To hold a pen is to be at war!
My name is Caalaa Hayiluu Abaataa. I am a 27 year-old poet and author. I am an Oromo, and I lived in my homeland, the Oromia Regional State of Ethiopia, for the most of my life. On January 3, 2012 I was forced to flee to Sudan in fear for my life. This is my story.
Ever since my teenage years, I have been involved in activities to bring changes in social issues. I brought awareness about HIV and AIDS to towns and in the deep countryside of Oromia. I also volunteered in helping homeless people. I worked with orphans and the disabled, supporting them through Oromo volunteer cultural clubs. I wanted to spread awareness about the Oromian culture and way of living by promoting awareness about the indigenous religion and administrative system called ‘Gadaa and Waaqeffannaa.’ In order to inspire and educate my people, I also organized and performed plays.
My disagreements with the cadres of the ruling party of Ethiopia, the TPLF (Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front), began early on. In 2004, when I was 16 years-old, more than 350 Oromo students were dismissed from Addis Ababa University. The Mecha and Tuluma Self-Help Association, an Oromo social movement, was banned and its leaders were arrested. More than 1500 Oromo students from the town of Moyale, including elementary and high school pupils, were forced to flee to Kenya. I was arrested in Moyale. I was beaten, tortured and accused of being a member of the Mecha and Tuluma Self-Help Association. But I had no clue about this association. I did not even know the name of the organization, at that time.
I joined Adama University in 2007 and started taking courses for a law degree. I was very involved in student life from start. I was the student representative of the law department. That brought me immediately under pressure from the authorities. The university was not a free place and the TPLF was not happy with my activities. There was constant pressure on the students to fill membership cards for the ruling party. Representatives from the party came to classes to tell the students they would not graduate or get job opportunities if they did not join the party. I opposed them and told them that we should not be forced to fill the forms or sign any documents. There was a lot of tension. I was followed all the time, and my interactions with other students became monitored.
For more than three months, I was held in the most horrendous conditions without having committed any crime. I was being persecuted only for being Oromo and actively working for the Oromo people.
In June 2009, I was one of the secretaries of an Oromo language, culture and history preservation club at the university. I tried to organize a democratic election of the members because I wanted the student’s council to be able to choose their representatives. However, when I put up the posters, I was taken to the University’s security office along with two of my friends. I was asked questions about what we were doing. I made it clear that I wanted to make a democratic election for the students so they could elect their own representatives. The TPLF agents commanded me not to pursue it, but I refused to change my position. When I returned to school in October, after the summer break, the registrar at the university refused to register me even though I was a third year student. I asked why they imposed such a decision on me, but the head of the campus security responded that this was an order from the federal security. I was arrested and the head of the campus security brought me to the Adama security office. They said that I was inciting the students against the TPLF regime. It worried them that the students were Oromo. I was accused of being a member of the OLF (Oromo Liberation Front). I was not, nor had ever been, a member of any organization or political party during that time. I was, however, involved in raising awareness about the traditions of the Oromo people. Following the arrest, I was put in a very dirty cell in Adama prison, where I was beaten by a member of the federal security.
I was released one week later on a bail bond of 10,000 birr, and went back to my studies and social and cultural activities. I published an Oromo poetry book with my own poems. In October 2010, I attended an Oromo thanksgiving festival, an Irreechaa, in the town of Bishoftu, but was arrested during the celebrations. I was told that my book opposed the government and that it was inciting civil war and unrest. They said the book incited a revolution for the Oromo people to overthrow the government. I was again accused of being an OLF member. While in prison in Bishoftu, I was slapped and kicked by a federal security policeman named Addisu Badhasa. I was put in a cell with sometimes more than 40 criminals, even though the cell was not more than 4×5 meters wide. After one week there, I was transferred to Adama, where I was interrogated for one day. I was beaten, verbally insulted and dehumanized in the Commanders Office. I was told that I would be tortured if I did not explain myself and my book. They then took me from the Commanders Office to a room with a public prosecutor and other commanders, and the interrogation continued. I was eventually released on a bail of 10,000 birr, but was required to live at a bail address.
