The prisoners who were cut off

Kiflu Hussain, November 2007

“I know that I shall meet my fate

Somewhere among the clouds above

Those that I fight I do not hate

Those that I guard I do not love—

---Nor law, nor duty bade me fight

Nor public men, nor cheering crowds

A lonely impulse of delight

Drove to this tumult in the clouds”---

Gleaned from “An Irish Air man foresees his death” by W.B Yeats 1865—1939

1. The Quadruple Prisoners of War (POWs)

Before I decided to write this essay in tribute to all Ethiopian prisoners, political or apolitical, who have been denied justice and humane treatment, I neglected to find out whether W.B Yeats was also a pilot apart from being a fine poet. If he had never been a pilot at all, it would still add to his reputation for he seemed to have captured vividly what it means to be a combat pilot. I am sure all current and ex pilots, particularly those who mocked aerodynamics with aerobatic aircrafts agree with me. Inevitably two questions arise in the minds of anyone who care to have a look at this writing of mine. Namely; whether I myself has some kind of familiarity with the stick or throttle of an aircraft. And why I mix aviators with political prisoners. To put first things first, I am no pilot, nor ever been one. It’s just that I had someone close in my family/RIP/who contributed his fair share in the development of Ethiopian aviation both in the Air force and Airlines who inculcated this love of aviation in me. Again to a query that probably crop up why I didn’t become a pilot then, let’s just say like Kassa Tessema/RIP/who sang beautifully in his baritone voice

“What sort of a bird is this?

Who contends with a tree?

Whom did he see?

That lived with his first love?”

To the probable second question as to whether Ethiopian combat pilots had fallen in an enemy territory as POWs; I say yes, there are Ethiopian pilots who have been victim as such for the past 14 years. The only irony here is that the pilots are incarcerated in their own country. Also they were captured not while in action but long after they quit from service life to a civilian one. Their names are;

1. Col.Berhanemeskel Haile who served both in the Air force and Airlines by

flying different types of aircraft and helicopters including helicopter gunship

for over three decades. As an instructor pilot he had also trained many pilots.

At the time of his arrest, he was assigned on Ethiopian Airlines aircraft leased

to WFP to ferry food to victims of famine in Southern Sudan from Kenya.

2. Col.Girma Asfaw who served both in the Air force and Airlines by flying

different types of aircraft and helicopters including helicopter gunship

for nearly three decades. At the time of his detention he was an instructor

pilot in the flying school of Ethiopian Airlines.

3. Lt.Col.Solomon Kebede who served in the Air force for nearly two decades

as fighter pilot by flying different type of supersonic jets. He was an instructor

pilot in Ethiopian Airlines flying school at the time of his detention.

4. Captain Kifle Woube who served in the Air force as fighter pilot by flying

different type of supersonic jets. At the time of his detention he was serving as

a pilot for some international or missionary organization.

As it’s recallable when the war was lost due to the intransigent power monger, Mengistu H/Mariam who relied merely on military might to keep the territorial sovereignty of Ethiopia, the secessionist forces who emerged as victors widened their witch hunt in addition to disbanding and putting members of the armed force in concentration camp. Consequently, anyone considered as an impediment, especially to their paving a way for Eritrea’s separation was targeted, be it a civilian or military. Also they glorified their tribalism and secessionist war by painting a rosy picture whereas they tainted the unionist war as fascistic. They tried to have us believe that all was brute on the unionist side whose target was nothing but indiscriminate. They insulted our intelligence, as ignoramus of their ruthless cunning guerrilla warfare, which had—and still has—no qualms to use civilians as shield. They forgot how we noted their conscription of children as cannon fodders. They were—and still are—totally oblivious in their delusion of grandeur when they bragged about their “operation” of storming the Commercial Bank in Axum during their secessionist “struggle.”/read Ethiopian Review edition around 1993 with a front cover titled “Meles Zenawi & the politics of ethnicity.”/Today after gunning down kids at their doorstep, they tell us that they did it to prevent an attempt to storm a bank.

So, this new round of despotism after paralysing the judiciary rounded up those former Air force pilots who even shed their uniform for a commercial airliner as far back as 1980 for allegedly bombarding Eritrea. Among this were Col.Tigeneh H/Giorgis, Col.Teka etc. Thankfully, when the honeymoon between TPLF and EPLF was over, they were released after 5 years of incarceration, as they were suddenly detained without any charge. However, the four pilots who were mentioned above have been made to languish behind by Woyanne’s notorious style called “Koreta.”And, so to this day they are cut-off in Kaliti concentration camp. Around 2000, after 7 years of detention, the Girma Wakijira office came up with a charge of war crimes and genocide citing the bombardment of Howzen against them. As it’s known far and wide about the nature of Ethiopian kangaroo courts, there is no point to elaborate that these gallant officers have been denied fair trial. Therefore, for me it’s not only Col.Bezabeh Petros captured for the second time in Eritrea who had fallen into the hands of the enemy as POW.In fact, civilian pilots with no military background in their career too tasted the vindictive and tribalist mentality of the present rulers. A case in point; Captain Berhanemeskel Bizane an ex Ethiopian Airlines pilot was detained for about three weeks. The reason was the insubordination to EPLF chieftains by refusing to park the aircraft that carried them from Asmara to Addis near VIP apron at the terminal. However, he was not informed of any VIP passengers beforehand. In any case, there was no chance to explain all these under the law of the jungle. And, so along with some air traffic controllers, he savoured briefly “the Golden era of justice” at the notorious Maekelawi detention centre. Others like Captain Tesfaye Zewde and Captain Melaku Tegegn/RIP/ too experienced the same over a trifle matter. The reason I brought this up is to refute what Prof Mesfin W/Mariam claimed in his book “The precipitous journey of treason” by way of giving advice to his children that the only profession that doesn’t bring trouble in repressive regime is flying.

