Category Archives: Letters from jail

I’m longing for you, comrades

By Zelalem Kibret

From Kilinto prison, Addis Ababa Ethiopia 

O! The mighty reminiscence! Of all the thoughts nothing is more haunting than reminiscence. When I read, walk; sleep — in all of my daily routines I recall yesterday. Yesterday as if it is painted by one of the renaissance realist painters. Those yesterdays are here facing me virtually, if Raphael and Titan meets for a team work and puts those yester times in a big canvas.

How you doing comrades? You might be confused by my word choice of comrade. I got you Yes, our (me and you) formal relationship was a ‘Master’ pupil, ‘teacher – Student’, ‘Boss – Subordinate ‘ relationship. I am not comfortable with such hierarchical dichotomy. Rather, we were friends. I think we are still friends but, from afar and I hope our friendship will blossom by tomorrow. Hence, our bond of relationship is the rationale behind my choice, comrade (with all its political connotations) instead of something else.

Comrades, since my departure from the scene that is common for both of us, I know some of you are done with your formal schooling and I know that some of you are still counting your orders in the main dish, please consider my humble wishes.  For those who are done with your time in school, I wish a good time of preparation for the sequel. For those who are still struggling in school, have a wonderful fight.

The ‘departed’

Friends, if you remember we used to have a term of relationship, which put us in a promise to get together in the classroom. Regrettably, I am the one who fails to fulfill my promise but, forgivably. I say, forgivably. Because it is not I rather tyranny that should take the blame. Dictatorship is the hurdle that set us apart. It is the state which is the sinner. I fail to keep my words of promise because of a force majeure called despotism.

A short summery of what happens to me may give you the excuses to forgive me for my incompliance with terms of our promise.

Hundreds of days back out of the blue I was arrested for a suspicion of felony, that eventually turned to be a crime of preparation and conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism. However, the charge was not a simple matter as I mentioned. Rather, I passed through a prolonged medieval-like ordeal or as ‘they’ called it ‘interrogation’. Finally I end up in a remand center which have thousands of ‘detainees -of – conscience’. Even if it is laughable but, the crime that I am accused of is neither bail able nor an easy thing to face. Since I face capital punishment if I fall in the ‘convicted’ basket. So, comrades ain’t my failure to fulfill our promise forgivable?

Addendum: let me know you something extra about the situation that I live, if it helps me to get your piety of forgiveness;

Since my departure from the chalk and talk I never saw the sunset. Because I am a detainee who should be roll-called before the sunset.

My privacy has gone with the wind of April, since I am a detainee who lives with hundred plus detainees in one cell.

Fellow friends, you have no idea about how a day in prison is vicious. The viciousness of the day is like dancing the same, with the same rhythm and in the same dance floor, day-in-day-out. I am a detainee who is dancing this ‘Sisyphusic’ dance in a minute base. Save my trail to dilute the viciousness of the day by the virtuous souls.

The depression that resulted from counting the plight of my love, my friends and my families is so immense. Because I am a detainee who have nothing to do for them. Again save my trial to console myself with a thought of how I am lucky to be expired to this prison environment and its population.

Comrades, the types of book that I have to read, the utensils that I have to use, even my hair-style and shoe-type must be ‘proper’, which fulfils the remand center’s regulation. Because I am a detainee.

Thus, comrades, in consideration of such ill facts of my life and how my life is digressed from its normal course, how could an inmate who lives in such a situation which limitation is a rule fulfills his promise of coming to the class room? How could a man who is in chain live to his terms of promise? I hope I got your forgiveness.

The Puzzled

The Roman jurist and philosopher, Cicero upon his Critic of the state says:

“The Republic is oppressed with arms and enfeebled by slavish fear. So it has no Power to innovate the free spirit”.

It seems present day Ethiopia is the incarnation of the republic that Cicero is critical of voices muzzled. Thinkers exiled and dissenters incarcerated. This is the situation that bewildered me. What is wrong with us comrades? Why the Free spirit is chained and cuffed? Why oppression exist in a continuum? Why fear reign, democracy manacled and the gun is the domineering player of the entire player? Why today looks like a Siamese twin of yesterday?…

Comrades, my list of whys about our nations illness is bottomless. I hope yours too. However, I feel that the answer/s for our quests is/are not bottomless; even it can be a single one. And the very question is what could be that panacea?

Out of those numerous thought wonderings, sometimes I stopped somewhere and start to feel that the problem of our nation lies on the ‘Clash of Generations’! I know it seems naive to think so. But, it is not something we have to ignore. My wandering result a question of is our country suffer because of the ‘Clash of Generations’ for ideas, for principles or for power?

Scott Fitzgerald in his ‘This Side Of Paradise’ puts the mission of ‘his’ generation eloquently as ‘our generation had grown up to find all gods deal, all wars fought and all faiths in mankind’ Yes every generation, perished or breathing have its own generational mission.

Ethiopia can’t be an anomaly in this regard. Each Ethiopian generation had its own generational mission some proved trans-generational and some other proved futile and abortive.

Upon the 1991 regime change in Ethiopia one of the prominent Ethiopia economists, Eshetu Chole puts the chance and hope of his generation as;

“History was giving us another chance to redeem two opportunities in less than a generation is a privilege seldom granted to a people; squandering both of them is a crime that will not be forgiven by posterity”

(Quoted in Tefera Degefe’s ‘minutes of an Ethiopian century’)

Poor Eshetu! We in the posterity are witnessing the second chance squandered flatly. But comrades, can’t we forgive the squanderers of the second chance in a generation? I hope we can. For a reason that we in the posterity should have something in excel than those who doomed the chance friends, might -have-been must leave its place for a by-gone is by-gone state of mind. I hope you are in my side.

