SURVIVAL GUIDE TO Ethio-Milennium PILGRIMS(Part I) – By Workie Briye
To go or not to go is now a moot point: As human beings, there is always a certain place in the world where we have always wanted to go. That place, without any doubt, for a significant percentage of Ethiopians is Ethiopia and their home town in particular. Even for those Ethiopians who travel more frequently than others, the temptation to return again and again is very high. Not only a festive visit like this but also a complete return back home one day is a dream for many diaspora Ethiopians. Ethiopians can be categorized among the most nostalgic expatriate communities. The familiar line of prayer “Le Hagere Afer Abqagn” can be considered as the Hebrew equivalent of the Jewish prayer that says “Li Yerushalayim ircha, b’rachamim tashuv” (“To Jerusalem your city, you will return with compassion.”) For many Ethiopians in the diaspora, this may be just another of a routine visit they pay to their country each year around Ethiopian New Year or X-mass, Ed-Alfatir and Arafa (Ed-al Adha.) However, we have to remember the fact that, for the 100s of thousands of political dissidents among the diaspora, a trip to their country is still the most risky venture to ever think of.
Few months ago I met a Swedish woman who just returned from a trip to Africa few days earlier. During the brief chat I had with her, she told me she had been to Ethiopia for two days during that same trip. When I tried to remind her of the fact two days were too short to visit the country’s interesting places, she added that the situation in the capital was not good either. Obviously my query was “in what sense was that the case?” After a long pause seemingly in search of the right words to express her feeling, she said “every body in the city seems down and depressed.” Then she said, “I think it is because of the political atmosphere and especially the incarceration of the opposition leaders.” Few days after this interaction with the Swedish lady, I made my ritual telephone calls to a family member.
After the usual preambular conversation, I raised the habitual question of “what is up in Addis?” In a remarkable coincidence, her reaction was “here, every body is bored to death and fed up.” “Why?” I asked: she said “the talk of the Government media day and night is about the Millennium celebration. But, every body else is saying that our true Millenium is only when our leaders are released and our vote is respected.” No need for elaboration here. This identical appraisal of the country’s situation from two different personalities speaks for itself.
We know that Ethiopians are passionate about their culture and are keen to organize and enjoy their traditional festivals. However, what preoccupied the hearts and minds Ethiopians this time on the eve of such a bold date on their calendar that comes only once in three to four generations is something other than the Millenium day which is hijacked by an impudent regime. Accordingly, over the last several months since the so-called the Ethiopian Millenium National Secretariat launched it program, many well meaning Ethiopians have called upon all Ethiopians to boycott the Millenium festival on political grounds. The points advanced by these Ethiopians are valid. It is hard to disagree with the arguments raised by those who appealed to all Ethiopians not to be part of the Millenium entourage that is designed to masquerade the real situation of the country and raise money for a repressive regime. However, from a pragmatic point of view, some of us were not sure if a boycott call was the right and the smart strategy to adopt or the right kind of sacrifice to demand from fellow Ethiopians who might have had already planed the trip for a long time earlier and made practical arrangements towards it.
On the other hand, for many well informed Ethiopians, this trip may turn out to be an awesome journey and a magnificent experience that could provide them a unique insight into the real situation of the country and the spirit of the gallant people of Ethiopia. Seen from such angle, the trip could even be something to be encouraged since there is nothing more educative and insightful than intimacy with the reality on the ground. Accordingly, those Ethiopians for whom this is a first trip in the foremath and aftermath of the election will have a great chance to listen to the epics of the tragedy narrated by the very victims of the bloody repression carried out by the regime.
One way or another it was clear that a significant number of Ethiopians would travel and join their families on the Millenium occasion in spite of the many well intentioned calls for boycotting the show. Under such circumstances, many of us were hopping that opposition political groups and leaders may devise an alternative strategy aimed at creating some kind of silver lining to the Millenium exodus and the charade. Given the political and security situation of the country especially over the last two years following the tragic election, planning a trip to Ethiopia is not merely an exciting plan to commemorate a once in a century occasion but also taking daring steps towards a dangerous and difficult trek. Many of the adventures might have already entered the country and others are only few days away from making the holly trip. Therefore, whether one is for or against the idea of showing up at the EPRDF sponsored catwalk, the bottom line is “if you can’t beat them, join them.”
This writer is trying to join the pilgrimage through this piece. The title “Survival Guide” is used here with a reason. On the one hand, any journey to Ethiopia today has parallels to all dangerous extreme sports such as jumping off the steep cliff of a deep gorge or hiking up a steep and freezing mountain. On the other hand, the dangers are man made and, in many cases, invisible for which no advice is available from any travel operator or travel guide publisher. Although some of the advises contained here may seem commonplace and obvious to every one, the points are placed in the context of the political situation of the country so that travelers could see the hazards in a different light.
