Jomanex Kasaye, exiled blogger: “If we stop caring – We stop living”

1st November 2015  By Melody Sundberg
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The communication is working, but no one is answering. It is too late to warn. The arrests have already taken place. In just a few hours, nine of Jomanex friends have been arrested. He knows that it will only be a matter of time before the police will come after him. He has to leave his country – and his home. The reason is that just like his friends, he is a human rights activist.

Jomanex Kasaye’s deep, dark brown eyes tell a story of their own. They are filled with kindness and compassion, and yet a hint of sadness. We meet at the end of June. It is a beautiful, warm summer’s day and the rays of the afternoon sun shine through the windows. I find myself regretting having asked what he misses from his home country of Ethiopia, from which he was forced to leave. The man who, just before the interview, was laughing and joking is now silent. He looks slightly past me, into nothing. His eyes fill with sorrow; what he sees is a memory. After a long silence, he answers my question in a quiet voice.

– What is there not to miss? Everything. The friends’ smiles. Macchiato, the coffee. My mother’s calls. The landlords. My friends. From small to big things – I miss everything. I do not want to think about it… it hurts. I do not want to accept it. I miss everything.

fact_eprdf_tplf_2Jomanex used to live a decent life in a small town. He owned a computer shop and Internet café. The business was going pretty well, but corruption made things difficult. The power of the government and ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), stretches far and wide. Sometimes, the omnipotence of their power affected his business, hindering him from doing what he wanted to do. Being young and ambitious, Jomanex felt his life was not fulfilled under such restrictions. He describes it as an unfinished chapter in his life.

– There was different ambitions that I wished I could achieve. It is one of my life chapters, but it is not completed.

Jomanex wanted to make an impact in the society. He wanted to make fellow citizens aware and concerned about politics and human rights, and inspire them to take responsibility. However, he describes this area as both complicated and life threatening. Most people were afraid of discussing these subjects even with friends. Although Jomanex knew that politics and human rights were sensitive issues, he began to engage in debates on social media. One day, he got a phone call from someone he did not know. The person wanted him to stop talking about these issues. Jomanex describes it as a shocking moment. The caller knew where he lived, and what he was doing.

–  When you protest, or when you are critical and active in any platform, the government will watch you, and they will do whatever they want.

Following the warning, Jomanex was afraid of telling others about the call. For a week, he stopped his activities in social media. But the feeling of apprehension soon disappeared and he continued, as he puts it, doing what he had to do.

Jomanex and his friends felt that Ethiopia had turned into one big prison. People are not allowed to speak freely, and anyone who criticizes the government is in danger of being imprisoned. In 2009, the independent newspaper Addis Neger, meaning “New Thing”, was forced to close. The editorial staff was forced to flee the country under threat of persecution. Jomanex says that after the newspaper was shut down, there was a lack of political discourse. During this lack of independent media, many in the younger generation began debating on social media. Jomanex and his friends wanted to organize the scattered online debating and discussions. They decided to get together to form a blogging activist group.

–  We wanted to contribute in our own understanding, do what we can, and in that process inspire others and also to be inspired on the way.

One of the most notorious prisons in Ethiopia is the Kality State Prison. Many political prisoners, journalists and bloggers are imprisoned there. It is divided into eight zones. Jomanex and his friends started to call themselves Zone 9, referring to the country itself as a ninth zone of the prison. The group held online campaigns, especially focused on the constitution. The constitution protects many human rights, such as freedom of expression and the press, but according to Jomanex the government does not respect it. Zone 9 wanted to raise awareness that the government is not respecting the constitution or the people. They wanted to engage the public and get everyone involved.

–We showed the people how it [the constitution] is violated and everyone understood it. They started demanding it [the government to respect the constitution]. It was an eye opener and very good campaign.

–  When you protest, or when you are critical and active in any platform, the government will watch you, and they will do whatever they want.

In the election of 2005, opposition parties succeeded in taking one third of the mandates in the parliament. However, the opposition accused the government for harassments and election fraud, and they said that they should have won the election. Hundreds of people protested in a demonstration, claiming the elections had been rigged. Thousands were arrested during the protests, and approximately 200 people were shot and killed by the police. According to Jomanex, this led to the banning of demonstrations. The constitution states that everyone has the right to demonstrate, and Zone 9 demanded this right be respected.