A generation which misuse and abuse those two golden chances (As Eshetu mentioned) are still in the throne. And hunting the ‘Free spirit’ to death. Thus, we are not able to live our dreams and the spirit of our generation. But, by saying this I am not fool to dichotomize the problem in a ‘we’ and ‘then’ spectrum. Rather there are many ‘wes’ in them and the vice-verse.

When my generational clash thesis paled and blurred my puzzle reinvent itself and again forced me to ask if the problem is not a generational disparity, where its lies? Generation passed and Generation come but, those common denominators; turbines and trembling, the sound of the midnight knock, arbitrary arrest and summary execution, the feeling of the muzzle in the back, the sword in the nape, the cuff in the hand and that weird sound of ‘hands-in-the-air’ remains to live with us.

Comrades in those good-old class session side talks, we talk about a lot of things. But, I don’t remember about raising this grand issue of why we as a nation condemned to live in a state of terror? If we already talked about it take this note as a reminder, If not please think over it for the sake of our comradeship.

(By the way, when I am writing this, I am not about whether ‘they’ initiate a new criminal change against me for a ‘crime’ of inciting students to think. Because the state that we are living is a state that proclaims right as wrong, righteousness as wrong doing and the gun-bearer as the peace-lover.)

Sisters and brothers, to sum-up I am saying that our good nation is in a swamp of problems. To give answer for those problems first we have to identify the problems in a solvable manner. But my puzzle lies here, what are those problems? I mean the extent of the complexities makes the problem headless and tailless. Spotting the head and the tail of our problem is a mission that our generation shouldered. If we are done with that my state of bewilderment will be resolved.

The hopefull

Here the remand center of our cells have high windows that I developed a habit of staring to the darkness in the night time. Six months after my incarceration something beautiful happened via those windows. A full snow-white moon glares in those windows. Yes Jelaluddin  Rumi was right when he said ‘The moon won’t use the door, only the window’. A sight of the moon after a long wait was something new for me comrades. Because I am a prisoner. But that is what I called ‘Hope’, to wait and to see the moon. A lone awaited dream fulfilled.

Comrades, we are living in a state which employed a policy of ‘blood and iron’ in a form of ‘arrest and pardon’. In such a state freedom is omnipresent and dissent costs a lot of price, hope is the only shelter to hide.

After examining many failed human life projects, the sixth century Greek poet Theogins Megara concludes as ‘Hope is the only good god remains among mankind’, By now, I can’t say Megara was wrong.

I used to despise hope as a weapon of the weaklings. Even I was dare enough to say ‘is audacious about hope. Rather hope is overrated.’ I remember my feeling after reading Alber Camus’s double edged blow to hope and hopelessness as ‘Humans must learn to live beyond hope and hopelessness’ on his ‘the myth of Sisyphus’ which I endorsed.

Now I realize that it was one of my regrettable stances. Now I am re-reading Sisyphus’s story in a different state of mind I mean even Sisyphus, a poor creature who was condemned to do the something, forever, was hopeful for change in his life.

I know my present state of living is temporal. Thus, while Sisyphus who is condemned eternally was hopeful, why not me?

Friends, one of the ‘joy’ of prison is the plenty of time that you have to think, thanks to my detention, I got the time to audit the last ten thousand day that I live in flesh and blood. (By the way, funnily I was arrested in the week that I was celebrating the tenth thousand day of my life, if I am not mistaken). And my auditing should that there is nothing hopeless about the future.

In the state that I stand by now, even if I understand the situation of hopelessness. Rather again and after Patrick Henery’s brave state of questioning as. ‘If life so dear, or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?’ is echoing in my ears, as if I were one of the attendants when Henery speaks.

Comrades, I am nostalgic of everything, the sessions, what we talk, even the greeting. My hope is that we will meet again. Upon my farewell Theognis  Megara is here again saying ‘As long as many lives and sees the light of the sun, let him … count on hope.’ Yes, as long as our comradery exist, let us count on hope.

O! Tyranny what a loser are you!? Whatever you are doing, for us there is hope and reminiscence!

Confessions of An “Ex-Revolutionary”

Befeqadu Hailu writes from prison

There was a time in my life when I used to think a lot about revolution in Ethiopia. In fact, in 2011 during the so called ‘Arab Spring’ I wrote a rejoinder article when Ethiopian democracy activists (especially those who are based in diaspora) planned a ‘Day of Rage’ using Facebook and aimed at ending EPRDF’s two-decade authoritarian rule. Just after a year I wrote one more rejoinder titled “Revolution is Ephemeral ’. In this article I tried to highlight what Ethiopians truly lack to launch a genuine social revolution using social media. In these couple of articles it appeared that I went up against proponents of revolution but I was trying to explain the traceable causes and conditions of social revolution. In a nutshell, I was saying that the significant portion of the Ethiopian population, the opposition politicians, and the intellectuals and generally the elite and social ideals and social reality were not sufficiently prepared to kick-start an authentic and organic social change.