Welcome to Alichaw Milenium: “Alichaw (the paperless) Milenium” is the name given to the upcoming Milenium festival by ordinary citizens in Ethiopia. The literal meaning of the designation has to do with the current price of Berberre in Ethiopia which is more than Birr 120 per 17 kilo gram and soaring by the day. But for the people who are suffering from a myriad, mainly man made, difficulties the designation carries a much deeper meaning than that. The sky rocketing price of Berberre applies to all life’s essential items, except life itself. On the other hand, it is doubtful if we in the diaspora have full understanding of this quandary as we are taking off to Ethiopia to partake in the pepperless feast.
One Friday morning in the middle of July (last year of the last Millenium already), I was at a clinic in Virginia where I observed many Ethiopians in the waiting room. While waiting for my turn, I learned that out of the many Ethiopians who visited the clinic that morning, many of them came to seek for travel related health advice, advice for the health and diet of their children, pre-journey check ups, etc. I saw them taking malaria shots, receiving prescriptions, and the like. I observed some of them carried small boxes that looked like first aid kits. I also overheard one of the doctors talking to some of them in the hall way about travel related health risks such as Hepatitis A and B, yellow fever, Typhoid, Rabies, and some kind of Meningitis sounding medical jargon, as well as Polio, measles, and mumps in relation to the children’s health.
Few days after, in another but related experience, I came across a group of Ethiopian shoppers in the isles of a big CVS store. They were talking about and looking for certain over-the-counter drugs: first aid kits, picnic and outing paraphernalia, and stuff like that. One of them was trying to remind the group of something by reading from their shopping list. I heard them mentioning water purification jars and tablets, Anti bacterial hand jel, Anti Septic hand tissue, flight socks, travel sickness wrist bands, sterile needles, etcetera. Few minutes later in another isle of the store I bumped into two of the gentlemen detached from the rest of the group and one of them was reading from a shopping list, perhaps a different one. As one of the guys was running down the list the two of them broke into laughter as he read out something that sounds like men’s stuff.
Various opinions could be formed out of this observation. In my view, the shopping spree and some of the preparations are not only unnecessary but also misguided. None of the pilgrimes, at least those whom I observed planning and executing their preparation do not seem to have realized that they are going to a country where they are considered potential enemies who can be killed and sent to jail without any law. None of the first aid kits are of help in the face of a security force whose only language of communication with its potential victims is through the barrel of the gun. None of the medical or hygienic supplies can bail out from the EPRDF dungeon. While vaccine shots and medical supplies may be needed in some situations, excessive focusing on conventional risks related to travel at the expense of the real and eminent danger to one’s life is perilous and has no satisfactory explanation for any one who is aware of the country’s political and social condition.
From these two incidents, one may think that many of the supplies they are buying and the precautions they are taking are necessary during any travel or even at any time even while staying at our base anywhere in the world including the USA. From the long shopping list and the detailed advice they seek from their doctors, one may also observe that some pilgrimes are too cautious and some of them even sound like they have never been to Ethiopia let alone being born and raised and lived a pretty good part of their adult life down there. From some of the questions they raise to their doctors, some might even sound as if they are set to kick off to an unmanned planet.
From observing this kind of excess precaution and meticulous preparation, any Ethiopian with a fair knowledge and understanding of the current situation of our country could not help pondering over one unavoidable question, i.e., what is the top most danger or even the top three menaces to life and limb in Ethiopia today: the answer unambiguously is 1) the TPLF regime, 2) the TPLF regime, and 3) the TPLF regime.
Although Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries with the highest child mortality and maternity death rate, the hard fact is that more children died in 2005/2006 in Addis Ababa from a government security bullet than from polio, measles, mumps and other child maladies combined. Although many kinds of fatal or crippling poverty diseases are rampant in our country, hundreds of young men and women lost their limb or suffered permanent injury to their body from torture and other inhuman punishment than from polio or tetanus. Even though our country currently has one of the highest unemployment rates in Sub Sahara Africa, the primary delusion of thousands of young men and women is not for a job or a better life but a breathing space in their own back and front yards. Although the very basic supplies of life including essential medications are in an extremely rare supply and expensive, the people’s daily prayer in the present day Ethiopia is ironically not for their daily bread or medicine but for God’s heavenly shield to protect them from the trigger happy predators unleashed by the regime in power.