–After we finished our campaign online, one of the opposition parties, the Blue Party, managed to have a demonstration offline. After 2005, there were no protests in Addis. This was the first one. It was inspiring to have an online campaign and to see the results offline.

Jomanex tells me that the situation in Ethiopia was, and is still, not good. Some are privileged and can have everything they want, but for most people, that is not the case. According to Jomanex, one of the tactics the government uses to gain power is to divide people based on their ethnic backgrounds. He says the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) uses this method to stay in power and make people enemies of one another, causing people to be afraid of each other.

Zone 9 did not want people to be divided or hindered by their ethnic group or background. They wanted people to be treated equally and to have equal opportunities to achieve their dreams. One of their campaigns was called The Ethiopian Dream in hopes of initiating giving people a chance to achieve the Ethiopian dream.

–The Ethiopian dream is not my dream. My dream is my dream. Another fellow Ethiopian can have the Ethiopian dream of his or her own. We have the same platform, we have the country. Whether we like it or not, we were born and raised in Ethiopia. We can have whatever dream we want, but that dream should not be destroying, denying others their rights. We want our Ethiopia to be better and everyone to be equal. We want everyone to be whatever they want, regardless of their ethnic background. Our platform is to give – for everyone – a chance to be a voice of their own.

Keeping the work of Zone 9 in line with the laws of the country as well as with the cultural laws was a key-factor. This coalition of friends made sure that everything they did was constitutional.  Despite this, it became very clear that the government did not approve of their activities. When the group began encountering harassment and surveillance, they understood they had crossed an undefined red line.

–We could not know that we have crossed a line until the government told us that we had crossed a line. But there is no such a thing as a red line. It is just imaginary. You do not know when you cross it.

fact_maekelawiOne day, one of the group-members was approached and apprehended by security officers. He was taken to a security house. They pointed a gun at him and demanded him to stop what he was doing. The incident made the activists to start writing anonymously, but still the harassment continued. Security officers came to the work place of one of the bloggers, telling her boss to fire her “because of what she was doing”. The friends noticed that they were being followed. Security officers visited the home of one of the members when he was not there, and questioned his neighbors. Eventually, Jomanex and his friends had no other choice than stop their activities.

– They told us to stop writing – we stopped writing, Jomanex says. But when you stop writing and stop doing everything, they say that “they have started doing something underground”. We tried to be open and we tried to explain everything.
Jomanex slap his hands together.
– But that did not help. They had already decided that we should be punished.

April 25, 2014 began like any other day. Two days earlier, Zone 9 had, knowing that it was not only necessary – but also their constitutional right, resumed their activities after a break for seven months. Jomanex was doing the usual assignments at his work. Suddenly, he received a message from one of his activist friends. It was a warning saying that he might be arrested. Jomanex contacted another fellow blogger, and she told him that none of the bloggers were answering their phones. When they tried to contact the blogger who first warned Jomanex, he no longer answered.

– We tried to contact everyone to warn them, but their phones … they were not answering. The arrests had already happened. It was too late to warn.

In just a few hours, six of Jomanex friends, Mahlet, Natnael, Abel, Befeqadu, Zelalem and Atnaf, were arrested and taken to Maekelawi – a place where prisoners are held before proceeding to prison. But the arrests were not over. The day after, three more journalists and friends of the bloggers, Tesfalem, Edom and Asmamaw, were also arrested.

–It was a surprise for us because they are not members of Zone 9. They did not even know how we are functioning and they did not know how we are doing our assignments and activities.

"My reality did not allow me to be that much excited and happy. I was very much concentrated on my friends situation, rather than mine.", Jomanex says about his first period as an exiled blogger.

“My reality did not allow me to be that much excited and happy. I was very much concentrated on my friends situation, rather than mine.”, Jomanex says about his first period as an exiled blogger. Photo by Untold Stories / Melody Sundberg

Jomanex knew that it would only be a matter of time before the police came after him. He had to make himself invisible and leave his home. There was no other choice but to disappear and leave Ethiopia. He could not stay at any friend’s house, because he knew that anyone who helped him would be in danger.

– They would be harassed and they would be charged as an accessory. If I have to face all this, I have to face it myself. I do not want to involve anyone else.

Eventually, Jomanex managed to find his way to Europe. He remembers the feelings he had at this time were very conflicted. On one hand, the people he met in Europe treated him well. Everyone was welcoming and smiling. It was comfortable.