Yet again in 2012, I was inspired enough to write a series of articles under a general title ‘Concerning Change’ on our own blog Zone9. In the first of my series of articles titled “Will EPRDF hand over power by means of election?” I tried to explain why EPRDF will keep on clinging to power. I argued that EPRDF is not yet ready for an electoral democracy. In a bid to demonstrate an alternative yet constitutional means of possible social change such as civil disobedience I wrote further articles as a follow up to my critique and highlighted different elements of social change across a spectrum of societal issues. As much as I can I tried to kindle genuine public conversations in bringing these issues to the public’s attention through my articles such as ‘Fear and Social Change’ ‘Regime Change and Religion’, ‘The Role of Civil Society in 1974 Ethiopian Revolution’ and “Revolution or Sluggish Change” It was during this time that I contemplated deeply about revolution. It was one phase of my life in which I have tried to articulate my comprehension of revolution into pieces of writings but it was also a stage of my life in which my belief on revolution was dropped off significantly. But I have to confess here that my belief on revolution plummeted to its all-time low merely in 2013. Subsequently, I found myself turned into an activist of an organic social change through processes (not a transient revolution) from an avid reader and advocate of revolutionary ideas. I have to put in plain words that what made me skeptic of transient revolutions; I have to explain at length that how I progressed (say it regress if you like) from being optimistic revolutionary to a proponent of an organic and authentic social change through processes, as the 1960s Ethiopian Marxist revolutionaries put it, what turned me from being ‘Revo’ (revolutionary) to ‘Sabo’ (Saboteur). Please note that I was only an enthusiastic reader of revolutionary ideas.

At some stage while I was grappling with the revolutionary ideals of intending to bring fundamental structural change in favor of the mass but unexpectedly might turn to be like unrestrained wildfire which could be destructive; Mohamed Morsi was ousted in Egypt’s second revolution just in two years. The second Egyptian rebellion (revolution) made me feel perplexed about revolutions. But I thought in his short-lived presidency Morsi operated against basic principles of democracy and hence I believed the second revolution was born in resistance to another form of dictatorship. Certainly the second revolution even made me assert “A Conscious public will not be a possession of a despot and Egyptians are a proof”. I genuinely took the idea seriously that Egyptians would thrive in protesting until they get their preferred form of government; just like the 18th century series of French Revolutions which profoundly affected modern history. However, I realized that this is not the case when I observe the Egyptian army suspended the constitution and took control the revolution. In a similar manner of the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution during which the Ethiopian army hacked the revolution the Egyptian army did the same. After that I even went as far as asking “If Revolutions are inherently similar?”

In the meantime the Ethiopian social media sphere and the private press spontaneously embarked on entertaining a sort of peculiar conversations. These conversations were prompted by Jawar Mohamed’s public comment on Al Jazeera’s English daily television program called The Stream. On the show when Jawar was pressed by the host of the show what he prefers, flanked by his ethnic and national identity; he declared his ethnicity comes first over his national identity and acknowledged himself as ‘Oromo First’. Many consider the public discussion which followed the Jawar incident as a pointless exercise of talking past each other but I think of this spectacle in a different way. I consider this incident as one of fascinating things because it really helped many people to re-examine their understanding of Ethiopia’s historical and political phenomenon. For me that incident was an excellent opportunity and serves as an evidence that we need a ground for long-running debates and a continuous scholarship on Ethiopia’s historical and political phenomenon. The spectacle should be an eye opening and insightful opportunity especially for those of us who are a loosely-knit community of dissents, oppositions groups, writers and activists whose organizing purpose is only to triumph over EPRDF. It was an incident that tasked all of us to find a possible way and build a system that can maintain a consensus among opponents. Furthermore, the incident made it clearer than ever that most of us only know what we do not want but we do not clearly know what we really want. To conclude on this, the incident exposed that Ethiopians struggle for democracy is not principled but rather it is based on indignation and grudge.

As difficult as this issue to contemplate I started to realize the fact that despotic leaders are generally results of broader and yet fundamental societal flaws. For me this was like the aha! moment. So when revolution is conceived in a society with a high degree of authoritarianism, the end result is usually more authoritarianism. I think it comes down to individual elite who appeared liberal and revolutionary from authoritarian society are either concealed authoritarian themselves or the society is not yet ready to allow them to exercise their liberty. This is like a classic causality dilemma, which one came first a chicken or the egg. But I think one should change first and it should be the society. It is with this eureka effect that I tried to revisit the revolutions in the Arab world. Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria… and I tend to think that the revolutions in these countries have done more harm than good. They caused a great deal of human suffering. Removing a despot does not necessarily guarantee a change. In similar manner the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution which removed HaileSelassie’s rule and replaced with the Dergue, a Marxist military junta is just as bad (If not worse) than the revolutions of the Arab world. It is even worse if we consider the human suffering that was caused by the infighting and power struggle of the political parties of the time. I have watched when the storied Ukraine for its Orange revolution of 2004 back to revolution all over again in 2014. I even tweeted about it ‘to revolution then calmness and back’. The February 2014 Ukrainian revolution culminated (I am not sure if I can say it is culminated) in turning over its own State Crimea to pro-Russian forces even though it appeared the Russian involvement in Ukrainian affairs cited as one of the cause of the revolution. I also wrote a commentary on my personal blog asking Are revolutions meant to be betrayed? ››My point in this particular blog post was showing reasons why elite citizens who usually initiate revolutions would end up in brawl and infighting after they started revolutions. I used the old Amharic saying to illustrate my point ‘Thieves usually do not fight when they steal but they brawl when they divide what they robbed”. I intentionally used the word ‘thieves’ to illustrate the context of Ethiopian political reality. I am referring to Ethiopian astroturf political organizations (formal or informal) that are organized in the name of interest group to bring social change. Beyond their being astroturf in their nature they fight each other. We have numerous such groups and their sole propose is to get hold of political power and harvest the benefits from it not bringing genuine revolution.

For this reason I truly believe we can bring change without going through an instantaneous revolution. We can take a good lesson from the history of English people. The English people have a lot of exemplary deeds. Rule of law, discussion and public engagement though grass root organizations can bring the desired form of government and we can also achieve social change peacefully.