There are plenty of man-made or politics-made life hazards in our country today. Life threatening confrontations with security forces can happen any where in Addis and throughout the country. It doesn’t even have to be a politically nuanced event or situation to find oneself in harms way as everything is “politics” in the eyes of the regime. Ranging from a routine check-in/check-out procedure at any air port counter to any routine passing-by via a pedestrian sidewalk on a street across Meles’ office in Arat Kilo is as risky and could turn as deadly a venture as that of taking part in a peaceful march on the streets of the city. You may be allowed to enter Ethiopia as Ethiopians or Ethiopian-born foreigners; however, any concept of law and order, citizenship and freedom, government, police, and similar other luggage that you packed from abroad is an illegal alien not allowed to step on any entry ports of Ethiopia. Hence, swapping these concepts or guarantees, that you take fore granted when you live in democratic societies, with the most down-to-earth forms of survival skills and procedures including those you picked from your boy scout trips, if you had any, would make more sense than the laws and courts of EPRDF Ethiopia throughout the time of your stay in the country.
In a nut shell, being aware of the political and security situation prevailing in Addis and the country as a whole, staying alert throughout your stay, avoiding unnecessary confrontation with security personnel, writing certain areas of the city or the country off your itinerary all together, if you can afford, and similar other techniques must be included in your survival toolkit or first aid kit so that you could survive the perils of this trip and be able to make an other new year trip to your beloved country.
“What is Up!!” with Addis? -Know your host city better! Waiting to greet perhaps thousands of pilgrims is the city of Addis Ababa. But most likely Addis is not and will not be the same Addis that we all know. The city waiting for her Millennium guests has been scrubbed, laundered, bleached, painted, restored, and garnished to change its looks, and perhaps duck-taped so that it won’t be able to divulge any of its heartbreaking secrets to foreign guests. Additional buildings and facilities have been created by the regime especially for this Millenium festival. The government has been trying to make the city, with its face lifted buildings, new western style cafes, open markets and few trendy shopping boutiques, as dazzles to Ethiopians and foreign guests as much as possible.
More than anything, this is a city that hosted about four million Ethiopians from the city and the surrounding hamlets on the last day of the election march called by CUD and other coalition parties on May 8, 2005.This is a city that had been dreaming for a century to be administered by a mayor of its own election. The residents of Addis had thought that dream was about to come true on May 15, 2005. They flocked in their millions beginning from 4:00 and 5:00 o’clock in the morning on Sunday, May 15, 2005. In many parts of the city voters had to endure a mile long double or triple line for about 27 to 30 hours to cast their vote. And they did. The rest of what they have been enduring from that election onwards is history.
Today Addis is a city under siege. It is under siege not because of a high crime rate, or the spread of illegal guns, organized drug dealing, or because most wanted criminals rule the nights of the city, as you may imagine such to be the common ailments of any large metropolis. On the contrary! The city is almost crime free except some pick-pocketing in Merkato and other open markets. Violent crime especially robbery related homicide is almost zero or the lowest in the Sub-Sahara Africa. Although the abuse of drugs is said to be rising, it is negligibly low by the standards of many western cities that are riddled with drug net works and accompanying criminal gangs. The city’s foremost affliction is that it is currently ruled by individuals who would have qualified as “most wanted criminals” in any democratic society where the rule of law is guaranteed. The authorities ruling the city does so by commandeering power from the legitimate leaders who won a land slide victory during the May 2005 Election. Ironically the country’s top most criminals, who organized, ordered, presided and, in many case directly took part in killing hundreds of innocent citizens, or those whose who were hand-picked by the top criminals, are at the helm of power in the city. On the other hand, the city’s most cherished leaders and many of its innocent citizens are either killed or they are behind bars, both literally and figuratively.
Although there may be other several ways and meanse of paying tribute to such a ravaged city, one of the ways may be just listening to its heart beat by talking to its ordinary citizens. Ordinary citizens of Addis from Kotebe to Kera, from Entoto to Akaki will tell you the story of the besieged city in an identical narative. The vast majority of the citizens of Addis in every walk of life, regardless of their level of education, age, gender, religion, and nationality are highly conscious of the political and social situation going on in the city and the country as a whole. Talk to them if you want to know the truth.
Sermons to Avoid-beware of the Devil quoting from the Scripture: The planned Millenium festival is without doubt a government sponsored Bazaar. Pilgrims of the diaspora Ethiopians may fully own the decision to travel to their country for the Millenium celebration to enjoy with their family, relatives and friends. But once they set foot at Addis, the pilgrimes may not fully own their itinerary. (to be continued)