I was arrested for the fifth time in August 13, 2011. The only reason was that I had worked with activities related to the Oromo culture, language, arts, literature and religion. The arrest greatly interrupted my life. I was trying to prepare for my final exams and was preparing my second novel for printing. The TPLF regime prohibited me from publishing it, and arrested me in Adama. One week after the arrest, I was taken to the Federal Police Investigation Center called Maekelawi. It is located in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. For more than three months, I was held in the most horrendous conditions without having committed any crime. I was being persecuted only for being Oromo and actively working for the Oromo people.
Chellema Bet: Cell 8
Maekelawi is like hell. It is divided into different sections where people are held depending on how much punishment the prison officials want to give them at the time. I was held in different cells during the imprisonment there. For the first eight days of my incarceration, I was held in cell number 8. Cell 8 is one of the cells in the block called Chellema bet, meaning “dark house.” Everyone fears of being put in this cell, because it is not more than 1×1½ meters wide. My hands and feet were shackled and the cell was so small I could not stretch my legs out. The cell was completely dark, as there was no natural or electric light in there. The walls were made of concrete and the door was metal. There were many insects biting me and it was freezing cold. I did not have a mattress to lie on, and nothing to cover me with. I only had the clothes I was wearing. I was only given food – dried bread and tea – on a very limited number of occasions. This was the prison diet. I was not allowed to go to the toilet except on one occasion when they allowed me to go on the way to the interrogation room. I was not eating enough to defecate.
A map of Maekelawi, the Federal Police Crime Investigation Sector, drawn from memory by Caalaa. B8 is Chellema Bet, where Caalaa was held in different cells. Drawing by Caalaa Hayiluu Abaataa.
I was beaten throughout the days I was in this cell. Sometimes someone would come to my cell just to beat me, even though the small size of the cell made it difficult for them. Because of this, the beatings usually took place in the interrogation room. When I was taken from the cell to the investigation room, I was often blindfolded and dragged. The prison officials wanted me to confess that I was conspiring with terrorists. They accused me of inciting Oromo people, especially the Oromo students, by my poems. After being held in cell 8 for a few days, I was taken to a first instance court. The first instance court is not a real court. I do not believe it had the jurisdiction to hear my case. I do not believe the judges who heard the case were real judges; I had seen them in the investigation centre acting like they were police investigators. I cannot believe what was happening was legal. There was no proper criminal procedure. We were deprived of the right to communicate with both families and lawyers. I do not know of anyone who was allowed to communicate with their lawyers during the time I was in Maekelawi. I had no right to ask questions. After I was released, my family told me that some of them had tried to see me. They came to Maekelawi with food and money for me, but I was never informed about this and they were not allowed to leave the food and money. Instead, they were questioned about me, why they wanted to see me and the purpose of their visit. They were ordered to give their addresses and phone numbers, and were questioned about many other things.
I was never charged with anything, but due to the length of time I was held, I believe I was held under the Anti-Terror Proclamation. They had also referred to the Anti-Terror Proclamation in court. I asked them to open a formal charge against me, but they had no evidence. All of it was rubbish. The judges were only hearing what the police reported to them. I had no representation. All they did was rubber stamp the request for more time in order to keep me at Maekelawi.
Chellema Bet: Cell 7
After eight days in cell 8, I was moved to cell number 7. It was dark, but some sunlight came in through a small hole. This cell was larger than the others. From what I can recall, the dimensions were about 7×8 meters. Still, it was completely overcrowded. Because of the lack of light and my poor health conditions, it is difficult to tell how much time passed. I think it was about 35 days in this cell. During this time, the number of people in the cell varied from 10 to 15. Most of them were Oromo, including Mr. Olbana Lellisa, the Vice President of the Oromo National Congress Party. There were also children as young as the age of 14. There were many political activists and well known figures being held in Maekelawi. I saw Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson, the Swedish journalists who were arrested for entering Ethiopia to work as journalists. They were held in Tawla bet (the wooden house). I saw them from the court yard where prisoners were allowed to get a maximum of ten minutes of sunlight per week. They were inside of their cell and the door was not closed. They seemed very courageous. We exchanged facial expressions and gave each other moral support. I got menthol cigarettes from them. Seeing Martin and Johan renewed my hope of the future.
