30 May 2018

Ethiopia: What Is the Price of Identity in Today's Ethiopia? the Suffering of Yonas Gashaw As an Illustration

opinion

Ethiopia's ruling party EPRDF has controlled state power in the country since 1991. One of the major political changes it brought shortly after seizing power was to dismantle the previous sub-country level administrations (a.k.a"provinces") and create the current federal administrative units divided on the basis of language and identity, popularly known as "ethnic federalism."

Numerous claims asserting the recognition of different identities have been raised ever since. A large number of people have lost their lives for demanding the recognition of their identity, culture, and language. A great many people have also been subjected to arbitrary detentions and torture. So far more than a dozen such demands for the recognition of identity have been addressed through the House of Federation (HoF). However, the demand for the recognition of the Amhara identity of Welkait was met with force which caused the deaths, enforced disappearances, and exodus of many thousands of people of Amhara origin. The issue remains unresolved despite its persistence for over 27 years.

The area known as Welkait is located in the North-Western part of Ethiopia, surrounded by the river Tekezie in the North, Eritrea and Sudan in the West, and the Semien mountains in the South. It is a highly fertile and productive land stretching across 13,000 square kilometers. It produces some of the best quality sesame and resin for the international market. It is also one of the main gold producing areas in Ethiopia. TPLF, one of the dominant parties of the ruling EPRDF, wanted the land of Welkait ever since it first set its foot on it during its guerilla war and has been fixated on taking it. For that purpose, it removed the Amhara, the native inhabitants of Welkait, and settled more than half a million Tigregna-speaking (Tigray) people in the area, which remained at the heart of the matter. Using its state power, TPLF declared the Welkait Amhara people have "Tigray" identity and forced them to be administered under the Tigray Regional State. The native Amhara inhabitants have been forced to change their Amhara identity to Tigray identity; those who, in defiance, expressed their Amhara identity were killed, maimed, jailed or were forced to disappear without a trace.

Welkait is an area in which an active crime is being carried out on the native Amharas in broad day light. How could something like this be allowed to happen in the 21st century?! It is a common experience for the native Amharas of Welkait to be taken away by government security personnel and disappear without a trace. For instance, the following 105 native Amharas of Welkait are known to have vanished through years of repression just because they have openly expressed their Amhara identity.

