Friday, November 16, 2007
Note to the reader: It was a year ago today, November 16, 2007, that Frehiwot Samuel, Woldemichael Meshesha and Mitiku Teshome briefed the United States Congress on the findings of their Inquiry Commission. Because of their extraordinary courage in revealing the truth to the world, we are here today to commemorate the victims of the 2005 massacre in Ethiopia. To these three brave sons of Ethiopia, we can only express our eternal debt of gratitude: “Never have so many owed so much to so few. Thank you!”
“For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time. The witness has forced himself to testify. For the youth of today, for the children who will be born tomorrow. He does not want his past to become their future.” Elie Wiesel (Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor), Night (2006).
Do You Remember the Patriots of June and November?
On March 21, 1960, apartheid security forces in the township of Sharpeville, South Africa fired 705 bullets in two minutes to disperse a crowd of protesting Africans. When the shooting spree stopped, 69 black Africans lay dead, shot in the back; and 186 were severely wounded. The Sharpeville Massacre drew international attention to the plight of Africans in South Africa; and annually, it is commemorated as a watershed event, a turning point in the modern history of South Africa.
In November, 1938, the Nazis burned thousands of Jewish synagogues and businesses throughout Germany, killing nearly 100 and arresting and deporting over 30,000 to concentration camps. That was Krystallnacht (Night of Broken Glass). It was the forerunner to the Jewish Holocaust. Every November, Jews commemorate Krytallnacht.
In June and November, 2005, 193 unarmed men, women and children were massacred by paramilitary police units in Ethiopia as they engaged in ordinary civil protest. Many thousands before them had suffered the same fate. The massacre of these unarmed protesters seared the consciences of Ethiopians, and laid bare to a candid but silent world the utter moral depravity of the ruling regime.
But two years later, the silence of the lambs from their mass graves echoes faintly among us, the living. But our own silence in the Diaspora is deafening. And we have turned mute and deaf. Why aren’t we commemorating the sacrifices of these martyrs? In our churches and mosques? In our homes among our families? At our social gatherings with our friends?
Shouldn’t we remember the martyrs of June and November, 2005?
The Silence of the Lambs
On November 16, 2006, three courageous Ethiopians appointed to an Inquiry Commission by the ruling regime to investigate the post-2005 election massacre of innocent protesters delivered their report in exile in a briefing to the United States Congress. Commission Chairman Frehiwot Samuel, Vice Chairman, Woldemichael Meshsha and member Mitiku Teshome did something that no one with authority and power has ever done in Ethiopia before them: They refused to whitewash government-sponsored crimes and atrocities committed against innocent citizens.
The documented facts of the June and November, 2005 massacres are shocking to the conscience as they are incontrovertible. The Commission examined 16,990 documents, and received testimony form 1,300 witnesses. After analyzing this mountain of evidence, the Commission concluded that none of the protesters possessed, used or attempted to use firearms against the paramilitary forces. None of them possessed, used or attempted to use any type of explosives. No protester was observed carrying a stick or a club to use as a weapon. No protester set or attempted to set fire to public or private property. No protester robbed or attempted to rob a bank.
The paramilitary government forces used firearms, batons and tear gas. Their sharpshooters massacred 193 protestors in cold blood. Almost all of the victims were shot in the head or upper torso. Another 763 protesters suffered severe gunshot wounds. Over 30,000 civilians were arrested without warrant, and held in detention without due process of law. On November 3, 2005, during an alleged disturbance in Kality prison that lasted 15 minutes, prison guards fired more than 1500 bullets. The body count from this shooting spree left 17 detainees dead, and 53 others severely wounded.
Do you Know the Martyrs of June and November?
Who are the martyrs of June and November? Thanks to the Inquiry Commission, they are well known to us, and to the world. There was ShiBire Desalegn, a beautiful young high school graduate shot in the neck and killed as she and her friends tried desperately to block passage to a torture camp in Sendafa. Then there was Tensae Zegeye, age 14. And Debela Guta, age 15. And Habtamu Tola, age 16. Binyam Degefa, age 18. Behailu Tesfaye, age 20. Kasim Ali Rashid, age 21. Teodros Giday Hailu, age 23. Adissu Belachew, age 25; Milion Kebede Robi, age 32; Desta Umma Birru, age 37; Tiruwork G. Tsadik, age 41. Admasu Abebe, age 45. Elfnesh Tekle, age 45. Abebeth Huletu, age 50. Etenesh Yimam, age 50; Regassa Feyessa, age 55. Teshome Addis Kidane, age 65; Victim No. 21762, age 75, female. And there was Victim No.21760, male, age unknown. And there is a complete list of innocent citizens murdered by paramilitary troops. 
