Friday, December 29

"And now they are taking our children..."

On the weekend I ran into a friend whom I haven’t seen in a couple of months. After chatting for a few moments I asked about her family. Her face immediately clouded over and her voice was barely audible: “The boys…are gone.”

“Gone?” I repeated in amazement. “What do you mean gone?”

She explained that they had recently left the family home and gone into hiding, fearing that they would also be rounded up and sent to war. “Sometimes, you know, they still come around during the days…but never for the nights. Most of the boys in the neighborhood have fled now. There is no one left.”

“Before this thing used to be only in the rural areas, but now they have come to Addis,” she continued angrily. “And for what? Tell me! Haven’t they already done enough to us here? Nobody wants this war! Nobody!”

Her voice trembled, as she looked at the ground.

“And now they are taking our children…”

(For more of what they are doing to Ethiopia's children, check out the latest post from Ethio-Zagol if you haven't already done so...)

Tuesday, December 26

Mass Arrests on Christmas Day

Last night police swarmed the streets of Addis in attempt to broaden the mass arrest efforts already underway.

In addition to the thousands of youths reportedly detained over the weekend, those even remotely connected to the opposition CUD are being systematically rounded up and detained for 'questioning'--thanks to a circulating 'official list' of names and license plate numbers of alleged party supporters.

It is assumed that this action is intended as a preventative measure in light of growing internal opposition to the war following the recent air strikes in Somalia.

People are advised to remain in their homes after dark.

Monday, December 25

Hurray for Stephanie McCrummen!

Hurray! It’s time to celebrate, for it seems that a member of the international press has finally got it right!
I must admit, after last week’s interview with the Prime Minister, I had all but lost faith in the Washing ton Post (who once classified Meles among the world’s worst dictators). Kudos to Stephanie for taking the time to truly understand and represent the political situation here and hats off to the bravery of Mulunesh and Nemera for sharing their stories and giving voice to so many!

“The times, they are a ‘changin’….”

Wednesday, December 20

In response to the Interview With Meles Zenawi

For almost a week now I have been trying to make peace with the interview given by Meles Zenawi to a reporter from the Washington Post. I have re-read it several times, alternately cursed and laughed, yet each time I pass the pages lying on my coffee table it makes my blood boil.

I just can’t seem to digest the dispicable irony of this man publicly claiming support for the transitional government of Somalia (TGS) solely on the grounds that “it represents all the clans in Somalia” (as reported in the Ethiopian Herald, July 2006)—a bold claim from a dictator whose entire leadership has been fashioned from the divide-and-rule tactics of a minotrity clique!

There has not, as of yet, been significant evidence to suggest that the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) intends to establish Taliban-style rule and the threats of “jihadist attack’ on Ethiopian soil remain greatly exaggerated--despite his cunning attempts to ridicule the “intelligent people in the 21st century” who correctly assume that unprovoked invasion could eventually push the Courts (10 out of 15 of which are currently considered moderate) to retreat into extremism, resorting to terrorist methods in response to the unprovoked attacks.

You want to discuss a truly “interesting and very suprising” argument? How about the illogical claim that “the group has clearly demonstrated ….that it is prepared to use dialogue to facilitate military takeover” ! What does that even mean? …If they use violence, they are terrorists; if they opt for peaceful dialogue, they somehow become even more dangerous terrorists? Come on, man—you can do better than that!

I’ll tell you what’s worse than “fecklessness in the face of a challenge”…How about a militant leader interefering in the internal affairs of a neighboring country (that has finally, according to international reports, ‘admittedly’ experienced a level of stability and security under the UIC unprecedented for over a decade) to appease Western powers that seem “less than pleased’ over recent reports of internal human rights abuses? What about a cruel tyrant, systematically oppressing his own people and driving the country towards irrepairable economic ruin? Or how about a dictator recently implicated in the murder of hundreds of innocent civilians, calmly discussing the ‘elements of a terroist regime’?

I can just imagine the expression on his face as he dodged the questions of democracy—most likely a carefully concocted mixture of humility and definance , head bowed “just enough” in shame to underline the fact that he too has, indeed, made some mistakes in the “process of democratization”. Perhaps he even chuckled amicably when he uneccessarily reminded (threatened?) us that he is “not certifed dead yet”, and therefore “still learning”…?

