Author’s note: This is Part I in a forthcoming series relating my conversations with Reeyot Alemu and her amazing story in the defense of press freedom in Ethiopia. It is also about conversations with an extraordinary group of young Ethiopians living in Las Vegas who are dedicated to building good governance in a New Ethiopia founded on a strong foundation of democracy, the rule of law, human rights protections and accountability.
How I “met” Reeyot
When Reeyot was arrested and imprisoned by the personal order of the late T-TPLF capo di tutti capi (boss of all bosses) Meles Zenawi in June 2011, I was outraged but not surprised. I had no idea who she was; never heard of her name.
Following the 2005 election in Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi ran around like a rabid dog biting every journalist who did not sing him praises. My policy has always been to defend any journalist attacked by Meles Zenawi and his T-TPLF. That is how I “met” Reeyot.
I became Reeyot’s No. 1 fan and self-appointed spokesperson in the court of international public opinion shortly after Meles Zenawi told his make believe parliament that Reeyot was a world class terrifying terrorist who had planned on attacking “infrastructure, telecommunications, and power lines in the country with the support of an unnamed international terrorist group and Ethiopia’s neighbor, Eritrea.” He said Reeyot is a “messenger” of terrorists, blah, blah, blah…
I laughed at Meles Zenawi’s allegations because I could prove beyond a shadow of doubt that his allegations were not only laughable but also demonstrably false.
At the time Meles made the allegation, his T-TPLF (Thugtatorship of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front) regime had already destroyed Ethiopia’s telecommunications structure.
It is a historical fact that Emperor Menelik II was the first African leader to introduce the telephone and telegraph on the African continent in 1889, thirteen years after Alexander Graham Bell patented his “apparatus for vocal sounds”. When anxious clergymen told Menelik the telephone was the “work of Satan” and should be banned, Menelik declined and Ethiopia’s telecommunication infrastructure building began in earnest. Menelik insisted adoption of modern technology is vital “to enable us to exist as a great nation in the face of the European powers” and to meet our “need for educated people.”
In 2016, 127 years later, Ethiopia has the worst telecommunication infrastructure in the world.
Is it not incredible that, all things being equal, Ethiopia had a much better communications infrastructure in 1899 than in 2016? What a low down, dirty shame!
In 2013, Freedom House reported, “Ethiopia has one of the lowest rates of internet and mobile telephone penetration in the world, as meager infrastructure, a government monopoly over the telecom sector, and obstructive telecom policies…”
In 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported that while farmers in Ethiopia have cell (mobile) phones, “The trouble is, they have to walk several miles to get a good signal.” Ethiopia has the second worst internet service in Africa. Kenya, some 450 miles south of Addis Ababa, in 2012 had the second highest internet speed in Africa after Ghana, according to Freedom House. In 2016, growth in Kenya’s telecommunications sector is described as “nothing short of phenomenal.”.
It is the worst telecommunication system in Africa that Meles Zenwai claimed Reeyot was planning to destroy! Aye, aye, aye! Meles the “visionary”!
Anyway, following Reeyot’s arrest, I made sure I was kept informed on her situation in Meles Zenawi Prison (sometimes referred to as “Kality Prison”).
I am recounting my conversations with Reeyot in this series not to show the heroism of Reeyot and her extraordinary family (God bless her parents for giving us Reeyot and her sister Eskedar), but in the fervent hope that Reeyot’s story of commitment to truth, courage, patriotism, sacrifice, virtuousness, honesty, decency and humanity will inspire all young Ethiopians to stand up for their beliefs. She has certainly inspired me.
I am also recounting my conversations with Reeyot so the world can see through Reeyot’s eyes the crimes against humanity committed against her and continue to be committed against all political prisoners in Ethiopia. What happened to Reeyot happens to every political prisoner in Ethiopia. Reeyot does not feel she is some special victim of T-TPLF crimes against humanity. She is just one of many thousands of political prisoners held by the T-TPLF. Her struggle is not for her personal liberty; it is for the liberty of all Ethiopians without regard to ethnicity, religion, language, region, gender and so on.
It is hard and easy to describe Reeyot.
Reeyot is in many ways a larger than life figure. Meles Zenawi jailed her when she was 31 years old. When I met her in person a few days ago, she was beyond anything I had imagined her to be.
The way Meles Zenawi spoke of her to his make-believe parliament, I was expecting someone fearsome, fire-breathing, frightful and intimidating. I was expecting to meet a terrifying figure. (Maybe “terrifying” is the wrong word to use in this context.)
Reeyot is a young woman in a small frame.
