By Alem Mamo
“The TPLF regime preaches hate and violence, but we are continuing with our long-standing traditions of peaceful co-existence.”
I arrived at the edge of a small western town just before dusk. The evening scene was a typical display of the routine of life in the country side. The cattle are slowly walking back to their homes from a day-long grazing. Their herders, some whistling, others singing, were keeping an eye on them. The dogs run around the cattle in a playfully, sometimes chasing and other times being chased. The corresponding echo between the returning cows and their calves, the sharp, pitchy exchange between the mother goat and her kid, the communication between a mother sheep and her lambkin, the chorus of crowing roosters, all appear to be declaring an end to the work day. I was fully immersed into the sights and the sounds of this beautiful Ethiopian countryside when a young man, who appeared to be in his early twenties, interrupted me. “Welcome,” he said in a soft voice with a gentle radiating smile. He introduced himself to me and said, “you are shorter than you look in the picture,” his voice had a teasing tone. I smiled. “Good to see you in person. I have heard a lot about you,” he said while showing a degree of curiosity. “I hope whatever you were told about me is good,” I said. “Don’t worry, it is all good,” he replied, tapping me on the shoulder.
“How long do we have to trek before we arrive at our destination?” I asked, unable to contain my curiosity. “If we walk fast it could be only thirty minutes. If we walk slow, it will take us about forty-five minutes,” said my travelling companion and host. We headed south towards the thick and green forest. Fifteen minutes into our walk the landscape began to change dramatically from a dry grass land into hilly and lush green forest and with that a cooler and fresher air emerged. Trees of different size and shape, some tall and majestic, others short and wide with colorful fruits hanging over their branches, and beneath the trees a variety of plants cover the landscape. As we get deeper into the forest not only the visual nature of the area, but also the sound begins to shift from the earlier domestic animal chorus to the sound of wild animals. Nearby I could see a number of shy colobus monkeys jumping from tree branch to tree branch. With their acrobatic movement they shake the branches, forcing the hanging fruits to fall to the ground. The chirping birds, the screeching sounds of monkeys and many other sounds I couldn’t identify echoed through the forest. None of the sounds felt like just another noise pollution, the way it is in the urban centres. Instead, it felt like a symphonic display of nature at its best. Listening to these sounds I felt a sense of quiet and found it to be calming.
Despite the fact that I haven’t been to this part of the countryside for more than three decades, I felt completely at home. I have enough stored memory to reconnect me with the land, the trees, the plants, the mountains and the wild animals, and of course the people. Most importantly, I have a clear and unadulterated childhood memory of values and customs of the communities I grew up in. Sharing and caring for each other. Being together in times of joy and times of difficulties. As we get closer to the town, I wonder if those values still remain part of the daily life in the community.
“There is a river on our way that we have to cross, not far from here. You should probably take your shoes off,” advised my travelling companion. Since I didn’t bring spare shoes, I appreciated his advice and took my shoes off. As we got closer, the sound of the river added an extra energy and serenity to the beautiful sound of the forest. I stood on the edge of the river for a few minutes and dipped my hand in to the outer edge.
When we reached the rive, I shared a story with my companion. When I was a young boy my father would take my brother and on a hunting trip with him. He would wake us up early in the morning, sometimes as early as five, and we would come to this forest looking for antelopes and kudus. One of the lessons my father taught us during those hunting incursions was about water. He would always tell us to respect what he called the ‘energy’ of the water. “I don’t mean the kind of energy you learn in schools,” he would say. There are different types of energies in the water and spiritual energy is one of them. When you reach a creek, a river, or a lake always stop and recognize that energy. Give thanks to God who gave us this source of life. Don’t just jump into it. Take a sip or sprinkle the water on your face and walk gently in the water. If you don’t you may disturb the spirit of the water. On these trips, my brother and I would look each other as if we were saying, “here we go again, dad is going through his water story.” When I finish sharing my fathers lesson with my travelling companion, I followed my father’s lesson given to me a long time ago and did as I was told. For a moment I thought I heard my father’s voice. It was just a voice stored in my memory! “I think your father was a very wise man. My grandfather told me about him,” said my travelling companion. “He was, in his own way,” I concurred.
When we arrived at our final destination two elderly men were waiting for us outside a modest brick house. One of them had thick reading glasses. I got close to him and lowered my head out of respect. “Come here,” he said, opening both his arms. You are a fully grown up man now,” he said while embracing me in his arms. I was in junior high school when I saw both of these men last, more than three decades ago. The embrace from both of them took me back to those years, back to my childhood and youth. “Good to be back! And good to see you both,” I said. “Come in”, said one of the elders directing me to the house. “He is here!” he said, as if he was announcing that his long lost child has returned. We walked into the living room. “Oh my God, is that you? All grown up with grey hair,” she said. It was his wife. I use to call her “mother.” I said, “how are you mother?” She kissed me on both cheeks a couple of times. “I give thanks to God for this day that we are able to see you,” she said holding my hand. “Can you make me my bread before I leave?” I asked jokingly leaning my head on her shoulder. “You haven’t forgotten, my son,” she said. “How would I forget; it was my favourite,” I said. “Yes, of course, I will make you before you go,” she said.
