I am glad for suggesting to meet by a church. The winter has arrived and it feels warmer in the entrance. My phone rings, and I hear a soft voice. I leave the church just in time to see Abdullahi walking across the nearby parking lot. We find a place to take pictures for the interview, and he laughs while I joke about his height. He is a lot taller than my 176 centimeters and has to bend down to make it possible for me to take pictures at eye-level. When we find a café, we are happy to leave the coldness and darkness behind us.
As the head of the media in Ogaden, Abdullahi was in a position most journalists would never even get near to. Ogaden is closed to all independent and international media. The only reporting allowed is ruled by Abdi Mohamoud Omar*, the President of the region. Abdullahi gave orders to the journalists according to the President’s wishes. But he soon realized that something was very wrong with the media reporting in Ogaden.
– It’s like a propaganda machine. That’s why it’s called the President’s propaganda. Everything that is going on the TV, the website or on the radio is coming straight from the President.
The President told the journalists exactly what to write. The reporting either showed the President in a positive way, letting people know that he did good things, or it was spreading propaganda against those who opposed the President.
– But every word in the article came from the President, Abdullahi says.
When I ask Abdullahi if he knew about the bad media situation when he started working for the President, he looks shocked and answers with emphasis.
– I had no idea! The problem in Ogaden is that the government has managed to control the economy of the region. We don’t have any big businesses. We don’t have any independent, big organizations that can hire people. The problem we have in Ogaden, which is quite different from other regions, is that everything depends on the government. You have students coming from high school going to the university, and the whole plan they have is to graduate and work for the government. So we have a situation where all the educated people are going to the governmental jobs. Everyone’s plan is to work for the government. But in my case, it was different.
Abdullahi was born in Ogaden. After finishing high school he started a computer business, where he worked for some years until he moved to the capital city Addis Ababa where he started a car business. But during his childhood, he learned to know Abdi Mohamoud Omar, the man who was later going to become the President in Ogaden. Abdi started encouraging Abdullahi to engage in politics. Abdi said that the Ethiopian government, the EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front), wanted to do something good for the people of Ogaden, and that they needed bright and ambitious people like Abdullahi to work with them. Abdullahi agreed to join the government – but only with an ambition of doing good.
Abdullahi quit his business and returned to Ogaden. His first assignment was to run a movement for the youth; the government wanted support from young people in different associations. During the first three months of working under the regime, everything seemed normal. But everything changed during a visit to the village of Dhanaan. Because of his position, Abdullahi represented the government and many of the villages wanted to talk to him. But he was not expecting to hear what they had to say.
– They are telling me about rape, killings, arrests, torture, lack of development, all these things, and I am shocked! I just couldn’t believe it.
Suddenly, a military man interrupted the meeting and the villages immediately changed their story. They said they love the government, they have everything they need and everything is good. It was clear they were terrified of the military man, and Abdullahi asked him to leave.
When the President gives an order to arrest someone, they will have two options. Either they will kill the person, or they will take the person to the main prison, Jail Ogaden.
– Later on that day, they interrogated me in the military camp, saying that my approach to the military man was wrong, and that I need to work with the military and all that. I was really shocked. That was the first time I kind of understood the problem.
Abdullahi thought about his friend Abdi, who at this time was the head of security. Abdullahi decided to talk to him about his experience, and hoped that his friend would want to help the villages. But the way the future President reacted was another surprise.
– His reaction was … somehow … he knew. And he was okay with it. He was part of why that was happening. One of the things he told me was: “People in that meeting, they supported the rebels, and that’s why we were doing something like that.” He was talking about the whole population – the whole village – with, I think, a minimum of around 20 000 people!
One year passed and Abdullahi’s friend Abdi Mohamoud Omar became President, and made Abdullahi the head of the media in the Ogaden region. At the same time, Abdullahi became more and more certain that something very bad was happening. Material produced by the journalists, such as videos, was coming to his desk. The videos testified about crimes against humanity – crimes that the President was responsible for.
One day, the President traveled with Abdullahi and a camera man to a village called Galaalshe. When they arrived, an old man approached them. He said that a genocide had taken place in Malqaqa, a nearby village.
– He [the old man] is begging for mercy from the President. He is saying that the Liyu Police** are killing people, cutting their heads off.