When I first laid eyes on her, the first words I said to her were, “You are Reeyot?! I am not scared of you!” She busted out laughing.
I wasn’t really trying to be funny. I just blurted out the words.
It is her simplicity that makes Reeyot very hard to describe.
She is like a diamond. When one sees her she shines and sparkles.
A few minutes talking to her, one sees the other side of her diamond quality. She has steel nerves, tungsten will power and titanium determination.
She has a defining and disarming attitude. She makes no secret of her life’s mission: “If I don’t stand up for freedom and democracy in Ethiopia, who else will?”
I murmured to myself, “Oh!!! My God! What have Meles Zenawi and his thugs created!?”
(In passing, let me just say that I had been struggling with the same question every single day for almost 10 years, so I had no difficulty understanding her life’s mission. Of course, I would never compare my puny efforts to Reeyot’s sacrifices nor her boundless courage to my pretensions.)
Before Meles Zenawi jailed Reeyot, she was just an ordinary school teacher, journalist and columnist in the independent weekly Feteh (Justice) newspaper. (Temesgen Desalegn, editor of Feteh, is today imprisoned by the T-TPLF.)
Meles Zenawi transformed an ordinary teacher and journalist into an international symbol of press freedom, resistance to tyranny and courage under fire.
I mean this with all sincerity: I thank Meles Zenawi for “creating” Reeyot because he made it possible for Ethiopia’s young people to see that with steely determination, resolute courage and principled fortitude, even the worst tyrant can be brought to his knees.
But one question kept gnawing away at the corner of mind about Meles Zenawi.
Did Meles Zenawi really believe Reeyot is a “terrorist” strapped to the neck with explosives running around looking for imaginary “telecommunications infrastructure targets” to blow up? If he believed that, he was either a certified paranoid lunatic or a congenital coward. Or both.
We talked for hours about many things. Our conversations were freewheeling. As young folks might say, “We were just kicking it.”
We laughed almost the entire time as we discussed the childish shenanigans of the T-TPLF, their stupidity and idiocy, their ignorant arrogance, their incompetence and cluelessness, their hate and loathing, their thuggery and buffoonery, their lies, deception and disinformation; their corruption, nepotism and cronyism. We laughed and laughed…
I told Reeyot I was hoping to commiserate with her about her time in Meles Zenawi Prison. I wanted to tell her how much heartache and bellyache I had been thinking about her imprisonment and all that.
As I prepared to tell how sorry I am she had to go through all the crap at the Meles Zenawi Prison, she busted out laughing. It was a bit disconcerting.
It was the T-TPLF thugs and goons who were having heartaches and bellyaches trying unsuccessfully to break her spirit and her mind for 4 years. Maybe I should have pity for them?
She has a wicked sense of humor, let me tell you.
Anyway, I went to see her and bellyache about what the T-TPLF had done to her and ended up almost rolling on the floor in belly-busting laughter about the T-TPLF. Them guys is whack, man!
Don’t get me wrong!
I am not saying Reeyot did not have strong emotional reactions about her captivity in Meles Zenawi Prison. Reeyot suffered in Meles Zenawi Prison beyond what I am able to express in words.
She had far too many harrowing moments.
For instance, she was deeply saddened when some gutter-mouthed thug named Hassan Shiffa, allegedly a police commissioner, heaped on her such unspeakable, outrageous and demeaning insults.
I wanted to tell her, “See, you can take the thug out of the bush and street alleys and give him a cheap suit and an official title, but you can never take the bush and street alley out of the thug. Once a thug always a thug.” She knows that, why repeat it!
Reeyot was always irritated over the unending daily harassment and insults she was subjected to by T-TPLF prison goons.
Reeyot agonized over the unspeakable suffering of her mother, father and sister as a result of her imprisonment by the T-TPLF.
When Reeyot found out that her sister Eskedar was beaten senseless by T-TPLF thugs and was hospitalized for weeks for severe head fractures, she cried uncontrollably.
Reeyot was painfully aware that though she was suffering in Meles Zenawi Prison, she also knew her entire family remained in an open air prison Meles Zenawi created called Ethiopia.
Reeyot was despondent when she was told that her punishment for not cooperating with the T-TPLF and falsely implicating others was denial of a follow up visit for her breast cancer surgery. She was worried about getting a life-threatening infection.
Reeyot could not believe her ears when some quack psychologist named Dr. Alemu at Meles Zenawi Prison told her problem is not breast cancer but psychological. Alemu told her he is qualified in diseases related to “breast” and actually fondled her breast. Alemu’s diagnosis: Reeyot is suffering from “anxiety”. That idiot Alemu told Reeyot it is all in her head. She has no breast cancer!
