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Message in a Bottle

By Alemayehu G. Mariam

Patriots and Tyrants

Dr. Hailu Araya: Ethiopian patriot. Political prisoner. Educator. Poet. I am not writing to talk about Dr. Hailu, the Ethiopian patriot, the man who gave the brutal former military dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam a passionate six-minute discourse on democracy, freedom and human rights 18 years ago to the month.[1] Who would forget that historic showdown between the patriot and the tyrant. Thus spoke Dr. Hailu [2]:

First because I am an intellectual, second because I am a people’s representative in the Shengo, and third because I am an educator, I have to speak the truth. Truth even if it may lead to death has to be uttered … Before we even discussed the merits of professor Mesfin’s peace formula [3], you went into a vitriolic attack … We cannot accept this kind of behavior any more because Ethiopian problems are our own problems, not only yours!… Why is it that you [President Mengistu] are always under the impression that you are the only one who can analyze and solve Ethiopia’s problems? Ethiopia’s intractable problems cannot be solved through your uncontrolled tirade and shouting!… You cannot solve problems by ignoring other people’s opinion. You have time and again hinted at the idea that your officials should gather courage and swallow the quinine [tablet] of self-criticism; Why is it that you are the only one who is immune to it?… Why do you put us under terror? Why do you gag us?

Dr. Hailu did not stop there; he also gave Mengistu a sermon on citizenship and patriotism (love of country). “A country is not just the mountains, the fields and the rivers,” he counseled the pitiful dictator. “A country is also about the rule of law and justice.” Mengistu squirmed and wiggled in his seat as though he had ants in his pants; and he pivoted his neck sharply to the left to hide his anger and shame. He had been paralyzed by Dr Hailu’s sheer audacity. In apparent despair and resignation, Mengistu tried to mask his face with the palm of his right hand as Dr. Hailu rained down a torrent of truth-darts on his granite-clad conscience. That day Mengistu was forced to swallow the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth: “It is not that the people and the government are not connecting heart to heart,” Dr. Hailu reminded the smug dictator. The fact “is that the people and the government have become belly and back (hode-na-jerba).”

Like all true patriots, Dr. Hailu was not interested in quibbling with a petty dictator glory-bound to oblivion and the dustbin of history. No, his concern was the future well-being of his people and his country; and of that he spoke prophetically to the craven dictator:

“The only way we can defeat our enemies is when we are all of the same heart and mind. It is only when we create a united front that we can stand up to our enemies, and never by beating around the bush. But we seem to be having difficulty accepting this simple fact. We have to strengthen our unity. That is what I want. To achieve that, I am not going to do it with only one eye open. I will do it with both eyes open and a clear and open mind. That is how we will be assured of a lasting victory.”

He summed it all up for Mengistu: “We have to find the solutions to our problems together, collectively, concertedly.”

I will say just a few words about Dr. Hailu the political prisoner who was illegally jailed along with dozens of other patriotic and courageous opposition and civic society leaders, journalists and human rights advocates by the current dictator. Dr. Hailu is not the kind of patriot who will bow down to any tyrant or dictator, even if one is called Tweedle Dee and the other Tweedle Dum. For him, dictatorship has no ethnicity, no religion and no language. It has only one face painted in the bloody colors of cruelty, barbarity and depravity. So when the current dictator jailed him and his brothers and sisters in Kality prison, he knew they had committed no crime, but courageously, all of them endured the hard time. True to himself, to this day Dr. Hailu preaches the same message even as he gasps for air, his neck crushed to the ground under the heavy boots of a wicked dictator: “We have to find the solutions to our problems together, collectively, concertedly!”

Patriot and Poet

I do want to talk about Dr. Hailu the patriot-poet, the man driven to tell the truth in verse; the man condemned by his own conscience to stand up and speak out for his country and people: “First because I am an intellectual, second because I am a people’s representative in the Shengo, and third because I am an educator, I have to speak the truth.” I want to talk about the man who bared the innermost “sickness in his soul” — that he could never leave his country, only love it. Who can forget his expression of lonely despair and anguish in his poem “Yager Fikir Likift” [4] (roughly translated below, begging forgiveness for being unable to do justice to the original)? In the last verse, he wrote:

When the young leave their country because life had become sheer misery,
When the old leave their country because life had become intolerable,
When the educated go into exile because life had become so harsh,
When ordinary citizens are unable to live in the land of their birth,
When everyone is talking about leaving and going away (never to return),
I remain a prisoner of a voice in my soul that commands me:
“Don’t even think about leaving!”