The old man said the survivors had fled from the village. He asked the President for mercy; he wanted the people to be able to return to their homes. The camera man was filming and the President accepted the old man’s request, but as soon as the camera was turned off, the President ordered the man to be arrested. Abdullahi never heard anything from or about the old man since then.
– When the President gives an order to arrest someone, they will have two options. Either they will kill the person, or they will take the person to the main prison, Jail Ogaden. If they take the person to Jail Ogaden on order from the President, it means that the person will go straight to torture. So both options are death.
The rebel group ONLF (Ogaden National Liberation Front) says they want independence for the Somali people in the region, and the Ethiopian regime sees them as enemies. According to Abdullahi, the President wanted to show the EPRDF how committed he is at fighting the rebels. But the President took his commitment way too far, and arrested many innocents who had nothing to do with the rebels. The Presidents’ intelligence service was corrupt and arrested people due to economic or personal reasons. Sometimes, they even opened the gates of the main prison and arrested people who were only waiting to visit someone else in the prison. They intelligence service accused people of being members of the ONLF.
– What they exactly say is that everyone is part of ONLF. They say: “Either you know someone in the ONLF, and you should be punished for that, or you are helping the ONLF, or you are a member of the ONLF, or you used to be a member of the ONLF.”
The babies were born in the prison. They are growing up in the prison. And the fathers are the guards and people of the prison administration.
One of the videos that Abdullahi received is about the main prison of the region; the Regional Central Prison, known as Jail Ogaden, located in Jig-Jiga. In the video, a secret meeting is held between the prison guards, the Vice President of the region, the security advisor of the region, and the head of the prisons in Ogaden. While they discuss the situation in the prison, they confess to torture and killings. They say that “the torture group” has “gone insane”. In the video they say that at the time of the meeting, a minimum of 25 people have been tortured and have died because of it.
– Whatever reason that a person is in for, they are straight going to torture and are asked the same kind of questions: “Tell us where the rebels are.” Maybe this person was arrested for stealing a mobile phone! And then they are torturing and asking where the rebels are. If that person keeps on denying knowing anything about the rebels, they will never stop the torture until the person dies.
According to Abdullahi, the prisoners have found their own way of surviving the situation – a way that, unfortunately, is affecting other innocent people.
– They have this trick in the prison, where the prisoners tell the newcomers “just say that you are an ONLF member”, to avoid being tortured. So when the person admits being a member of the ONLF, even though he or she is not, the interrogators will ask the person to lead them to the other members. So when there is a prisoner being arrested, this prisoner is becoming the reason for arresting another five or ten more people.
But it does not end there. In the video of the meeting, they are also talking about women being raped in the prison, women who are getting pregnant and having babies.
– The babies were born in the prison. They are growing up in the prison. And the fathers are the guards and people of the prison administration. In the same video files we have policemen, the guards themselves, confessing that one of the fathers of the children is the head of the main prison.
Abdullahi nods towards my coffee. I have completely forgotten about it and it turned cold a long while ago. His story is difficult to take in, difficult to understand. I find myself being confused about my reaction. Maybe the appropriate reaction would be to cry or feel anger. But all I feel is numbness. It feels as if my body and brain cannot handle what I am told. These things cannot be understood. They should not be understood.
Abdullahi was 24 years-old and head of the media in Ogaden. His life had changed into a state of shock and confusion. He was now fully aware of the situation. The knowledge of the violations against innocent people did not leave his mind, and he was depressed and could not sleep. He felt as if his life had been destroyed. The videos kept on coming, and he realized that they were evidence – evidence, now in his hands. He started copying the videos to a secret hard drive. He was well aware that his decision to collect evidence would cost him his life, if the President found out.
– He would torture me a lot… a lot. A lot. Finally, I would die of torture. Yeah. I mean, imagine: They were torturing innocent people – what would they do to someone who was doing something like that?
In an early stage Abdullahi considered sharing the evidence with EPRDF. At that time, Meles Zenawi was prime minister in Ethiopia. Abdullahi and many others thought that the prime minister was trying to do something good for the country. Abdullahi says that he, just as everyone else, grew up in the regime’s propaganda – and sometimes the government succeeded in making people believe in them. But eventually Abdullahi understood that EPRDF was not to be trusted.
– I was coming to understand that they are involved and that they are aware of what is happening, and they are behind the whole thing. And they are the reason the President is in power.