An acquaintance of mine who knows my stance of instantaneous social change came to visit me in prison after I was unjustly accused of inciting revolution. He looked at me and said ” Aha, what did I told you, there will never be a change without revolution’. But remarkably even in the injustices and sufferings me and my zone9 blogging collective colleagues have been through I still see the need for an authentic social change. Had the society have had the consciousness; they would have seen the impunity of the Ethiopian government (police) enjoy and the injustice we are suffering from. Apparently the Ethiopian government does not have the slightest concern for legitimate questions of Ethiopians but rather they are deeply bothered by the ‘noise of foreign powers’.   Suffering the consequence of using the right to freedom of expression has become a social reality because the society sits silently and watches all the injustice. Society should start to speak up against injustice but to do so we should embark on educative and liberating process through grassroots activism and peaceful disobedience which are yet not happened in Ethiopia. Once a society has become conscious of the benefits of liberating social change and developed a test for liberty there is no way back. I believe consciousness comes first then liberty follows. We have failed spectacularly because as a society we have the cart before the horse in most of our projects. That is how explained for my acquaintance who visited me in prison as well. However, as Kiflu Tadesse put it on the first of two volumed books “That Generation” which dealt with the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution Haile Fida one of the iconic figures of the storied Ethiopian Socialist Movement never predicted Ethiopians would revolted just one year ahead of the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution. According to Kiflu, in 1973 Haile said for Ethiopians to start a revolution it would take them a minimum of twenty five years. Unless I blunder like Haile I don’t think there will be a revolution in Ethiopia in the foreseeable future. Finally like the Ethiopian satirist Abebe Tola usually says it if I screw-up on this, screw me over.

Translated from Amharic by Endalkachew Chala

For thee

By: Zelalem Kibret

Prison Journal Part I

Nuanced translation

Darling; how are you? Has the idea of going back to snail mail ever crossed your mind? But that is what happened. You know darling I am missing you a lot. I have started to be envious of persons who have a luxury of choosing how to communicate with people. Such people are fortunate enough to choose the way they communicate; I remember they have an old adage

“A letter is inept of breathing words; no matter how you write it,

So,I would rather prefer to meet and tell you all”

Look at their adage; how lucky they are. They have a luxury of choosing how to communicate. They can write letters but if they wish they can arrange a meet up as well. For me both ways of communications are lavish choices at this particular time. I am not sure if this letter can get to you or even I might get restricted to have a sight of you. I will return to the details of why this could happen but prior to that let me make my confessions for you and for people who might read this letter.

According to Madam Sylvia Pankhurst, who loved Ethiopia as her homeland, when Duce Mussolini invaded Ethiopia he enforced his unwritten law of outlawing the use of the word Ethiopia in writings. This is one of the reasons why Ethiopian writers and singers commonly used the phrase ‘for thee; for thee’ as a covert personification of Ethiopia. Since then this phrase has become a regular insertion in a popular romance songs of Ethiopia. But in the songs the phrase ‘for thee; for thee’ secretly refers to Ethiopia. But in this letter have I used this open secret phrase to refer to Ethiopia as my predecessor writers? Absolutely no! Why would I do that when my rights of freedom of expression is respected in Ethiopian constitution (sarcastic). Well, the travesty can wait for now but I have to make a confession in this letter the phrase ‘for thee’ is not referring to Ethiopia (sarcastic again). You, my habibati; my darling. In this letter I will recount what has happened in my life as a prisoner. I know my deeds either will make you smile (you have such an infectious smile) or will make you grief (my sincere condolences to you)

The Right to Write this Letter

Before I go to details I have to ask a question “do I have a right to correspond with the outside world?” The reason I am asking this question is because I am a prisoner. I was put under arrest, and accused of an attempt of reducing the constitutional order into rubble. On the twenty third day of my arrest suspicions turn out to be crimes and crimes produce other crimes such as inciting violence, public strife and acts of terrorism. Hence, the police suspected me of attempting to destroy the Ethiopian constitution like Israelites destroyed the wall of Jericho. Darling, I am telling you all theses not because you have not heard of it but it will help me explain the question I have asked “Do I have a right to communicate with the outside world”

Well, I don’t deserve to be in such kind of situation. I have to refer to the law whenever I speak about my rights because the law is a ‘shield and provides a protection for me’. What does the law say about prisoners’ rights of communication using correspondence? According to Regulation Number 138/2008 which was passed by Council of Ministers in 2008; prisoners whether they are sentenced or suspects have a right to correspondence however the with intention of protecting the safety of the penitentiary the letters will be regulated. Consequently; you and I are allowed to correspond, hallelujah!. I am sure you will not make mockery of my sincere trust in the rule of law. You will not label my trust in the rule of law as a fool man’s mantra. Comrade Lenin had written the draft and explanation of a program for the social-democratic party during his prison time in Petersburg. In doing that he created a new chapter of history by writing using an Invisible Ink. There you go; yesterday’s revolutionary Leninists but today’s incarcerators have respected my rights of correspondence and I am dashing on the white paper like our renaissance train passes through its railway.

  25th  of April, 2014


Darling, have you heard of Wolde Giyorgis Wolde Yohannes? He was an important government Minister during the reign of Haile Selassie. He served as a Minister of Pen from 1934 to 1948. But Haile Selassie and Wolde Giyorgis’ companionship did not endure for more than 14 years. They got quarreled. Let me remember a quote from Zewdie Reta’s book on this. Zewdie wrote:

“For Wolde Giyorgis 25th of April 1948 was the brilliant day but the glow of the day only lasted until mid-day. That day turned into gloom when he was summoned to be informed about his demotion”. (I don’t have the book at my hand now so I could not cite the precise page of this excerpt)

The reason to demote Wolde Giyorgis from his ministerial position was because he was accused of deposing King Haile Selassie. I recited the story of Wolde Giyorgis here because I have a comparable story with him. What a coincidence! I will narrate the unfortunate date of April 25 as Zewdie Reta did for Wolde Giyorgis.

