interviewBy Tibebeselassie Tigabu
This week the hijacking of an Ethiopian Airlines plane, flight number ET-702, and the first officer behind the hijacking, Hailemedhin Abera, have dominated the news.
After it was revealed the mainstream and social media have been speculating as to why he did it. Reasons include doubts about his mental health up to resilience against injustice and oppression. Some compared him with the former Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP) leader, Berhanemeskel Redda, who hijacked an airplane, while others said that he was a troubled individual. Family members have responded on social media, like Facebook and Twitter, that their brother is a good man and not a criminal. Regarding these speculations and other pertinent issues, Tibebeselassie Tigabu of The Reporter spoke with Endalamaw Abera (MD), the oldest brother of Hailemedhin. Excerpts:
The Reporter: When did you last see Haillemedhin?
Dr. Endalamaw: I saw him at my uncle's, Emiru Seyoum, funeral on January 4. He passed away that day. We actually went together. I came from Sudan, Khartoum
There has been speculation about his death, and it has been said that it was directly related to the hijacking?
He died of a cardiac condition. He was being treated at the Addis Cardiac Hospital. The incident happened while he was in a taxi. His house is located around Bole in the apartments behind Heber Restaurant. On that day he walked to Dembel area and took a taxi after that. Around Gibi Gabriel church he passed away while he was in a taxi. All the passengers were taken to be investigated by the police. Looking at his body there was no strangling or that type of symptom, and there was no detection or physical sign that it was a homicide.
So we actually signed and took his body. Now after the hijacking rumors have been going on in the town that his death was a mystery. They say it was unrevealed and some try to make it a conspiracy theory out of it. We believe it was a natural death. He suffered from high blood pressure and also had cardiac problems. Was he close to Hailemedhin? Some put it as a cause and effect relationship, was he affected that much?
That is the part we do not like. Were they very close? Yes, they were. Without the presence of our parents he was the acting parent. He gave us advice in anything. If we trace our achievements academically he is greatly involved in them. Even when I introduced him to people I did not say he was my uncle, I said he was my brother, and the same also went for him. He was my mother's brother, and what many people do not know is that he grew up in our house. My parents raised him.
My father wanted him to have a better education so he came to Delgi port; which takes five hours by boat from Tana. Our life was around Tana. We are 11 children; six women, five male. Seven of us were born in Delgi, and the others in Bahirdar. Hailemedhin is the ninth child and was born on July 31, 1983. With one exception we all attended high school, Bahirdar Tana hayik highschool. We had good grades. He finished high school at 17. He had good friends and a normal life.
There are two medical doctors in our family (Endalamawu and Medhanit), two computer engineers (Tewoldemedhin and Birhanemedhin), an air craft maintenance engineer (Teklemedhin), an economy and nursing graduate (Menberemedhin), a physics PhD student (Newayemedhin), a computer science graduate (Hiwot) and the last one, Tnsae, dropped out from the literature department. Getting to the main point, we are deeply saddened and affected by it, but drawing conclusions of cause and effect is wrong.
What kind of child was Hailemedhin growing up? Was he close to you?
We were not that close. When he was born I was a second year medical student in Gondar. We actually became close when I came to Addis Ababa where he was an architecture student; 13 years ago. We reconnected and became close then. Hailemedhin also said that. But he was very close with his two sisters, Hiwot and Tnsae. As a child he was very active, very intelligent. I remember him as a child only four years old, his hair was shaved and we were teasing him, and he said, 'In that case soldiers are fools'. His social life was OK but he was a bit shy, feeling uncomfortable at large gatherings. He was very generous, very caring and sometimes he did more than his capacity. Especially when it came to money, he helped people out. When he quit architecture and joined piloting, how did you take his decision? Did you support it?
When he was in grade 11 I asked him what he wanted to be, and he did not even hesitate, he answered by saying pilot. I thought it was not that serious. He joined architecture school and on his graduating year he was 25. There was a piloting exam, he took it and passed. He said he was going to quit and take piloting training. He was only left with one semester and I asked him why was he not going to finish it. Apparently he said there is an age limitation to take training, and you cannot qualify if you are over 25. He said if I finish I will be over 25, which means I cannot enroll in to the training. So we were OK with it.
Did he talk about his job environment? Were there any hostilities in his work place? I don't clearly know. For the past six years I have been in Khartoum. After he started his job at Ethiopian Airlines I was on and off. I come here every three months, that's when we meet. His younger sisters might know. How did you and the rest of the family hear about the hijacking?
Last week, on Sunday, it was the death commemoration of our uncle, Emiru Seyoum P.h.D. We went to Sahgura; his and also my mother's birth place. After the ceremony on Monday all the relatives started our journey to Bahirdar. We stopped with tire problems and heard the news on Radio Fana that a plane had been hijacked. Someone called my cousin, Alemu, and told him it was the co-pilot. After a while we heard the news.
