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Birtukan Mandela

Ethiopia: Birtukan Unbound!

Alemayehu G. Mariam

An October to Remember

The great American novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote: “All things on earth point home in old October; sailors to sea, travellers to walls and fences, hunters to field and hollow and the long voice of the hounds, the lover to the love he has forsaken. …” On October 6, 2010, Birtukan Midekssa, Ethiopia’s First Daughter, also headed home from nearly two years of captivity to the loves of her life, the ones she was forced to forsake, her daughter Hal’le, her long-suffering septuagenarian mother and 80 million of her countrymen and women who prayed and waited to see her walk free. It will be an October to remember.

The Stockholm Syndrome

Dictator-in-chief Meles Zenawi says he freed Birtukan because she asked for a “pardon”; and “pardon” he did in “words that are like a cloud of winged snakes,” to quote Percy Bysshe Shelley, drifting aloft a sea of lies, damned lies and total fabrications. The history of the law is replete with monstrous examples of false confessions: innocent individuals victimized into admitting atrocious crimes under duress, torture, threat of violence to themselves or loved ones, diminished capacity induced by extreme psychological and physical deprivation or mental impairment induced by prolonged and harsh solitary confinement or by trickery and deception.

Prisoners can be brainwashed to say anything by those who control them. Prisoners who have endured torture, extreme degradation and abuse have been known to do shocking things to please their captors and ease their own pain and suffering. Abused prisoners have been known to deceive themselves into believing the cruelty of their captors as acts of kindness. It is called the “Stockholm Syndrome”. When the victim is under the total and complete control of her captor for her basic needs of survival and her very existence, she will say and do anything to please her captor. The victim will comply with any command or demand of her captor just to survive and remain sane, and not self-destruct by giving in to the terror and rage she feels for her helpless situation. It is ironic that Birtukan in this so-called pardon allegedly confesses and apologizes for wrongdoings committed in Stockholm, Sweden.

It is not difficult to parade a prisoner before television cameras and force her to confess her “crimes”. Political and war prisoners subjected to torture, deprivation and psychological manipulation have been known to condemn themselves, their families, their countries, and even the Almighty. Brutalized prisoners have been known to collaborate with their torturers to inflict horrendous violence on fellow prisoners. Political prisoners in solitary confinement have been driven to hysteria and madness by their isolation. Political and war prisoners have committed suicide to end their suffering at the hands of the captors.

Birtukan was held for months in a dark room with no human contact except a few minutes a week with her mother and daughter. Fear, anxiety and despair were her only companions. Heartache knocked constantly on the door to her dark room needling her: “Did you do the right thing leaving three year-old Hal’le to the care of your aging mother?” Self-doubt kept her awake in that dark room where time stood still asking her the same question over and over: “Is it worth all this suffering? Give up!” But a voice in her conscience would echo thunderously, “Like hell you’re going to give up, Birtukan. Fight on. Keep on fighting. ‘Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.'” In the end Birtukan signed Zenawi’s scrap of paper making exception to convictions of honor and good sense. We expected nothing less from such a great young woman.

Zenawi Wrote It, Birtukan Signed It!

What is written in the so-called pardon request is a transcription of what Zenawi said during his ignominious appearance at Columbia University[1] a couple of weeks ago. Using forensic document examination techniques, it can be demonstrated to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty that Zenawi is the invisible hand that authored the pardon document. Simply stated, Zenawi wrote the pardon to himself and had Birtukan sign it. It is just as simple as that. But scientific investigative techniques aside, we all know, as Mandela has taught us, that “Only free men (and women) can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts.” Terms and conditions are always dictated to prisoners. Birtukan is no position to negotiate her release by pardon or any other means. Zenawi wrote down his release terms and conditions and ordered Birtukan to sign it. The alleged “pardon” request could in no way be regarded as Birtukan’s voluntary confession of wrongdoing; it is Zenawi’s hallucination of Birtukan’s wrongdoing. It is hogwash.

Zenawi’s “pardon” may be “real” to his Western donors who want to ease their guilty-as-sin consciences for providing billions to support his dictatorship. For Zenawi’s apologists who will sell their souls for a patch of land to build a shack and throw in their grandmothers to sweeten the deal, it may be a real pardon. For the opportunists, brown nosers, derrier-kissers and mercenaries, it may be a legitimate pardon. But to any freedom-loving Ethiopian or any other reasonable human being, the “pardon” is nothing more than the reveries of a self-absorbed megalomaniac garbed in legalistic hokum.

