I read a book that changed my life.
I know that it may sound like a cliché, but expressing it in any other way would be an understatement.
In February of 2014 I was looking for something to listen to on the radio. I accidentally stumbled upon an audio book called 438 Days, which was written by the Swedish journalists Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson. Some of you may have heard of the journalists who traveled to Ethiopia to investigate what was going on in Ogaden, a conflict-ridden region in the eastern part of the country. Rumors of serious crimes against humanity were repetitively coming from the region, and companies hunting for oil affected the population negatively.
No journalist was allowed to enter Ogaden, and because of this, no one knew what was actually happening there. Wanting to find out the truth, Martin and Johan crossed the border between Somalia and Ethiopia.
However, as they later put it, their report about oil turned into a story about ink.
The Swedish journalists suddenly found themselves right in the middle of the war that the Ethiopian government holds against freethinkers. Martin and Johan were imprisoned and accused of being terrorists. While in prison, they realized that they were not alone. They met other journalists who had also been labeled as terrorists, even though they had done nothing but their jobs. Martin and Johan were pardoned in 2012 and could return to Sweden, but the imprisoned Ethiopian journalists were left behind bars.
There is a lack of heroes out there. And many of the heroes that do exist, are jailed in Ethiopian prisons.
I could not let go of what I had read. The thought of these innocent people, who were suffering tremendously in prison, did not leave my mind. The Ethiopian journalists had written about injustice, torture and the jailing of innocents. They had written about censure, the right to demonstrate, and criticized the regime for their total lack of democracy. For this, they had been robbed of their freedom, and they were viewed as traitors to their country. They were ordinary, but brave men and women, who had dared to say “no”.
In what ways do these people differ from us? From you, dear reader, and myself? Not in any way.
Living in Sweden, I cannot help but think of how common and accepted it is for us to express our views. Everyone does it, be it in blogs, with friends or in magazines. If we think that the politicians have made a mistake, we like to discuss it with others. Do we not have the right of doing so? Of course we do! Expressing ones opinion is a basic human right.
When I read the book I realized that the freedom of expression I enjoy is a luxury. Not everyone is lucky enough to have been born in a country where they can express themselves freely.
When I began advocating about freedom of expression, I came with a very simple message: “Journalism is not terrorism”. To be honest, I did not have much expectation of making a real impact. I hardly even believed that anyone would read my messages, but I felt a need to at least do something. My belief is that no one should be wrongfully imprisoned without at least someone taking notice and saying ‘no’ to the injustice.
* Ping *
A message in the inbox: “Thanks for what you are doing. For caring. You inspire me to continue. From an exiled journalist”.
The messages keep on coming.
“Thanks for caring about our jailed friends”
“How come you care about us?”
“How do you know about what have happened to us?”
I cannot comprehend it. These people who are writing to me are the very people who have stood up against the injustices in Ethiopia. They have risked being tortured and jailed. They have, despite great risks, dared to stand up to others and put their own lives in danger. Now, they have been forced to leave their country, their family and their friends, to escape wrongful imprisonment.
There is a lack of heroes out there. And many of the heroes that do exist, are jailed in Ethiopian prisons. Others have managed to escape at the last moment and live in exile. It is overwhelming that they are sending me these messages of gratitude. Am I not the one who should be thanking them?
Martin Schibbye use to say that it is the jailed who are fighting for our freedom, not the other way around.
He is right.
* Ping *
A message in the inbox: “It would be nice to meet you.”
August, 2014. I am at the central station in Stockholm and I am about to meet two Ethiopian journalists who live in exile in Sweden. I feel nervous, I have never met them before. I have not met any exiled journalists before at all. One of them shows up. He looks a bit shy, smiles carefully. Gives me a hug. The other journalist arrives a bit later.
I am fighting my tears. It is impossible to comprehend what these people have been through. Their stories almost seem unreal to me and I suddenly realize how incredibly privileged I am. I live in such a free country, and it never crossed my mind to be thankful for it. To me, it is surreal that these individuals before me would have been jailed if they had not managed to escape.
I want to share these Untold Stories of the Silenced with you. I feel it to be my responsibility.