The Unsung Heroes

It is now more than six years since Swedish journalist Martin Schibbye and photographer Johan Persson returned home after 438 days in Ethiopian prison, accused of terrorism. Today, Martin Schibbye serves, among other positions, as editor-in-chief for the reporting website Blankspot, where he devotes himself to helping journalists exposed to situations similar to the one he was in. In this text, Martin Schibbye focuses on the hundreds of individuals whose struggle—not least through writing—made democratic development possible in Ethiopia. 

May 3 2019 Text: Martin Schibbye Translation from English: Christina Cullhed

In mid October 2016 two million people gathered at the holy lake Harsadi south of the capital Addis Ababa. The Oromo people celebrated the end of the rain period in a ceremony called Irecha. Many were wearing white traditional dress bearing spears and traditional headdress. In shaky and unfocussed mobile films taken by the participants one can afterwards see how this religious celebration gradually turned into a protest manifestation against the country’s government. 

The crowds shouted: “Down with the government” and “We want freedom,” and panic ensued when the police shot at the government-critical demonstrators with tear gas grenades and rubber bullets. Many were trampled to death fleeing for their lives.

The prime minister at the time, Hailemariam Desalegn, commented on the incident saying that the demonstrators had planned for this chaos, calling it a “pre-planned mayhem.” He also denied that the security forces had fired at the crowds. “As a result of the chaos lives were lost and several injured people have been taken to hospital. Those responsible will be prosecuted,” the Government said. 

On the mobile films from the event, however, one can hear the shooting, and witnesses say that tear gas was fired from helicopters. The government at the time later admitted that fifty-two people had died, while the Ethiopian oppositional groups reported hundreds of deaths.

That same year, in 2016, the US based organisation Human Rights Watch confirmed that during the latest wave of protests against the Ethiopian government the security forces killed more than four hundred people. 

This is four hundred persons who never got to experience the change that is now sweeping over the country—and four hundred persons who have been forgotten. If four hundred civilians had been shot in Russia year 2016, the UN Security Council would have been summoned and the event had dominated the news. But Ethiopia has long been a country in the world that has been allowed many transgressions without any diplomatic, economical, or political consequences whatsoever. 

This is precisely why the change in Ethiopia had to come from within. At a time when everyone wants to be the new leadership’s best allies, it is easy to forget the people who made this change possible. And those who for decades praised a regime that imprisoned journalists are now showing up as often as possible in Addis Ababa talking widely about the importance of a free press. 

So who were these so-called queros—the young fearless people who stood up against the dictatorship? And how did it all begin?

Oromo is Ethiopia’s largest region and at the latest count there were twenty-five million Oromo in a population of seventy-four million Ethiopians. The Oromo people have long been marginalised and with their forbidden language and with a history of extensive discrimination they can be described as the Kurds of Africa. Within the Oromo culture there is a tradition where youths passing from childhood to adulthood must engage themselves in the defence of the village and its animals. This tradition became politicised when the oppression intensified. 

It was the Oromo people that first started the protests when a new plan for Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa (or Finfinne in Oromo) was presented. Arable land that for generations had belonged to Oromo families was threatened by expropriation to give way to new residential areas. 

But the protest movement grew rapidly and soon focussed on wider issues than the appropriation of the land. However, pictures from hospitals of hundreds of wounded and deceased people, pictures spread under the hashtag #OromoProtests, threw the country into its worst political crisis in decades. The protests grew to also include and engage Amharan youngsters and at once the two largest ethnic groups in the country were rising against those in power. The security situation became precarious and as a result of the protests the country’s economy was detrimentally influenced. What is more, the ethnic conflicts in the country worsened. This crisis resulted in the resignation of the sitting prime minister with the hope of “saving the country.”

The new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed used his first hundred days in power to free thousands of political prisoners, to open up for a liberalisation of the economy, to invite formerly exiled media to re-open offices in Addis Ababa, and to say that he would accept the peace treaty with Eritrea. All in all, this has entailed a veritable political earthquake on the Horn of Africa. 

There is now talk of transforming the interrogation rooms at the police station in Maekalawi into a museum, and it is with great relief that I can say that none of my colleagues need longer wake up in the Kality Prison to the guards’ shrill voices shouting “kotera, kotera, kotera” to the accompaniment of the sound of their batons pounding on the corrugated iron. And no journalists are now standing two by two—“hulet, hulet”—outside the tin shacks in the mud to be counted. Bloggers are no longer joking about the cells being called the Sheraton, since, although it was a miserable place with cold wooden floors and fellow prisoners who coughed blood, there was an even worse place. A place where prisoners were kept in utter darkness hanging upside down with weights on their sexual organs, and beaten until they confessed fictive crimes. These cells were called the Hilton.

Humour was the final outpost of defence.

But although these cells are soon to become a museum, and the jokes about them are what remains, we must never forget those who spent time there: all these colleagues who had a choice, the choice of an unproblematic life. But instead, their love of the truth, of Ethiopia, of their fellow human beings, and of journalism itself ultimately made them turn to journalism and to writing. This love made them show what journalism can and should be but which it not always is. And for this love they had to pay a price—the highest price of all: they had to forfeit their freedom. 

The determination of these formerly imprisoned but now free colleagues are examples of a kind of courage that we need now more than ever—a courage that has made this change possible. I also think that, now that they are free we need to ask ourselves where we were and what we were doing while they were in prison.

To praise the reforms today is one thing. Of course, now the former prisoners can speak for themselves, so it is not today that they need our voices—the question is: where was the support when they most needed it?

Abiy Ahmed has shown that he is serious-minded, and that he is a very different kind of leader from all previous prime ministers in the country. He has even asked forgiveness for the wrongs that his own party has committed against his own people. 

I sincerely hope, however, that when Abiy Ahmed accepts the Nobel Peace Prize he will not forget these early spearheads of democracy whom we can thank for these historical developments. To adopt an expression from the US: they are the unsung heroes—they are the ones who have done the brunt of the work in clearing a space in which others can grow and step out into the limelight. 

Those who died fighting for democracy in Ethiopia and who never got the chance to experience any freedom, they are the true unsung heroes. Now it is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that they did not die in vain, and if there is a Nobel Prize to hand out it should be shared with those who never came to experience this time of freedom—those who made this development possible—those who gave all they had for it.