We will never know for sure why ShiBire, Tensae, Debela, Habtamu, Kasim, Tiruwork, Etenesh, Victim No.21760 and the others went out to protest. Perhaps they felt they had a right to protest, to have their grievances heard. Perhaps they were driven out into the streets by an overpowering passion for liberty. May be they were surfing the tidal wave of the spirit of freedom that swept out the EPDRF and floated in Kinijit. May be they went out to protest as a gesture of defiance, to show the world that they can and will stand by to tyranny. May be it was all of the above and more. Certainly, before they went out to protest, all of them must have felt that they could never live down the shame of standing by idly as the first democratic election in Ethiopia’s history is stolen in a barefaced daylight robbery.
But we know other things for darn sure about these martyrs. They were ordinary people of humble origins and modest means. They did not have political connections. We know they set out to protest because they felt and believed that they owed their country a duty of citizenship to stand up to those who flex their muscles to crush the democratic aspirations of the people and trample upon the people’s civil liberties and human rights. We also know for sure that their motive for protesting was not personal gain or ambition. We know for sure that in their sacrifices, these martyrs scattered the seeds of freedom and democracy in Ethiopia, and the Ethiopian Diaspora. We can testify today that the sacrifices of these champions of liberty and human rights burns like an eternal candle in the hearts of all who believe and struggle for human rights and the rule of law not only in Ethiopia, but also throughout the world where the darkness of tyranny reigns.
In Memoriam of Fallen Patriots
Elie Weisel has taught us that it is our duty to bear witness for the dead and the living so that our past will not be the future of our children. To this end, it is our duty to commemorate formally and solemnly the sacrifices of those men, women and children who gave up their lives in the cause of democracy and liberty in 2005. Though they were massacred in the streets, we must believe in our hearts that they sacrificed their lives at the holy altar of democracy and liberty. They sacrificed their lives out of a sense of duty to country, honor to their countrymen and women, and righteous obligation to God. They died as patriots, heroes and heroines fighting peacefully and nonviolently in the cause of freedom and democracy. We must remember them and honor them, not in sorrow, but with grateful pride and joy.
For future generations, the sacrifices of these martyrs will tell not only a story of personal bravery and courage, it also exemplifies the abiding and unflinching faith they had in democracy and the rule of law. Through their ultimate sacrifices, children yet to be born will gain a deeper understanding of their history, our times and what it means to be Ethiopian.
In commemorating these great martyrs, we must also think of the widowed heart, the father who lost his son or daughter, or the daughter or son who lost a father or mother. We must think of the families of those nameless victims who are known to Man by their numbers, and to God as his own children. We should thank their families. We should HELP them materially, and uplift their spirits. We should tell them we know. We know that when Ethiopia sweltered under the yoke of tyranny, it was your son, your daughter, your husband, father, mother, brother, sister, aunt, uncle who stood up and sacrificed their lives. We should comfort them that their loved ones did not die in vain, and shall forever live in our hearts. We should assure them that they will be immortalized in our collective conscience as Ethiopia’s most honored and virtuous children.
The Stuff of Ethiopian Patriots
There is a tie that binds all patriots and champions of liberty across the ages and cultures. That tie is moral courage. It is courage armored with righteous audacity which sustain them to stand unafraid in the face of oppressive tyranny. The true patriot challenges injustice, despotism, dictatorship, brutality, cruelty and subjugation. We have many great patriots who resisted oppression, occupation and subjugation by force of arms. Alula Aba Nega, Balcha Aba Nefso, Belay Zeleke, Hailemariam Mamo, Abreha Deboch and Moges Asgadom, Takele Welde Hawariat, Abebe Aregai, to name just a few.
But resistance to tyranny and oppression need not be violent or require the use of arms. Civil disobedience is a mighty weapon of patriots everywhere as they confront the repressive state, be it foreign or domestic. Gandhi defeated the mighty British army not by swords or guns, but through peaceful resistance, civil disobedience and non-cooperation. His “Quit India Movement” was the greatest challenge to British colonial rule. Martin King helped America realize the true meaning of its creed that all men are created equal through mass nonviolent civil disobedience.
And if we look back into our own history, we will find a contemporary of Mahatma Gandhi, and Great Soul in his own right, Abuna Petros, who practiced nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience. He was executed for no other reason but preaching mass civil disobedience and non-cooperation with the fascist army that had occupied and terrorized Ethiopia. Before his execution in 1936, Abuna Petros exhorted his countrymen to resist the fascists by engaging in the tactic of non-cooperation, and counseled them “never to accept the bandit soldiers who come from far away and violently occupy a weak and peaceful country: our Ethiopia.” His last words were, “May God give the people of Ethiopia the strength to resist and never bow down to the Fascist army and its violence.”
In June and November, 2005, ShiBre, Tensae, Debela, Habtamu, Kasim, Tiruwork, Etenesh, Victim No.21760 and the rest them walked in the footsteps of Abuna Petors. They chose peaceful protest over violent confrontation. They refused to cooperate in the theft of an election. They confronted the agents of tyranny armed with rifles and bayonets, barehanded. Imagine that! Abuna Petors would have been so proud!