–But… my reality did not allow me to be that much excited and happy. I was very much concentrated on my friends’ situation, rather than mine.

His first period in the new country was difficult. He felt he could not take in the situation he was facing, and he did not give much attention to his new life. The situation of his friends filled his mind. He glued himself to the computer and tried to follow their case as much as possible.

–My window was the Internet. It was frustrating. Making yourself comfortable and trying to adjust yourself here, would give you a feeling that you betray your friends. Sometimes, when you get comfortable, you forget the hardship they are in, so I was not giving any attention to the new reality.

Today, over one year has passed since Jomanex left Ethiopia. He is less stressed as he tries to adjust himself to his new reality. But the experience has changed him. He used to be an optimistic person who had trust in people. Now he is more suspicious, especially towards government supporters.

–When you have fellow citizens that you cannot convince with logic, and you cannot make them understand… they support the torture and the situation because of their ethnic group…. It does not make sense. It makes you feel that you are betrayed, and you know that they do not deserve the respect. As human beings, they should not act like this.

The problems in Ethiopia are many, and Jomanex says that journalists cannot write about the problems to expose them. The connections between central Ethiopia, where the capital is located, and other parts of the country are bad and the oppression of press freedom only worsens things. According to him, people in parts of the country like Ogaden and Gambela are dying, and people are migrating to other countries such as Sudan. But no one knows any details about what is really going on.

Jomanex is not hopeful about getting help from other countries. He says that the United Nations’ working group on Arbitrary Detention agrees that Eskinder Nega, a journalist jailed on anti-state charges since 2011, should be released. But not even UN has the power to make any change.

facts_ogaden_gambelaIn July of 2015, the president of the United States will visit Ethiopia. It is the first time a sitting president of the US will visit the country. Jomanex is worried that it will send the wrong signal. He says that the US president coming to Ethiopia is just like rewarding the oppression. That is how the EPRDF makes propaganda work for them; they will say that they get this recognition because they are successful. It worries him that people claim to be concerned about democracy and human quality of life, but at the same time do not do anything about the problems in Ethiopia.

– They state department, the US, European commission and everyone, says that they are defenders of human rights and human dignity, but in reality they are still funding the government. The Ethiopian government sends soldiers to Somalia, Sudan and everywhere, whenever the US ask them to. They are favoring the politics and not the human right issues.

At the time of this interview, the Zone 9 bloggers and journalists, the friends of Jomanex, were still in jail. They were charged under the Anti-Terrorism proclamation as terrorists. Even though the bloggers had gone through over 30 trials, no evidence against them had been found. Nevertheless, they still remained in prison.

In July 2015, two of the Zone 9 bloggers, Zelalem and Mahlet, the three journalists Tesfalem, Asmamaw and Edom, together with another journalist, Reeyot Alemu, were released from prison. No one knows the exact reason for the release, not even those who were freed. However, human rights activists suggest that the release was an attempt by the EPRDF to avoid criticism regarding human right abuses during the July visit by the president of the United States. President Barack Obamas visit was later criticized by human rights advocates, saying that it supported a government known to commit human right violations. [1] The remaining four of the Zone 9 bloggers, Abel Wabela, Natnael Feleke, Befeqadu Hailu and Atnaf Berhane, were released in October 2015, but the charges of Befeqadu changed from terrorism to inciting violence.

Jomanex continues to spread awareness about the political situation of his country as well as demanding the release of jailed journalists, opposition members and bloggers. He wants to expose what is going on, and he wants people to understand that they can make demands and that they can question the government. His main purpose is to remind people that others are still in prison, and that they should not be forgotten.

I ask Jomanex what he want to say to his friends, the members of Zone 9 and the journalists, once he meets them again. He thinks for a long while in silence. Gradually his face brightens. He smiles.

–I will try to avoid a crying moment. I will say, ‘Where have you been? What took you so long?’ We know that we make our situation. Even if it is horrible, we laugh at it. It is a way to survive.

I ask one final question: Should people care about human rights abuses going on in Ethiopia?

Jomanex answers with determination in his voice.

–If we stop caring, we stop living.

 

 

 

[1] The relation between  Ethiopia and the United States is complicated. Ethiopia is widely criticized for its human right records, but at the same time, it is an ally to US in the war against terrorism. Human right activists want to see greater pressure from the US regarding the human rights situation.

 




Melody Sundberg
Project manager of Untold Stories. Photographer and artist. Educated in Psychology.







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