Ethiopian women are leading the struggle against tyranny

by Kinijit Ethiopia Women's Affairs correspondent Rachel Lewis
A woman in her twenties walks on a muddy path sporadically speckled with red sand and reaches her destination. The way she respires betrays excitement. She wears black gown and carries a cake, giftwrapped with greaseproof paper and ribbons. A group of people follows her, their faces knotted with utter exhilaration.
It is Lidya's graduation day and family members have gathered to celebrate the achievements of their beloved daughter, niece and sister. There is food, and smiles and laughter all around. As her mother looks on, beaming tearfully with pride, the new graduate excitedly discusses her plans for the future amidst the well-meaning interjections of her gathered relatives and friends. This scene should ring familiar to anyone who has ever attended a graduation celebration. What makes this a rather unique and remarkable celebration is that it is being held in Kaliti Federal Prison in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, during the strict one-hour visitation period allotted the nation’s political prisoners.
Kaliti prison is a collection of wide hovels made of corrugated iron and concrete. The celebration is taking place at the stand where prisoners meet their relatives during the visitation hours. It is unbearably hot by the sweltering midday sun, which followed the morning drizzle. There are no decorations and music is prohibited, though a few defiant relatives absently hum quiet refrains, while wild mice scurry underfoot in fierce competition for the leftover crumbs of the modest graduation feast. In a few moments time, the ‘10-minute warning’ will be announced by the head guard over a crackling loud-speaker and the celebrations will immediately come to a close—dishes and leftovers are hurriedly stuffed back into bags, goodbyes exchanged, and palms pressed. Mother and daughter stand face to face, in a final private moment—the mother bravely smiles, her repeated congratulations punctuated by the sobs that rack her small frame, while the daughter nods and whispers words of comfort as she turns to leave, masking the pain of goodbye with a maturity far beyond her years.
The unexpected festivities came as a wonderful surprise to federal prisoner Nigist Gebrehiwot, 48, who was unable to attend the graduation ceremony of her only daughter in July 2006. This high school arts teacher and mother of three remains one of the political prisoners who languish here, arrested in November 2005 during the sweeping government crackdown following ast year’s contested elections. For thirteen months she has been confined to a cell occupied by 70 other women, accused of treason and ‘attempts to incite genocide’—charges which, if upheld, carry sentences of life-imprisonment and even the death penalty. The human-rights organization Amnesty International calls Nigist and fellow treason defendants “prisoners of conscience...imprisoned solely on account of their non-violent opinions and activities”. Yet they continue to await sentencing in a political trial widely condemned for its ‘failure to observe internationally recognized standards of fair trial before impartial and independent judges.’
Nigist is one of the less known figures among the defendants. However, when she speaks she is startlingly eloquent, passionate and packages her messages with a gloss of romantic optimism. "We have seen how passionate people are about their freedom. They (the government) could not force us to live long like this,“ she says with a defiant note to her sound. The trial is great mockery of justice for her. "There is no evidence against us,” Nigist states simply. “We campaigned and won the election according to the law of the country. We didn’t try to oust the government unconstitutionally. We didn’t even ask the government to step down though we knew we won the election. We (instead) raised issues of building democratic institutions; to make sure that what happened in the election of last year would not be repeated…So the trial is political. They (the government) arrested us because the people were with us, and they wanted to keep power at any cost for many, many years to come.”A passionate defender of individual rights, Nigist was one of the founders of Ethiopian Human Rights Council, the first national institution dedicated to investigating and documenting abuses of individual rights. EHRCO was dismissed by EPRDF as tool for the opposition and treated as an enemy. Nigist learnt her lessons. She jettisoned her view that change can come without political struggle and jumped to the frying pan that is Ethiopian politics.
In August 2004, she became one of the first registered members of the Kestedemena opposition party, a member of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, Ethiopia's biggest political party. As a paid party organizer, She went on to play an integral role in designing election strategy with Dr. Berhanu Nega and, three months after the elections, was voted to the Central Council of CUDP.Daily life for this politician has since grown uncomfortably stagnant within the prison confines, and the anguish of being removed from her family continues to wear upon her and the children. Following the death of her husband, Negist assumed the responsibility of sole breadwinner and her lengthy detention has placed the family under great financial strain. The mental health of her two sons has signficantly deteriorated over the past year and she is forced to continually worry about their condition. “My imprisonment is a big cost for my boys,” she explains. “They are having a hard time taking the injustice. But my daughter is now a mother, and she is getting stronger and stronger every day.”Nearby, a woman dressed in caramel-colored coat talks with her mother in Tigrigna. Her cheer exhibits a deliberate attempt to defy her sad reality. Living in the same overcrowded cell as Nigist, this young mother struggles with the agony of being separated from her only child. Serkalem Fasil, 32, journalist and former owner of three prominent independent national newspapers, has also been imprisoned here for over a year without charge.