In the horrific deaths of the martyrs, we draw some timeless lessons about sacrifices and remembrance. If we had forgotten Abuna Petros, we would also have forgotten about the odious crimes of fascist Italy. If we forget these martyrs, we will not only forget the monstrous crimes that were committed against them, we would have killed them a second time, as Elie Weisel said. By honoring the martyrs, we declare to the world, and to their killers who sneer at justice, that they did not die in vain; and we have not forgotten. We will never forget. Never! Never! Never again will we stand idle in the face of such barbarous crimes.
The Indomitable Spirit of Freedom
In 1982, Ronald Reagan told the following story about the ordinary people’s struggle for freedom in El Salvador. It is instructive in our situation. He said:
And then one day those silent, suffering people [of El Salvador] were offered a chance to vote, to choose the kind of government they wanted. Suddenly the freedom-fighters in the hills were exposed for what they really are — Cuban-backed guerrillas who want power for themselves, and their backers, not democracy for the people. They threatened death to any who voted, and destroyed hundreds of buses and trucks to keep the people from getting to the polling places. But on election day, the people of El Salvador, an unprecedented 1.4 million of them, braved ambush and gunfire, and trudged for miles to vote for freedom.
They stood for hours in the hot sun waiting for their turn to vote. A woman who was wounded by rifle fire on the way to the polls, refused to leave the line to have her wound treated until after she had voted. A grandmother, who had been told by the guerrillas she would be killed when she returned from the polls, told the guerrillas, “You can kill me, you can kill my family, kill my neighbors, but you can’t kill us all.” The real freedom-fighters of El Salvador turned out to be the people of that country — the young, the old, the in-between.
In 1988, Reagan in a speech to the American People summed it all up:
In these last several years, there have been many such times when your support for assistance saved the day for democracy. The story of what has happened in that region is one of the most inspiring in the history of freedom. Today El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, as well as Costa Rica choose their governments in free and open democratic elections. Independent courts protect their human rights, and their people can hope for a better life for themselves and their children.
In 2005, the real freedom-fighters of Ethiopia “turned out to be the people of that country — the young, the old, the in-between.” There will also come a time for them soon “to choose their governments in free and open democratic elections, to have independent courts protect their human rights, and for the people to hope for a better life for themselves and their children.”
Remember, June and November, Forever!
November should be a month of remembrance for all Ethiopians. It should be a month when we take a moment to pause and contemplate, in silent prayer and meditation, the 193 individuals that were massacred in those few days, the thousands of others killed and lost forever without a trace and the hundreds of thousands that remain imprisoned to day. It should be a month when we should reflect on the impact of our actions and inactions today on generations yet to come. November should be our time to bear witness for the dead and the living. Unless we preserve this dark history for future generations and permanently store it in our collective memories and conscience, it will be repeated. It we do not bear witness today, our legacy “for the children who will be born tomorrow will be our past.”
Let Us Do a Few Simple Things in the Month of November to Remember …
Let us do a few simple things to honor the memory of the martyrs in the month of November. Let us have memorial services in every church and mosque.
Let’s have candlelight vigils for them, and light a few candles in our homes in their honor.
Let’s join Amnesty International, U.S.A. and Human Rights Watch, and make contribution to the extent of our financial abilities to these great organizations in the name of one or all of the martyrs.
Let’s write a letter or an opinion piece on human rights abuses in Ethiopia in our local newspaper.
Let’s make presentations on human rights abuses in Ethiopia in our local high schools, college and universities.
Let’s give a talk at the local Rotary Club, Lions Club and women’s clubs.
Let’s get on local radio and TV and talking about human rights in Ethiopia.
Let’s send emails to our friends, relatives, co-workers and others and tell them about the martyrs and their sacrifices.
Let’s visit the district office of our member of Congress, our Senator and tell them about the martyrs.
Let the poets write inspirational poems about the martyrs.
Let the artists depict the passion of the martyrs in their paintings.
Let’s teach our children the meaning of sacrifice.
Let’s think of simple and creative ways of honoring the memory of the martyrs.
How about installing a screensaver of 193 candles with the images of the martyrs blended in the background on our computers. That way we can remember them everyday, forever. [You will find it here.]
The Last Words of the Martyrs
We all know the last words of His Holiness Abuna Petors before his execution:
“May God give the people of Ethiopia the strength to resist and never bow down to the Fascist army and its violence.”
As to the 193 martyrs, I am sure their last words before they touched the Face of God were, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose to save my country from tyranny!”
Will our last words be silence, once again? Will our past be the future of our children yet to be born?
 These victims were documented by the Inquiry Commission in its investigation of shootings of unarmed protesters in Addis Ababa on June 8, and November 1-10 and 14-16, 2005 in Oromia, SNNPR and Amhara regional states. For full report, see, http://www.qalitiqalkidan.org/commission/Testimony_Frehiywot_Samuel.pdf