Reeyot was deeply saddened when Hassan Shiffa and another thug named Leiku Gebreegziaber, “head prosecutor”, on two different occasions told her she will either bear false witness against Elias Kifle or suffer the death penalty.
Both Hassan Shiffa and Leiku Gebreegziaber threatened her that even if she did not get the death penalty, she will certainly get life imprisonment. They asked her how old she was and calculated what her life would be like when she gets out of prison. They told her by the time she gets out of prison may be in 20 or 25 years, she will not have married, had no children and no profession. They told her she will be nothing.
Reeyot kept her cool. She told Shiffa she has heard the T-TPLF president does not like to sign death warrants. But if he signs it, Reeyot told the thug, “That’s not a problem.”
Yes, Reeyot got in the face of the T-TPLF thug and told him the death penalty is not a problem for her!
My, oh! My! My, my Reeyot!!!
That’s why I call her Reeyot Invictus, (Reeyot the Unconquerable.)
She looked into the eyes of the T-TPLF devil and told him, “You can kill me now but I will chase you to the gates of hell, hell, hell!”
The thug was stunned. He huffed and puffed like an angry gorilla. But Reeyot would not flinch. He gave her three days to think about it. She came back and gave all of the T-TPLF thugs where to go to get her answer: Hell.
There are so many fascinating things about Reeyot and her experiences at the Meles Zenawi Prison which I will discuss in subsequent installments. It is unimaginable how cruel and inhuman the T-TPLF thugs are. How could human beings be so Satanic? (I did not say look at the pentagram (the universal symbol of the followers of the Prince of Darkness) in the middle of the T-TPLF flag.)
The T-TPLF actually built a separate tin shack as a holding cell for Reeyot. They put in 3 spies in the shack with her to report everything Reeyot said or did 24/7.
For some reason, the T-TPLF thugs, from top to bottom, civilian, military, police, were terrified (you know, I am not using the word “terrified” that way) of Reeyot.
But there is one thing, one thing that struck me like lightening. There is one thing that makes Reeyot so special.
During the many hours we talked, she showed no hate, no fear and no loathing for the T-TPLF thugs.
I still cannot wrap my head around it. How is it possible for anyone to be so principled that they bear no malice towards those who have dehumanized, degraded, mistreated and humiliated her in Meles Zenawi Prison.
When the T-TPLF arrested Reeyot, they simply had no idea what kind of a person they were dealing with. Reeyot was engaged in journalism fully aware of the consequences of her profession. She said there was no question in her mind that she will be arrested and jailed “some day”. The biggest surprise on June 21, 2011 was the fact that “some day” arrived so fast.
Her attitude is Ethiopia cannot be freed by hate. There is no future in hate. Hate the evil act not the person. That is a very difficult attitude to hold and practice for ordinary people when they are dealing with those whose religion is hate.
Nelson Mandela once said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”
I have become more cynical in my old age. “Only pity for the T-TPLF thugs. Thugs will always be thugs. Can the spotted hyena change its spots?”
I am proud to say I spoke to Reeyot Alemu who had been to hell and back yet has no hatred for the devil but the evil he does. How is that possible?
That is the Reeyot I spent hours talking to, laughing with and envisioning the New Ethiopia.
Having talked to Reeyot, I am now more convinced than ever that Ethiopia has hope, her best days are yet to come and Ethiopia’s young people are worth fighting for to the end!
The young woman who fought her way out of T-TPLF hell
There are only a few people who have been to hell and back intact. Unscathed! Unsinged! Untouched!
There are only a few people who have gone to hell, spit in the devil’s face and come back to tell the tale.
Nelson Mandela was the greatest one of them all.
Mandela faced the apartheid devil in the eye for 27 years and told him to go to hell every single day.
When Mandela appeared at the gates of hell, Verester Prison, where he served the last 14 months of his life sentence on February 11, 1990, he was all smiles.
Later on Mandela said, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
When they told Mandela that he must be superhuman to forgive those who made his life hell on earth for 27 years, he chuckled: “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”
Mandela beat the apartheid devil at his own game! With Mandela’s principle: Learn to love. Unlearn to hate. Mandela taught, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
Reeyot Alemu, the young Ethiopian she-ro of press freedom, faced the gentler and kinder face of modern black apartheid T-TPLF devil in the eye for nearly 1,500 days and nights and told him to go to hell, hell, hell!!!
When Reeyot walked out of Meles Zenawi Prison on July 9, 2015, Reeyot, like Mandela, did not skip a beat.
She told the T-TPLF apartheid devil and the world via the Voice of America, “I will continue to fully struggle to make Ethiopia a good place where democracy and justice prevail. Until I can see such an Ethiopia, I will continue my struggle.”
