By Alemayehu G. Mariam
Give me Liberty or Give me Death!
On 11/11/11, Yenesew Gebre, a 29 year-old Ethiopian school teacher and human rights activist set himself ablaze outside a public meeting hall in the town of Tarcha located in Dawro Zone in Southern Ethiopia. He died three days later from his injuries. In an interview with the Voice of America Amharic program, a witness described the horrific event:
Teacher Yenesew Gebre was in the meeting hall telling officials that the young people were being held in detention for 15 days without their right to bail being honored. On Friday, the young detainees were expected to have a hearing. Yenesew said ‘the young detainees have been held for a very long time and their rights should be protected and honored. They must not be imprisoned; they must be released.’ When he demanded that they [officials] told him, ‘here is 200 birr, go and enjoy yourself. We are busy at this meeting.’ He said, ‘I am not going to sell my conscience. I do not want money. I want my people released.’ He told them: ‘In a country where there is no justice and no fair administration, where human rights are not respected, I will sacrifice myself so that these young people will be set free.’ He went outside and set himself on fire. They put out the fire and rushed him to the hospital. He died yesterday and was buried today at 2 p.m. under police cordon.
Others witnesses reported that Yenesew walked out of the meeting and addressed a group of people before setting himself on fire:
I want to show to all that death is preferable than a life without justice and liberty and I call upon my fellow compatriots to fear nothing and rise up to wrest their freedom and rights from the hands of the local and national tyrants.
Give me liberty or give me death! Such were the last words spoken by a young Ethiopian patriot and martyr to the ruthless tyrants that cling to power in Ethiopia today.
Yenesew remained under police guard while he was hospitalized for two days. The attending physician recommended that he be transferred to a facility in the capital where he could receive a higher level of care for second degree burns and very likely save his life. That recommendation was disregarded for fear that news of his self-immolation in the capital could spark spontaneous public protests. No one was allowed to visit Yenesew at the hospital (clinic). His family, friends and neighbors were warned to stay away. Officials denied his family’s request for a decent public burial. They also banned family members, friends, neighbors and community folks from attending the funeral fearing a spontaneous public demonstration.
Dictator Meles Zenawi sent a reinforcement of some 300 police officers, imposed a complete news blackout and sealed off the town. Telephone services to the town were cut in a futile attempt to stonewall all news of Yenesew’s sacrifice from spreading throughout Ethiopia.
Yenesew was buried by the very sadistic police and administrative thugs who had harassed, threatened and persecuted him for so long. By preventing a public funeral and burying Yenesew in an unmarked grave, Zenawi hoped the story will blow over and Yenesew soon forgotten. But Zenawi could not have been more wrong! Yenesew lived and died a freedom fighter and a hero. Though Zenawi had his body buried in an unmarked grave, Yenesew’s spirit of liberty, his love for his compatriots, his vision of democracy and his yearning for justice shall live forever in the hearts and minds of 90 million of his fellow citizens. Long Live Yenesew Gebre!
Human Rights Matters in Ethiopia
Yenesews’ self-immolation illuminates not only the serious and widespread human rights abuses by Zenawi’s regime but also Zenawi’s hubris and depraved indifference to the demands of the people at the local and regional levels. According to reports, Yenesew had been a human rights activist for some time and clashed on various occasions with the local representatives of Zenawi’s regime. It is believed that the 50 or so young people in detention on whose behalf Yenesew spoke at the public meeting were suspected of supplying critical information used in a report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) in Southern Ethiopia in August. The BIJ and BBC Newsnight covert investigation “uncovered evidence that the Ethiopian government is using billions of dollars of development aid as a tool for political oppression.”
The arrest and detention of the young people came on the heels of a petition submitted by community elders to authorities to reclassify the local area to its previous status as a sub-district (woreda). After local and regional authorities ignored the petition, the elders travelled to Addis Ababa to seek help from “federal” authorities; but their petition fell on deaf ears. When the elders returned, the local authorities jailed them. A second delegation of elders travelled to Addis Ababa to pursue their appeal with high-level Zenawi officials. In the meantime, the local authorities had rounded up and jailed some 50 young people without charge or bail. Yenesew attended that public meeting to protest their imprisonment and to demand their release.
