I was having a bad day last month at the neighborhood food co-op where I work in Minneapolis, in the heart of a community that is home to many Ethiopian immigrants.
Wanting to leave early, I thought of asking my colleague, Seble Asefa, an Ethiopian woman I work with, to cover the rest of my shift.
But when I saw the look on her face, I saw her day was faring no better than mine.
All the problems of my day indeed felt petty as I learned what was giving her headaches and stress—fear for the lives of her family and friends in Ethiopia.
“The government killed people last night,” Asefa said.
News from back home in Africa reaches the global community of Ethiopians very quickly, thanks to cell phones and the Internet. Details about the violence committed by government troops in Ethiopia is more likely to flow through such connections–and be printed in articles in the United States like this one–than they are to appear in any Ethiopian press which is government-controlled, and currently shut down.
Throughout the afternoon at my store I saw the worry on the faces our Ethiopian customers. One of them, an older Ethiopian woman, who likes to chat, told Asefa that she had come to the store because she was too worried to sit still at home.
The violence stems from elections in the spring of this year. In April, Ethiopians were electrified by the prospect of democracy. On May 15, the day of the vote, it felt like an historic triumph was imminent. The country has had a rotation of oppressive regimes, including, many Ethiopians believe, the present one under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who had promised free and fair elections this past spring.
Indeed, it was the first time that multiple parties appeared on the ballot, including candidates representing the main opposition party in Ethiopia, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD). Leading up to the election there had been lively policy arguments on the national state-owned television—another historic first for Ethiopia.
It was, my friend Seble Asefa said, as if a spirit had come over the people. Politics, long the source of war and despair, was suddenly offering real hope for change. The opposition had mounted a credible challenge and when the CUD called for a public rally of support, hundreds of thousands in the capital, Addis Ababa, showed up.
Which is why, on the day after the election, many Ethiopians were stunned when President Meles suddenly announced that he had won. The CUD had merely gained a few seats in Parliament, he said.
Few people believed the official results of the election and the CUD immediately began making accusations of fraud and calling for protests. After the whole show of legitimacy that the government had given to the elections, it made no sense that the incredible turnout in favor of the CUD had registered virtually nothing in the election results.
On May 16, Meles ordered the country under martial law and banned protests. When protests erupted in the first week of June, government troops reacted violently, opening fire on unarmed crowds, sending a further wave of shock through the populace.
By June 8, uniformed military troops had killed around 40 people. Mass arrests followed with the government saying it had arrested around 600 students, with protesters claiming the real number was closer to 1,000.
Encountering violence from their own government, many Ethiopians have reached out to the global diaspora of Ethiopian immigrants, asking people living in western democracies, who have freedom to protest and freedom of speech, to stand up for democracy and call attention to the tense situation at home.
Seble Asefa has a husband, two brothers, a father and dozens more friends and family members who live in Addis Ababa, where she was born and raised. After Parliament went to session in the fall and the CUD Parliament members were told that they were forbidden to discuss with one another, and even to vote, the CUD walked out and told supporters to plan on protesting after the month long Muslim holy period of Ramadan.
But before Ramadan ended, violence erupted once again.
I have learned a lot about what’s going on today in Ethiopia from my friends and colleagues at the food co-op. For example, the tragic events of Nov. 1, which caused ripples extending all the way to Minneapolis.
The day started as usual. Addis Ababa is a bustling modern city of about 2.7 million people. Asefa’s husband, Yene, lives with his mother and sisters near a large market, the Mercado, which is very busy and is located next to a high school.
It was at this high school where protests broke out on Tuesday, Nov. 1, according to my Ethiopian friends in Minneapolis who provided much of the following account. They gathered facts in telephone calls and e-mails with relatives and friends in Addis Ababa.
Many young Ethiopians have been the target of arrests since the disputed elections, and on this day the army surrounded the school. Students came out to ask the troops to leave and tensions mounted on both sides.
The army escalated the event when it then opened fire, according to accounts circulating in Minneapolis, killing a half dozen or so unarmed students. Asefa’s husband, Yene, was at work when his mother called him and told him not to come home because it wasn’t safe. The protest began to spread that evening when the government again used live ammunition on the protesters.
Sources in Minneapolis estimate that around 46 people died in these street clashes.
By the next day the city had shut down, it was on total strike and anyone unlucky enough to be caught outside was either arrested or shot. By Friday, protests had erupted in major towns outside Addis Ababa.
Seble Asefa’s family home is on the edges of the city, in a low-mountainous area, and while growing up everyone joked that they were “hidden”.
During the first week of November, for the first time in her memory said, soldiers visited her neighborhood. They had come looking for a judge who had defied the Meles government by finding CUD party members “not guilty” of some crime. Soldiers were searching house-by-house for the judge, when local young men threw a bomb at the soldiers, turning Asefa’s quiet neighborhood into a war zone.
Ethiopia has two television stations and three radio stations. Over the last month virtually all of the private daily newspapers—of which there were hundreds—have ceased publishing, and at least 12 journalists have been arrested and jailed.
Meles claimed in an interview on state television that local and international media have been fanning the violence.
No one knows the real numbers, but the government itself has said has now arrested a total of 13,000 people, and is holding half that many in detention camps outside the capital. Opposition members and others say the number is as high as 40,000 arrested and jailed.
During the first three days of November, more than 45 people were killed in the capital with reports of more killed in other cities, totaling 80 deaths, although again no one knows for sure.
On Thursday, Dec. 1, 58 of the Ethiopians who have been detained by the state appeared in court in Addis Ababa to be officially charged with treason, and were denied bail. If those detained are found guilty of treason they might receive the death penalty. The 58 Ethiopian citizens include professors, lawyers, the 12 journalists, opposition leaders and representatives of an international nongovernmental organization.
For those continuing their daily routine in the capital city, the days are quiet but tense.
No one knows when violence will erupt again. Further worsening matters is the possibility of conflict with Eritrea, which broke away from Ethiopia after a long, bloody war, when Meles came to power in 1991 and signed a peace treaty. There are tanks lining up on the border now. On Dec. 7, Eritrea ordered all U.N. troops and civilians to leave the country, including U.S. diplomats, heightening the likelihood of war.
Immigrants in the worldwide Ethiopian diaspora are again calling for Western leaders to stand up for democracy. Ethiopia is the largest recipient of aid in the sub-Saharan Africa and it seems as if the U.S. and Britain are loath to upset Meles, as they see Ethiopia as an anchor of political stability and economic development within the region.
Ethiopians in the Minneapolis and St. Paul area have held several vigils and protests and are calling on concerned citizens to write to senators, representatives and president, to pressure Meles to end the violence and free those unfairly jailed arrested. They are protesting in solidarity with Ethiopians around the world, including London and Washington D.C., where some of the largest anti-Meles demonstrations have been held.
Seble Asefa, a member of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, now prays with hundreds of others every Sunday at Debre Selam Medhane-alem, Our Savior, their church on Minnehaha Avenue in Minneapolis. She grew up wanting to be a journalist
The press in Ethiopia is used to government repression and always walks a fine line with government censors who keep a sharp eye out. Today, there is virtually no full and open reporting on the violence unfolding in the country. As a result, Asefa and other Ethiopian immigrants in Minneapolis helped to research and write this story, as journalists and ordinary citizens in Ethiopian face their severest crackdown.
Copyright @ 2005 The Glocalist