My April 25th went like this

It was a sunny Friday and the day begun in a little strange manner. At Ambo University I was rushing to have the last class of the semester but students were having a peaceful demonstration in the campus. Their reason for a peaceful protest was that they claim the master plan which was prepared to expand Addis Ababa to the adjacent towns of Oromia Regional State is unconstitutional. The students have placards showing their protest. Luckily for the day the students’ protest was concluded in a peaceful manner. And I have re-scheduled to carry out a makeup class for the missed class for the next day. But later that day as the saying goes ‘Man proposes; God giggles’ in a similar manner with Wolde Giyorgis I was told by about 9 security agents that I am under arrest for conspiring to overthrow the Ethiopian government by inciting violence. But I am not that surprised but a little bit irked that they could simply summoned me at Maeklawi saying Mr. Zelalem you are required to come to Maeklawi tomorrow morning at 9:00am. I would have gone but I would have probably asked them to let me finish the class I have been teaching for a semester. I would have saved them a lot of energy . But I am grateful for my government that they have shown me a great respect by sending a lot of security agents with two vehicles.

Darling, I hope you are reading this letter. The phrase you are under arrest has always been making me smile. Right after my detention I heard this phrase a couple of times from a middle aged looking person, who appeared to be a coordinator of the security agents that came all the way from Addis Ababa to arrest me. He called to someone (I wish I know to whom he ringed) higher in the command and told him that they have just arrested the suspect who conspired to incite public strife. I smiled, but that is how I was arrested from my work place. From 25th of April 2014 until 17th of July 2014 for 84 days life was a static and banal. Before I bore you with a lot of details let me write you five essential events. Ahead of that I want to give you a brief description of my 84 days in prison.

I spent the first 75 days in a 5m by 4 m room at Ethiopia’s crime investigation center called Maeklawi. I was made to stay in an extremely controlled room called Siberia. There were just five mattresses in the room. The room does not have any opening for sunlight. There was continuous electric bulb light but when electricity supply interrupted they replace it with diesel generator. At times when the generator runs out of the diesel we are forced to stay in a complete darkness. No one is allowed to lighten the room using a candle or a torch. They sometimes let us out of the small room for about 10 minutes in the morning. Moreover, they also let us see the outside world for about 15 minutes on daily basis but generally we are locked in the little room for more than 23 hours of the day. No one is allowed neither to talk nor to chant audibly. If one is found guilty of speaking loudly they will face the harsh consequence.

Within 75 days of my time at Maeklawi I made a lot of friends who are branded as terrorists. I have also realized that Ethiopian government suspects and even arrests minors as young as 14 or 15 years of age. These young people are suspects of terrorism. They are accused of working with various political organizations such as ONLF, Al-Shebab, OLF, Benishangul Gumuz People Liberation Front, and Akida ( new organization). It is good to experience a bit of a privation. Have I told you that I have experienced a solitary confinement for two days? Yes I was ‘lucky enough’ to experience it. Perhaps, during those two days I was not alone, you were with me in my thoughts

Apologies, if I bored you with a lot of details. Let me cut the details of my privation and get back to the five events that I was telling you a while ago. I believe these events will better explain the events that happened on me.

1. I am grateful that they are concerned for the well-being of my students and arrested me before I spoil my students 

After I was put under arrest in the afternoon I was being driven with a compact family car from Ambo to Addis Ababa. It was about 8:00 pm in the evening. One of a young looking security agent called me by my name.

“Zelalem; you teach law at University? Is that right? I responded to him yes.

Then he said “You should have helped your country to generate lawyers and judges. But it is shame that you found yourself engaged in such kind of destructive activities with the evil intention of preventing our development. In any case it is good you are put under arrest before you make a lot of damages to the students. Let me ask you how many foreigners cajoled you for this? You know we don’t let anyone to mess around with our development.” As I was reflecting on the number of students I have ‘spoiled’ during my four teaching years at the University I arrived at Maeklawi at about 9:50 pm.

2. What is your objective

Darling, the Ethiopian government has accused us conspiring of inciting violence. Government determinedly says that they have solid evidence which could proof their accusation. But I am telling you they have either tried to entice or intimidate us to admit our crime. They never have neither the evidence nor the slightest information to proof their accusations. Apparently that is why during the interrogation in Maeklawi their police officers repeatedly tired us with “What is your intention” &“What is your objective?“I suffered a lot with theses boring questions. Some of the questions during my interrogation went like this:

The police officer: What are your objectives as Zone9?

Me: Our objective is clearly stated on our blog. Anyone who can read our blog can understand it. To put it shortly; it is to entertain different narratives in the country. We intended to engage the public with discussions

The police officer: That is a cover. Tell me your real intentions.

Me: Well, we don’t have any intention other than this.

The police officer always wanted me to tell him something his bosses needed us to confess. He always wanted me to tell him that our intention by saying “Yes our intention is to remove this government and liberate Ethiopians from the yoke of oppression using violence” He wanted me to say that. I always told him our real intention and he finally understood that he will not get what he wanted from me. But he always encouraged me to think over it whenever he signed off his daily interrogation.

3. My Interrogation

Darling, had they asked me my personal life goal; I would have told them that you are my personal goal. You know that I don’t have anything else other than you. You are such a panic striking creature. The investigation continued and I had two interrogators taking turns to investigate me

The Police Officer: Whom have you met from world leaders?

Me: I have never met anyone.

