28 June 2018

Ethiopia: Feature - the Rally, the Euphoria and the Bang Many of Us Took for Firework

Photo: Addis Standard
Screenshot of broadcast by Ethiopian Television of a massive rally in Addis Ababa where an explosion followed an address by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

Mahlet Fasil, Etenesh Abera and Ephream Seleshi, Addis Standard's team on the ground

(This is their experience of what they saw on Saturday June 23 at the rally to support Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed)

The emotions of the day started becoming near religious when, about fifty meters down the road from the palace, I heard a motorcade behind us. I looked back and knew it could only be him. Somebody cried out 'Abiy!' and then the whole crowd took it up and everyone on the street was either yelling as loud as they could or crying out his name. As soon as the motorcade reached us, the whole crowd gathered around the three SUVs and started putting their hands on the cars. I was expecting someone to tell me to get away, but nobody did. So, I put my hands on the last SUV and started running along with it. Suddenly, I saw an arm wave out of the window of the SUV. It was Prime Minister Abiy himself. That made the crowd hysterical. The SUVs crawled along with the crowd until the motorcade turned right and sped along the road to the Addis Abeba Filwuha hot spring.

But the most striking image of that day, if you ask me, was when I walked down the road from the UNECA, made a turn and saw the crowd gathered at the square. There were so many heads to see that I felt dizzy at first. Not only was it the largest crowd I had ever seen, it was also the liveliest. The sounds coming from the square were as loud as they could get. Cheers would go up at this side and then a chant would start at the other side... people would start singing at that other end and on and on it went. My friends started walking towards the middle of the square and I followed them. Going deep into the crowd, we saw that people had gone all out on the flags and banners they chose to carry. Almost all the flags we saw at first were Ethiopian flags with the tri-color stripes but none had the five-pointed star on the blue field in the middle. Then as we neared the center of the square, we saw just how many previously banned flags people had brought to the rally. The biggest and most surprising of them all was the flag made popular by the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which was so big and so prominent that it defies belief. That it was being waved in a sea of people some of whom were carrying images of the last emperor Haileselassie I along with PM Abiy made it an incredible juxtaposition to witness. I was surprised when I heard a father telling his daughter, who looked about ten, about the OLF flag and she asked him if the seal was of a tree. A few seconds later I looked around and caught sight of a small flag pole that had the current flag of Ethiopia and the flag of the OLF in the hands of a guy standing behind another guy carrying the Gadaa flag (the Oromia regional state flag without the Oda seal in the center). Behind us were members of the staff of a public broadcaster, some of whom had their faces painted with the OLF colors, taking pictures.

After the event, I asked Nick Barnett, US Embassy Spokesperson, what he thought of thousands of people who showed up at the rally with flags, symbols and motto that had previously been banned. His answer was simple: "the Prime Minister has talked about the need for everyone to be free to express themselves constructively. It's increasingly apparent that people are taking him at his word, trusting what he is saying, and that he is reciprocating their trust by ensuring that this space exists for people to express themselves thoughtfully and constructively. This is where we see change happening before our eyes."

But this change was not confined to a pro government rally and it was not lost on Mr. Barnett. "It's not just the flags and symbols, but the mere fact that these sorts of peaceful demonstrations are permitted. And I'm including in that the recent demonstrations where people raised concerns about the scope and pace of recent decisions. Because it's not just pro-government expression that needs to be allowed, but all peaceful expression," he reflected.

Back at the event, a deafening cheer ensued when PM Abiy rose to speak. While he was speaking, conveying his message of "love" and "forgiveness" the whole crowd erupted into an ecstatic applause at the end of his every sentence. Every word the PM said was met with approval from almost everyone in the crowd. People were spontaneously shouting slogans like 'We love you Abiy' and 'this is Ethiopia's resurrection'. I heard one or two people yelling 'don't wake us up' and I had to agree with them-everything felt like a dream. The speech, the flags, the colors, the people, the motto, the crowd - it was more than any of us could bear. The totality of the moment we were all sharing wasn't the kind of reality any of us could handle on our own. Everyone was interested in what everyone else had to say. People would start talking to random strangers about what they think of the rally and, I suppose because it was all out of love, the strangers would agree. Everyone was smiling. There were two or three people around me who were openly crying out of sheer happiness. Not that many people around where I was standing could hear the PM speak as the loudspeakers weren't loud enough to be heard over the crowd's cheering, so they just kept talking to each other about how incredible what they're seeing was. The loudest cheer came when the PM finished his speech and waved to the crowd going from one side of the podium to the other.

Securing a spot

Mahlet Fasil

My colleague Etenesh Abera and I have planned to meet at Meskel Square as early as 6 AM on Saturday morning. Etenesh has the camera and it was important we secure a spot from where we can take the best pictures possible. So we met at about 6: 10 AM and did manage to get a spot near the VIP guests area. Our assignment was to feet our pictures and captions to our colleague Liyat Fekade who was in the office in charge of the social media feed. But shortly after we began sending the first pictures, the telephone and internet lines were cut off. So I had to walk down the Bole avenue to find a telephone signal to inform our editor Solomon that we could possibly not feed the live pictures and captions. He said Liyat can instead follow live broadcasts from the national TV and update as much as possible. As soon as I finished my phone call with our editor Solomon, a loud cheer began reverberating through the crowd in Meskel square and I picked up pace to get to where Etenesh was taking pictures. But I couldn't resist talking to some cheerful participants on what it feels to be a part of the crowd.