I can barely even address his final comments—I am already spitting mad!!(…again) If there is “no such fear’”here, why are students being shot in the streets and
increasingly rounded up and forced into military service or imprisoned ‘just in case’? Why do national bloggers receive death threats on a daily basis for merely reporting events that would otherwise be covered by a free and independent media body? Why were thousands of soldiers brought in to surround Meskel square during the celebrations, if it was not exactly to inspire such fear and trembling? Why does everyone now fall unnaturally silent when the opposition song is played in bars and street cafes? Why have the fingers and arms of children been broken in punishment for a simple hand gesture that has now become illegal? Tell me why, in this country, are the prisons overflowing and the cupboards bare?

Perhaps you, Mr. Prime Minister, are not afraid (though your frequent fainting bouts seem to suggest that oppressing millions of people on a daily basis is more stressful than it appears!) but I know I have already taken to lowering my voice in public, limiting my phone calls, and quickly moving on when someone seems just a little ‘too interested’ in the contents of my computer screen…

Tuesday, December 19

In the Name of...Justice?

Amidst reports of war and attempted negotiation with the political prisoners, life in Ethiopia is becoming far more confusing for this ferenj!

It seems that everyone has a different opinion regarding the outcome of the political trial these days, as the next court session (February 19, 2007) draws closer by the day. Some say that Meles must be under pressure from the international community to release the prisoners immediately, while others argue that the Americans need them to remain behind bars in order to successfully wage this proxy “War on Terror”. There are also those who suggest that, due to mounting civil dissent, the Prime Minister is left with no choice but to release the leaders (in hopes of rallying support for the war and preventing armed struggle); still others insist it cannot be that simple—and fear this dictator has something far more sinister up his sleeve.

Regardless, should the trial actually reach February’s scheduled hearing, a handful of men will be of particular interest; as much has already been disclosed about head Prosecutor Shemiels Kemal by far more competant bloggers here, I will stick with the three High Court Judges--Mohammad Abdulsani, Leul Gebremariam and Adil Ahmed.

Judge Mohammad seems to have the least suspicious CV of the three and is generally considered apolitical. Currently in is his late-30s, he graduated in law from the Civil Service College in Addis Ababa and practiced as a prosecutor in the SNNPR region for years before being appointed as a federal high court judge.

Judge Leul, the eldest of the three, is a law graduate from he night school program at Addis Ababa Univeristy (which, by the way, awards diplomas, not degrees) and began working immediately as a prosecutor for the Ministry of Justice. Within this instiution he quickly developed a reputation as the ‘right-hand-man’ of the EPRDF, and though he remained “officially” outside the heirarchy of civil service, he was able to control and direct operations (even ‘influencing’ the Minister himself!) due to his known government affiliation. During the 2000 election, he publicly campaigned for the EPRDF and was later controversially appointed as a judge on the Second Criminal Division of the Federal High Court (the bench where political hearings are usually conducted. Strangely, this judge is also known for carrying his personal gun with him to every court sesssion!)

The young Judge Adil, originally from the Harari region, also attended The Civil Service College. (It is important to note that during his time of study, the national education system was such that upon failure of the high-school national exam, entrance to public universities or colleges was denied--leaving the option of attending either a private college or The Civil Service College (widely-considered a pro-EPRDF, ‘cadre-development’ centre). Here he studied law and was appointed as a judge at the Harari Region High Court immediately upon graduation. Then (somewhat ‘miraculously’, considering his academic record!) he received a scholarship from the British Council to study at the esteemed Essex University, where he received his Masters degree in Human Rights Law (*%#&!!!!). After returning from study, he was named President of the Harari Region Supreme Court, and was later appointed President of the Federal High Court (after the former president left for study abroad).

Such dubious credentials clearly speak for themselves and so, it seems, no further comment is needed today. Ciao!

Monday, December 18

The Process

If there is one thing I have learned living in Ethiopia, it is that everything, apparently, is a “process”!

From trying to obtain a driving permit, to Vickie Huddleston’s patronizing assessment of democracy, it seems there are as many “Ministries” and “appropriate channels” in Addis as there are taxis!

Last week I went to inquire on behalf of some generous private donors interested in starting up a small, non-profit school in an undeveloped kebele. (Who knew it is also an entirely separate “process”, just to begin the “process” itself! The civil service sector really has outdone themselves on this one, in my opinion…)

My first mistake, in retrospect, must have been to start out at the most logical place of all --the Ministry of Education. After waiting about 20 minutes in 3 separate lines, I was finally directed “around the back and up maybe 3 or 4 floors” to an office, where I was informed that they had absolutely no idea where I should direct my inquiries. I was then sent to 2 more offices, where I again repeated my questions to no avail, and was eventually directed to an entirely different regional bureau in another part of town.