The Police Officer: We have evidence. You better confess before you get mortified

Me: If you can please remind me then I can tell you whom we met and what we have discussed. Perhaps during the commemorative event for Nelson Mandela organized here in the headquarter of African Union. I met Prime Minster Haielmariam Desalegn. But I don’t remember meeting any other leader

The Police Officer: Hmm. But are you not among the three who is selected to make a speech in front of President Barack Obama. But who hell is America to meddle in Africa’s internal affairs and gather and train young leaders and blah blah blah

Me: Seriously, am I selected to make speech in front of President Obama? I told him mockingly that I might got selected after my incarceration. Did you just say who the hell is America to meddle in Africa’s internal affair. But I don’t see a problem if America has helped Africa to empower its young people. In fact America has always been supportive during our famines and drought. I don’t think it is proper to say what you just said.

The Police Officer: What are you talking about? We are an era of growth and development. You should not talk about famine and drought. Just leave it.

You know there is a saying which says a coward sweats even inside the cold water. Our government is such a coward being that they don’t trust their shoulders while they run on the track alone. When I reflect back on my interrogation I have regrets. When I was asked to tell whom I met from leaders I should have told them that I met the Sri Lankan President and traveled to Peru and visited Machu Pichu. I am sure they might have included this in our charge sheet. They might have written the charge sheet like this “With the financial and material support he got from Sri Lankan government he traveled all the way to Peru and took part in training at Machu Pichu on how to dismantle the Ethiopian constitutional order. They might attach the pictures of Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s pictures they have found in my laptop as an evidence to support their allegation. Damn it, I should have done that.

4. Gebrehiwot Baykedagn the terrorist and the issue of auctioning Ethiopia for sell

Darling, I know I have tired you but I am almost there; finishing. My love, bear with me. I also want you to correct the Paulian masculine reference to love to feminine reference. Please let’s refer to love as she and say love is patient. During my interrogation one question which bore me to death was my ‘neoliberal’ claims that development and democracy can go hand in hand.

The police officers took turns to’ explain’ and ‘persuade’ me the validity of EPRDF’s policy. “Government has provided everything for you. What did you lack? Why did you become white man’s worshiper? You and your friends are so envious. Why your eyes turned into red with anger and jealousy when this country is started to have a glimmer of hope? Please tell us? What makes you such an evil creature? You and your friends want to sell this country which our fathers preserved for us with their blood and prayers. You and your generation betrayed your country and start to negotiate with foreigners who desired this beautiful country .You want to sell this country to foreigners” I was accused of these crimes. But to make you smile I will quote something humorous from an old book titled “You & Me” written by Tadesse.

“Ethiopia is such a beautiful country….it is a country that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. …Ethiopia is like a rose flower….” Incredible!

The perception of beauty is subjective. As the saying goes beauty is in the eyes of the beholder but these police officers who are intoxicated with such vulgar nationalism have accused me and my generation of selling this country for foreign people. Is it not astonishing? Saying democracy and development can and should go hand in hand made us criminals. Believing in democracy and development has become a treasonous act.

The distinguished Ethiopian scholar Gebrehiwot Baykedagn wrote “If we build rail road and construct roads without enlightening a society, it even further impoverishes the society because the underlying conditions of the society does not change”. He further said infrastructural progress without societal enlightenment is worthless. Had Gebrehiwot been a member of my generation I am sure he would have been accused of denying Ethiopia’s development and agitate the public to dismantle the rail road and other treasonous act.

5. Dear Darling

I did not have a paper and a pen to write you the diary of my hardship at length because it was a serious crime to have a paper and pen. Besides I don’t want to bore you with a lot of details but let me tell you some issues broadly

  •  In those awful days I make a habit of sleeping as early as at 6:00pm and I found it helpful because it helped me not to hear the sounds my friends or cellmates make after they came from abusive interrogation such as floggings and beatings
  • In 2012 it was reported that the Federal Police set up a ‘Cyber Crime Laboratory’ and I remember I was saying cyber criminals you are all doomed but they said that our data is immense and the Federal Police has only just one personal computer which they find it difficult to process our data. It is not a joke that I was even asked to install anti-virus on their computer. So I ask when do they use their Cyber Crime Laboratory’ if they don’t use it to investigate crimes as serious as terrorism.
  • In a day which I can not exactly remember the month a middle aged person entered into our small room and started asking a series of questions for all of us. He started with one of my friend from Haromaya University.

                   “You, where have you come from?”

                   “I came from Haromaya University”

                   “Aha, you are the culprit”

He continued

                  “How about you? where have you come from?”

                   “I came from Wellega University”

                  “You, what is your problem if Oromia gets developed?”

Then he asked me

                    “Okay how about you? Where have you come from?”

                     “I came from Ambo University”

                      “Ah, You are the ones who have incited public for the recent the violence and you are responsible for that bloodshed”

                      “No, I was arrested before the violence has happened”

                      “If that is the case you are lucky history would not have remembered you favorably had get arrested when you protest the development of Oromia”

We all have waited until the man leaves the room to burst into laughter. Ethiopia is a country where everything has become a comic story.

In all those days I was looking for a person who can tell me the real reason of my incarceration. I am neither shocked nor dejected because of my arrest. In fact I always look for happiness wherever I go. Luckily happiness never left me as well. For a long period of time I have had Aristotelian philosophy of life which says the purpose of life is to know but now I have mingled this life philosophy of happiness. So the purpose of life is both to know and to be happy. Hence; I am enjoying my life while I strive to know.

