by KOOS COUVÉE
IMAGINE celebrating your 16th birthday while your loving dad, who has committed no crime, is on death row 4,000 miles away in a jail where you fear he may be tortured.
This scenario is in fact reality for Helawit “Holly” Hailemariam, 15, from Clerkenwell, whose father, Andargachew Tsege, a British man from Holloway and a prominent opposition activist in his native Ethiopia, is languishing in a jail in the East African country.
On Wednesday, a new play by Islington Community Theatre starring Helawit and five of her friends marked the anniversary of Mr Tsege’s kidnapping while he was travelling through Yemen.
Her father, also known as Andy, has been kept in secret detention in Ethiopia ever since – the authorities will not even tell his family where he is being held, or allow any contact.
The family hopes the play will pile pressurise on the UK government to press the Ethiopians to release Mr Tsege. It had its first showing at Platform, in Holloway, this week in front of a packed audience, who included his partner and two other children.
Helawit, who plays herself, is seen living the life of a normal teenage girl while at the same time having to deal with her father’s chilling disappearance. In real life, she has just finished her GCSEs at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in Angel.
The play highlights government inaction over the plight of “the Ethiopian Nelson Mandela”. After the performance, Helawit said: “My dad has been absent for a year and I am going through so many changes and I need him to be here.
Helawit “Holly” Hailemariam and dad Andargachew Tsege
“We are very worried and we feel the Prime Minister and the government are not doing anything at all.”
She said she was grateful for the way friends had rallied round. “They have really supported me, especially Nadia [Carrier Solomon],” she said. “She knew what I was going through early on.”
The teenager, who will be starting her A-levels at LaSWAP Sixth Form in Parliament Hill in September, said the play may transfer to a south London theatre and be seen at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Mr Tsege, a naturalised British citizen who has lived in London since 1979, is an outspoken critic of the Ethiopian regime and a member of the exiled opposition group Ginbot 7.
The jazz fan was on his way to an opposition conference in Eritrea when he was kidnapped by the Yemenis and handed over to Ethiopian authorities, who had sentenced him to death in absentia in 2009 for conspiring to commit “terrorist acts”.
Human rights organisation Reprieve is concerned that he is being held in solitary confinement and has been tortured.
On Wednesday, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said he had spoken to Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister and expressed “deep concern” over Mr Tsege’s solitary confinement.
Helawit’s mother, Yemi Hailemariam, 47, who is spearheading a campaign to have her partner released, was tearful after the play. She said: “It makes me so sad. The government is not pushing enough. We have to make them so we can get him back.”
A petition calling for the release of Mr Tsege has been signed by more than 120,000 people.
by KOOS COUVÉE