The fact of the matter is that an innocent person’s freedom is not negotiable or pardonable. An innocent person cannot ask for a pardon nor a career criminal grant it. Zenawi makes a travesty of the institution of pardon, which has a long and honored history in human civilization; and occupies the highest position in the tradition of the law. Zenawi robbed Birtukan of her freedom. He did not free her by a “pardon”. Birtukan has always been free. Zenawi let Birtukan out of prison in 2010 for the same reason he put her in prison in 2008: Enlightened self-interest. He jailed her to make sure she will not whip him at the polls. He let her loose to pander to Birtukan’s generation and hoodwink the international community.

Just last year, Zenawi emphatically and sadistically guaranteed that “there will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” Now he says she is “free” to go because she scratched her initials on a scrap of paper. When his Western donor sugar daddies pled with him time and again to let Birtukan go, he told them to go to hell, hell, hell. When the Western donor fat cats unsheathed their gelatinous claws and threatened to withhold aid, he laughed in their faces. But he finally had to let Birtukan go (as he could never free her) not because he is a statesman, compassionate or squeezed by the donors, but because he is ghastly afraid of what Birtukan represents. She represents Ethiopia’s youth. She represents Ethiopian women. She represents the dreams and aspirations of 80 million people. She represents the ascent of freedom and democracy and the descent of dictatorship and oppression in Ethiopia. In sum, she represents the “future country of Ethiopia”.

Zenawi knows the youth and women of Ethiopia hold the key to his very survival and the permanence of the ethnic homelands (Bantustans) he has toiled for so long to create. He also knows they hold a deep grudge against him for chaining Birtukan in the dungeons of Kality while shackling them in what has become Prison Nation Ethiopia. By letting go Bitukan, Zenawi seeks atonement and redemption in the eyes of the young people and women of Ethiopia. It is his twisted way of asking them for a pardon. By releasing Birtukan, Zenawi hopes to release and unleash the good will and support of Ethiopia’s youth and women to himself and his regime.

It is laughable that Zenawi wants to be seen as magnanimous for granting “pardon” to Birtukan. But self-delusion is the quintessential attribute of all dictators. Zenawi confuses the arrogance of vanity with magnanimity. When a thief is forced to return what he has stolen to the rightful owner, it cannot be said that he is a virtuous man or performed an honest act. When the slave master is forced to emancipate his slave from bondage, it cannot be said that he freed the slave. The slave was always free until enslaved by the slave master. As one cannot thank the thief or praise the slave master, neither can Zenawi expect gratitude for doing what he could never do: Free Birtukan! Magnanimity, he must know, is to the virtuous as vice is to the vicious.

But Zenawi missed a fine opportunity to be truly magnanimous. He could have simply said he let Birtukan out in the interest of justice or for humanitarian reasons. Better yet, he could have done it in strict compliance with his own “pardon law”[2] in a process that is perfectly transparent yielding an outcome that would have preserved Birtukan’s dignity while saving him face. He could have stunned his critics by following his own law and performing a simple compassionate act. He could have gained the grudging respect of his opponents and the admiration of all for acting so courageously and honorably. He could have generated so much good will for himself. He could have even seen a glimmer of his own humanity. But his vampiric addiction to victimizing others, his irrepressible need to humiliate and suck dry the last drops of dignity from his opponents, the raging anger in his mind and the flaming hatred bottled in his heart will never allow him to become anything but what he is. But humiliating others is like throwing a boomerang which travels elliptically in the air and returns to the person who threw it. Zenawi did not humiliate Birtukan by forcing her to sign a scrap of paper confessing to wrongdoings she never committed. He humiliated himself by showing how petty, vacuous, small-minded and contemptible he is. But why waste ink or paper talking about a “pardon” that is not even worth the paper it is written on.

We are happy Birtukan is out, no longer in the dungeon. It does not matter how she got out. We couldn’t care less if she got out by scratching her initials on a scrap of paper oozing with lies and fabrications. We do not care if she got out by singing praises to a dictator. To be perfectly frank, we don’t give a damn how Birtukan got out of Zenawi’s prison. We are just glad she is out and back with her daughter, mother and the rest of her family, and her people. If Zenawi wants us to thank him for letting her go, we will be magnanimously happy to do so: “Thanks for nothing!”