‘‘Thanks to you …. For you exist’


Translated from Amharic by Endalkachew Chala


The Unsettling Testimony of Befekadu

Befe“So what do you think is your offense?” my interrogator signed off with this intriguing question after he made me recount my works as an activist and progressive blogger. Soon after, when my captors permitted me to be reunited with my blogger friends, who are now described as ‘associates’ in the lexicon of inmates we have realized that we were all asked this same question “So what do you think is your offense?” This question is intriguing because it has a comprehensive and totalizing power to describe the entire interrogation process. It is intriguing because it sheds light into our innocence or our into our refusal to acknowledge what our captors suspected us of violating. Yes, our captors probed us severely but they all ended with the same question “So what do you think is your offense?” The whole point of the investigation was not to proof or to disproof our offenses but it was to make us plead guilty. With that, our brief two years of operation as Zone9ers which was a perplexity for a lot of people has got answers. Observers perplexed why Ethiopian government tolerated Zone9ers for so long. Given the sensitive nature of Ethiopia’s government to freedom of expression the annoying perplexity of these people is understandable. As the curiosity of these perplexed people come to end; we got apprehended, investigated and blame is being laid up on us for committing acts of ‘crime’ by being a ‘member’ and ‘accepting missions’ of Ginbot7/May 15 and OLF as well. Next in a row is ‘due processes’ in the prosecution, but I believe there are issues that necessitate this piece. So I decided to write this. How did our incarceration & investigation go? Are we really a member of Ginbot7/May15? If not why have they arrested us? Will they release us soon?

No matter what, the bounds exist among people if they write about Ethiopia’s s political reality they will have to survive with a peril of incarceration as long as they live in the country. I believe that is why Prof. Mesfin poignantly described Ethiopians as those who have gone through imprisonment, those who are now in prison and those who await imprisonment. In his book, Prof. Mesfin cited these three layers of Ethiopian captives to his unidentified conversant, credit to him, but we believe everyone who has to survive with a dread to exercise their freedom of expression live in outer ring of the prison, the Nation Itself, that is why we call our blog Zone9. Merely we were two weeks into our nascent blogging when they made our collective blog inaccessible in Ethiopia in 2012. We gave it a trial until the end but we knew that the fate of our blocked blogs could be our own. We know that we could end up being arrested. In the days and weeks leading up to our incarceration in April 2014, government security agents have been threatening us about our imminent arrest but it is only human to get shaken when it happened. The arrest besieged six obtainable members of the blogging collective and our three journalist allies. Here; I would like to point out that the incarceration of our three journalist allies was a bit of shock at least for us; but later it became noticeable that we were only used as a pretext and their arrest is part of a grand arrangement. The highly coordinated manner of our seizures on its own speaks volumes about government’s pre-calculated grand arrangement. With the exception of one of the journalist (Asmamaw) we were all arrested on Friday the 25th of April on or about 11:00 pm; from our respective locations. Asmamaw was arrested the next morning. By the time we were seized and taken to the detention center the search ‘warrant’ that authorized the law enforcement personnel was well over its time limit at least according to Ethiopian law. In fact, the unlawful intrusion of our rights starts right here. Without delay, we become victims of various unlawful courses of actions.

The very idea of setting a foot in the compound of the ill-famed Maeklawi detention center gives a cold shiver to anyone. But my sheer optimistic trust that the brutal and inhuman treatment of people as Ethiopia’s distant memory saved me from trembling while I was escorted into the compound. So were my friends, I suppose. What is more; we had nothing to be scared of because; we are neither undercover agents nor members of armed forces; we are just writers. However, as soon as I arrived at Maeklawi detainees informed me that I am in one of the notorious section of the detention center called ‘Siberia’. In just less than a week I felt I was living right in the middle of the account of Human Rights Watch report of the 2013 titled- They Want a Confession.

The Standard Maeklawi Interrogation

The standard Maeklawi interrogation methods are more of dominance and submission, rather than confidence and creativity. Instead of extracting information from ‘suspects’ the police officers usually fool around; they spend too much time in I know it all kind of game. If this does not succeed in extracting information, they force confessions by punching, beatings, extended physical exercise and flogging. I concluded that this is the standard interrogation routine in Maeklawi since I have endured it with five different police officers. Other detainees have informed me that they have gone through the same procedure. In fact I had an opportunity to converse with detainees who have passed through even wicked procedures that intrude detainees’ privacies. Some detainees got stripped off their clothes and asked to perform stand up-sit dawn. Particularly, I was able to meet with people who suffered from medieval type of torture in an anonymous detention center before they were brought to their pre-trial detention center at Maeklawi. These detainees suffer from diabolical barbarity such as forcible extraction of their nails from their fingers, flogging and hooding; among these are students from Haromaya University. What is nauseating is the extracted information from detainees in anonymous detention center is usually brought to their pre-trial detention center for the purpose of verification. Detainees never know where they were taken for this brutal investigation; because they are hooded. The anonymous detention centers are like black holes. Ethiopian prisoners’ anguish which appeared to be so distant in memory is not that far after all.

Finally, we were made to plead guilty, we confessed under duress. We could not bear with the ceaseless brutal and psychologically degrading pressure. We could not carry on surviving the hellhole of Maeklawi. We end up recounting what our detectives would like better to listen. To the delight of our detectives we have added as many self-incriminating phrases as possible. But phrases such as ‘yes we wanted to incite violence’ never pleased them. Subsequently they have re-written our confessions so that it will fit their frame. Some of us tried to explain; others we had to endure beatings but at last we all succumbed to the pressure and signed the carefully scripted confession pages with the exception of Abel, he refused to sign the rewritten confession pages. He has survived the pain but even his confession pages are complete mendacities let alone ours.

Now we are a living witnesses that torture is part of Maeklawi’s ceremony that reveals the ‘truth’ of a crime. I thought police interrogations were so complex involving high end skills, knowledge and psychological tactics to establish facts. Thanks to our time at Maeklawi I have realized that police interrogations in Maeklawi are not that complex. In fact they are simple. They are like machines that produce guilt in the detainees. In Maeklawi, the driving principle of police interrogations is ‘you are guilty unless proven otherwise’. Your pleas for innocence or explanation for that matter fell on deaf ears; detectives will cook a crime for you; I call this Maeklawi-sque interrogations.