Next to our cell, there was a filthy toilet we were allowed to visit once a day; sometimes early in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon. Sometimes, we were ordered to go to the toilet after the ten minutes of sunlight. There was no regularity to it. If someone had to visit the toilet at other times, the only option was a bucket in the cell. It was filled with urine and the cell stank. I could not wash myself during my time there. It was freezing cold. There were no sheets or mattresses, and in the night we had to lie directly on the freezing cold concrete floor. This did, of course, make sleeping impossible. Also, there were disturbance coming from the interrogation room throughout the entire nights. It was very disturbing and frightening. We feared that the police would open the door and drag us to the interrogation room.
The interrogations were continuous. Sometimes they took place at night, sometimes during the day. They sometimes handcuffed and blindfolded me. I was exposed to an avalanche of ethnic slurs. They told me they had already collected enough tangible evidence against me and that it was better for me to confess my crime. Otherwise, I would be subjected to even more suffering. I continued to receive beatings and one time even passed out because of the ferocity of the beating. Another time I was hung upside down. Once, a pistol was placed in my mouth and they threatened to kill me. I suffered very badly in Maekelawi.
Chellema Bet: Cell 3
After 45 days, I was transferred to cell number 3. This cell was approximately 4×5 meters wide. During the time I was there, the number of people varied between 8 and 20. The cell had a very small and narrow hole on the upper wall, near the roof. The sun light came in through the hole, but only in the direction the hole was angled. Just as in the previous cell, we were only allowed out of the cell for a maximum of ten minutes per week to get some light and go to the toilet. The bucket in the cell, which was used to urinate in, sometimes flooded over onto the ground where we were sleeping and sitting. The smell was very bad and the cell often became waterlogged. It was very cold. I never as much as saw a mattress, but I did not wish for one; I could imagine what state it would be in. I was very sick by this time and had been denied any treatment from the clinic. I had abdominal pains and a severe headache. I could not see properly because I had such little access to light for such a long time.
3D model of Cell 3 in Chellema Bet, based on a description by Caalaa. Made for Untold Stories by Devmito.com.
When I had been detained in cell 3 for approximately three weeks, some Commissioners came to the prison. This was the first time I saw them. They said that they were government representatives and were there to solve the prisoners’ problems. The Commissioners said that they were neutral. This was rubbish. They behaved as investigators and were accompanied by the prison administrators. The Commissioners wanted the prisoners to tell them about our problems. They could see with their own eyes that we had problems, but if we told them a problem, they either ignored it or the information went straight back to the prison authorities. I know this because of their questions and the things they said. Directly after entering our cell, they said, “Why do you not cooperate? Do you want to spend your life here?” They did not listen to our questions or opinions. If they were neutral, they would at least have approached us in another way. I was severely sick when the Commissioners came to cell 3. I told them that I was really sick and needed treatment. One of the men asked my name and I told him my name. He immediately replied that I was an OLF-member. He told me to keep quiet, stop complaining and to not ask for treatment any more. It was at this time that I realized that they were not there to help us. I decided not to answer, ask or request anything more.
When I was later moved to Sheraton, another part of the prison, I continued to see them come to the cells now and then. They always had suggestions to the prisoners, such as “Why do you not cooperate with the police investigators by telling them that it is your fault?” or “Why do you not confess your criminal act?” or “Why do you not believe that you have committed the crime of which they have been investigating you?” I cannot believe that these people were from a human rights organization or wanted to help the prisoners in any way.
When a nurse finally saw me, I was moved to Sheraton. Sheraton is considered to be a better part of Maekelawi, and is therefore sarcastically named after the hotel. The nurse said she would try to report my case to get me treatment. My abdominal pains, back pains and eyes were very bad. Most of the time, I could not eat anything. My other cell members told me to eat or I would die there.