The Mad Man and The Patriot
In a brazen attempt to deny the truth and confuse the population, Zenawi cranked up his pathetic propaganda machine to scandalize Yenesew’s name. To add insult to injury, Zenawi’s propagandists “interviewed” a woman who described herself as the town’s financial officer and Yenesew’s sister. She stated that Yenesew had lived with her family since he was seven years old. She gave very little positive information on Yenesew, but repeatedly emphasized that “since childhood he had a mental disorder” and violent tendencies which she believed caused his self-immolation. She did not indicate that Yenesew had ever been under any type of medical or psychiatric supervision for his alleged long-standing “mental disorder”. But the available evidence suggests that the “sister” was given the option of making the slanderous statement against Yenesew or be booted out of her job as town financial officer. Another man claiming to be Yenesew’s father gave a telephone interview only to nauseatingly repeat the same dastardly allegation. The propagandists also produced an alleged “death certificate” prepared in English which indicated Yenesew’s cause of death to be “severe sepsis” (“blood poisoning”). There is evidence to show that the attending physician in the tiny hospital refused to sign the falsified certificate. The signature on the certificate is said to be that of a hospital administrator with a prior criminal record.
Zenawi took a page straight out of Soviet psychiatry to scandalize, discredit, dishonor and slander the name of a great Ethiopian patriot and martyr. The Soviet state specialized in using dirty tricks to silence dissent and conveniently remove and ostracize critics from the public eye. A favorite trick was to label and portray dissidents and critics as mentally deranged, mad or insane. In 1970, the Soviet state falsely labeled dissident Zhores Medvedev, the most famous of Soviet human rights activists and agitators of his time, as mentally deranged (“split personality”) and committed him to an insane asylum/prison. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, another famed Russian dissident who suffered illegal imprisonment in the Gulag (forced labor), condemned the “servile psychiatrists who are able to describe concern for social problems as mental illness, and declaring a man insane.” Solzhenitsyn warned: “This could happen tomorrow to any one of us. This way of settling accounts has become fashionable [by the Soviet state].”
It is obvious that Zenawi is launching a new fashion to settle accounts with his critics and dissidents who oppose his ruthless dictatorship: Label them all psychotic, deranged, crazed and insane, and soil, scandalize and dishonor their names. But as Zenawi points his index finger at Patriot Yenesew to call him a mad man and mentally ill, he should take note that three fingers are pointing directly at him. Truth be told, it is no vice to be mad as hell at dictatorship and tyranny!
It is hard to imagine how anyone can stoop so low or be devoid of even microscopic traces of moral virtue. It has been said that “the difference between guilt and shame is that we feel guilty for what we do and we feel shame for what we are.” Zenawi is guilty for soiling and scandalizing Yenesew’s name, and he should be ashamed of such a low-down, cheap, mean-spirited, pitiful, despicable, immoral, vulgar, vile and ignominious act of slander.
Yenesew Gebre, True Ethiopian Patriot!
Bertrand Russell, arguably the greatest philosopher of the Twentieth Century and a relentless advocate of world peace and human rights said, “Patriots always talk of dying for their country and never of killing for their country.”
Patriot Yenesew not only talked about dying for his country, he died for his country. Yenesew died for his people, for democracy, for freedom, for human rights, for justice and for the rule of law in Ethiopia. That is why Yenesew Gebre shall remain an eternal symbol of patriotism for his generation and his people. A true patriot like Yenesew is outraged by injustice and tyranny. A true patriot is inflamed by attacks on constitutional and human rights and the dignity of any human being. A true patriot rises to defend not only his/her rights, but even more vigorously, the rights of his/her people. A true patriot stands by the side of those in his/her community who are defenseless, voiceless and nameless. A true patriot embraces the unity of his/her nation and appreciates its cultural diversity. A true patriot believes government should fear the people and the people should never fear their government. A true patriot loves his/her people but hates inhumanity, atrocity, cruelty, brutality, barbarity, criminality, illegality, impunity, inequity, immorality, enmity, indignity, duplicity and ethnocentricity. These are the supreme qualities that make Yenesew a true Ethiopian patriot and a world-class human rights defender!
Yenesew is the latest reincarnation of heroic freedom fighters in world history who have sacrificed themselves to oppose tyranny and Evil. Before Yenesew, there was a 27 year-old Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi who set himself on fire in December 2010 to protest abuse, harassment, humiliation and violation of his basic human rights by a ruthless dictatorship. The fire that consumed Bouazizi’s body in less than a year consumed the entire Middle East region.
Long before Yenesew and Bouazizi, an American patriot facing similar tyranny, dehumanization, persecution, demoralization and humiliation gave all oppressed peoples of the world a timeless slogan in the struggle for freedom and against tyranny and dictatorship. In 1775, one year before the American Revolution, Patrick Henry affirmed:
We have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne! … It is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth… in a great and arduous struggle for liberty…
Are we disposed to be of the numbers of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not?
Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!
Yenesew, (My Man); Yegñasew (Our Man)!
Long Live Ethiopian Patriot Yenesew Gebre!