1) Mamu Zewdie 2) Hailu Leyeleh 3) Alebachew Mebratu 4) Dagne Takele

5) Lema Zenebe6) Fantu Tegegne7). Alebachew Defresha8) Chalu Worku

9) Sefi Sisay10) Beyene Ayelegn11) Asamene Atalay12) Goshu Haile

13) Alebel Haile14) Habte Zenebe15) Hayelom yirga16) Fetene Gebreye

17) Addisu Teje18) Sisay Tesfahun19) Abreha Nega20) Mamu Desta

21) Meshesha Desta22) Serebe Betene23) Bitewlegn Yeshiber24) Wolde Yaekob

25) Berhe Hagos26) Lemlemu Ferede27) Yeshteh Ayalneh28) Goitom Hadgu

29) Gebreselassie Reda30) Habte Yirga31) Drar Gessesse32) Lilay Hadgu

33) Reskay Haile34) Malede Nega35) Tebeje Bekele36) Tekle Lejalem

37). Gere Reda38) Ayalew Semu39) G/Mariam Zeleke40) Alemu Legesse

41) G/Medhin Zerfu42) Tegegne Nega43) Qes (Priest) Belete44) Fantu Sisay

45) Adane Restu46) Gebre Tirfneh47) Mr. Alehegn Tsegaye48) Sisay Tesfahun

49) Arefayne Mekonnen50) Desta Lejalem51) Mereed G/Michael52) Eyassu Alene

53) Ybeyn Tegegne54) Hagos Atalay55) Tekalegn Tesfaye56) Leul Mesfin

57) Fantahun Gebeyehu58) Enkuayen Legese59) Ferede Zereay60) Tegaye

61) MISSING62) Mulaw Kassahun63) Ayahuney Wendachew64) Dereje Angaw

65) Alehegn Tsegayesus66) Wendim Haile67) Atmafu Alemayehu68) Sissay

69) Enyew Awhara70) Asmamaw Belete71) Aweke Teku72) Adebe

73) Atalay Alem74) Asmare75) Rtebey Atsebeha76) Lejalem Taye

77) G/Medhin Zerfu78) Tedla Haile79) Yemenberu Ferede's Child80) Meheret Abebe

81) Nigatu Tirfie82) Abebe Tefera83) Gebrhet Bahta84) Damtie Takele

85) Endeshaw Tafere86) Tegegne Belay87) Beyew Biyadgelegn88) Atalay Zenebe

89) G/Medhin Yehuala90) Nega Tebeje91) Yirsaw Zewdie92) Getaw Tamirie

93) Tefera Sisay94) Gefachew Dagnew95) Alemaw Zenebe96) Mamay Tebeje

97) Worku Aytegeb98) Teka Tesfaye99) Ferede Tsehay100) Getu Wolie

101) Tekalegn Tsegaye102) Nega Asres103) Wagnew Abatalew104) Aleka Baye

105) Kegnazmach Wolde Wassyihun

In particular, in 2015, native Welkait Amharas filed a petition to the House of the Federation through their representatives seeking recognition for their Amhara identity in accordance with the Constitution of Ethiopia. Following their demand, all members of the Committee were charged under trumped up charges of terrorism. In August 2016, no less than 400 (four hundred) people were killed by security forces in relation to the Amhara resistance which was sparked by the detention of the Committee members. More than 20,000 (twenty thousand) Amhara youth were detained. Many have since been released, but thousands remain jailed.

Yonas Gashaw is but one

Yonas Gashaw is one of the native Amharas of Welkait to have been subjected to torture in federal prison in the capital Addis Abeba. The sacrifice that Yonas has paid for asking the recognition of his Amhara identity forces us to ask the question as to how much the price of identity is worth in today's Ethiopia. I believe that Yonas' one day courtroom experience is enough to show the extent of sacrifice being paid for the recognition of identity.

Yonas Gashaw Demeke is the 3rd defendant in the court case of "Tadesse Meshesha Assegie et al." who were all charged in relation to the Amhara resistance movement. The following is what happened at the 19th Criminal Bench of the Federal High Court in Addis Abeba on January 15, 2018:

During the hearing, Yonas took off his pants in front of the court to show his body to the people who were there to observe the court proceedings. He cried, "You be the judges!" and showed them his genitalia, which was damaged due to the torture he endured while in detention. He did so despite the presence of two of his torturers in the courtroom. The method Yunas was subjected to was that of a common method: hanging a bottled water to his genitalia and suspending it. The audience in the court room burst into a collective gasp and tears. Journalist Shiferaw Getachew, who was following the case, wrote afterwards that he was unable to compose his report after what he witnessed; the judges themselves had to avert their gazes. Of the court room, when a journalist asked the judges how they felt, they said it was beyond belief. Yet, this is not an isolated case. Aschalew Dessie and other Amhara youths who are going through the same ordeal have done so.

Yonas suffered this horrifying torture while he was at the Maekelawi investigation center, where his nails were also torn apart with pliers; where he lost his ability to procreate, and his legs damaged, leading him to fall victim of a nerve disease.

But Yonas' suffering is not the end of his ordeal. Before he was detained, his family members were deliberately targeted. In the courtroom, he expressed his grief when he said: "They deliberately run over my brother with their military truck; they killed my mother in the same way. Why are the Amhara prevented from breeding and replacing themselves? What we have learned is hatred. What will our generation learn from us?"

He was subsequently taken to Zewditu Hospital for medical treatment but doctors at the hospital told him it was beyond their capacity. He was then taken to Paulos Hospital and was given proof that he suffered from broken bones but officials at the Qilinto Prison destroyed the results of his medical diagnosis. His right leg has been almost completely paralyzed and he needed to wear closed shoes because of this. However, a prison officer got rid of his shoes saying prisoners are not allowed to wear closed shoes. Yonas' response has been telling: "Do we have to change our ethnic identity even to be able to wear closed shoes?"

Today, Yonas has to use crutches to walk; he cannot step on the floor with his right foot even while sitting. And the right part of his body (up to his shoulder) is in constant pain. His right foot hardly touched the ground when he was escorted to the restroom while the court was in session.

The demand for the recognition of the Amhara identity of Welkait has brought untold miseries among the Amhara people; Yonas Gashaw is but one example. Similar repression continue to happen today in Welkait. Even as I am writing this piece, several reports coming from the Welkait area of Telemt Amharas are being deliberately targeted by government soldiers.

In his recent visit to the Amhara regional state, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed mistook this matter for a question of lack of infrastructure. However, the current administration has to look beyond this misunderstanding and put an end to the ongoing repression in connection with the identity question of the Welkayit Amharas. This can only be done by addressing their decades old demand for the recognition of their identity. AS

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