Prison baby
At four months pregnant, she was arrested along with her husband, journalist Eskinder Nega, for publishing materials severely critical of the government. On Tuesday, November 1 2005, their offices were searched and the next day security forces were dispatched to arrest the couple in their home. Upon arrival, they discovered that the pair had already escaped and gone into hiding. Instead, her mother was taken hostage and held in custody for five days while the pictures of the couple were broadcast on national television, accompanied by a public arrest warrant and a statement denouncing them as dangerous criminals. For three weeks they remained in hiding, during which time her closest brother was arrested and then released, only to inadvertently lead government agents who were assigned to track down the ‘fugitives’ to their hiding spot.
In the months that followed, Serkalem endured a difficult pregnancy within the Squalid conditions of her cell—forced to cope alone with the wildly fluctuating temperatures of the tropics and frequent prison outbreaks of lice and infectiousdisease. Despite such hardship, she continued to display remarkable courage, regularly appearing in court with her head held high, rising with the other defendants at the bench when requested even during the final stages of her third trimester. According to Amnesty reports, she was denied sufficient medical and pre-natal care throughout the pregnancy, and eventually gave birth to her son in the undesirable conditions of the police hospital under 24-hour official guard.
What should have been one of the most joyous occasions in this new mother’s life—that special bonding period that initially occurs between a mother and her child--was quickly cut short; following the birth, she was permitted to remain in the hospital with her son for only two weeks before he was removed from her care and placed with relatives. Consequently, the baby became seriously ill in the premature absence of conjugal feeding and Serkalem soon fell into a deep depression, unable to bear the separation from her husband and newborn child.
Though her spirits have since lifted, the imprisoned journalist deeply regrets being denied the opportunity to care for her son during the earliest months of his life--forced instead to determine his characteristics, behavior, sounds and developments from fleeting visits, the reports of relatives and her imagination.
The circumstances facing these two women seem impossibly unjust. Yet reports after reports have concluded that theirs is a story that has become increasingly common throughout this Sub-Saharan nation—and exist among thousands of others similarly persecuted by the current regime.
According to recent global governance indicators, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), under the leadership of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, ranks among the most corrupt in the world—internationally condemned for escalating government-led human rights abuses and ongoing suppression of legitimate political activities. Following the widely disputed elections of last year, the government launched a massive campaign against freedom of expression--banning all independent media and expelling a foreign correspondent from the country. During demonstrations in both June and November 2005, police opened fire on the unarmed protesters, killing over 193 men, women and children and wounding hundreds more. An estimated 30, 000 citizens were subsequently rounded up and imprisoned throughout the country—scholars, professors, civil service workers, students, prominent social leaders and the majority of the CUDP leadership.
Despite such widespread oppression, the peaceful internal struggle for democracy continues, led, in part, by a growing number of women—mothers, grandmothers, lawyers, teachers, journalists, doctors, members of civil society and political leaders—determined to pave the way of freedom for the generations to come.
One such prominent leader is Bertukan Mideska, 32, the young and charismatic former federal judge and Kinijit Vice-Chairperson arrested and imprisoned in November 2005. At age 25, she was one of the youngest women in Ethiopian history to run for Parliament. She ran independently with anti-corruption platform. Election observers claimed that the ruling party cheated her out of winning.
Birtukan rose to national prominence as a judge presiding over a high-profile case between Meles Zenawi and the former Minister of Defense (on trial for ‘corruption’, following the TPLF split). In an unprecedented act of defiance, she released the defendant on bail, citing lack of sufficient evidence to deny him bail despite being strictly ordered by the Prime Minister to do so. The news of the courageous young woman who dared to uphold the independence of the law, quickly spread throughout the country and Bertukan immediately became a national role model and hero. Today, however, this energetic woman remains confined in Kaliti prison, held captive with dozens of violent criminals in a single, crowded cell. It is here that she too has spent the past year of her life, forced for now from the political arena. Although the current national crisis continues to occupy her attention, she, as of late, has been increasingly plagued by mounting personal concerns. As the sole-breadwinner and primary care-giver of her elderly mother, half-sister and young daughter, Bertukan continually worries about their provision in her absence. Her family is now surviving on the dwindling sum of money she saved prior to her imprisonment and though currently also assisted by the generosity of neighbors friends and CUDP supporters in the Diaspora and here, her mother is fearful, confiding, “When her savings run out, I don’t know what we’ll do.”