I was anxious to get to the main objective of my journey and engage these two elders to reflect on the situation in their part of the country. “It would be nice if you tell me about the present, the past and what hope you have for the future,” I said. Pulling my chair toward the two elders. “Well,” said the elder with reading glasses, “my grandson tells me that you are here for a few days and few days are not enough to tell you about the past, present and future.” “Let’s try anyway,” said the other elder.
“Three generations of our family lived here together in peace. We have always treated each others’ families as our own. We had two boys who were born just a week apart. They were like brothers. I was the godfather to his son and him to my son. Those boys were inseparable. They went to school together; they played together. We may have different ethnic backgrounds, but we always saw each other as families. Both our boys were twenty-four years old when the security forces of the military regime arrested them. They came back home during school break, and I remember it was just after midnight, they were here in this house when they were picked up and taken away. I ran out in the dark to tell him,” pointing at his friend seated next to him “they have taken our boys.” Suddenly, a deep silence descended in the room. “He was a good boy. I didn’t give birth to him, but he was my boy,” said the aging mother in a tearful voice. The atmosphere in the room was one of a deep sadness. Mourning for a beloved son. “I think you should hear the rest of the story from his surviving friend and brother,” said the elder who lost his son more than three decades ago. “Where do I find him? Does he live around here?” I asked. “Yes, he should be here any minute,” he said looking at his watch.
It wasn’t too long when a tall, slender man with a slight limp in his right leg entered the living room. I wondered what the cause of his limping was, but I had some idea what might have caused. I have met many of his generation that lost mobility because of inhumane treatment and torture during their incarceration under the military regime. I got up and introduced myself. “I know you. You were too young back then. You are a full fledged man now,” he said giving me a firm handshake. “We are all happy to see you.” I was too eager to hear the rest of the story from him as his father suggested.
“Let’s go to the other room,” he said, walking into the back section of the house. I followed him. We entered a fair sized room, on the walls there are several framed pictures. He walked straight to the one in the middle section of the wall and said, “this is him, this the friend and brother I lost to institutionalized state terror. I live with survivors’ guilt every day, you know,” he said, clearing his throat. “You see,” he continued “we weren’t just friends; we were like brothers. We did everything together. We cared for each other and our families are like blood families.” “Were you imprisoned together?” “Yes, we were. We were back home from college on a break and security forces came and picked us up around midnight. We were together at my parent’s house here,” he said, looking out through the window. “Where did they take you?” “Well, at first, they kept us here in our home town for a week, and then they took us to a larger prison located in the provincial capital. There, the stories we heard before our arrest about physical and psychological torture began. It was hard, I can tell you that.” “How many prisoners were there at the provincial prison?” I interrupted him. “I don’t know the exact number, but I think there were close to five hundred.” “Can you tell me the composition or the demographic of the prison population?” I followed up. “Yes, the composition of the prison population,” he said and disappeared into a long silence as if he was frozen in time. I didn’t interrupt him.
“The composition of the prison population,” he repeated when he emerged from his long and deep silence. “There were all kind of people, people with different ethnic and religious affiliations. We were a group of people united in our struggle for democracy, freedom and justice, regardless of ethnic or any other form identity traits we were rounded up together, tortured together, and some killed together,” he said. “How do you compare that spirit and unity with the situation today,” I asked, eager to know his thoughts. “You see the problem today is not with the communities, or all of the sudden we woke up and decided to hate each other.
The crux of the problem in this country today is the government. The regime actively promotes division, hate and even incite violence. They want us to be separated from each other and live in a permanent state of fear and suspicion of each other. Our forefathers and mothers lived here for many generations, our destiny and future is tied together. We have been through many difficult moments in history, and we have managed to overcome all those challenges together.”
“My friend and brother who was killed by the military regime wasn’t from the same ethnic group as mine, but that didn’t cross our mind back then. We were a group of young idealist men and women who came together to address the political, economic and social ills of the country in a way we thought was the right approach at the time. Today the government constantly works against the idea of coming together, forming a strong coalition, so that we can resist its oppressive rule with stronger muscle. In this country, polarization, division and pitting one group against another group is an official policy of governance. They even give incentives to those who perpetuate inter-communal violence. I have been through three regimes in my lifetime, and this one is the worst in all aspects. Imagine living in a country where your own government preaches hate, animosity and violence.” As I finished my conversation, he asked me what I am going to do with the information I gathered. I told him I will share it with as wide an audience as I can to create an awareness about the predicament of this country. “Maybe you should write a book,” he said with a smile. “Maybe I should,” I said in agreement.
All in all, my two-day stay and conversation with the two inseparable families and the wider community was a powerful one that took me through life under different circumstances and conditions in this small town. The consensus is that the magnitude and degree of human suffering over the last twenty-five years has been cruel and unbearable. The next day, I bid farewell to my hosts and begin my journey back with the young man who became my friend and travelling companion over the last few days.