Last but not least, before I turn to another victims of “the golden era of justice” I would like to express my disappointment at those former Air force members who are still alive and have gone through thick and thin in their service life from the time of the Emperor up to Woyanne. To the best of my knowledge, none of them tried to set the record straight by telling the story of the Air force from first hand experience. Despite the comfortable position that some of them enjoy in a life of exile in North America that enables them to write the intimate history of the Air force, they chose to remain silent. Thus, emboldened Woyanne portrayed the former Air force as a mere arm of the Emperor and the Derg whose members submitted to a blind obedience with no mental faculty of their own. The fact that Captain Mekonen Beri who served in the Air force for six years only before he joined Ethiopian Airlines wrote a book titled “Aviation in Ethiopia” did not even inspire them to follow suit. In a commentary I wrote after reading his book whereby Amare Aregawi’s “The Reporter” published it, albeit with heavy edition and error on August 13,2003,thanks to the fallout between the Meles and Seye group, I goaded them with the following words;

“---The people who served in the Air force should muster their

courage as they used to when they get on top of the canopy of

aircraft and break the silence to polish the image of the former

Air force tarnished by the present regime. Unlike the present

rulers earlier assertion, they can prove that Ethiopia always

needs to have a well-trained and well-equipped Air force by

citing the recent bloody encounter with Eritrea which we

Ethiopians experienced for the umpteenth time. In peace time

too, the Air force can provide services such as aid and relief

with helicopters and transport aircraft. As the air force is the

only place to try out all the demons of aerodynamics with

aerobatic aircrafts, they can also assert its position as an ideal

breeding ground for fine pilots. It’s always a high degree of

professionalism that works; that even a tiny dose of mediocrity

has no place in flying supersonic jets, lest it results in an air

disasters such as the one at the market place in the little town

of Modjo and similar other disasters that followed. It’s useful

to put a reminder too, that no amount of money heaped from

the so-called Federal budget can turn around the Air force, until

a sober realization descends that replaces ethnicity with patriot-

ism, and till the Air force is run by professionals and men of

honour who command the respect of their subordinates,

nothing can stem the apparent tide of defection that’s being

witnessed once again as in the time of Derg.”

In a nutshell, they owe it to themselves, to a balanced account of history and most of all to the four veteran pilots who, instead of being decorated and discharged to a honourable retirement are languishing in a highly congested concentration camp.

2. The duo prisoners of conscience

Regarding Daniel Bekele and Netsanet Demissie who have aptly been described as civil right activists and human right defenders by Amnesty International, there’s nothing more I can add for a lot has already been said by far more learned and articulate people. As the two prisoners of conscience who are left behind by the infamous Woyanne “Koreta” said in their impassioned summation of their statement of defense, they not only cast a shadow of doubt on the trumped up case of Shimelles Kemal et al’s camp. They were also right to conclude their summation with a conviction by saying “we went to the extent of proving ourselves as innocent and aboveboard.” But does this mean anything to the Woyanne kangaroo court? In an article I wrote to Ethiomedia on July 24, 2007 under the title “Our leaders are released, what next?” I said “The second episode in TPLF’s theatrics will be a not guilty verdict against Daniel and Netsanet to make the Kangaroo court appear an independent judiciary that impartially weighs arguments and evidences of both parties.” It was a premature utterance that didn’t take into consideration the vicissitudes of a desperate regime pushed into the corner by its own folly. Since the release of the previous prisoners of conscience, H.R.2003 have been passed unanimously by the United States congress while Woyanne was further bogged down in a quagmire in Mogadishu to the chagrin of its patrons in the white house. Hence instead of sobering up by the total sum of these latest developments, Woyanne may decide to continue to hold these two principled lawyers to ransom. Therefore, even if it doesn’t dare to turn in a guilty verdict, it may procrastinate further compounding the disappointment of Rameh Singh, chief executive of Action Aid who said in August “This further delay comes as a big disappointment when we were so near to the end of the process.

The one thing we shouldn’t feel, however, is disappointment. We shouldn’t be elated either in the unlikely event Woyanne decides to release them. Instead, we have to strengthen our resolve so that rule of law descends that justice never be an object of mockery by despots and no one suffers any consequence because of standing up for what h/she believes in.