My experience, especially our own case; convinced me stronger than ever that Maeklawi should go through a complete reform. One can simply observe that there is a significant economy of power invested in Maeklawi. The investigation is not principled; detectives ingratiate the power wielders. I think they are recruited based on their willingness to carry out the desires of the power wielders, not to uphold the rule of law. I think the staffing of employees should be merit based. These kinds of law enforcement employees should be knowledgeable if they are not they might overlook insightful information when they deal with real criminals and this might jeopardized the safety & security of the country.

An Apple & Orange

The evident part of each of our confession pages which forced us plead guilty were our online campaigns, our plans, the articles we wrote, the trainings we partake, the training manuals, the skills we attempted to impart. I had to admit that we all expected that their plan was to indict us with agitating the public to strife. We thought the ceiling for our ‘crime’ is accusing us of violating article 257/8 criminal code of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. But eureka, when they formally charge us we have realized that we are charged with Ethiopian terrorism law, particularly with violation of its Article 4 which can result in severe punishment of 15 years to life imprisonment. Honestly, speaking this makes my face beam with smile.

The terrorism charge is smirking because the evidences brought to support the charge are merely our writings, the press releases we wrote during our online campaigns and different training manuals. Other than these documents, there are three ‘documents’ which purportedly proof our connections with Ginbot 7 and OLF. The first one is Ginbot7’s newsletter from September 2009. This newsletter was located in Natnael’s email. Here, it is important to note that Ethiopia’s anti-terror proclamation was not passed into law and Ginbot7 was not yet labeled as a terrorist organization when Natty received the newsletter. The second document was, the one located in the house of Soliyana’s mom during the search and seizures. The alleged document is the guiding document to draft members of Ginbot7 popular force. Apparently, Soli’s mom refused to acknowledge this document insisting it was inserted by the security agents themselves in their house rather than located. In any way this should not be a big deal especially considering Soli’s stance on armed struggle. We all know that Soli does not support regime change by means of armed struggle. Before my detention last time I check her Twitter bio has an adage “no for war”. The third document is the political program of OLF which was located in the personal computer of Mahlet. In fact, Mahlet has had many political programs of other Oromo political parties but they were not presented as evidence. I don’t want to engage in ping pong kind of argument that yields nonentity. Apparently, for our loved ones if not our leaders it is clear that possessing these documents does confirm neither allegiance nor working relationship with both Ginbot7 & OLF. Our activities and the charges we received are like an apple & orange.

The preposterous of all allegations is the one which blames us of receiving $2400 money using Natnael as our contact person. This money was a remittance transferred from Article 19 to encourage Reyoot, an imprisoned journalist and of course support her family. During our interrogation we have explained this fact in great detail to the police officers. Adjacent to our claim attached was the receipt to proof the transfer was made by Article 19. But in the charge sheet they tried to get us perceived wrongly and they have attempted to show that we have received the money from the ‘terrorist’ organizations. I imagine they know our innocence; but I think either they maliciously want us suffer or they want to take their time until we prove our innocence.

Is bad excuse better than none? Not exactly

Some conundrums are simply explained in old adages like bad excuse is better than none but I think our story can be best explained in an Ethiopian folk story of a hyena and a donkey. The story goes like this. Once upon a time a donkey and a hyena were drinking from the same stream of water. The belligerent hyena whined to the donkey that she is making his water filthy despite he is drinking up in the stream; but the donkey told to the hyena to stop looking for a reason to prey on her. People say a bad excuse is better than none but not in our case! Our story is much more analogous to the story of the hyena and the donkey than to the old adage.

They arrested us without knowing anything other than our names. We genuinely believed that if they know what we have been doing they might understand us. With that good will we have even passed some of our writings to them through one of their undercover agent who has been following us before our detention but I don’t think they have read the anthology of our writings. Indeed our detectives were craving to plead us guilty in a very desperate manner. But why would they do that? They might want us to stay away from Ethiopian social media sphere until the upcoming Ethiopian national election in May 2015. Hitherto, we have the first-hand experience of favoritism and partiality towards the ruling party. What is left is to try out to defend ourselves using the judicial system. For now let me ponder about our future; will they ‘release’ us? I will not dwell on the legal possibilities of our ‘acquitance’ but I will only look into our hypothetical chances. Even though the Ethiopian Federal Police which is an apparatus of the government arrested us without having probable cause; they still thought they would find some sort of transgression. As a matter of fact they could not find anything that would get us accused even in the wildest interpretation of the already broad anti-terrorism proclamation. However; this has not prevented them from using it. The verbosity and trivialities of the charges on its own is an apparent suggestion for the sham nature of their accusations. But I do not think we will get ‘exonerated’ any time soon. Why because;

1. EPRDF is bullheaded. They are stubborn in annoying way. If they think the detainees have generated a lot of support and are critical of their governance. They don’t want to release their captives without dehumanizing them. EPRDF is foolishly childish. Note; I am not saying the global support we received is not helping us. Your support is our daily bread. It is warming us like sunshine. I am sure the day shall come on which we say thank you for your support.

2. They don’t want take a risk. Even though they have seen our innocence regarding their fear of inciting violence after the upcoming election; they did not want to take a risk. In weeks leading up to our arrest they have been accusing us of planning color revolution following the national election using their media.

3. They want us suffer. They want us spend our time jail because we are strong critics of their policies.

4. They do not have any sense of decency that prevent them to hand dawn judgment on innocent people.

Translated from Amharic by Endalkachew Chala