The Ethiopian famine gained global recognition in October 1983 when a report filmed by Mohamed Amin (then Visnews’ Africa Bureau Chief) and filed by Michael Buerk of the BBC was screened on the Nine O’Clock News. Up to that point, despite repeated warnings, detailed official accounts, a Disasters Emergency Committee’ appeal and various news reports failed to move the famine to centre stage. It was judged to be marginal and largely ‘unnewsworthy’.
Buerk went to Ethiopia in July of 1983 to report on the emergency committee’s appeal and only filmed in southern Ethiopia, which was comparatively lush and suffering to a lesser degree. However, in October 1983, Amin and Buerk focused on the northern towns of Korem and Makelle, the epicentres of the famine. They were unprepared for the scale of the human distress they encountered, and their profound state of shock was palpable in Buerk’s solemn tones broadcast the BBC’s evening news of 23 October 1984:
Dawn. as the sun breaks through the piercing chill of night on the plain outside Korem. it lights up a biblical famine, now, in the 20th century. This place, sax’ workers here, is the closest thing to hell on earth. Thousands of wasted people are coming here for help. Many find only death… Death is all around … Korem, an insignificant town, has become a place of grief.
These words would achieve legendary status; the footage was said to have moved usually stoic newsrooms to tears and prompted donations from habitually hardened news staff. It was carried by 425 of the world’s major broadcasting agencies; in Britain, Oxfam’s switchboards were jammed for three days. Even the tabloids such as The Sun joined in a two-inch headline “Race to Save the Babies” (28 October 1983).
Fuelled by popular support, an enormous aid operation ensued; pop star Bob Geldof responded by recording “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, a single that sought to ‘save the world at Christmas time’, under the name ‘Band Aid’. It culminated in the legendary Live Aid Concert of July 1985, which was staged simultaneously at Wembley Arena and the MK Stadium in Philadelphia. Sixteen hours long, it was beamed via 13 satellites to 120 nations and to an estimated 1.6 billion people, a third of the world’s population. The “biggest philanthropic music concert in history” raised £144 million world wide.