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Tigrean lady terracing. Photo © Neil Cooper.

Terracing the land in Tigray - Neil Cooper, 1990

1 May 2015

This woman is terracing land to prevent soil erosion. I photographed her in Tigray, Ethiopia while documenting a food-for-work scheme funded by a number of UK charities.

During the civil war, which lasted from 1974 to 1991, the Mengistu regime tried to starve the north of Ethiopia into submission by banning food aid coming in from the capital Addis Ababa. So the western charities shipped the aid to Port Sudan then transported it overland into Tigray, northern Ethiopia.

In the final months of the war, as the Tigrayan Peoples' Liberation Front gained the upper hand, I travelled to Tigray from the Sudan with a food relief convoy of 52 trucks. The convoy moved at night to avoid air attack from government fighter planes. My job included driving on some of the scariest roads in Africa in an ageing 110 Land Rover, which, for safety's sake, was stuck between two trucks for the entire three-day journey.

At day break the convoy stopped at 'truck parks' cut into the hillsides to avoid detection from the air. Whilst we ate and slept in camouflaged tents, mechanics and engineers serviced any ailing vehicles in underground garages. Sadly I was not able to photograph much of the journey in case we were captured and details of the route and stopovers were revealed.

In four weeks in Tigray I documented the work of HelpAge International, Save the Children UK and a local NGO, the Relief Society of Tigray. That work can be seen on the web site of the Social Documentary Network.

When Mengitsu fell the Federal Democratic Republic was formed and I was able to return on a number of occasions to photograph the new Ethiopia in slightly less dangerous circumstances.

Neil Cooper was senior photographic technician at Exeter University before being invited to design and run the photographic department at Dartington College of Art. In 1982 he used photographs taken during a two year world trip to secure commissions from a number of UK aid agencies, which, over the next 20 years, sent him to Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. He was also a frequent visiting lecturer at Plymouth College of Art & Design. Over the years several degree students accompanied Neil on his working trips to Nepal, Bangladesh and Central America as part of their work experience. He presently enjoys semi-retirement in Devon and Andalusia.

See more work by Neil Cooper

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