Finding the place (no small feat in itself!) gave me a renewed sense of purpose, and I marched into the first office, confident they would provide the information requested by my Western friends.

The secretary looked me up and down and immediately went back to her typing—treatment admittedly unusual for a ferenji in Addis--“especially one who is acting as an ambassador of goodwill,” or so I impatiently told myself. Finally, after 15 minutes or so, she directed me across the courtyard—to the first of the 4 offices that would consume the rest of my day.

I literally went back and forth between these offices for hours, unable to obtain even the official protocol required for starting up such a project. One suggested, I “might, maybe want to go to the Ministry of Justice?….(Which is somewhere by the Cathedral…?”). Another suggested I “could possibly try the Director of Curriculum…?”. The third determined I should probably visit the “head educational statician” or “perhaps try the social and NGO Affairs Bureau?” (does such a place even exist in Addis?!).

Before I knew it, I found myself right back where I started, as the fourth person insisted I must “most certainly start with the Ministry of Education”!

I could go on about how I spent an additional 3 hours in that building in vain, or gripe about the futility of trying to construct a detailed budget from the vague and inconsistent data I received…Or, for that matter, the lamentable inadequacy of the civil service sector in the hands of the EPRDF and the not-so-subtle suggestion that I “hire” someone (for a generous bribe--excuse me, fee--of $450 USD!) to help “expedite the process”…

But, today I am at home, happy instead to grab a beer, put on some music and laugh about it.
…After all, the “process” will surely begin again in the morning

Thursday, December 14

Like a Lion Caged...

I am confused…
Can someone please explain to me why the most recent stories picked up by the Associated Press (though admittedly occasionally including stories of dictators past)have been mainly about football scandals, athletic achievements and endangered species? Granted, Ethiopia may not rank among the most influential or closely- observed nations in the West, but between the new developments surrounding the ongoing political trial and…umm…THE WAR, one would assume that now (if ever) a foreign correspondent stationed in this country could manage to pitch a story or two!

Don’t get me wrong, I am most certainly an animal lover (and proud PETA contributor) myself but I must admit that I have a far more difficult time sympathizing with lions in a place where people are being murdered and oppressed on a daily basis…I simply fail to recognize how this story could take priority over the other—the ever-growing volume of crimes against humanity—being written simultaneously in this country…?!

Nonetheless (fearing that this place has already made me more callous than I care to admit) I decided to go down to the “Ambasa Gibee” and assess the plight of the rare Abyssinian lions (and, if I am to be completely honest, the competence of the AP reporter!) for myself.

Upon arrival, the smell alone suggested that the conditions of captivity were far worse than those I have encountered in any other zoo throughout my world travels. In concrete enclosures hardly larger than my living room, I found these magnificent creatures lying listlessly next to trails of urine on bare concrete floors. Though Abyssian lions are a naturally small species, it remained blatantly obvious that these pairs were slowly starving to death--coats that had lost all sheen, stretched tightly over jutting rib bones could hardly disguise their measured journey towards death.

Originally established by Emperor Haile Sellassie in 1940 as a personal collection,impressive entourage and source of pride, this compound under EPRDF ownership has fallen into unacceptable disarray (little wonder from a government who makes it a habit to publicly discard life and liberty). The grounds, though lovingly tended year-round by a handful of employees, are pitiful--offering only a few wilted flower beds and apologetic shrubs. By way of concession, a small stand offers donuts and beverages which can be consumed at leisure (under the hot sun), while next door is a privately-owned children’s playground, whose admissions reportedly partially subsidizes zoo maintenance/animal care (which the government is “unable to solely assume”, thus the starving lions).

What this care consists of, exactly, is hard to determine and I arrived intentionally at noon to witness the daily feeding of the lions. Curious as to the nature of their meals, I watched as the lions sprang to life nearly half an hour before the designated feeding time, with terrible, awe-inspiring purpose—pacing frantically back and forth in frenzied anticipation, saliva dripping from their powerful jaws. When it seemed they would finally tear through the bars of the cage and devour us all, a worker tossed them a meager chunk of meat and bone (no larger than my head), amidst the applause of the crowd who had gathered to watch the daily spectacle. (One lion actually significantly bent the bars of cage to bring the meal inside the cage—testament to the sheer power of starvation, I suppose.)

