Words from a prisoner of conscience at Kaliti – Andualem Aragie -Prisoner of Conscience From Kaliti Prison (a house of punishment)
First of all, may my respectful and brotherly greetings reach you all wherever you may be!
I wish to express my gratitude to you all for not succumbing to the ruling regime’s propaganda avalanche that describes me as being
“a terrorist who rides the horse of death, is accompanied by angels of destruction and is bent on making Ethiopia a land of blood.”
Instead, you have realized that my imprisonment and that of my friends here is a symbol of the larger imprisonment of the Ethiopian people and you have become a clear and powerful expression of my stifled voice. I am grateful to you for keeping me in your thoughts and for giving such a precious value to the small sacrifice that I am making.
To begin with, it was not without good reason that I did not shy away from the struggle, knowing full well that I would go to prison, leaving behind my young children and my fresh marital life. I ardently believe that there is nothing more precious in this world than freedom for which man could live and die. I believe wholeheartedly that, as long as I have a clear conscience and clarity of purpose, God, who is the Father of knowledge and freedom, and you my fellow men and women would always be on my side as I come and go through the winding paths of suffering. I am also fully confident that the Ethiopian people, particularly the youth, will bear the torch of struggle aloft and continue to march forward until freedom dawns is won and shines brightly on our land.
In the 20th century, people in many countries have seen and basked in the rays of freedom. I believe that the 21st century will be a time when these rays of freedom will also shine brightly on countries like Ethiopia. The century is one of freedom. I believe God has willed that we live in this particular century so that we can struggle to fulfill the primary purpose of our creation, namely: the realization of freedom, brotherhood, love and peace. Where there is no freedom, there is no lasting peace. Where there is no freedom, there is no love. Where there is no freedom, there is no sustainable development. Where there is no freedom, human interaction becomes embroiled in a quagmire of problems. Therefore, the struggle waged for freedom is the mother of all struggles. We Ethiopians know full well that regaining our freedom from the grips of dictators who considered ruling over people oppressively as their natural right is not easy. The magnitude of the price paid in such a struggle is measured in terms of the severity of the imprisonment, bodily harm and the lives sacrificed.
If you were not a terrorist, why are you imprisoned? How can an entity that considers itself a government lie? Even if the government imprisons you under false charges, why didn’t the court set your free? Why did it sentence you to life imprisonment? In a country where any politician can criticize the government and go home in peace, what is special about you? These are questions I believe are raised repeatedly particularly by the supporters of the regime. I do not blame them for asking such questions. Really though, why am I imprisoned? Why are my friends imprisoned?
As in the past centuries, the Ethiopian people of the 21st century are still suffering under the yoke of oppression. Though this is the prevailing case, EPRDF, just like the Derg, claims that it is “a democratic government”. What is more, it is telling us that its democracy can serve as a model for other countries. However, its all-out campaign to convert lies into truths is not succeeding. If its propaganda campaign does not succeed, the other alternative the regime has is to “cut the feet of opposition parties” and stifle the struggle for freedom in the bud. Imprisoning individuals and groups is still another means of smothering dissent.
It is not the barrel of the gun alone that the ruling regime uses to debilitate the struggle for freedom. It also makes public institutions fabricate endless lies. Courts that should have been temples of justice have become public squares where lies are manufactured and truth is sacrificed. If we take me as an example, earlier, I was accused as one of the CUD leaders, of “trying to change the constitutional system through violence”. This time, I am accused along with others, of “terrorism and treason.” In both cases I have been sentenced to life imprisonment. Injustice that was committed yesterday is also being committed today. What is being perpetrated against me is being perpetrated against many other Ethiopians. Many innocent Ethiopians have paid untold sacrifices of limb and life.
The answer to the questions raised above can be summarized in one statement. Re’yot Alemu, Eskendir Negga, Beqele Ge rba, Olbaba Lelisa, Natnael Mekonnen, I and numerous other Ethiopians are languishing in prison at present because, in this twenty-first century, Ethiopia has become a land of torturous oppression. It is the ruling regime that decides who should be targeted for labeling and who the next prisoners would be.
In the past, our forefathers had left their sweet homes and tender children behind in response to calls to defend their homeland against foreign aggressors. They took it as an honour to stand in defense of their homeland and to pay the sacrifices that the occasions required. In the same way, my being thrown into prison for the small effort that I have made to struggle through peaceful means against the ruling regime’s yoke of oppression that has been bearing down on the Ethiopian people for ages, gives me a sense of pride. There is not a single crime that I have committed, that would nag my conscience and deprive me of sleep. As a result, even the concrete floor on which I sleep gives me warmth.