An hour through our drive we saw a convoy of Russian made Ural military trucks covered with light green tarp snaking through the hills. As they pass us one by one we could see young men crammed on the floor, some seated and others standing. Uniformed men holding AK47 automatic machineguns sat on the edge the truck. “Prisoners,” said my companion, tilting his head in the direction of the trucks. “What do you mean?” I asked. “They are transporting political prisoners rounded up from different parts of the country,” he said with a grim face. “There is a malaria infested military camp south of here, and they put them there indefinitely, no family visits, no sufficient food and most certainly no medical facility. Many died from malaria here. There are rumors of a mass grave in the vicinity of the camp,” he said with a choked up voice. “Mass graves?” I asked. He nodded his head. “The rumour is that most of them died from malaria and torture and some say they may have been executed.” This alarming piece of information was too much for me. I didn’t know how to react or how to respond. I asked our driver to pull over on the edge of a dense tropical forest, and I got out to get some air and absorb what I had just heard. “Mass grave?” I repeated. “Why is this country going through this again after exhumation of several mass graves of those murdered by the predecessor of the current regime? How long can a nation and its people endure such a degree of suffering generation after generation?” I was overwhelmed with what I had heard over the last two days about the state of the nation. I couldn’t name what my feelings were; sadness, anger, frustration and despair converged in me shaking me to the core. I took one long deep breath, wiped my eyes, and walked back to the car.
I read a story about Joseph Stalin’s gulags in Siberia and how people were treated there. It is pretty much the same in these militarized concentration camps scattered across the country: hard labour, disease, malnutrition, torture and killings. Hearing such brutality with all its forms of barbarism made me queasy and sick to my stomach.
I wondered if the mothers of those young men and women still wait for their children to return home once again to give them a hug, to make them their favourite food or just simply to watch them play. I agonized on behalf of their brothers and sisters who cling to their pictures hoping against all hope that they will see their siblings again. I was overwhelmed with the thought of human capacity to do evil, to unleash these act of barbarism difficult to comprehend. As I got out of the car my travelling companion, who became my close friend over those few days, gave me a warm hug and pulled a piece of paper from his pocket. He said, “I have a gift for you. I wrote this a year ago in memory of my friend who was killed by the security forces of the regime.” Giving me a hug, he said, “Good luck, travel safe, and I hope you come back and visit us.” His eyes were tearing up. “I promise, I will come back, possibly under different circumstances,” I said. “Yes, under different circumstances, of course,” he said, lifting his clinched left arm into the air with an assertive and reassuring smile. That night in my hotel room, I took the piece of paper my friend and travelling companion handed to me out my pocket and read it. It was a beautiful poem he wrote in memory of his murdered friend. I read it three or four times before I grabbed a notebook and began to translate it from Amharic to English.
Tears of the moon
Gripped with an overwhelming sorrow
A mother says “I have no tears left
I have cried until I no longer see
I have wailed until I have no voice left.
What is sight for, if I cannot see my child?
What is a voice for, if he cannot come to me when I call his name?
Here we have run out of tears.
Instead, our rocks, trees and fields are crying for us,
Here the birds no longer sing,
As they are mourning with us in silence.
The sun, too, weeps, as we languish in the burning shadows of oppression
And the moon sheds tears with us at night, as we hide in our blood-stained forest
When will this end?”
“When will we relearn to laugh again?
When will peace reign?
When will the true spirit of humanity return to this land of our ancestors again?
We are collectively tired of oppression
We are people of an exhausted nation.”
I have been given many gifts from my family, friends and colleagues in the past, but I found this one to be special. A gift from not just one young man, but a gift from the people who are under daily state terror. People who have been brutalized and continue to suffer. It was more than a gift; it was an assignment to me and to all those who on the side of justice and freedom to speak on behalf of those who are chained and muzzled.
I left this beautiful land of my youth, a land that always finds a way to overcome insurmountable challenges. On one hand, I was heartened by what I saw and what I heard from the elders, the youth, men and women who endure a reign of oppression under the current regime led by Tigray Liberation Front (TPLF). Despite all of that, however, they don’t languish in the ghettos of pessimism; instead they appear to be prisoners of hope. Their conviction for a better tomorrow, their reassuring commitment to building a post -TPLF Ethiopia that is democratic, inclusive and at peace with itself rekindled my spirit. At the same time, I was also reminded of the brutality and cruelty of the regime that makes the rocks weep in this country.
Note: The names of the individuals in this piece have been withheld for their safety and security. It is the intolerable state of freedom of expression, assembly and the total absence of political, economic and social freedom makes life in Ethiopia suffocating and difficult. Every move, every conversation and every gathering in Ethiopia is strictly monitored by security, police forces loyal to the regime. Ethiopia is a country where journalism is officially criminalized. Even academic researches are closely monitored and watched to make sure that they are in line with the regime’s policy. Readers must know all information about the regime’s abhorrent violence and brutality. is acquired by those who take serious risks to speak up and those who document it.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org