Reeyot, like Mandela, also beat the T-TPLF devil at his own game. With Reeyot’s principle: (The struggle continues! (La luta continua!)
Mandela was 44 years old when the minority white apartheid regime sentenced him to life in prison in 1962.
Reeyot Alemu was 31 years old when she was arrested by the apartheid T-TPLF regime in Ethiopia.
Reeyot was first sentenced by a T-TPLF monkey (kangaroo) court to 14 years. The day she was sentenced the T-TPLF offered her immediate release if she would bear false witness against others. She told the T-TPLF to go to …
A T-TPLF appeals monkey court reduced her sentence to five years. One fine morning, the T-TPLF told her, “Get out!” No ceremony. No explanation. No nothing. Just “Get out!”.
Reeyot’s trials and tribulations in the belly of the T-TPLF beast
It is a fact that Meles Zenawi personally ordered the arrest of Reeyot Alemu.
But the way the T-TPLF thugs executed her arrest was so comical that it could have easily been a scene in the comedy movie Police Academy or even the Keystone Cops. In the Reeyot arrest, there are a bunch of clueless, goofy and incompetent cops called “federal police” and “anti-terrorism task force” setting up what they think to be an elaborate trap to catch the “world-class terrorist” Reeyot Alemu.
In mid-morning on June 21, 2011, the day of her arrest, Reeyot was attending a teachers’ meeting in a hall at her high school campus with the principal. There were no students on campus. The teachers were preparing final grades.
Some 20 minutes after the meeting started, the school principal becomes all antsy and nervous. His cell phone kept on ringing. Each time he would step out and return after a few minutes. The principal tries to joke with Reeyot. “Why are you sitting in the back?”, suggesting she is trying to hide.
After going in and out of the meeting several times, the principal tells Reeyot “someone is outside looking for you”. Reeyot steps out and is greeted by two individuals, a man and a woman, in civilian clothing. They tell her, “Oh, a relative is looking for you.”
Reeyot is confused but not particularly suspicious. She thought to herself that perhaps there is a family emergency.
The two individuals assure her, “Oh, when you come out you will see the relative, don’t worry… It is a surprise.”
Reeyot was escorted down the steps towards the school gate.
As she approached the gate, Reeyot observed a bunch of “federal police” (she estimates at least 9 uniformed police) armed to the teeth and at least 4 marked police vehicles. There were also other individuals in civilian clothing and unmarked cars standing around. No helicopters or armored personnel carriers were visible from her vantage point. Reeyot must have felt like a gazelle (or cheetah) surrounded by a cackle of laughing hyenas licking their chops.
As she approached the gate, she tried to walk back but felt the grip of the two individuals escorting her. She tried to tell them she has to go back and finish grading. No can do said the man who escorted her to the gate.
She tried to resist and not exit the gate. At that point, several “federal police” pounced on her. It was a free for all manhandling her. One is putting handcuffs on her. Another grabbing her hands, others seizing different parts of her body. Imagine hyenas attacking a gazelle from all sides.
She protested, “Why am I being arrested.” The man who escorted her barked, “You are wanted on suspicion of terrorism”. She was never shown an arrest warrant or any legal documentation as authority for her arrest.
After she was handcuffed, the man who escorted her literally grabbed and threw her into the police car like a piece of rag.
The assembled force sent to arrest Reeyot must have thought they were there to arrest Osama bin Laden. (It was not clear if the thugs were high-fiving each other for catching the “world class terrorist” Reeyot Alemu.)
Of course, it is obvious that the T-TPLF thugs could have easily scooped Reeyot walking in the street or busted the door of her house in the middle of the night and snatched her. They do that all the time. Kidnap and disappear people.
So why have all of the school house arrest drama?
I don’t know, but that is how the T-TPLF anti-terrorism task force keystone cops roll.
As I thought about the T-TPLF school house arrest of Reeyot drama, I could only imagine the T-TPLF thugs in the Keystone Cops episode, “In the Clutches of the Gang” (1914).
The T-TPLF goons having captured the “world class terrorist” Reeyot Alemu congratulated each other and sped off to Maekelawi Police Station, also known as “Torture Central”.
There is so much torture at Maekelawi police station that Human Rights Watch dedicated an entire report in 2013 entitled “They Want a Confession: Toture and Ill-Treatment in Ethiopia’s Maekelawi Police Station.”
That’s where the T-TPLF took Reeyot for an unscheduled visit to T-TPLF hell.
(to be continued… “Are you Reeyot Alemu?” sneered Hassan Shiffa… )