The torturous fields of Ethiopia’s rehabilitation centre
By Befeqadu Hailu
(Amnesty) — Befeqadu Hailu, a member of the Zone-9 blogging group was arrested for criticizing the State of Emergency Declaration, in an interview he gave to the Voice of America. In this note, he shares what he witnessed during his stay at Awash Sebat Military Training Centre, which was turned into a rehabilitation centre for people arrested during the State of Emergency.
Wakoma Tafa was planning to get married on Sunday 9 October 2016, when the police arrested him just three days before his wedding day in Alem Gena -a town 25kms west of Addis Ababa. On his would-be wedding day, the Police took Wakoma to Awash Sebat Federal Police Training Centre, turned into a ‘rehab centre’ (Tehadiso Maekel) as per the Ethiopia’s State of Emergency.
I met Wakoma after the Command Post (a special unit established to to enforce the state of emergency declaration measures) transferred me to Awash Sebat along with 242 other ‘suspects’ from Addis Ababa. Together, we were over 1000 people.
The day we arrived at the center, we saw many youngsters in worn-out dirty shirts, walking barefoot in two lines. A fellow detainee related that it looked like a scene from the movie series ‘Roots’. Befeqadu Hailu
The day we arrived at the center, we saw many youngsters in worn-out dirty shirts, walking barefoot in two lines. A fellow detainee related that it looked like a scene from the movie series ‘Roots’.
Later, we found out that the police were taking them to the sandy field at the back of the compound for physical exercises every day after breakfast. The exercises included frog-jumping, push-ups, sit-ups and supporting their body for long in a push-up position. The hot ground burnt their palms. The police encouraged those too tired to continue by beating them.
Oromia Police, who were in charge of the interrogations, thrashed, kicked, and punched the detainees during interrogation. The purpose of the interrogations was to find out the level of their participation and to name the others in the protests. During the 33 days of our stay, Wakoma’s nose was bleeding every day since a police officer kicked him during interrogation. Nurses at the centre could not stop his bleeding. However, Wakoma was not the only one tortured during interrogations. Most of the ‘suspects’ who were in Awash Sebat for 40 days before our arrival sustained varying degrees of beating, slapping and kicking.
A new normal
Then, our turn came to be paraded, bare footed, to the open pits within the Centre’s compound. The gravel path was hard to walk on barefoot but the yelling of officers dangling their sticks was enough incentive to run on it. Once we reached the toilet pits, we had to sit side by side and do our business. None of us was willing to do it the first day. Later on, we accepted that it as the new normal.
For breakfast, they gave us half-cup of tea and two loaves of bread. I noticed the youngsters, who were there before us, enjoying the additional loaf of bread. Before our arrival, they had only one during breakfasts.
They spread us into 10 different halls each harboring more than one hundred detainees. Each room has sixteen double-decker beds enough for only thirty-two people; the rest shared mattresses on the floor. The rooms have ventilators but not enough to cool the heat. In addition, there was not enough water –not even to drink. In the 33 days of my stay, I was able to wash only two times.
On day two of the parading, the Command Post sent a team to start our ‘rehabilitation training’. They also allowed us to wear shoes. Unfortunately, nearly half of the detainees who were there before us had no shoes when they arrived at the Centre 40 days prior to our arrival.
The state of emergency Inquiry Board came and spoke to notable opposition party members such as Abebe Akalu, Eyasped Tesfaye, and Blen Mesfin. They reported the rights violations we were facing in detail. However, we learnt that the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation, the state-broadcaster, reported only logistic problems, entirely leaving out complaints of rights violations.
Most detainees from Addis Ababa, however, complained to the officials that they are victims of personal revenge. Some said people with personal grudges against them tipped their names to the police. Similarly, most detainees from the Oromia regional state maintained they were victims of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
One of the clips they regularly showed on the screen was the Afaan Oromo song, ‘Madda Seenaa’ by artist Teferi Mekonen. Ironically, Teferi Mekonen was among us. On our “graduation” day, he was invited to perform on the stage. He pleased us all by singing the politically charged Oromifaa song, ‘Maalan Jira’, by the prominent Oromo artist Haacaaluu Hundeessaa. Sadly, Teferi Mekonen is re-arrested immediately after our release from Awash Sebat. I was shocked to see him in a prison here in Addis Ababa when I went to visit my friends, journalists Annania Sori and Elias Gebru.
A day before we left the centre, the police told us we had to wear a t-shirt on which ‘ayidegemim/Irra hin deebiamu’ (never again) is printed in Amharic and Oromifa. None of us hesitated to wear the t-shirts – they were fresh and clean and our souls were desperately looking beyond the centre and to getting back to our homes; we were exhausted and looking forward to resume the life we left.
There were 17 women among the detainees and one of them was pregnant. There were also about 15 underage boys. We were all in it together and we all survived.
I am hoping that the 28 years old Wakoma can re-organize his wedding again.
This blog was originally published on Addis Standard News Paper with the title: Memoirs of my detention at Awash 7: tales of indoctrination, of laughter and the unknown on 30 Dec 2016 (reprinted with modifications with permission of the author)