Abdullahi says that there were several reasons to why the President ordered the videos to be made. The President wanted to see who was talking and who kept quiet. He wanted full knowledge about everything that was happening in the region. The videos were also a way of making indirect reporting on his whereabouts to the EPRDF; the President shared them to army leaders or people from the EPRDF whom he managed to meet in private. But Abdullahi says that the President tricked the government. He edited the videos and only sent the best parts, parts where he did good things or fought the rebels. But even though ERPDF received only the edited videos, they still knew what was going on.
– They are aware of everything, because they have the national army in almost every village, and they have their own intelligence throughout the whole region. So they are aware of everything.
To me, this sounds unbelievable. Can a government be aware of such serious crimes against humanity and still do not do anything about the situation? To make sure that I am not misunderstanding, I ask one more time: Does the Ethiopian government know about the crimes that the President of Ogaden is doing against humanity? Abdullahi answers with certainty.
– Yes, they know. They know.
Abdullahi did not want to be part of this. He wanted to quit his job. Realizing that the EPRDF knew about what was happening, he understood that he needed to share the evidence with someone else. He had to leave Ethiopia. But one does not easily quit a job within the regime.
– Once you start working with the regime, the only way you can quit that job is if they fire you. If you quit on your own, that means that there is a problem: You are against the regime. There is something that you are not okay with. You are a problem for the regime. So they will get rid of the person.
He describes getting a passport as more difficult than collecting evidence. If anyone working in the government in Ogaden tries to get a passport, the government will know about it. Leaving the country by car was out of the question as it would involve passing many security checks along the way. Abdullahi understood that he had to apply for a passport from one of the other regions. Speaking four Ethiopian languages, he could pretend coming from somewhere else. He traveled to another region, managed to get the passport, and bought a ticket to Nairobi, Kenya.
In the beginning of August 2012, three years after he started working for the President, Abdullahi left Ethiopia, carrying the evidence with him. But the President already knew that he was gone, and took action. The Kenyan police were corrupt and when asked to search for Abdullahi, they obeyed. Men from the Ethiopian military came to Nairobi to search for Abdullahi, and he had to do everything in his power to stay hidden.
– It was really tough. I was in a situation where I was changing from hotel to hotel every other night or two nights. Where I was using around 20 to 30 SIM cards. Where I was throwing away every SIM card after one call and where I was using all different mobile phones.
The situation of staying off the radar was exhausting. The small amount of money Abdullahi had taken with him was running out. He was always on guard, fearing that someone would find him. He checked the windows every 10 or 20 minutes and suffered nightmares of being captured. But he noticed that his body was adapting to the situation.
– I understood that in our body we have some kind of system that helps us survive. During the two months and 17 days, I was not eating; maybe I would eat once in two days or three days. I was not sleeping; maybe I would sleep two hours or maybe an hour. It was two months and 17 days of not sleeping, not eating properly, but still be very active in whatever I was doing.
Abdullahi desperately tried to reach out to international media. Among the around 100 hours of footage that Abdullahi smuggled out, there was a staged video claiming to show the arrest of Swedish journalists Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson, who illegally entered Ogaden in order to report about human rights violations. The video was, in fact, fake. It was filmed after the journalists had been arrested. Eventually he met Swedish journalist Johan Ripås. The evidence was published by the Swedish Television, and in October of 2012, Abdullahi travelled to Sweden.
I am shivering. The cold coffee reminds me of the coldness waiting for us outside. What a contrast it must have been – fleeing from Ogaden, hiding from the police in Kenya… and end up here in Sweden. Abdullahi smiles when I share my thoughts with him.
– When I was in Nairobi, I was mostly staying indoors, meaning I wasn’t getting sunlight. It was the first time I was indoor for a long time. When I came here, I tried to sleep a good night sleep, but my body system was still activated to be careful, so I woke up in the middle of the night and slept at noon.
Abdullahi’s body and brain had adapted to the tense situation he had lived in for such a long time, and during the first period in Sweden, he continued feeling tense. Also, he felt very weak physically and had pains that he had never felt before. A physician told him that the pains were caused by a lack of Vitamin D, due to lack of sun light.
After around a year he recovered from the problems, but as it turned out, his feelings of being unsafe were not completely unfounded. When Abdullahi shared more of the collected evidence in the documentary Essence of Terror (Diktaturens fångar), it turned out that the first period in the new country had been the calm before the storm.