In the past centuries as well as in the present 21st century of Ethiopia’s existence, the most powerful issue in the national agenda has been the question of the sovereignty of the Ethiopian people. There has not been any other issue that united the people more than the question of sovereignty. The struggle for freedom waged by political parties is not a struggle to seize power. The struggle for the sovereignty of the Ethiopian people must be a common cause that should unite the various political parties, including the ruling party. Perhaps it may be naive to wish that the key persons of the ruling regime would be involved in this struggle of ensuring the sovereignty of the people. After all, against whom are we waging the struggle?
Instead of resolving conflicts through dialogue, the ruling regime has chosen to solve problems through the bullets of sharpshooters. This attitude clearly shows its backward and intransigent nature. However, this nature of the ruling regime does not discourage us and make us retreat from the struggle. Rather, it gives us an added cause to confront and challenge it with greater determination. Retreating from the struggle would not bring light. It would rather make the darkness even darker.
The day we are able to carry out a well organized, disciplined and peaceful struggle, not only would we be able to bring down brutal dictatorship from the shoulder of the Ethiopian people but we would also be able to abolish dictatorship from appearing ever again in the political arena of our country. But given the path that we have come through, given the speed with which we have moved and given the efforts we have made, centered around private interests, we would not be able to achieve much.
Thinking about the efforts made in our country in the name of peaceful struggle and about the mistakes made alone would make one go sick and disconcerted. The worst mistake would be, however, if we do not learn from those past mistakes and are still unable to conduct a well planned and well executed struggle that achieves its goal with certainty. The worst of all mistakes would be if, as a result of our past mistakes, we move far apart instead of coming closer to each other; if we fear each other instead of trusting each other; if we disparage each other instead of respecting and encouraging each other; if we hate each other instead of loving each other. And being separated from each other in this manner, we render ourselves unable to raise our united hands against the ruling regime and thus allowing the period of oppressive rule to be prolonged. It is inhuman to rule over people through oppression. It is equally inhuman to succumb to oppression. As those who rule oppression would be criminals, so would those who timidly offer their backs conveniently and ready for dictatorial rule, particularly during this time when the struggle for liberation is being waged in all directions. There will come the time when all these persons would be accountable for their actions or inactions.
There could be some ones who would ask: “What oppression are you talking about? It has been some 22 years since we have gained our freedom from oppression.” There may be others who would say: “We are working and we carry bread in our hands for our children when we go home. What is more freedom than this?” There may be some in the Diaspora who would say: “The freedom that we were denied in our own country, we have regained it in a foreign country. What special reason would we have that would compel us to struggle so that freedom would prevail in Ethiopia?”
When the majority of Ethiopians are suffering under brutal oppression, what kind of freedom is it that the few say they have regained? In a system that oppresses the majority, how long can anyone continue to be free? In a situation where the ruling regime oppresses those who hold differing views, how long can we continue to exist with our voice stifled and our conscience obscured so that we could not speak the truth? In a country where the majority are hungry, how long can the few that have plenty continue to be well fed? In a country where there is no real freedom but a semblance of it, those of us who believe that we are free can only have a distorted view of freedom. In a country where a dictatorial regime twists the arm of the people and claims to have won 99.6% of their voice, it becomes senseless to argue whether or not there is freedom in that country. How meaningful and satisfying is it for us who have fled from a country where there is no freedom to be enjoying the freedom that other fathers have brought? And what credible explanation can we give on this matter to the children that we have engendered? Even those who believe that they can live freely in a foreign country have the responsibility of supporting in all the ways they can the struggle that their brothers and sisters at home are waging for freedom. There is no justification by any measure to say: “It is no concern of ours if others are downtrodden, as long as we live in freedom; or if others are starving as long as we are able to get our daily bread.” Although we have our individual lives, we should not forget even for a moment that our destinies as well as those of our children are intertwined.
To speak the truth, the majority of those fellow country men and women who are, in many ways, in a position to contribute much to supporting and leading the struggle for freedom that is being waged by the people of this country are not playing their proper role and carrying out their responsibility. In fact, they seem to countenance the regime that they do not support and thereby showing a tendency of encouraging it to continue with its dictatorial rule. On the other hand, it has become a common matter to hear others who, over “machiato” and in their private rooms, calling for “their horses to be readied” for they are about to declare war against the regime. Our struggle for freedom has to come out of the “machiato” shops and private rooms without delay.
Bequeathing to our present children and to those who are yet unborn an Ethiopia that is a land of freedom and whose paths are free from thorns and other obstacles is a primary responsibility entrusted upon us all. A responsibility as major as this cannot be realized by a few. It requires an unreserved and all-encompassing effort from all of us.
