“How important it is for us to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes!”, decreed Maya Angelou, the great African American author, poet, dancer, actress and singer.
“I shall persevere!” wrote Eskinder Nega, the imprisoned and preeminent defender and hero of press freedom in Ethiopia, in a letter smuggled out of the infamous Meles Zenawi Prison in Kality, a few kilometers outside the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.
Eskinder was not merely writing about himself when he declared, “I shall persevere!”. He was also writing on behalf of his fellow imprisoned journalists, bloggers, human rights advocates and other political prisoners. After all, no prisoner of conscience, no political prisoner, can persevere alone. I would venture to say Eskinder was indeed writing about the quiet perseverance of ninety million of his fellow Ethiopians held captive in an open air prison that Ethiopia has become under the thumbs of a malignant thugtatorship called the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Ethiopia shall persevere and prevail!
I want to ring out 2014 by celebrating my personal hero Eskinder Nega and she-ro Reeyot Alemu, and through them all of the other Ethiopian heroes and she-roes — the prisoners of conscience in the war on press freedom in Ethiopia and the political prisoners held captive in defending freedom, the cause of free and fair elections, democratic governance and human rights advocates. In celebrating them, I proudly declare, “You have persevered as political prisoners! We have persevered! Ethiopia has persevered as one nation under the Almighty. We shall persevere until those who have coerced us into persevering can no longer persevere. Victory is guaranteed to those who persevere!”
Shakespeare wrote, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em.” I think the same can be said of heroes and she-roes. Citizens like Eskinder and Reeyot (symbolically representing all of the other prisoners of conscience in Ethiopia) have become heroes and she-roes because heroism was thrust upon them by extreme circumstances. When they met the defining moment of their lives, unlike most of us, they did not flinch or cringe.They did not grovel or beg. They did not offer to sell their souls for a few pieces of silver. They did not cut and run; they did not back down. They stood their ground. They chose to live free in prison than live in an open air prison under the rule of bush thugs.
Eskinder and Reeyot were offered their freedom if they got down on their knees, bowed down their heads, apologized and admitted their “crimes”, licked the boots of their captors and begged to be “pardoned”. It was the same “pardon” offered to so many others before them by the late Meles Zenawi and his disciples. It is the same “pardon” offered to Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye who were sentenced to eleven years on bogus charges of “terrorism”.
A public confession of false guilt was the ultimate humiliation Meles exacted on his victims. He did it with the dozens of opposition leaders he jailed following the 2005 election. He did it twice to Birtukan Midekssa, the first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history. He had a cadre of pardon peddlers who went around prisons convincing innocent victims into admitting crimes they did not commit and beg Meles’ pardon. Public humiliation of his adversaries gave Meles the ultimate high; it his sadistic soul wallowed in it. The offer of “pardon” for Eskinder and Reeyot still stands today. But they don’t want it. In turning down the “pardon” offer, they sent a clear message: “You can’t pardon an innocent man or woman… Take your pardon and shove it…!”
Christopher Reeve, Hollywood’s “Superman” who became a quadriplegic in an accident said, “A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.” Eskinder, Reeyot and the others were ordinary citizens who found the strength to persevere and endure despite overwhelming obstacles. That’s why Eskinder, Reeyot and all Ethiopian political prisoners and prisoners of conscience are heroes and she-roes to me. They have all persevered and endured.
Courage is the stuff of which heroes and she-roes are made. Robert F. Kennedy once said, “moral courage is… the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change. Each time a person stands up for an idea, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, (s)he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu and all of the other hero and she-ro political prisoners have true moral courage. They stood up for ideas of press freedom and free expression; for democracy and human rights. They stood up for the principle of the rule of law. They stood up to TPLF thugs. They persevered and in the process sent tiny ripples of hope to 90 million of their compatriots.
As we ring out 2014 and usher in 2015, I want all my readers to join me in celebrating, honoring and thanking Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye, Andualem Aragie, Bekele Gerba, Abubekar Ahmed, the “Zone Nine Bloggers” including Atnaf Berahane, Zelalem Kibret, Befeqadu Hailu, Abel Wabela, Mahlet Fantahun, Natnael Feleke, Asmamaw Hailegeorgis, Tesfalem Waldyes and Edom Kassaye. Let it be known that these heroes and she-roes are only the public faces of the tens of thousands of unnamed, unknown, unsung and unbowed heroes and she-roes of the Ethiopian struggle for equality, justice and dignity languishing in prisons ranked as among the absolute worst in the world. I salute them all as they persevere in the infamous Meles Zenawi Prison in Kality and other branch locations throughout Ethiopia.
I celebrate and salute Reeyot Alemu, the 36 year-old undisputed she-ro of Ethiopian press freedom condemned to 14 years in prison by the late Meles Zenawi. Reeyot has been internationally recognized as “Ethiopia’s Jailed Truth Teller.” The Committee to Protect Journalists reported Reeyot was jailed for telling the truth, for writing a “scathing critique of the ruling political party’s fundraising methods for a national dam project, and for drawing “parallels between the late Libyan despot Muammar Gaddafi and Meles Zenawi.”
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