To be sure, I want to talk about a poem Dr. Hailu recently read in Amharic entitled (roughly translated) “Don’t Be Like the Billowing the Smoke”[5]. I took that poem personally. Very personally. I read it dozens of times. I set it aside. I ignored it. I tried to forget it. But the words kept on echoing in my mind: “Educated. Teacher. Light. Hope. Smoke.” It kept me awake at night. In the end, I gave up; and I picked up my pen hesitantly to try and unlock the conscience-gnawing message bottled up in that verse.

Don’t Be Like the Billowing Smoke!

You educated citizen,
Your country’s wealth, your country’s honor,
Your people’s hope,
Your people’s teacher.
Stand up and be counted.
Demonstrate your knowledge
Illuminate, give light.
Don’t be like the billowing smoke.

“What is the meaning — the message — of this verse?” I pondered. Is Dr. Hailu ringing an alarm bell to wake up “educated” Ethiopians? Or is he despairing over the melancholic state of “educated” Ethiopians who have taken the vow of silence in the face of injustice? Is he accusing his brothers and sisters who claim to be educated of moral indifference and cowardice? Perhaps he is pleading for help. I dug deeper: Could it be that he sees us as a swarm of self-centered, self-aggrandizing and self-indulgent hypocrites? And as to some of us in exile, could it be that he thinks of us as the prodigal sons and daughters who ran off to distant lands and wasted our lives “in riotous living” while our people suffered under tyranny? Is it possible that he is challenging us to rise above our pettiness and do right by our people and country? Why does he insist that we “stand up and counted”? Are we that invisible? Have we been so waterlogged by “education” that he thinks we have no fire in our bellies, and must be cautioned not to be like the billowing smoke? Why is he holding our feet to the fire?

Where There is Smoke, There is Fire, and Firefighters Not Far Behind

There is no point scrutinizing the verse. We all know what he is talking about. Some of us who claim to be “educated” have already been convicted in the court of our individual consciences. There is no need for a defense to the caustic message bottled in velvety verse. No doubt, some of us will continue to wallow in our mucky lakes of moral relativism: “I am a scientist, a businessman, a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer… I can not get involved.” Some of us will circle the wagons around our personal interests: “No, we can’t get involved. We have houses, bank accounts, businesses, relatives… in Ethiopia.” Others will seek moral remission: “I really want to get involved, help out. But I just don’t have time. I am busy. I have family responsibilities. I have professional obligations…” Then there are the perennial excuse-mongers: “I will be happy to help out. But not today because it is sunny. Not tomorrow, it will be raining; and the day after it will be windy. But I will get involved.” And there are a few who are brutally honest enough to tell you: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn about your cause or you!”

But Dr. Hailu is not asking for much from his “educated” brothers and sisters. His message is not condemnatory; it is redemptive. When he says “stand up and be counted”, he means to remind us to use our knowledge and education to speak out against tyranny and injustice. He wants us to stand up and be counted on the side of the uneducated masses, political prisoners, dissidents, human rights advocates, and the millions muzzled and condemned to suffer oppression in silence. He wants us to stand up for free elections, free political parties, a free and independent media and an independent judiciary in Ethiopia. There is no hidden meaning in his message.

When he is asking us to “demonstrate our knowledge”, he is reminding us to put our education, technical skills and specialized experience to help out our people. When he says, “illuminate, give light”, he is asking us to share our knowledge with our less fortunate brothers and sisters, to teach and to educate them. He understands that our people are victimized not only by the tyranny of a wicked dictator, but also by the tyranny of ignorance. He is asking us to fight the forces of darkness with the light of truth. As the Rev. Dr. Martin L. King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” We can be, if we choose, the forces of light and love, and drive out darkness permanently from our homeland.

It is never too late to stand up and be counted; never too late to shine the light of hope on the darkness of despair. It is never wrong to do the right thing. It is always the right time to stand up and speak out against tyranny and injustice. It is always right to right a wrong.

Perhaps many of us will never be able to experience the blazing fire of love of Ethiopia burning deep in Dr. Hailu’s soul. Whenever I read his poem “Yager Fikir Likift”, I am moved to tears by the image of a man on fire, burning in the flames of love of his country. But he knows there are armies of arsonists that have spread out through our homeland to stoke up the wildfires of ethnic and religious hatred, division and antagonism just to cling to power. That is why we, the “educated”, can not afford to watch idly from the sidelines and armchairs the billowing smoke. We must become firefighters.

