Witness for the future

By Prof Alemayehu G. Mariam / November 16, 2009
In his book Night, Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and the man the Nobel Committee called the “messenger to mankind” when it awarded him the peace prize in 1986, wrote:
For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time. The witness has forced himself to testify. For the youth of today, for the children who will be born tomorrow. He does not want his past to become their future.”

On November 9-10, 1938, the Nazis destroyed thousands of Jewish homes, synagogues and businesses throughout Germany, killing nearly 100 and arresting and deporting some 30,000 to concentration camps. That was Krystallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), the forerunner to the Holocaust. On March 21, 1960, apartheid security forces in the township of Sharpeville, South Africa, fired 705 bullets in two minutes to disperse a crowd of protesting Africans. When the shooting spree stopped, 69 black Africans lay dead, shot in the back; and 186 suffered severe gunshot wounds.

 vicious dictator "Ethiopians can never be reconciled to a dictatorship that maintains itself by brute force alone." Prof Al

Following the May, 2005 Ethiopian parliamentary elections, paramilitary forces under the direct command and control of regime leader Meles Zenawi massacred 193 innocent men, women and children and wounded 763 persons engaged in ordinary civil protest. Nearly all of the victims shot and killed died from injuries to their heads or upper torso, and there was evidence that sharpshooters were used in the indiscriminate and wanton attack on the protesters. On November 3, 2005, during an alleged disturbance at the infamous Kality prison near Addis Abeba, guards sprayed more than 1500 bullets into inmate cells in 15 minutes killing 17 and severely wounding 53. These facts were meticulously documented by a 10-member Inquiry Commission established by Zenawi himself after examining 16,990 documents, receiving testimony from 1,300 witnesses and undertaking months of investigation in the field.

Under constant threat by the regime and afraid to make these facts public in Ethiopia, the Commission’s chairman Judge Frehiwot Samuel, vice chair Woldemichael Meshesha, and member attorney Teshome Mitiku fled the country with the evidence. They made their findings public on November 16, 2006, before a committee of the U.S. Congress. Their report completely exonerated the protesters and pinned the blame for the massacres entirely on the regime and its security forces. No protesters possessed, used or attempted to use firearms, explosives or any other objects that could be used as a weapon. No protester set or attempted to set fire to public or private property, robbed or attempted to rob a bank.1

The victims of the post-election massacres were not faceless and nameless images in the crowd. They were individuals with identities. Among the victims were Tensae Zegeye, age 14; Habtamu Tola, age 16; Binyam Degefa, age 18; Behailu Tesfaye, age 20; Kasim Ali Rashid, age 21. Teodros Giday Hailu, age 23. Adissu Belachew, age 25; Milion Kebede Robi, age 32; Desta Umma Birru, age 37; Tiruwork G. Tsadik, age 41; Elfnesh Tekle, age 45. Abebeth Huletu, age 50; Regassa Feyessa, age 55; Teshome Addis Kidane, age 65; Victim No. 21762, age 75, female, and Victim No. 21760, male, age unknown and many dozens more.2

Ethiopians have a special duty to bear witness for these innocent victims who died as eye witnesses to the theft of an election and the mugging of democracy in Ethiopia in 2005. They went into the streets to peacefully defend their right to vote and have their votes count, and defend the first democratic election in Ethiopia’s 3,000-year history. We must force ourselves to testify for them not just as victims of monstrous crimes but also as true patriots. For they acted out of a sense of duty, honor, love of country and deep concern for the future of Ethiopia. They died so that 80 million Ethiopians could live free.

Ethiopia’s dictators would have the world believe that the victims of their carnage were nobodies who did not matter. It is true they were all ordinary people of the humblest origins. But we value them not for their wealth and social status but for their patriotism and sacrifices in the cause of freedom, democracy and human rights.

Elie Weisel is absolutely right. We have a duty to bear witness against those who commit crimes against humanity and for the innocent victims of tyranny and dictatorship. We have to “force” ourselves to testify not only for the dead but also “for the youth of today, for the children who will be born tomorrow.” We do not want the massacres of 2005 to become the future of Ethiopia.

When we bear witness for Ethiopia’s innocent victims, we bear witness for all victims of tyranny and dictatorships. For the cause of the innocent transcends race, ethnicity, religion, language, country or continent. It even transcends time and space because the innocent represent humanity’s infinite capacity for virtue as dictators and tyrants represent humanity’s dregs. When we bear witness for them, we also testify in our own behalf against that evil lurking secretly and deep in our souls and hearts. But by not forcing ourselves to testify against evil, we become an inseparable part of it. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” That is also the essential message of Elie Weisel.

Let us bear witness now for Zenawi’s victims. Let us tell the world that they cry out for justice from the grave. Let us testify that they died on the bloody battlefield of dictatorship with nothing in their hands, but peace and love in their hearts, justice in their minds and passion for the cause of freedom and democracy in their spirits and bodies. Let us remember and honor them, not in sorrow, but in gratitude and eternal indebtedness. Let us make sure that their sacrifices will tell generations of Ethiopians to come stories of personal bravery and courage and an abiding and unflinching faith in democracy and the rule of law. And when we despair over what appears to be the victory of evil over good, let us be inspired by Gandhi’s words: “There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall -- think of it, ALWAYS.” Let us remind ourselves every day that “All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men and women do nothing.”

1These victims were documented by the Inquiry Commission in its investigation of shootings of unarmed protesters in Addis Ababa on June 8, and November 1-10 and 14-16, 2005 in Oromia and Amhara “regional states”. See, http://www.ethiomedia.com/addfile/ethiopian_inquiry_commission_briefs_congress.html

2 http://ethiomedia.com/carepress/yared_testimony.pdf

The writer, Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. For comments, he can be reached at almariam@gmail.com