Discussing these types of issues is forbidden,” said the warder rudely and added, “You are only allowed to discuss family matters”. You might suspect that these words were spoken by one of our beloved mother Ethiopia’s prison officers. However, they are actually taken from Maxim Gorky’s 1906 story Mother (page 102). The story was written 108 years ago – so very long ago! But it doesn’t seem so long to us – why? Because what we are living through now is even worse. And it is worrying how fast things are deteriorating.
Prison is now where everything leads. Every day we are told by the media that what is needed is “strong measures; measures to ensure it won’t happen again; measures to remove etc”. These words are not legal principles but are spoken in hate. These statements, which are only a fraction away from a declaration of systematic state terror, are especially damaging for those of us who are held in Ethiopia’s prisons.
Following programmes which have been broadcast about ‘revolutionary measures’ on ETV, horrible things – which could upset so many families if I listed them here – are being carried out in a calculated manner. Let’s take a look at some of them. We are denied permission to be placed in prisons close to our relatives. Zeway is the Ethiopian version of a Siberian prison.
After travelling across the lowlands to reach our ‘Siberia’, our families have to undergo a tiresome and intrusive search before they can eventually see the prisoner. When they do so, officials are listening in, even to talk about family matters. We hug and kiss our children even when the prison officers look disapproving. Even though the insults and intimidation that follow these displays of affection are not too bad, our children get scared. Our fear comes across to them. They always go back home feeling upset.
Even though the time allocated for visits is clearly specified, we are often told “Enough! Wind it up soon”, just as we’ve started talking. Since the aim is clearly to torment us, intimidate us and punish us, we are not allowed to have more than 100 birr (about $5 US), even if we need more to buy toiletries, spices, tea and coffee, underwear, water purifiers etc. This only happens in Zeway prison. This is how our human rights are violated.
I graduated from high school in Zeway. I have many friends and relatives here but local people are only allowed to visit us once a week (on Wednesdays). Over time, they [friends from the town] stop visiting, scared off by the intimidating questions: ‘Where did you meet him? How do you know him? Why are you always visiting him?’
The town is very hot. Nevertheless, 150 prisoners are held in one room here. As a result, it is unbelievable how easily insects and fleas move from person to person, reproducing fast. It doesn’t make me feel good to talk about this; but it isn’t a film, it’s a true story that is happening to the sons of mother Ethiopia. We can only pray that the worst does not happen.
In fact, the worst is already here. They give us tasteless food. There is a water shortage despite the fact that the prison is right by Zeway Lake. It is like a prison within a prison. All of us, including the Generals and other military officers [who are jailed there], are held in a dark room. It might be possible to tolerate all of this patiently. But we are speaking out because every Ethiopian, everyone who has a religion, everyone who fears God, everyone who cares about the respect of basic human rights, must know what is being done to us. We’re being pushed towards our deaths.
Just a month ago, Nathnael Mekonnen, the young Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) party member, was sent to Kality for medical treatment. He was sent back to Zeway the same day at 11:00pm without having received any treatment. The Ethiopian National Unity Party (ENUP) member, Zerihun G.Egziabher, was also referred to a hospital but hasn’t yet been treated, though he is suffering as a result of his illness. My kidney problems, which I have mentioned before, are now making it hard for me to sit or stand; if the authorities had found enough humanity to let me get treatment rather than rush me back to Zeway, it could have given me relief and them contentment.
Other people have died. Among the children of mother Ethiopia who have been denied medical attention and have passed away are Colonel Tesfaye Hailu and engineer, Kifle Sinshaw, both of whom were being held with the Generals and military officials [in jail], Ahmed Nejashi, a member of the Oromo People’s Congress (OPC) party led by Mererra Gudhina, Tesfahun Chemeda, who was held in same the dark room, and an old man from the Benishangul Gumuz region. How can people be denied medical attention!? Where did these individuals, who have themselves struggled against oppression in their lives but are now in power, learn to be happy because others are in pain? What would the Ethiopian people say? What would all human beings who are human say? God Bless Ethiopia!
Wubushet Taye, an Ethiopian editor and prisoner of conscience, wrote this piece from the Zeway Prisons in Ethiopia where he is serving 14 years imprisonment for alleged anti-terrorist crimes.