For the rest of us who love, admire and respect Birtukan, let us resolve from this day on never to mention the name Birtukan Midekssa with the word “pardon” in the same phrase or sentence. It is blasphemy to say Ethiopia’s First Daughter and foremost patriot was pardoned into freedom by a universally-condemned human rights abuser.

It is not about the past. It is about now! What time is it?

It is Time to Celebrate Birtukan!

What a great young woman Birtukan truly is! What a genius she is! Birtukan signed that baloney passing off as a “pardon” and walked straight out of prison. She proved that she is indeed Birtukan Invictus, master of her destiny and captain of her soul. In a contest between beauty and the beast, brains trumped brawn once again. I can only imagine what she was thinking when she read the scrap of paper she was forced to sign. She probably chuckled a few times as she skimmed the paragraphs drenched in lies. I can imagine her gently reminding the so-called elders (shimagles): “Gentlemen, but you have forgotten so many of my others crimes. How could that be? Please, please, let me make a full confession”:

I, Birtukan Midekssa, in addition to all of the crimes I have confessed to committing as set forth fully in this pardon request, am also personally responsible for other dastardly crimes including global warming, global poverty, the global financial crises and recession, the war in Iraq, hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, USA, sunspots and the disbanding of the Mickey Mouse Club.

Oh, well! Let us just celebrate Birtukan. Let us celebrate her enormous sacrifices. Let us pay her homage for the long months she endured in solitary confinement in one of the worst prison systems in the world as documented in the 2008 U.S. State Department Human Rights Report on Ethiopia. Let us thank her for standing up to dictatorship. Let us show her our genuine love, appreciation and gratitude for being an enduring symbol of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Ethiopia. Let us support her in anything she desires to do for herself and her family. Above all, let us embrace her for the moral courage she showed under the most inhumane circumstances.

Birtukan now has attained greatness reserved for the very few. She now walks in the very footsteps of Mandela, Gandhi and Martin Luther King. She must now walk the same long walk Mandela took to bring freedom to South Africa. She must now march the long march that Gandhi made to bring independence to India. She must now walk across many bridges like Martin Luther King to heal a nation divided by hatred. It will be a long walk and a protracted march to her dreamland of the “future country of Ethiopia.” But I have no doubts, none at all, that she will one day enter triumphantly into that glorious “future country” to the rhythmic ululations of millions of her people.

It’s Time to Tell Birtukan We Are Mighty, Mighty Proud of Her!

I want Birtukan to know that I am proud of her more than words can describe. I am proud of who she is and what she has accomplished in advancing the cause of freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia. But there are a few other things I would like for her to know also. If she ever feels that she may have let us down while she was in solitary confinement, I want her to know that the pain and suffering she endured in the dark in total isolation has uplifted us for our lifetimes. If she ever has doubts that she could have done more for us while chained in Zenawi’s dungeon, I want her to know that she has done more in solitary confinement than a million of us put together sitting idly in freedom. If she ever experiences misgivings for signing a scrap of paper to reunite with her daughter, her mother and her people, I want her to know that we are proud, damn proud she signed it to get the hell out of hell. If she ever thinks that she has to explain something she did or did not do, said or did not say while caged in Zenawi’s prison, I want her to know that her actions speak louder than any words she may be able to utter. She has nothing to explain; her life of struggle and suffering for her people speaks volumes. If she thinks she could have done things differently or better, I want her to know that she did it all just right. We would not want her to change a thing. She spoke the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. She paid a high, very high price for speaking truth to power. But so did Mandela. She knows it comes with the territory for all great leaders. Above all else, we want her to know that we are mighty, mighty proud of everything she has done, EVERYTHING! She has nothing to regret, and everything to be proud.