How did you feel about the situation?
We did not know what to feel. We could not suspect that he would do something like this, it was shocking. There was nothing that could make us speculate as to why he did it. For a couple of hours we could not talk. We sat down solemnly. We did not know how to react. So everyone started speculating. We agreed that it was probably a temporary conflict with the pilot. So we thought it was a reaction of the moment. After that we could not control the rumors.
The sources are not known, some of it was fabricated. It also created a problem in our family's communication. We started interrogating each other. Our condition is still not good. We are not in peace. What I think is that we have to hear directly from him. We also heard that the Swiss government is going to give him a lawyer. So if it is true we want to hear from the lawyer. He still has not communicated with us. Many tried to link the hijacking to a political agenda and this should stop. It is creating a serious problem for our family. It is not only worrying us but also messing up our relationships as a family. We are pleading with people to stop the speculation.
Part of the speculation came out from a statement by your sister, Tnsae. She wrote on Facebook describing his mental status. How do you regard this speculation? How did she come to this conclusion? Did he see a psychiatrist?
She wrote it without consulting us. After she wrote it we started to look back and it was all true. He was suspicious of his environment. He felt that people were following him. He also tried to capture the people who followed him using different technology. He was close to Tnsae and Hiwot, and they live close by. They meet every day. What she said was true but it does not mean it is cause and effect. People should not conclude it. It is like trying to relate the incident with our uncle's death. In medicine and law there is a concept of aggravating factor. These reasons might be aggravating reasons. But a psychiatric has to say that. It is not me, a journalist, or someone else who can speculate and decide. They are out of their professional boundaries. It is not good for everyone, for the family, for the police and also for his case. What about if there were people who were following him?
It is very difficult to know. If you take our social life we might create enemies because of a conflict of interest. This might create tension. But on the other hand, in medical terms, people following is a common denominator. Sometimes it is not even people, they become abstract institutions. There are people who say the CIA, FBI, or an unknown power follows me. If we take it on this instance, I don't think there was anyone following him.
Was he politically involved? As far as my knowledge is concerned he was not a member of any political party. When we discuss issues he is actually a supporter of the existing government in this country. I don't know if there are special cases that happened in the past couple of weeks. I don't think there is or will be something new. I can't talk about it. Talking about office politics, I don't know is the answer. He did not tell me if he was discriminated in the office. I also did not hear from any members of the family. Had he been to see a psychiatrist?
The last people who saw him were Hiwot and Medhanit. I think they advised him to go talk to a specialist. Was he acting different recently? Any new behavior?
This is the last picture, taken at our uncle's funeral (in this picture Hailemedhin is laughing, holding his phone). I don't think he was depressed. He does not drink that much. It is only occasionally that he drinks. In my opinion he did not show any signs of depression or something new. One of your sisters, Menberemedhin, also posted on Twitter, saying that he did not want to live outside of his country, and he even advised her to return. Is this ironic as he is now asking for asylum? How do you reconcile the two?
He does not want to live outside of his country. He actually bought a new car worth four hundred thousand birr three months ago. He paid half of the down payment. He did not take any of his stuff. He took only a small travelling bag; he did not even take his laptop. There are many reasons that show he was not prepared to leave. Why would a person buy a car if he was preparing to ask for asylum? Why would he waste his money? He could have taken it with him.
Does he have a girlfriend?
He did not introduce me to anyone. I assume so. I read he has been seeing someone who owns an internet café. If that is true it is good.
His life is being greatly scrutinized. How do you feel about that?
It is not only his life. It is also the family's life which is under scrutiny. Unnecessary details and also fictitious writings are there. There are rumors such as my father was a money lender. This is all false information, and we will get back to that once the dust settles. I don't know how it is even related. This is not only factual error but also defamation. It is not even connected. They said he has a grievance because he was not promoted, but why did they not research? Some groups are using it for political purposes. To do that they are exaggerating our lives, how we are from rich family. Our achievements are exaggerated. What are the possible scenarios that await him? What should be done?
The Swiss officials should give priority to his health and we hope that they would do that. After his health the law has its own way of dealing with things. Until then people should stop speculating and drawing conclusions. People only see 11 of us, but our cousins are more than 700 from my father's side. My grandfather's descendants reach to the fifth generation. We have a reunion every five years, and also from my mother's side there are 200 of them. Our relatives are dispersed all over the world. They are all affected by this. The media also should respect our family's privacy. I wish him good things. We should not see him as a criminal. Let's first see him as someone who needs help. I hope good things will come of it.