– I took a picture of the editor of the film, and I posted it on Facebook. Once I posted that picture on Facebook, they understood that I was coming up with a documentary, so they started following me.
One day a woman knocked on the door of Abdullahis apartment. His friend opened the door. The woman asked to talk to Abdullahi, but when she found out that he was not at home, she left. The woman turned out to be one of his Facebook friends, someone that he did not have contact with. Abdullahi later found out that the woman had connections with those who were searching for him. Abdullahi reported the woman to the police. But Abdullahi’s followers did not forget about him. His willingness to report on the situation in Ogaden had made him a threat to the regime.
– Until today I am under a death threat, Abdullahi says.
Death threats. His words make me feel even colder. I turn my head and look at the people in the café. People are having coffee with friends, they are joking and laughing happily. No one takes notice of us. Abdullahi takes a sip of his coffee. He has the kind of eyes that you would call kind and honest. No one in the café knows what he has been through. Abdullahi was once loyal to the government. I wonder what he wants to say to those who still are.
– I know how it feels to be loyal to the government. It feels like they are the right people. It feels that you are on the right track, it feels that you are really something… it feels that you have chances of becoming someone, to get involved more in the government… but the thing is: All those things are by the expense of innocent people.
Abdullahi says that when being loyal to the government, you are automatically explaining away what they are doing. When people are arrested, killed or tortured, you think that the victims are criminals; that they are not like you, that you are special. But Abdullahi knows this is not true. He knows the government can suddenly turn against you.
– And this can happen to you at any minute, any time. And the one thing about the people who are loyal to the government is that even though they do everything, and really are loyal to the government, they have no guarantee that nothing will happen to them. It can take five minutes to torture them, kill them, to assassinate them, to arrest them.
Abdullahi wants to make it clear that the Ethiopian regime is a dictatorship that commits crimes against humanity – and being loyal to this regime means taking part in hurting innocent people.
– Later or sooner there will come a day when everyone stands in front of justice. So I think, the one thing I know is that people who are loyal to the government know that there is a problem, but they don’t have the courage of doing something.
Abdullahi says that those who are loyal to the government must start changing the situation, but he knows that there is a big risk in doing so. But he still urges people to stand up against the wrongdoings of the regime.
– There are a lot of ways they can do something [to make a change] and completely stay anonymous.
Abdullahi wants to take this chance to say something to the Ethiopian government itself. He says that even though the EPRDF is aware of the human rights abuses in Ogaden, they are also being manipulated by the President. The President produces videos to stay in power, but as mentioned earlier, the videos are edited and do not show what he is really doing. The President mistreats the people, and when people are mistreated, they become supporters of rebel groups such as the ONLF. In other words, they are creating their own enemies.
– This is the big issue in Ogaden. We have the President and his administration trying to satisfy the EPRDF, acting as if they are fighting against the rebels, but they are creating more support for the rebels. When they arrest innocent people, they are getting tortured in the prison. Whenever they are out – it could be after two years, five years or ten years, or whatever –the only choice most of them see is to join the rebels and fight. So they [the President and his administration] are, I can say, a machine that is creating supporters of the ONLF.
Abdullahi says that the EPRDF is in a great position to make a change and to bring peace. He says that the government needs to stop allowing killing and torture of people, stop the militia from raping women, and to let the courts be independent and the people be free.
– The main things that the people of Ogaden need, or the people of Ethiopia need, is justice and freedom. Nothing else. I know nobody that is trying to take power from the regime, unless it is for someone who was really, really damaged by the government. I would be the first person to support the government if they did those little things.
We have reached the last question. What does Abdullahi feel about his experiences now? He thinks for a while before he answers. He says that he regrets quitting his old life and joining the regime. At the same time he is, in a way, thankful that it happened.
– I am happy that I got to know what was happening. Otherwise I would have continued my life and maybe never cared about what was happening and just continued enjoying my life.
Abdullahi feels he has helped the people of Ogaden by sharing the evidence, and it feels important that he has supported his people. He knows he has chosen the right way, something that has earned him a good place in history.
– Because history is created now.
* Abdi Mohamoud Omar, the President of the Ogaden region, is referred to as “The President” throughout the interview.
* * The Liyu Police is run by the Ethiopian army, which in turn is run by the EPRDF. The President in the Ogaden region is the man between the Liyu police and the national army.