I had been in Ethiopia for a month when I was arrested by soldiers for taking a photograph.
The majority of citizens here have been upset with the current political situation since last May, when disputed elections placed Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and his EPRDF party firmly in control of the Parliament. Riots in June led to 36 deaths and countless number of arrests.
Efforts by the main opposition party, the CUDP, have been mired in internal fighting and ineffective measures, leaving their supporters frustrated and restless.
Three weeks ago, civil unrest began once again in Addis Ababa and throughout the country. Several dozen people were killed and thousands arrested, including newspaper editors and opposition party leaders.
On the morning of Wednesday, November 1st, a local colleague of mine named Bilal and I went looking for clashes, and I brought my digital camera along. Rumors were flying that soldiers had already killed several people. As a novice journalist working for a regional African newspaper, I was eager to experience this excitement first hand and get the chance to report on it.
We made our way to Piazza, an area known for jewelry shops and one reported to have been host to several incidents between government soldiers and restless citizens. Not thirty seconds after turning a corner onto Adwa Road and entering the main area, we heard gunshots.
The driver of the taxi we had chartered panicked, turned the car around, and started speeding back in the direction from which we had come. Bilal and I had to yell ferociously at him before he finally pulled over long enough for us to jump out.
We began walking back towards the sound of gunfire, and asked a few bystanders where the fighting was and what they had seen. Most had seen little and were simply trying to get home. The main roads were abandoned and littered with rocks.
As we made our way farther along and entered the narrow dirt roads of the surrounding hills, the comments from onlookers became more lurid, and several had witnessed actual shootings. A group of women was crying over a boy who had been shot and killed where we were standing only moments before. The soldiers had apparently taken his body with them. We seemed to be just minutes behind every skirmish.
It was nearing midday, and I was sweating under the hot Ethiopian sun. Our transportation now gone, I wondered how long we would wander the back streets looking for trouble. I looked over at Bilal. He was wearing a thick wool sweater and seemed remarkably calm.
Just as I was becoming tired and discouraged, however, we heard gunshots again. They sounded frighteningly close. Most people on the streets immediately went inside and shut their doors behind them, peeking out through windows and slits in between corrugated tin walls. The soldiers were known to beat and arrest any suspicious young people seen loitering about, so few were taking chances.
I urged Bilal to stay on the streets with me, for I wanted at least one photograph of the protestors throwing rocks or soldiers arresting citizens. He was understandably hesitant, but agreed to continue searching as long as I promised to be smart. I promised.
A few minutes later, we saw a group of about twenty soldiers clad in blue camouflage beating a handful of young men with batons. Several were pointing rifles in the direction of more bystanders, but a wall obstructed my view. I took several quick pictures, hiding myself behind a shuttered fruit stand.
No shots were fired, and the soldiers moved deeper into the cluster of shanty houses. I was breathing hard and had a knot in my stomach, but I wanted to capture a better image of the fighting before returning to our offices.
I am not a photographer, and I have no experience documenting armed conflict. With my Western confidence and arrogance, however, I thought that I could get close to the action and be immune from the rocks, bullets, and the aggravated soldiers.
We caught up with the search party after a few minutes, and I took out my camera again. Bilal advised me not to take any more pictures, but I did not listen.
When I snapped the next photograph, a soldier saw me and started running in our direction. Not thinking clearly, my colleague and I started to run. We went down a narrow alleyway and hid inside a tiny house, which was already full of people. They laughed when they saw a white man rush into their small home, and I laughed with them. An old man was sitting on the ground washing a shirt in a bucket full of dirty water. He looked up at me with faint amusement, then went back to his task.
We heard shouts outside and moved onto the one, impossibly small bed in the house. The young woman of the home pulled down a sheet that was hanging to dry over us, hiding us from view.
The police were going door to door, forcing their way inside to look for the Westerner who had taken their photo. Despite efforts by the family to hide us, a soldier entered the room and pulled the sheet aside. I looked up at him with the most innocent-looking face I could muster, as if it was the most natural thing in the world for me to be hiding behind a sheet there. Unfortunately this did not work. He dragged us outside, where the soldiers began chanting, “We found him! We found him!”
* * *
There seemed to be scores of armed men around me now, yelling and gesturing violently. They were clearly excited that they had captured a white man, but seemed unsure what to do with me. As they began beating Bilal around the stomach and back, they simply surrounded me and pushed me a few times, forcing me to sit on the ground.
I had left my bag, with the camera inside, hidden in the house. When a senior looking soldier stuck his finger in my face and yelled at me where the camera was, I shrugged my shoulders and said, “What camera?” He was not pleased with this. He took off his sunglasses and yelled something in Amharic. They forced Bilal back into the house and he came out holding my bag a few seconds later, looking shaken.
It dawned on me then that the consequences of my stupidity and carelessness were going to be far more serious for Bilal than myself. I shouldn’t have forced him to stay out on the streets with me, beckoning needless danger. I shouldn’t have taken that last picture. I shouldn’t have tried to run.
When I told the soldiers to stop hitting my fellow reporter, they pushed me down and raised the butts of their rifles in a threat that was immediately understood. I shut up.
The senior officer held my camera out and yelled some more. I naively thought they were going to simply confiscate my camera and leave me there, so I asked how I could get my camera back.
“You do not ask questions!” the man shouted. “You have no authority now, you understand?” I nodded dumbly.
We were then loaded onto a truck and the seriousness of the situation hit me. The rifle of the soldier sitting next to me was digging into my hip, and when we stopped to pick up five more young men suspected of throwing stones, the small space on the back of the pick-up became even more cramped.
Despite the close quarters, Bilal managed to whisper to me that we should lie about being journalists. He was the experienced one, an Ethiopian, and I was the green American on his first real assignment, so I agreed.