Sheraton has a place where one can move around. Natural sunlight came into the cells, but there was still no electric light. Even though Sheraton is considered better, the conditions were still terrible. There was still a lack of water, insufficient food, filthy rooms and poor hygiene. It was so overcrowded that I could not even tell the real number of prisoners because of the overcrowding. The cells in the Sheraton are approximately 3×4 meters wide and in many of them there were around 15-20 people, sometimes as many as 25. Mostly, people spent their nights standing as there was no place to sit or lie. It was cold and had no blankets or mats. I could go to the toilet when I liked, but there were so many people using it, and the hygiene was terrible. The toilets were filthy. It was in the Sheraton I had the first opportunity to wash myself. I could not, however, do this very often and could not do it properly. The only way of washing was using a tap on the toilet. The crowd made it very difficult to get the opportunity of using the tap, and it was often broken. I believe the prison authority intentionally damaged the tap.
The interrogations stopped to some extent when I was moved to this part of the prison, but not entirely. Instead, I was called to an office to put my signature on papers. I was not shown what the papers said, so I refused to sign. I told them that I will not sign without knowing what I am signing. For this, they beat me. When I was taken to the office again, they said they will release me and that I will graduate from the University – if I sign the documents. I refused. Once again, they told me to sign the papers, and once again I refused. One of the officers, named Tadesse Meseret, took out a pistol and said he would kill me if I did not sign. I refused again.
I was taken to the office one last time. A man came in together with a woman. I was beaten until I fell to the floor. As I was lying there the man walked all over me, stepping on my body. I had nothing left in me after this. I was so exhausted. I gave up and signed the documents and finally they released me. To this day, I do not know what I signed. There was no legal procedure for me. They could do, and did, exactly what they wanted.
When I was released on November 10, 2011, I was told not to contact anyone of the Oromo ethnic group. I did not accept this. I was invited by Gumi Oromo to read my poems at an event organized to welcome new Oromo students to Adama University. My poetry was very appreciated by the students. When I later was at a celebration of the Waaqeffanna religion in the Olanchiti town, the federal police arrested me and six other people, one of whom was a woman. I was imprisoned in a big, very dangerous prison in the Walanchiti town. The men were put together in a cell and the woman was separated from us. We were not given blankets or mattresses, and we were not allowed to wash ourselves. I was detained for one week and then was released on bail.
When I was back in Adama University, a conflict took place on December 29, 2011 between the Oromo students and TPLF’s federal police, the liyu police. It resulted in the arrest of many of the Oromo students. Many of them were beaten and had severe physical injuries. I escaped arrest, but, fearing for my life, I fled to Addis Ababa. From there, I fled to Sudan where I spent 16 months in a refugee camp. At this point, my case as a political refugee was recognized by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and I now finally have permanent residence in Sweden. I had to leave all my documents from the university when I fled. It is my dream to one day be able to continue my education and law studies.
This was my short story, but one can never compare it with the stories of other Oromo prisoners regarding torture and mistreatment perpetrated by the TPLF. Maekelawi is a place of physical and psychological punishment, cut off from the outside world. Nearly all of the Maekelawi officers I had contact with were armed with a pistol or a Kalashnikov. I even saw a health personnel with a pistol. There were many spies in Maekelawi; either prisoners who had been induced to spy on other prisoners, or people like the aforementioned Commissioners. There were no trusted complaints channels at all, and we were totally deprived of our human rights. No one heard or took action on the complaints of the prisoners. They only tried to shut us up and get us to confess. Once you are there, anything can happen to you – and no one will stop it or even report it. You will not complain unless you are prepared to receive more punishment for it. You cannot trust anyone. Having experienced Maekelawi first hand, I am very fearful for the welfare of anyone sent there. There were, and with no doubt still are, many untold horrendous and unlawful acts happening there. The punishment is not only the interrogations and torture you are put through as a prisoner, but also the fear of it. The cell door opening sends fear through you – fear that they are coming to get you. The Ethiopian prison cells are a veritable hell on Earth.
I was forced to flee Oromia out of fear for my life. I was writing critical poetry about TPLF’s evil actions, and I performed and read them to my people. TPLF tried to stop me from doing that. Now I am forced away from my homeland, but I am continuing to do the same thing. They can try to stop me from writing what I think is just and right, or from speaking the truth, but they cannot stop me from thinking. Right now back home, hundreds of poets are still doing what I was deprived of. That gives my mind peace.
Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are.
– Jean-Jacques Rousseau