Few of them, unloading from tour buses today, know that less then three years ago these bustling streets were stained with the blood of murdered citizens who had flooded into the center of Ethiopia’s capital city to protest the contested re-election of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
“People were pissed off,” says Eskinder Nega, who was a columnist and publisher for several Ethiopian newspapers during the 2005 protests. “It was the first time we really had hope, and when the elections were stolen, people were angry. … It wasn’t planned — people just started pouring into the streets,” Nega said.
The government reaction was swift. According to Amnesty International, 187 civilians were killed during those demonstrations and thousands of others arrested.
Protesters, mostly young people and students, fell in the streets of the Merkato with bullets through their hearts and foreheads, a detail that led many to believe they were purposefully killed by specially trained military snipers, not regular riot police.
Ethiopian publications and journalists that covered these events, especially those that focused on mounting human rights abuses, didn’t escape the wrath of the government either. At least 14 journalists, editors and publishers were arrested and all private newspapers that criticized government actions during or after the elections were shut down.
When they first saw their photos on the news, Nega and his wife, Serkalem Fasil, went underground. They were in hiding for almost a month until the authorities finally caught up with them in the fall of 2005. For Fasil, who was one month pregnant at the time, it was her first trip to jail for journalism deemed seditious by the Ethiopian government. It would be Nega’s seventh.
THE TORTURE CHAMBER
The police were angry when they first captured the couple, explains Nega, sitting in an airy cafe in
Nega recalls even harsher treatment during a previous stint as a political prisoner in Ethiopia.
“I was in an isolation cell at that time. They came for me in the middle of the night,” Nega recalls, calmly explaining how one night he was blindfolded and dragged by his armpits into another room he can only refer to as the “torture chamber.”
“They flip you over onto your back with your feet in the air, and then hit you on the bottom of your feet, and everywhere with an electrical cord. I couldn’t move for weeks afterward.”
Nega’s story echoes accounts of intimidation, arrests and beatings recounted by journalists in many parts of the world. Alarmingly, these accounts of iron-fisted censorship emerge not only from the notoriously repressive regimes that often make the news such as
The “War on Terror” has allowed
These countries linger in the great swath of gray ignored by the black and white rhetoric of the “War on Terror”; leaders here are often seen as strategic to the Western world in ways that allow for a blurring of democratic expectations. A kind of collective squinting obscures some of the brutal realities that threaten to muddy the path on the way to larger strategic goals.
DEMOCRATIC DREAMS DASHED
“I want a democratic country for
When the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), led by current Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, drove out the Derg in 1991, Nega returned armed with democratic values he says he picked up in the
“[Before the 2005 elections] we had press freedom not because the ruling party wanted it, but because we paid the sacrifice” says Nega, referencing his previous stints in prison as well as those served by scores of fellow Ethiopian journalists. Those who dared to ask for more from their government, using the press to push for reforms, representation and accountability, or even tried to amuse readers by poking fun of their leaders in political cartoons, would often receive a late-night visit from the police.
Over the course of seven years Faisal and Nega owned three different Amharic-language papers all of which were criticized for having an “anti-government bias” and later even inciting violence. Nega rebuffs these claims, saying their papers were independent, having no association with specific opposition parties, and that they attacked the government primarily for its human rights record, which he insists is a nonpartisan issue.
But any illusions Nega might have still held that his country was on a rocky but progressive march toward democracy were shattered after the 2005 elections.
With political alliances and development aid from Western countries on the rise, the Ethiopian government was under pressure to produce internationally-endorsed election results. Ninety percent of registered voters in the country showed up eagerly at the polls in May 2005 — but how they actually voted is still a matter of contention.
When early returns indicated a surprising amount of support for the opposition, the vote counting was disrupted and eventually the ruling party declared itself the victor. Angry voters responded in two waves of protests that shook
As the blood of protesters was spilled in the streets of Addis, and many of their colleagues were swept up in mass arrests, Nega and Fasil knew this wasn’t just another routine round of political intimidation.
They hid, watching their photographs flash on the government TV station as charges of genocide and high treason were leveled against them. In fear for their lives, they tried to flee to
As horrified as Nega was with the actions of his own government, his disillusionment was only deepened by the reinforcement the EPRDF received from the leaders of a country he’d admired for so long.While the European Union decried widespread irregularities in the 2005 elections and condemned violence and arrests, The Carter Center (officially representing the
As Nega and Fasil sat in prison over the next 17 months,
PROXY WAR IN
The rise of the “War on Terror” has turned a nation of 77 million people defined in the West by poverty and famine into a powerful military force strategically situated in the tumultuous Horn of Africa. While
When Islamist judges in neighboring
For the United Sates, still smarting from its military misadventure in
Even with alleged support from
Meanwhile, Ethiopian troops have also had their hands full on the other side of the border in the Somali region of their own country. Last April rebels from the Ogaden National Liberation Front attacked Chinese oil workers who were doing exploratory drilling in the region. In the ensuing military crackdown, Ethiopian forces have been accused of war crimes, including killing and raping civilians and burning villages thought to sympathize with the rebels.
But on the streets of Addis, it’s hard to imagine you’re in a country in the midst of two wars (and possibly on the verge of a third with neighboring
A COUNTRY GRIPPED BY FEAR
But if Prime Minister Zenawi has been able to hide the realities of
Most attempts to engage Ethiopians in political conversations are rebuffed. The few willing to talk, such as a taxi driver who had been arrested during the 2005 protests or a young businessman trying to make enough money to start a family, did so only on repeated promises of complete anonymity.
Even once anonymity was guaranteed, their trepidation was palpable. In one case a young man reached for this reporter’s camera with shaking hands asking for reassurance that his picture had not been taken.
One of the elements most confounding to reporting on, or even just talking about, political issues in Ethiopia is determining how far the government’s reach really is into the private lives of citizens who disagree with its actions.
It’s unlikely that the government actually has the capacity to check up on random dissenting opinions, but, regardless, the effect is the same. Images of students shot dead in the streets and mass arrests have stifled political opposition in the population.
As one frustrated citizen admitted, “I don’t care for politics, politics is for only a few people in
For Nega’s part, he says he still believes the
Still, he comes across as calmly disappointed with the political maneuvering that resulted in the double betrayal of being imprisoned by the country of his birth and overlooked by the country that nurtured his belief in democracy.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in
In the meantime Nega remains hopeful and sees signs that suggest the tide may be turning in
Nega and Fasil’s tenacity stand in stark contrast to the disillusionment that hangs in the cool air of
To hear Nega tell it, speaking loudly in a café on Addis’ busy
“Democracy is the destiny of all humans,” he smiles “That’s why I’m still here.”
Funding for this article provided by the
Photo by Alex Stonehill