Given a free hand, the Russians have directed Mengistu’s ugly resettlement campaign and charted the strategy for collective farming, something which history has repeatedly shown only works as an effective way of suppressing and dominating a population. According to Terry Norr, who has been a relief worker in Ethiopia for 13 years, “Food is a tool being used by the government” in its war against the rebels. Caught in the middle are the innocent peasant farmers and women and children who are being snatched from their farmlands, separated from their families, forced into the military, or placed on government-run collective farms far from their homes.

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“If you’re going to cock it up, you might as well do it in front of billions of people,” Bob Geldof said at the time of the enormous Live Aid show. Without this sort of brash enthusiasm, the whole thing never would have gotten off the ground. While others clicked their tongues, shook their heads, or even turned off their television sets, Geldof tried to change things. And what he’s done is more than any other single person has attempted in recent memory. Live Aid has brought in more than $100 million and is still raising funds through a myriad of events — Fashion Aid, School-Aid, OnLine Aid (for the computer industry), and last month’s Sport Aid. In addition, Live Aid claims to have generated another $3 billion from governments worldwide, much of these funds slated to feed the hungry in Ethiopia.

But while the picture Geldof saw was one-sided, it had other dimensions. People are dying in Ethiopia because of starvation. But throwing money and food at the problem without consideration of the politics that is keeping people and food apart is inexcusable.

“It’s a dilemma,” says Marty Rogol, executive director of USA for Africa. “We’ve tried to find things that could only be used for humanitarian purposes. Do you know what the problem is? I don’t think there are any answers. There are only hard choices.”

Right now, Live Aid is faced with more than hard choices in the form of proposals by various agencies for a piece of more than $60 million that is allotted for long-term development projects in six African countries, including Ethiopia.

“But,” says Jason Clay, “long-term aid is the scariest kind.”

“You’ve just got to sift through the proposals carefully and try to be a catalyst and throw your money into things that are correct and proper,” advises Terry Norr. “And correctness here is not black and white. Correct in Ethiopia is a value judgment.”

“If the public gets out of [contributing to aid], then the governments can drop it,” says Kevin Jenden, former director of operations for Live Aid. “And if they drop it, it will come back again. And in ten years time, when the famine comes back again, people won’t be able to say, ‘You know, we didn’t know about it,’ because we do know.”

If “correct” in Ethiopia is a value judgment, then the millions of people who have been influenced by Live Aid should be given more than the party line that dollars feed starving people. We should be told the truth. Because if we’re not, and if events in Ethiopia go the way that groups like Cultural Survival and Medicins sans Frontieres are predicting, in ten years we may be saying “You know, we didn’t know about it.”

Dr. Claude Malhuret, director of MSF, is trying to prevent that from happening. Few people have heard of Malhuret because he’s not a worldwide celebrity, but what he says is powerful. He compares Ethiopia today with Nazi Germany in 1938 and Khmer Rouge Kampuchea in 1977. “The situation is so bad,” he says, “that no one should collaborate. We must denounce it.”

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In late January and February 1986, Bob Geldof was busy. Lunching with French president Francois Mitterand to discuss new programs for aid to Africa, planning the massive Sport Aid for late May, and pushing School Aid — his program to present young kids a simple picture of the story in Africa. Geldof seems to be working tirelessly and imaginatively to raise more dollars, but he must know by now the dark currency they will become in Ethiopia.

On the evening of March 8, in the northern Ethiopian village of Alamata, workers for World Vision, one of the primary recipients of Live Aid assistance, had just finished dinner in their compound. A pack of Tigrean rebels burst in, forcing the workers to the floor, ransacked the offices and mess hall, and as they began backing out, lowered their guns and fired. Several relief workers were wounded, and a young nutrition assistant and a nurse were killed.

Part of School Aid is a package that school children receive which tells them about the causes of famine, the world’s interdependence, and how the future will be brighter for the children of Africa. It doesn’t tell them about the war. It doesn’t tell them about the thousands who die on the resettlement trails. It doesn’t tell them about the young nutrition assistant and the nurse.

It doesn’t tell them the truth.