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Debebe Eshetu’s arrest and New Year

(By Eskinder Nega) Researchers detail ten types of smile. There is the tight-lipped smile which the English particularly fancy. There is the twisted smile of the angered. There is the dealer-smile of the sly. There is the nothing-I-can-do-smile of defeat. And on it goes.
Most people could muster a reasonable mimic of most types of smile. Who, after all, does not occasionally flash a not-understanding-you-smile? But one, the heartfelt-felt-smile, defies feign. It really has to come from the heart.

I needed no telling that Debebe Eshetu, our co-defendant in the Treason Trial, was smiling from the heart when he approached me after a visit to police hospital in 2005. Every muscle on his face was manifestly convulsed. What I did not suspect was the staggering news he had for me.

“Baby Eskinder is on the way,” he exclaimed, smiling brilliantly.

It was a smile that dominated the face; an expression of wholesome delight. And before I could recover from the shock, I, too, was overwhelmed with his joy. And so I learned for the first time, in prison, facing treason and genocide charges, I was to become a father.

Debebe’s infectious smile sustained prisoners’ spirit in those difficult times. Of all the prisoners, his easy smile, authentic and warm, gave us reason to hope against hope. He somehow made the prospect of long prison sentences bearable. There was no gloom where Debebe tread and naturally prisoners clamored for his company.

His physical health could have been better when I met him last. But his spirit was as lively as ever. We mused about the treason trial, lamented the wasted years since, but parted with a note of optimism about the future. There was absolutely nothing to indicate a changed perspective. The commitment to non-violence was as intact as ever.

Much has been said about the improbability of journalists as plausible terrorist suspects, but Debebe’s case is really a class unto itself. This is a frail man in his mid-60’s; long plagued by chronic back pain; a free man only under a conditional pardon; a prominent dissident who knows he is under close secret-police scrutiny; and a committed family man whose wife and daughters dot on him. How in the world could such a person be involved in terrorism? It simply defies logic.

Even if unbeknownst to the EPRDF, there is such a thing as a world-wide profile of a terrorist. That person is usually male; probably in his 20s; unmarried; and always a fanatic. Zeal and terrorism go hand in hand. Minus the fanaticism the terrorist is not a possibility.

None of the recent detains under the terrorism charges remotely resemble the profile. Debebe is probably the ultimate antithesis of the fanatic, his pragmatism, his easy nature, defines him. Neither do journalists Webesht and Reyot and opposition politician Zerihun Gebre-Egzeabher fit the profile. The same goes for the calm university professor, Bekele Gerba. And of course the list could go on.

Why are Ethiopia’s alleged terrorist suspects so unique? The answer is too obvious to merit detailing here. I would rather reflect on what Ethiopian New Year, 2004, only two days into the future, bodes for the nation.

Look at what had happened in the world in 2003, and it’s easy to complain about the things we do not have. No freedom. Raging inflation. Rising unemployment. Rampant corruption. A delusional ruling party. An uncertain year ahead of us. And the list could go on.

But consider the exciting prospects:

2004 could be the year when we, too, like the majority of our fellow Africans, will have a government by the people, for the people.

2004 could be the year when we will finally stop killing each other for political reasons.

2004 could be the year when there will no more be tortures in our prisons.

2004 could be the year when Ethiopians will no more be incarcerated for their political convictions.

2004 could be the year when Ethiopians will no more have reasons to flee to exile.

2004 could be the year when freedom of expression and association will be respected.

2004 could be the year when we could take justice for granted.

And again, the list could go on.

The gist of the matter is that there are ample reasons to hope. Tyranny is in retreat everywhere. It has lost one of its two last great bastions, the Arab world. The momentum is now on the side freedom.

Freedom is partial to no race. Freedom has no religion. Freedom favors no ethnicity. Freedom discriminates not between rich and poor countries. Inevitably, freedom will overwhelm Ethiopia.

And with the advent of a new year, we are one step closer to freedom. It’s wonderful to be alive!

Happy New Year!

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