It’s Also Time to Understand Birtukan

Let us also understand Birtukan. It is true that she is a strong young woman of conviction and principle. That is why I call her Birtukan Invictus (the Unconquered) or ayibegere. But even the strongest steel exposed to the harsh elements suffers metal fatigue and bends. Let us remember that for the past two years Birtukan was denounced, vilified, strong-armed and manhandled. She was thrown into the dungeon of wrath and tears. She was beaten, tortured, bludgeoned and bloodied. She was thrown in solitary confinement. She was mocked, ridiculed, humiliated and disrespected. Zenawi has done everything he could to shatter her bones, cripple her body, break her heart, crush her spirit and confuse her mind; but her soul — the temple of her principles, her compassion, her decency, her courage and her bottomless love for her people — remains intact and unblemished. Zenawi could not touch it! Birtukan still stands tall, unbowed and unafraid.

I plead with all of her well-intentioned colleagues and supporters who surround her to take it easy and give her breathing space. A victim of solitary confinement, the worst form of psychological torture, needs time to heal and regain her inner balance. Let us always remind ourselves that Birtukan was kept in solitary confinement under the most degrading conditions. She was told she has been abandoned and forgotten by the world. She was told day and night that nobody cared about her, nobody gave a damn. She was told she will die alone in that dark cold room. Now she needs to be with her family and friends and the people who love and care about her to heal the deep psychological wounds of the silent torture of solitary confinement.

The winds of politics will sway their fickle cargo to and fro, but it is unfair and inconsiderate to hang out Birtukan in the political wind so quickly after she had spent so much time in solitary confinement. She needs to be left alone for awhile. She does not need to be burdened with problems. Though we all know that Birtukan is an ordinary young woman destined to do extraordinary things, we should not mistake her for “superwoman” who can solve all problems for all people by waiving a magic wand. It has been taught that “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.” This is the season to honor Birtukan; it is the time show how proud we are of her. This the season for us to show her our love, respect and admiration. This is the time for her to rest her weary body and nurse her battered spirit. It is not the time or the season to put the burdens of discord, squabbles and dissension on her frail shoulders.

Free All Political Prisoners in Ethiopia

Birtukan is let out of prison, but tens of thousands of others remain imprisoned for their political beliefs. We must continue to work arduously for the release of so many other political prisoners whose names and faces are known but to their families and their torturers.

There are also other prisoners who are in dire need of help. These inmates inhabit a prison of their own making. They are the prisoners of hate “locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness”, as Mandela would describe them. They live in a prison of the closed mind dwelling in a body with a stone cold heart. Our sister Birtukan has been to hell and back; but her tormentors still live there; or in the verse of Mark Spencer:

So here sits the prisoner,
Shackled in his cell.
Wrestling with the demons,
Of his private hell.

In the right season and at the right time, I have no doubts that Birtukan and her generation will free those shackled in the cells of their private hell because they know all too well the wages of hate. Birtukan and her generation will rise up and declare in the words of Martin Luther King: “We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. And history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.” It is now the right time and right season to rededicate ourselves to Birtukan’s “future country of Ethiopia.” No more bitterness, no more hatred, no more cruelty and no more inhumanity.

Birtukan Unbound! Prometheus Unbound!

I have had no greater honor in my life than pleading Birtukan’s cause at every forum and opportunity available to me since she was jailed in December 2008. Birtukan has been a source of great inspiration and strength to me. I have learned the true meaning of moral integrity and courage from her. I stand in awe of her for the price she has paid speaking truth to power. Though she is young, she has shown more wisdom than so many of her elders who have spent so much of our lives in pursuit of formal education.

There are countless individuals and groups throughout the world who have toiled so hard to see Birtukan free. Many of them worked quietly.  I have seen many young people use modern technology to make Birtukan’s case known to the world. I have seen many young people flooding public events with flyers of Birtukan’s imprisonment, standing by the street side waving banners and silently protesting at candle light vigils. I have seen some walking the halls of power in America and heard of others doing the same in Europe, Canada and Australia pleading for Birtukan’s release. Each and every one of them deserves our gratitude and appreciation. I believe all of us who have worked in Birtukan’s cause have done so not just because we believe Birtukan is an extraordinary leader and compassionate human being, but also because she is the quintessential symbol of her generation. Our unshakable faith in Birtukan is merely a reflection of our unwavering faith in her generation. I willingly confess that I truly, sincerely and genuinely believe in the existence of that wonderful dreamland which Birtukan has often described as the “future country of Ethiopia”!

God Bless Ethiopia! God Bless Birtukan Midekssa and Her Family!