One worker explained that though she has been employed by the zoo for many years, she wished the government would close down operations—even if it meant she losing her only job—simply to “end the suffering of the animals”. She confided with a motherly concern that the lions were not able to run because of the narrow confines of their enclosures and how their paws were often and easily torn, made soft from pacing the unnaturally smooth concrete floor). She told of how the legs of the cubs (removed from their mothers far too early) often become temporarily paralyzed because the concrete floor in their tiny enclosure is too cold at night; together we sadly shook our heads as we observed them lying amidst their own feces--destined for decades in miserable captivity or the dubious ‘mercy’ of the taxidermists (as reported by AP correspondent Les Nehaus. When questioned, zoo officials of course had “never heard of such allegations”, though I find myself more inclined to side with this report and my new found employee-friend...)

So, despite my somewhat ignoble intentions, I guess I discovered something important in visiting the lions that day: Life is life and suffering is suffering. Even though this country has opened my eyes to so much, I still cannot bear to witness even a lion in such shameful conditions.

I suppose, if this is the way this government chooses to honor the ‘King of the Jungle’ it should come as no surprise that they would seek to also imprison the true political leaders and national heroes of this country in similar fashion. Though such comparison is unfortunately far closer to reality than poetic indulgence, it seems that the international community can more easily respond to ‘animal cruelty’ than the gross, ongoing human rights violations occurring here.

(So, don’t worry about it, Les—we understand, and we’ll take it from here!)

Monday, December 11

Kaliti On a Sunday Afternoon

Today is Monday, which means that yesterday Kaliti’s political prisoners were permitted the fleeting opportunity to visit with family members and friends.

Early on Sunday afternoon the visitors gathered beneath the sniper towers and formidable prison archway, waiting to glimpse their loved ones and relay cryptic messages of hope, news and inspiration. Beginning at 3pm, the guards inspected the visitor ID cards, while those inside the compound meticulously recorded the name and residence of the visitor next to the name of the prisoner they wished to visit; “CUD-supporters” were additionally registered on a separate list (to “harass at a future date”, one assumes, should civilian targets ever become in short supply.) Ferenji visitors have now been completely prohibited from visiting Kaliti, as I discovered yesterday—information the guards conveniently neglect to share until after the registration process is completed and we have been duly noted as “persons in support of the opposition”.

Those still allowed beyond this point then removed their shoes and subjected themselves to an invasive physical inspection intended to prevent the entrance of “anything and everything”—gifts, food, electronics, paper. For the immediate family members granted special permission to deliver food and personal items, the procedure was even more grueling: the list of prohibitions is extensive—subject to the whims and temperament of the guard on that particular day—and most often quite ridiculous, with the most recent additions being black clothing (representative of a state of mourning and therefore favored by prisoners during court appearances) berberi and tea bags; food is also subsequently searched (using the same dirty fork for each person and dish!) and family members made to eat a portion of the food themselves in front of the guards.

Finally—nearly half an hour into the allotted period—yesterday’s visitors were able to proceed to the designated visiting area—a hot, muddy room of corrugated iron and concrete apparently frequented by as many wild mice as people. Here, the prisoners were already divided into 3 zones of 30-35 people each, and detained behind the waist-high wooden railing, restricted to the physical contact of a simple handshake. As usual, approximately two guards were assigned per prisoner to “monitor conversation” (though Dr. Berhanu is usually awarded no less than 6 personal guards!) –and the “impossible subjects” remained as obvious as they are numerous. (All conversations must be conducted exclusively in Amharic, Oromenia, Tigrinya or English; I have heard that they once even detained an American visitor for hours because he “insisted on speaking a local language”!) Despite the best efforts of the EPRDF, Kinijit spirit was in abundance here as usual—evidenced through the whispered encouragement of an otherwise stern-looking guard, or the ‘unspoken permission granted to certain topics of discussion.

Then at 3:50 pm sharp (after a mere 20-30 minutes of visitation) the head guard gave the ’10-minute warning’ and all were required to hastily say their goodbyes and exit the compound.

Though the thousands of convicted felons housed in Kaliti receive visitors for 5 hours each day on weekends (from 9-12 and 1-3), these political hostages—imprisoned solely for their unwavering commitment to human rights and democratic practice—are granted only this strictly-regulated visitation “hour” once each day on the weekends.

As today is Monday, they have since long been returned to the inhumane conditions of their captivity, forced to suffer in seclusion for yet another week.