In addition to worrying about their financial security, Bertukan finds being apart from her daughter increasingly difficult now, as each day serves to deprive her of another precious memory of her childhood. The little girl is brought to the prison during the designated visiting hour every Sunday afternoon and appears to recognize the woman behind bars, but her grandmother quietly admits that the child “does not know her mother anymore”.
Lawyer's treasury
For a brief political career, Bertukan’s contributions have proven incredibly significant. As a result of her historical verdict as federal judge in April 2002, she was repeatedly passed over for promotion, and consequently decided to move into private law practice, where her services became instantly in high demand. As an accomplished criminal lawyer, she reportedly took on many cases ‘pro-bono’during this period, much to the chagrin of her colleagues. Following last year’s elections, she volunteered her services to represent the official opposition and, due to her skill and dedication, was soon invited to join the party. Almost immediately, she was promoted to Member of the Executive Committee of the coalition Rainbow Party and in September 2005 was elected as the Vice-Chairperson of the CUDP.
Bertukan is widely recognized for her social awareness, bravery, compassion, personal work-ethic, and exemplary leadership style—strictly principled yet gently compromising. This unique blend of characteristics lead to a tremendous regard and love for her within the community, evidenced most clearly by the monumental sacrifices made on her behalf in attempt to protect her from arrest. When police first arrived at her family home in the Ferensai Legacion area of the city, neighbors quickly surrounded her residence in protest. “Almost immediately….our neighbors came to protect Bertukan”, her mother recounted, “they threw stones at the soldiers…trying to chase them away”. She was nonetheless arrested in another place that afternoon along with CUDP leader and renowned human-rights advocate Professor Mesfin Woldemariam.
When security forces returned the next day with Bertukan in custody to search the premises of her home, they found hundreds of people gathered there, demanding her immediate release. Fierce clashes broke out between the policemen and the protestors, amidst chants of praise for the Ethiopian heroine, and five people were killed by police-fire before (to prevent further bloodshed) Bertukan finally convinced her supporters to allow her to go to prison.
Although daily life spent among criminals remains, admittedly, a “great personal challenge”, such overwhelming national love and sacrifice has remained with Bertukan throughout her confinement. As a “firm believer in the human spirit”, she remains determined not to let the ongoing conflicts regularly witnessed between inmates diminish her enthusiasm for her fellow brothers and sisters, constantly reminding herself “that there is a better world out there, with better human beings”. According to close friends, she chooses to spend most of her time reading her favorite subjects of politics, religion and philosophy, and, despite repeated threats from prison administration (including permanent handcuffs and solitary confinement), has managed to smuggle out two open letters penned from her cell, which were subsequently published in various online international media sources. The first, Letter From Kaliti jail, was written in the spirit of Martin Luther King's famous Letter from Birmingham Jail. It was an eloquent portrayal of her personal experience and unwavering commitment to the nation’s quest for democratic rule; in it she reveals,“…
Indeed, living behind bar is painful. I have felt pained, when hearing about the struggle of my fellow countrymen; for being forced to experience it all vicariously, for being near but far away from the terrain of the fight. Yet the pain ends right there. Our incarceration hasn't liquidated the spirit of freedom. Instead, it degrades those who are fighting against it into something hateful and undignified... Toughened by the crack down on dissent and other forms of oppression, other democrats, genuinely committed to the cause of liberty and equality are emerging… Thinking of that, even within the confinement of my cell, is a pleasant captivity.”
Taking rights seriously
“Tough” seems an unlikely adjective to describe the soft-spoken, 52-year-old Mulunesh Abebayehu—former school-teacher and mother of five. Yet even after enduring seven months in federal prison without charge, and ongoing government surveillance that has left her fearing for her life, this resilient woman refuses to back down from her role in the nation-wide quest for freedom. She is but another unlikely hero of Ethiopia’s peaceful political struggle—mother, breadwinner, opposition party member and ongoing victim of government persecution, who continues to sacrifice much in hopes of democratic transition. As one who grew up in a generation where politics was exclusively considered a “man’s business”, Mulunesh Abebeyhu serves as a shining testament to this country’s changing circumstances. Despite increasing harassment and the recent denial of asylum abroad, she continues to speak candidly with international human rights workers and foreign journalists at every opportunity--a rare demonstration of courage in a land where such freedom of expression is ‘unofficially’ punishable by death. When asked to explain the reason for her continued pursuit of democracy, her answer is straightforward: “I love my country. And I follow its history. The constitution says that every person can enjoy and participate in politics, so if they pronounce rights on paper, why don’t they respect them?”