Although freeing the Ethiopian people from dictatorial rule is primarily the responsibility of us
Ethiopians, it is an internationally recognized truth that nations could have positive or negative influence on other nations. This truth has become more obvious during this century.
In the past, Ethiopians have given their support to enable other Africans to bring down Apartheid and colonial rule. A considerable number of African countries are now marching along the road of democracy. Ethiopia, however, is still suffering under a dictatorial rule. What is distressing is seeing South Africans, who know the suffering under an unjust rule of Apartheid and should have stood on the side of the Ethiopian people’s struggle for freedom, have chosen to be on the side the ruling regime.
Whenever famine struck in our country and people were struggling with death, the International Community has responded rapidly with food and other life saving supplies. Their generous responses have saved the precious lives of millions of our people and we are indeed grateful for that. On the other hand, when our people wage a struggle to extricate their freedom from the tight grip of dictators, the International Community has turned its eyes away and given their backs to the people. Our humanitarianism should be aroused not only when people are hungry for bread but also when they are hungry for freedom.
We should not forget for a moment that injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. Supporting a regime that is the cause of poverty and hunger, sending wheat when famine strikes does not show being on the side of the people. Providing food for the physical nature of man but showing no concern and turning a blind eye when people are deprived of their freedom that is the basis of their sacred being is like viewing the physical and the spiritual aspect of the individual in isolation of each other.
That the Ethiopian people are unable to be masters of their freedom is primarily the failure of the Ethiopian people themselves. However, it must be said that those who declare that democracy is also a concern of theirs share the failure. If there are those who say that human rights and democratic values are matters of concern to them but then they turn their blind eyes when it comes to economic and political interests, they should realize that they are following the wrong path of history.
No matter where or when it may be, leaders that oppress their people can never be reliable partners in the pursuit of peace or in the sustainable maintenance of political or economic interests. Sustainable world peace can be ensured, development can be accelerated and interests of countries can be reliably promoted only in an environment of truth and freedom and by standing on the side of democratic forces. Ethiopia and the world in general would be indebted to the International Community if it worked not only for world peace and prosperity but also if it helped the Ethiopian people in their struggle for freedom and democracy. The world has witnessed the devastating effects of the mistakes the International Community has repeatedly made by allying itself with brutal dictators in order to gain temporary political and economic benefits. As a result of these mistakes, we have seen and are still seeing with great sadness world peace being disrupted, economies being ruined and innocent lives being lost. The International Community should learn from its past mistakes so as not to repeat them.
When I say what I have said above, I wish to underscore that I am not in any way suggesting that the International Community has not contributed anything to the struggle of the Ethiopian people for freedom. The message that I wish to convey clearly is that the support did not take the Ethiopian people seriously and that the magnitude of the support, compared with the degree of the cruelty of the oppression, is small.
The struggle that we Ethiopians have waged so that the sun of freedom would shine in the country is not something that one could boast about. The outcome of that struggle is a good witness and we cannot blame anyone else, including the ruling regime, for this. The ruling regime, as seen from its actions, is determined to continue to rule, not with the will of the people but with power obtained through suppression.
We Ethiopians should wage a well planned and strengthened struggle for our freedom in unison, undivided by politics, religion, age or economic class. The secret of our failure to be free lies in the fact that we individually or in unison have been unable to wage a struggle that gave priority to the wellbeing of the people and of the coming generations and to the future of the country as a whole. There is no concern for each of us and each of us has no concern for all.
Finally, even though the ruling regime has thrown me in prison on false charges so that my life would be wasted in incarceration, I feel happy and honoured to know that there are people who think of me and are on my side. May God honour you as you have honoured me by keeping me in your thoughts! Even though, as a person who is sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison, I cannot say much about what could happen in the outside world, somehow my heart is filled with hope. I strongly believe that a time is coming rapidly when a bright light of freedom will rise high above the lofty mountains of Ethiopia–a light that will shine upon every hill, valley and plain, upon every Ethiopian hut, upon every Ethiopian woman and man to and make us forget the dark days of the past.
It is my ardent hope that the time will not be far when I and the others prisoners like me here will be out of this life of repression and meet with you all outside of the confines of prison to deliberate on the general condition of our country and to commune with each other, full of hope and with a spirit of brotherhood.
May God bless Ethiopia!
Your brother and comrade in the peaceful struggle that is waged to enable the Ethiopian people to be masters of their freedom and of their democratic rights,
Andualem Aragie (Vice Chair of Unity for Democracy Justice Party -Prisoner of Conscience)
From Kaliti Prison (a house of punishment)