“The oppressors, who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves.” Paulo Freire
“When I heard Dr. Tedros Adhanom is running to be the Director-General of the World Health Organization, I screamed wondering if the international institutions such as the UN are tacit participants in my torturing.” Ethiopian torture survivor
By Alem Mamo
It is located not far from the buildings that house both national and international power centres in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Thus, one can be forgiven for not suspecting that the most henious acts of brutality would be taking place in the same neighborhood as where international dignitaries work, as well as wine and dine. It is called Meakelawi prison the stories of those who survived this notorious site of human suffering are difficult to comprehend.
Anyone who dares to oppose the regime or is suspected of opposing it is brought to Meakelawi prison for inhuman treatment that is difficult to put into words. The physical suffering, psychological torment and the deliberate degrading and humiliation are all routine practice.
In his powerful and agonising account of kidnapping and torture in Meakelawi prison, Teshome Tenkolu, the former air force captain, narrates his first-hand account inside the regime’s torture chamber. The 11-page raw personal account entitled “moto menesat,” “Coming back from the dead,” is a testimony of cruelty and inhumanity on one hand, and the courage and strength of the human spirit to fight injustice, on the other.
Captain Teshome Tenkolu was a young aspiring and fiercely patriotic airman deeply committed to serving his country.His story begins on June 5, 1998 on the campus of the Ethiopian air force located 63 Kilometers south of the capital Addis Ababa. He was kidnapped and driven blindfolded outside the city of Debrezeit where he grew up. “At first,” he says, “I thought it was some kind of practical joke. However, as the minutes turned into hours, and hours into days it dawned to me that I am a prisoner. Until now, my familiarity of prison is limited to hearing the stories of prisoners who were locked up during the military regime.”
“It has been 24 hours since I was kidnapped, handcuffed, blind folded and thrown into a small cage like room.” He narrates this harrowing story of endurance and unbreakable human spirit. “The stink of urine and feces in this small cell where I can stretch my hands and touch both ends of the room is appalling. I am having difficulty breathing and feeling nauseous due to the unsanitary condition of the room.”
“When they took me to another semi-darkroom not too far away from my smelly cell, I could barely walk. I was hungry, thirsty and exhausted. As I approached the room accompanied by two individuals holding me on both sides, as I gingerly waked into the room, a heavy punch landed on my face. Within seconds, I was on the floor. Then, the beating with a hard-electric cable began on my feet, hands and back. I don’t know for how long I passed out, when I woke up I was still in handcuffs lying on the floor. This routine of torture continued for 20 consecutive days.”
“During the course of my ordeal, my meal was a small slice of bread and cup of water every 24 hours. For me one of the most difficult part of this experience was going to the washroom. Imagine for a moment attempting to use the washroom while you are handcuffed and shackled. I can not unbutton my pants or keep my balance to do simple things such as using the bathroom. Indeed, this cruelty is not simply to cause suffering to my flesh and bones, but also to rob me my dignity and pride.”
“After twenty days, I was transferred to a much smaller room. I can barely move around because of the size of the new cell. Deprived of any sound or light my solitary life in this cold room began to take its toll on me. I came to conclusion that the only way I can end this misery is to take my own life. As I began to explore the way to end my life, I was confronted with a reality that I was handcuffed and shackled and even if I try I have no tools to speed up the end. No ropes, no knife nothing. I settled on a hunger strike. Stopping eating the single slice of bread and the cup of water. This went on for three days.”
“After three days, my pain and suffering accelerated. While my desire is to end this suffering by not eating or drinking water after three days, I picked up a glass of water which was sitting close to the door and drunk it in one breath.”
“As my ordeal continues I am beginning to lose track of time. The date, month, morning afternoon, day or night they have no meaning in my life. Everyday is just one long sad day. My pants and t-shirt I was wearing the day I was kidnapped are torn apart and they barely cover my body and I decided to take them off. My flight uniform has become my blanket as well as my regular clothes.”
“While my daily wish is to end my life instead of continuing living under these circumstances, from time to time I think of my mother who suffers from a heart problem and my girlfriend who has become my close friend. I wonder what would be the impact of my disappearance on my mother’s health. Would I be the cause for worsening my mothers heart condition? How is she feeling these days? I ask myself regularly. The truth is I have no way knowing her condition. But I wonder.”
“All this time I also wonder why they are doing this to me. I have done nothing wrong except taking my flight instructor job very seriously. From time to time I ponder with the question ‘why?’ Could it be simply hate, or simply intoxication with power? Perhaps both I dialogue with myself trying to squeeze an answer from my exhausted and tormented mind. Sometimes my torturers show up for work drunk puffing cigarette mix with the smell of alcohol which makes my breathing difficult.”
“The reality of prison life is not just the torture and the physical suffering. It is the control, humiliation of robbing one’s dignity. Since I lost sense of time I am not sure for how long I have been in those dark and cold dungeons. What I know is that my tormenters have imposed all forms of physical, emotional and psychological brutality on me. All along, I have come to the conclusion that I won’t be able to get out alive from this dark hole of suffering. I have given up on living. With each day, the torture and the abuse continues, the meaning and purpose of life is lost in me.”
The ordeal of Captain Teshome Tenkolu is a clear demonstration of man’s inhumanity to a fellow human being. It is also the triumph of human spirit, a spirit that is good, caring and resilient. It is also worth noting that Captain Teshome Tenkolu’s story is not an isolated anomaly. Thousands of men and women languish in this dark dungeon called Meakelawi. One former prisoner who still resides in the capital Addis Ababa said, “the sounds and smells of torture still haunt me. It is something that I am unable to rid from my mind, the recurring nightmare keeps me awake at night. The sound and the smell of torture and the stinch of rotting flesh are still with me. I have left Meakelawi prison (even the country)but the prison never left me.”
He vividly recalls the torture techniques used in Meakelawi. Electric iron being placed on the bodies of prisoners, water boarding, being hung upside down for hours and electric shock are some of the methods used. He also said, “women prisoners are forced to undress themselves in front of male prison guards.” In all of such sufferings, there is a strict rule from the Country’s Minister of Health not to provide any medical aid to political prisoners. “This administrative order was given by Dr. Tedros Adhanom, who was the Minister of Health at the time. When I heard that Dr. Tedros Adhanom is running to be the Director-General of the World Health Organization, I screamed wondering if the international institutions such as the UN are tacit participants in my torturing,” said one torture survivor, who still lives in Ethiopia.
Part two will be coming soon.
Alem mamo -firstname.lastname@example.org
Additional reporting from Addis Ababa and Nairobi
Cover Photo : Captain Teshome Tenkolu (Left)and Captain Beyene (Right)