Christmas in Kality

Satellite photo over Kality prison. In one of the roofs in the upper right corner of the picture you will see a white text. That was our zone, zone 6. In this hangar of corrugated steel we lived for more than a year. In the security zone, zone 1, the male Ethiopian journalists are held. In the women’s zone along the lower-right corner of the picture the female journalist Reeyot Alemu will be found.

It has started now. Collections among the prisoners to pay for this year’s Ethiopian Christmas known as Ganna which is celebrated on January 7th. One birr here. 10 birr there. Enthusiastic Prison Committee members who arrange open scenes, betting rackets and auctions to pull together the funds to pay for soft drinks, popcorn and bread head up the fundraising.

Being locked up you do not really celebrate a new year but rather that a year has passed and that another 365 days can be added to your past. The first question is always: how long have you been here? Not: When will you be released?

Throughout the week I have been thinking that I should write about Christmas in Kality. That I should write about the rays of hope during incarceration in order to remember all the people there and to give you who read the blog a small Christmas gift.

I had in mind to write about how, in the morning, Johan walked around with a red jar of gingerbread cookies. To write about how our neighbours hungrily took the cookies with both hands: “Prison Rules!” To say something about how Rihanna’s song ”Man Down” echoed from the zone’s loudspeakers during count-in. To tell about the communal singing of the chorus while waiting in line in the mornings: “I just shot a man down. I am a criminal, criminal, criminal, judge please give me minimum, minimum, minimum.”

To write about the service held a few hours later in the small steel shed that some prisoners had turned into a church. A room without an altar, Saints or candles, but with a sign written by hand on the wall which said: “the trials here are nothing compared to the one in the last day.”

I was going to tell you about wooden pews packed with criminals. About “oil man”, “Aspirinman”, “the mad Arab”, “F”, “S”, “Bantu”, “K”, “G”, “Burundi”, “Jack-ass”, “Trafficker”, “Liberia”, “Fool”, “Cameroon”, “J”, “Somalia” and “Nigeria”. Killer paedophiles, bank robbers, con artists and pickpockets. The guilty and the innocent. Christians and Muslims. From Cairo to Cape Town. On each seat a short story. On each bench a novel. Good people. Some with bullets left in their bodies. The cream of African youth.

I was going to tell you about the sermon from a self-taught priest that started with the words:

– I have sinned more than anyone else here. If you knew what I have done, you would all rise and walk away.

About the silence that followed.

I was going to recount the story of the priest’s life that made the congregation’s eyes wet with tears.

And tell you about those who actually stood up and walked away.

I was going to write about his message to us in the pews that morning. That the most important thing was to maintain our dignity as human beings, that we should start cooking for our enemies in prison, invite them to lunch and to wash their clothes. But above all, I had in mind to write about his philosophy in life: to refuse to accept that we were locked up and that we would die here: jamais!

– You should be glad that you got this chance. Had you not ended up in Kality, you would have been dead. Believe me. It is quite a lethal world out there.

I was going to tell you about the former child soldiers from the Rwandan genocide, who nodded in agreement.

But I won’t, now.

I will keep the story of Christmas in Kality for the coming book.

I just want, with the help of a few lines, to wish all blog- and future book readers a Merry Christmas in freedom.

If there will be a happy new year depends on what we decide to make of it.

Because there are still flies in the ointment.

2012 was a terrible year for the freedom of the press in the world with 141 journalists killed, a thousand arrested and more than 2,000 physically attacked and threatened members of the free media. In the light of the fact that the freedom of the press is vital for democracy and thus the development of society, these figures are nothing short of alarming.

On New Year’s Eve of 2012, 232 journalists celebrated the new year in prisons around the world. This is the highest figure ever, according to a report by the CPJ. Among them journalist and father of three, Dawit Isaak, who has been held for more than 4 000 days in an Eritrean prison, will be found.

Several of the imprisoned journalists will celebrate New Year’s Eve in Addis Abbeba’s kality prison. We have been accused of the same things, we have been to the same prison and had the same sentences – but that is where the parallel ends: Eskinder Nega, Woubshet Taye and Reeyot Alemu are still there.

Me and Johan are free.

All these young Ethiopian journalists faced a choice. They are intelligent and well educated, they could have chosen an easy life, they could have chosen another profession, but the love for the truth, to their country, for their fellow human beings and to Ethiopia made them into journalists.

They stayed and continued to write.

That decision brought them to Kality.

For their courage, working methods and articles they have been forced to pay with their freedom.

With six detained journalists left in Kality, Ethiopia today is one of the leading countries in the world when it comes to imprisoning members of the press. Repression of the media has also made the country a world leader when it comes to running journalists out of the country.

We must not forget that the bottom line of what has made journalism such a dangerous job in Ethiopia is not the callous ways of the regime, but the indifference of the rest of the world.

In addition to the lack of freedom, Reeyot Alemu has had a lot of medical problems in prison. She used to be plagued by gastric catarrh and sinusitis. She has also had heavy pains in her left breast after her arrest. Woubshet Taye, accused of having taken a picture of a demonstration, was beaten until he fell ill before he was arrested and taken to Kality prison. Now he is feeling better but still suffers by not having any access to books, newspapers or the radio.

Not being able to write or read is double punishment.

I hope that media outlets continue to follow their cases just as they followed ours. As a prisoner of conscience the thing you fear most is to be forgotten and the support from the outside is what keeps you going. Columns, articles and letters of support are more important than food and medicine. And international recognition in the news does provide a certain level of protection. Prison guards and administrators will think twice because they know the world is watching.

On January 8, 2013, the next trial for Reejot Alemo is set. Follow the hashtag #ReeyotAlemu that day. Almost always there will be someone courageous that reports live on site during the trial with a presence and straight forwardness that will give you goose bumps. Twitter – at its finest moments — in service of democracy and the freedom of the press.

The process against Eskinder Nega is also under way. His case one can easily follow via twitter on #EskinderNega or Voice of America.

We must also never forget the story we failed to make and at the same time continue to follow developments in the underreported Ogaden region.

In the year that passed it became evident that the protection of and respect for journalism is inadequate internationally. Therein lays the challenge. What happened to me and Johan changed our lives – the question we all must ask ourselves in the coming year is how all of us together can change the conditions for journalism and for those who are still imprisoned.

Clearly it feels liberating to celebrate New Year’s Eve and Christmas in freedom.

When you look back and think of those who are left behind in the chaos, left on the concrete floor, between walls of corrugated steel celebrating the New Year in captivity, I feel sick to the stomach.

But then I remember their smiles and their strength and think that it’s not us that are fighting for their freedom, but rather the imprisoned journalists, who are fighting for ours.

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