Three months after the elections, Mulunesh was arrested and incarcerated in Ziway Federal Prison (widely-considered a concentration camp)--accused of slander and various acts of civil disobedience. She was forced to inhabit a cell with 86 other women. During her confinement, she witnessed the torture of several prisoners and was herself physically abused on two occasions, in addition to being repeatedly punished in solitary confinement. With a shudder she recalls her days in captivity, telling of the rats that regularly bit the feet of the women as they slept, and the foul prison food she was forced to consume: “They gave us water, shiro wot (a type of stew) and injera (traditional bread)…but the injera had small stones in it, so you often could not eat it…Even the Red Cross worker who tasted the bread…could not eat it!” After being imprisoned for more than half a year without trial (in three different locations), Mulenesh finally decided to take measures into her own hands, and embarked on a five-day personal hunger strike, which left her critically ill. She was taken to the police hospital where she spent two days before she was summoned and released without charge—carrying a signed letter from the Ministry of Justice which bore the ominous warning that she could again be arrested and detained “at any time”.
Upon release, she discovered that she had been demoted without explanation from her former teaching position of over 30 years (as an eigth-grade civics teacher) to a grade four classroom and transferred to a district far from her home. Working conditions soon became impossible for her to bear; the school director allegedly followed her “step by step” throughout the day for months and she was severely ostracized by the entire staff due to her political affiliations. One man was reportedly beaten by police for simply speaking with her. She was finally left with no option but to retire, and now faces the daunting task of supporting her family on a pension of less than half her former salary. Her husband is also retired, unable to work due to health problems, and Mulunesh is worried that she will be unable to feed her youngest daughter (an orphan she took into her home a decade ago) and continue to send her to school.
Mulunesh is, doubtless, happy to be released from of prison. Nevertheless, she continues to face severe harassment on a regular basis, and has consequently chosen to live under self-imposed house arrest. She most regrets the toll that her political opinions have taken on her family. Most of her relatives now want nothing to do with her, and her children have fled the family home, fearing that police forces will return during the night to tear their family apart for a second time.
In speaking of the further struggle that inevitably lies ahead, her voice drops to barely above a whisper, “As I look at things now,” she explains, “democracy will not come soon to Ethiopia. It may take one century. The Derg professed democracy without implementing it. We have also seen no real change since this government came to power…I know democracy, but it does not work in practice here. Sometimes I fear that my children and even my children’s children will not see it.” Mulunesh's uncertain future hasn't changed her unwavering commitment. “What more can happen?” she reasons. “They already took me to prison…but I am still here talking face to face. I am not afraid for myself…but I want to save my children...I fear that my politics is a risk to them.”
Women raise the mantle of freedom
The lives of these women—Negist, Serkalim, Bertukan, and Mulunesh--who dared to envison a country where infants are no longer torn from their mother’s grasp and individual rights and freedoms are upheld, stand testament to the vital,but often forgotten, role occupied by the brave women behind Ethiopia’s current political struggle.
Being born a woman in the Horn of Africa is sadly often considered to be a curse. Throughout this populous, poverty-stricken region, women traditionally assume the majority of hard labor in addition to raising the children. Despite often serving as the sole provider for the family, spousal abuse is common and gender mutilation is still widely practiced in many countries. Modern Ethiopia is no exception. In the rural regions of this country, girls are continually discriminated against from birth, often denied educational opportunities (and thus desirable future employment) and forced into early “marriages of convenience”.
In recent years, however, this country has seen a tentative, gradual reversal of such conditions, beginning in the streets and homes of Addis, as many women now occupy positions in civil service, law, business and politics. Prior to the elections, women of all ages reportedly flocked from rural areas to attend organized “voter education seminars”, and later stood in queues for hours under the hot sun merely for the chance to vote. These women clearly demonstrate that the national struggle for democracy can no longer be considered the ‘existential struggle of an educated upper class’; stories of illiterate female household servants who stood alone all night guarding the ballot bags from potential vote-rigging are common, and thousands of women throughout the country have since followed their example, sacrificing their families, careers and even their lives for the cause.
Either directly, (as in the case of these four women) or otherwise through continued struggle for survival in the absence of husbands imprisoned or murdered by government forces, countless Ethiopian women have risen up from their traditional roles and ascribed social positions to strengthen and fuel the growing movement for democracy. Almost every household has a story of persecution and similarly unexpected bravery to tell—a poor and elderly mother who daily struggles to make the journey to federal prison to feed her son, the bright young woman left behind to juggle a career and raise her children alone, or the middle-aged mother struggling to learn a new craft after being suddenly forced to generate enough income to support her entire family. These are stories to behold and be told.

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