We were to be students. I was doing research for my Masters in Sociology and my companion was helping me get acclimated to life in Addis Ababa. We hashed out the details of how we had met, etc. and were thus committed to the story. I knew that we would have to dispose of our media ID badges before they searched us, and fidgeted with my wallet.
An explosion went off near us while we were driving, causing all of the soldiers on the truck to leap off and rush in the direction of the blast, guns at the ready. More uniformed men appeared from side streets to investigate. There was some yelling and the sound of doors being kicked open, but apparently nothing substantial was discovered. Soldiers disappeared into the alleys as fast as they had come, and our truck lurched forward again.
We were driven through the streets slowly, and several bystanders saw me on the truck. I wondered what they thought, seeing a young white man in the middle of all that camouflage and weaponry. Perhaps they thought what I was thinking to myself at the time: ‘What a fool, a Westerner getting taken in by the police. He shouldn’t have been so reckless.’
We arrived at an old customs checkpoint station from the days of the Dergue regime of Colonel Mengsitu, a socialist that dominated and suffocated Ethiopian life through the 1980s. The compound was dirty and filled with what looked like old train cars, now used for offices and housing.
We were told to sit on the ground, in between two concrete buildings. They left us there for some time, never having searched us thoroughly, and both Bilal and I were able to hide our Press ID passes beneath one of the metal cars we were sitting near. We also disposed of a tape with several interviews with political leaders on it, and a notepad with the names and numbers of media contacts. It turned out to be fairly easy to discard these items without drawing attention. The soldiers were busy out on the streets looking for more suspects. They never even looked in my bag.
* * *
I thought that I would be treated like the rest of those who had been arrested that day, but the next time we were visited by an officer the distinction was made clear. All the Ethiopians were forced to take off their shoes and were led away, towards the back of the complex. I asked where they were being taken, fearing for Bilal’s safety.
The officer glared at me and said in surprisingly good English, “He is Ethiopian! You are American! You both should be aware of the difference.” I sat back down, helpless. I was not spoken to for the rest of the day.
When Bilal and the other young men returned to the area where I was sitting, their clothes were covered in dirt. Several were limping, and one man was bleeding from his foot. I made eye contact sheepishly with some of them, but I was not one of them anymore. They had clearly been subject to something I had been exempted from, and a division deeper than foreigner and local now existed.
I would later be told that the men had been forced to crawl on their hands and knees, roll around in the dirt on their stomachs and backs, and hop around the compound, all while being beaten on the back and legs. Occasionally a soldier would stop them and put his boot on their neck, threatening them with harsher beatings and alluding to the knife in his belt. They were told that this was their punishment.
Many of the soldiers would walk past me and glare, clearly not happy that I was being left alone. One, still wearing his helmet and shin guards, came toward me and yelled something in Amharic before being pulled away by comrades. Bilal translated his shouting. “The white man deserves to be punished! The white man deserves to be punished!”
From where I sat I could see into one of the housing units. Rows upon rows of cots stacked four and five high filled the dimly lit room. The lives of the soldiers, mostly recruited from rural areas outside Addis and poorly trained, were not easy it seemed. Even amidst the barrage of insults and with the memory of their preponderance for violence, my attitude towards them softened.
Night came and the temperature dropped dramatically. We huddled on the ground, trying to somehow keep warm. Soldiers were laughing and talking loudly in the cafeteria, and servants passed inside with heaping baskets of bread.
Eventually we were put in another truck and taken to a nearby police station. I was softly questioned and released after a Major confiscated my camera’s memory card. Bilal was to remain. He would most likely be kept overnight. As I was being led out of the station compound, I looked at him and was helpless once again. Bilal nodded, then told me the phone number of his brother and asked me to call him. When I reached the street, I wrote the number down on my hand before walking away.
The white foreigner who was to blame was released without a fuss, the innocent Ethiopian was going to get beaten again and probably taken some 400 km away to a remote jail.
* * *
I woke up the next morning dazed. The previous day’s events seemed unreal. I sat on the edge of my bed trying to remember everything.
My boss had picked me up later that night and somehow convinced the Major to release Bilal. A minor miracle, I was later told.
* * *
Now, everything seems normal. The blue and white mini-bus taxis are back on the smoke-filled streets. Fruit stands, shoeshine boys and child beggars once again dominate the sidewalk scenery, and at least a few newspapers are being distributed.
After a week and a half of streets empty save for heavily armed soldiers in blue camouflage, the city came back to life. The political turmoil has settled and the exasperated young people have stopped throwing rocks and torching city buses. Maybe they have resigned themselves to accepting the current situation, or perhaps too many have been arrested, too many killed.
Despite appearances, all is not right in Addis Ababa or Ethiopia.
Over 10,000 people were arrested and while many have been released, all the top officials of the political opposition party are still in custody, as are several editors and journalists from local newspapers. Most have not been charged with crimes, and their locations, as well as their release dates, are unknown.
When the production manager of the newspaper I work for was at the printing press two weeks ago, he saw several plain-clothes police officers commandeer 50,000 editions of another paper and arrest the men attempting to distribute it. As a result we were unable to go to print, as were all but two newspapers here (both of which have strong government connections).
The tepid international pressure has done nothing to dissuade Prime Minister Meles from keeping these people locked up. In fact, as recent comments to foreign media show, it has only strengthened his resolve to charge certain opposition members with treason.
Uneasiness still hangs in the air here. The high school boys who play ping-pong every afternoon have not returned to their space next to the soccer field, and the women who normally greet me cheerily as I return home from work now say nothing. Life goes on, but the frustration over the unsuccessful political transformation has left many bitterly disappointed and feeling hopeless.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, November 23rd