So, I say to Dr. Hailu, “Thank you for holding our feet to the fire; for putting us, the “educated” Ethiopians, on trial in the court of our individual consciences.” I want you to know that where there is smoke, there is fire; and where there is fire, firefighters will not be far behind. We’ll fight the fire wherever it is sparked, but we will not be like the billowing smoke! Let others tell fairy tales about goblins, unicorns and coups d’etat; let them fantasize fire-breathing dragons, vampires and conspiracies to overthrow the state. You keep on blowing your trumpet of truth, brother! “We have to find the solutions to our problems together, collectively, concertedly.” We hear your sweet lyrics and melodies and notes of harmony, LOUD AND CLEAR!!

[1] (move clip to 3:30 seconds)

The writer, Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. For comments, he can be reached at [email protected]

9 thoughts on “Message in a Bottle

  1. What a wonderful tribute to Dr. Hailu Araya.
    What a potent call to duty for the Ethiopian Diaspora. What a humble baring of one’s soul.
    What a sad reminder that the motherland is still under the thumb of fearful and angry power-mongers.
    Yet still, with poets like Hailu Araya, and clarions like Al Mariam, there is hope. Hope for a future free of the yokes of tyranny, greed, arrogance, and fear.


  2. This is what Dr Hailu said in his poem:

    አንተ ምሁር ዜጋ
    ያገር ሃብት ያገር ክብር
    የወገንህ ተስፋ
    የወገንህ መምህር
    ቆመህ ታይ – ተቆጠር
    እውቀትህን አስመስክር
    ቦግ በል ብርሃን ስጥ
    ጭስ ሆነህ አትቅር::

    Thank you.

  3. I was at the Conference Hall when Dr. Hailu made this historic speech.I was dazed by his speech and the strong reaction of the brutal dictator.

    I had the fear that the outspoken MP,intellectual,educator and poet,to use professor Almariam’s words,would be killed right after the meeting.But Thanks God that didn’t happen then and now.

    Indeed he,s a patriot extraordinaire.But as was correctly depicted other intellectuals,businessmen,young scholars… aren’t commited to the great cause of our people.Including me we advance our individual intrest,profit while our people are immersed in poverty,shouldering at the same time the brunt of one of the most oppressive regimes on earth.

    Patriotism nowadys is manifested in joint effort to ward off oppression in whatever form-development in whatever form.Let,s rise in unison to establish Liberal Democracy in our country.Without this time tested,feasible political system our peaceful struggle will be Yemboi Cab,Yemboi Cab.

  4. Al.You are always wonderful.Your articles are always full of messages and education.The problem though is since now days eveybody is pretending to act like politition,many Ethiopians lack capacity to undrestand what you are talking about or do not go beyond their narow group interest or sectarian.Now the message is clear.All who are trying to take on tyrant Meles Zenawi have suffered the cosquence.The only way out of the mess we are in is to hung to gether,if not as it has been witnessed Zenawi will hung each one of you indvidually.Alemayew W/Mariam thanks again and again for what you are trying to do.

  5. Well this is one way of saying that you are against the coup attempt or Dr. Birhanu’s means of struggle (hulegeb tigel). I’m a little disappointed, however, in that you had to use the magnificent Dr. Hailu and noble topic to speak your mind, though the good Dr. would have agreed with your beating around the bush before woyanne threw Birtukan Midekesa into its dark dungeon and proved to him that any kind of struggle against woyanne is a just and viable struggle. Dear prof. Al, don’t worry; your more-than-a-lion’s-share contribution will be duly recognized whomever brings about they badly need change in Ethiopia, however.

  6. “ye wodeke zafe metirebya yebezabetale” i personally appreciate the tributes u gave to Dr. Hailu. he is really a grate patriot. but what i didn’t like in the article is the fact that you wish to stand against the current government as a real problem where as the real problem is Poverty. if u have forgotten the country have been suffering from poverty and drought since the regime of Haileselase, and yet all our patriots think it is due to poor governance. i don’t see any point why our “educated citizens ” should waste there life to bring democracy or what soever to this Food hungry people. haven’t hunger and starvation cost many lives than any bad governance; haven’t many died from lack of medical treatment while the doctors are fighting for democracy.

    my question is, democracy for how? what good would your democracy do me if i don’t have anything to eat. what good is the freedom to eat if u have nothing to eat. what good is freedom if i am ‘chained in poverty’?

    i would like to raise one point you mentioned from Dr. Hailu’s speech “We have to find the solutions to our problems together, collectively, concertedly!”. we all have to find solutions to our problem poverty; we : you ,me ,the teacher, the doctor , the engineer , those who live abroad and those who live at home we are all called to be counted to fight the greatest fight of all time ” fight against Poverty” .

    once again Dr. Hailu great patriot.

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