"This is surreal; the last time I came here to attend a rally was the Kinijit's [the opposition coalition of for Unity and Democracy CUD] rally shortly before the 2005 election. I never though I would live to see the day when I will come to show my support to someone from the ruling party, EPRDF," said Alemtsehay Hordofa, 34.

A few meters away, I saw another young man who came all the way from Ambo, 125 km west of the capital, and the city best remembered as the epicenter of the four years Oromo protests. I asked him if he was not afraid of waiving the flag associated with OLF, an organization that some of its former members are en route Ethiopia despite it being still in Ethiopia's list of terrorist organizations. "I waived this flag while we were being killed, why would I be scared to waive it when we are at last free to waive it," he told me looking offended.

I realized I was getting late to join Etenesh so I rushed to the spot we had secured earlier; but Etenesh was no more in the spot. I tried calling her, there was no line at all. The crowed kept growing bigger and louder after PM Abiy took to the podium to deliver his speech. Etenesh was nowhere to be found. So I decided to talk to a few more people. But everyone one so excited and impatient to pause and talk to a journalist this moment was not to be missed!

Amidst one of the loudest cheers and chants I ever heard, the Prime Minister finished his speech. Finally, I spotted Etenesh and joined her. She was able to capture a few pictures of the Prime Minister when he was greeting the crowd and other pictures of invited guests such as Gemshu Beyene, owner of Gemshu Beyene Construction Plc and Ellili International Hotel, and Getu Gelete, owner of Get-As International Plc, who returned from exile after securing their safety for not being prosecuted for corruption. There was also the sister of Andargachew Tsige, the British citizen who was on a death row in Ethiopia but was pardoned recently afterPM Abiy intervened. They all have something to thank the Prime Minister for.

Shortly after he finished his speech, I heard a loud bang... .

The loud bang that many didn't know if it were a bomb or a firework

Ephream Sileshi

A few minutes after the Prime Minister finished his speech followed by an announcement from the MC, my friends and I heard a sound like that of an explosion from around the podium area. It wasn't very loud, but almost everyone around us had heard it and people were asking what it was. Some suggested it must be a cannon fired in honor of the Prime Minister. I couldn't believe that. No one in their right mind would suggest firing a cannon in the middle of a crowd this large. In fact, I thought, any loud sound is highly unlikely to have been approved by the organizers given the size of the crowd.

As I was contemplating if other people were also getting to the conclusion that it must have been an explosive, the crowd by the wall of the Exhibition center started chanting 'Yidegem! Yidegem!' (Repeat it!) and as soon as it started I felt the tension of the few seconds after the explosion evaporate. One of my friends started shouting 'Anferam! Anferam!' ('We'll not fear!') and the crowd around me took it up and it became so loud that I felt the fear of an imminent stampede subside.

People were discussing what it could have been throughout the chanting and the tone of everyone that answered was one of reassurance. Some said things like 'a speaker fell' and 'it was a gas canister', while others said we shouldn't fear even if it was an explosion. Although any one person could have said it, I didn't hear the word 'Bomb' uttered until much later, well away from the square. It looked like nobody wanted to create panic and it worked. People started dispersing peacefully. Nobody seemed like they were in a hurry. Rather the whole crowd was moving out of the square in a leisurely pace. I did see scuffles with the police around the taxi terminal called Ghion/Abiyot but it wasn't violent.

A few minutes later a group of people came strutting on horseback and that buoyed people up. People were still talking about what that sound could have been, but many others were taking pictures and singing and dancing. What could have been a tragic catastrophe had been averted; I had seen hope save lives.

Continuing with his remark, Mr. Barnett said he has had two main reactions since this terrible thing happened: "First, how heartbreaking it was to see such a positive and hopeful event marred by a hateful act. It's just so sad to know that innocent people, at a hope-filled moment in their lives, were brutally injured and killed. My heartfelt condolences -- and not just mine, but the condolences of the almost 1,490 American and Ethiopian staff of the U.S. Embassy in Addis, and if the entire U.S. Government and American people -- go out to the victims and their families."

His second reaction is in keeping with the hundreds of thousands gathered at the even, and millions of Ethiopians from across the country: "as terrible as this tragedy has been, it's been incredibly inspiring to see the the outpouring of solidarity, of unity, and of a peaceful commitment to the reform process that we've seen from the Ethiopian people since this terrible event happened."

Mr. Barnett was not exaggerating when he said "the aftermath of this tragedy has brought such an outpouring of solidarity and unity from the Ethiopian people, and such a strong re-commitment by both the people and the government to the reform process and to getting there peacefully." People are "having discussions about their country's future, and I'm seeing people happy and energized by the simple fact that they're able to have these conversations. I'm really impressed and inspired by the decision of so many Ethiopians to reject the fear and division that despicable attacks like this one try to create. This is the ultimate victory against such an assault. I believe this country's future is very bright, and that the Ethiopian people's commitment to the values of respect, tolerance, and inclusivity will help Ethiopia get there." AS

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