Message in a Bottle

By Prof Alemayehu G. Mariam / April 27, 2009

Dr. Hailu Araya
Dr Hailu Araya
Patriots and Tyrants

Dr. Hailu Araya: Ethiopian patriot. Political prisoner. Educator. Poet. I am not writing to talk about Dr. Hailu, the Ethiopian patriot, the man who gave the brutal former military dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam a passionate six-minute discourse on democracy, freedom and human rights 18 years ago to the month.1 Who would forget that historic showdown between the patriot and the tyrant. Thus spoke Dr. Hailu:2

First because I am an intellectual, second because I am a people's representative in the Shengo, and third because I am an educator, I have to speak the truth. Truth even if it may lead to death has to be uttered ... Before we even discussed the merits of professor Mesfin's peace formula3, you went into a vitriolic attack ... We cannot accept this kind of behavior any more because Ethiopian problems are our own problems, not only yours!... Why is it that you [President Mengistu] are always under the impression that you are the only one who can analyze and solve Ethiopia's problems? Ethiopia's intractable problems cannot be solved through your uncontrolled tirade and shouting!... You cannot solve problems by ignoring other people's opinion. You have time and again hinted at the idea that your officials should gather courage and swallow the quinine [tablet] of self-criticism; Why is it that you are the only one who is immune to it?... Why do you put us under terror? Why do you gag us?

Dr. Hailu did not stop there; he also gave Mengistu a sermon on citizenship and patriotism (love of country). “A country is not just the mountains, the fields and the rivers,” he counseled the pitiful dictator. “A country is also about the rule of law and justice.” Mengistu squirmed and wiggled in his seat as though he had ants in his pants; and he pivoted his neck sharply to the left to hide his anger and shame. He had been paralyzed by Dr Hailu’s sheer audacity. In apparent despair and resignation, Mengistu tried to mask his face with the palm of his right hand as Dr. Hailu rained down a torrent of truth-darts on his granite-clad conscience. That day Mengistu was forced to swallow the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth: “It is not that the people and the government are not connecting heart to heart,” Dr. Hailu reminded the smug dictator. The fact “is that the people and the government have become belly and back (hode-na-jerba).”

Like all true patriots, Dr. Hailu was not interested in quibbling with a petty dictator glory-bound to oblivion and the dustbin of history. No, his concern was the future well-being of his people and his country; and of that he spoke prophetically to the craven dictator:

“The only way we can defeat our enemies is when we are all of the same heart and mind. It is only when we create a united front that we can stand up to our enemies, and never by beating around the bush. But we seem to be having difficulty accepting this simple fact. We have to strengthen our unity. That is what I want. To achieve that, I am not going to do it with only one eye open. I will do it with both eyes open and a clear and open mind. That is how we will be assured of a lasting victory.”

He summed it all up for Mengistu: “We have to find the solutions to our problems together, collectively, concertedly.”

I will just a few words about Dr. Hailu the political prisoner who was illegally jailed along with dozens of other patriotic and courageous opposition and civic society leaders, journalists and human rights advocates by the current dictator. Dr. Hailu is not the kind of patriot who will bow down to any tyrant or dictator, even if one is called Tweedle Dee and the other Tweedle Dum. For him, dictatorship has no ethnicity, no religion and no language. It has only one face painted in the bloody colors of cruelty, barbarity and depravity. So when the current dictator jailed him and his brothers and sisters in Kality prison, he knew they had committed no crime, but courageously, all of them endured the hard time. True to himself, to this day Dr. Hailu preaches the same message even as he gasps for air, his neck crushed to the ground under the heavy boots of a wicked dictator: “We have to find the solutions to our problems together, collectively, concertedly!”

Patriot and Poet

I do want to talk about Dr. Hailu the patriot-poet, the man driven to tell the truth in verse; the man condemned by his own conscience to stand up and speak out for his country and people: “First because I am an intellectual, second because I am a people's representative in the Shengo, and third because I am an educator, I have to speak the truth.” I want to talk about the man who bared the innermost “sickness in his soul” -- that he could never leave his country, only love it. Who can forget his expression of lonely despair and anguish in his poem Yager Fikir Likift4 (roughly translated below, begging forgiveness for being unable to do justice to the original)? In the last verse, he wrote:

When the young leave their country because life had become sheer misery,
When the old leave their country because life had become intolerable,
When the educated go into exile because life had become so harsh,
When ordinary citizens are unable to live in the land of their birth,
When everyone is talking about leaving and going away (never to return),
I remain a prisoner of a voice in my soul that commands me:
“Don’t even think about leaving!”

To be sure, I want to talk about a poem Dr. Hailu recently read in Amharic entitled (roughly translated) “Don’t Be Like the Billowing the Smoke."5 I took that poem personally. Very personally. I read it dozens of times. I set it aside. I ignored it. I tried to forget it. But the words kept on echoing in my mind: “Educated. Teacher. Light. Hope. Smoke.” It kept me awake at night. In the end, I gave up; and I picked up my pen hesitantly to try and unlock the conscience-gnawing message bottled up in that verse.

Don’t Be Like the Billowing Smoke!

You educated citizen,
Your country’s wealth, your country’s honor,
Your people’s hope,
Your people’s teacher.
Stand up and be counted.
Demonstrate your knowledge
Illuminate, give light.
Don’t be like the billowing smoke.

“What is the meaning -- the message -- of this verse?” I pondered. Is Dr. Hailu ringing an alarm bell to wake up “educated” Ethiopians? Or is he despairing over the melancholic state of “educated” Ethiopians who have taken the vow of silence in the face of injustice? Is he accusing his brothers and sisters who claim to be educated of moral indifference and cowardice? Perhaps he is pleading for help. I dug deeper: Could it be that he sees us as a swarm of self-centered, self-aggrandizing and self-indulgent hypocrites? And as to some of us in exile, could it be that he thinks of us as the prodigal sons and daughters who ran off to distant lands and wasted our lives “in riotous living” while our people suffered under tyranny? Is it possible that he is challenging us to rise above our pettiness and do right by our people and country? Why does he insist that we “stand up and counted”? Are we that invisible? Have we been so waterlogged by “education” that he thinks we have no fire in our bellies, and must be cautioned not to be like the billowing smoke? Why is he holding our feet to the fire?

Where There is Smoke, There is Fire, and Firefighters Not Far Behind

There is no point scrutinizing the verse. We all know what he is talking about. Some of us who claim to be “educated” have already been convicted in the court of our individual consciences. There is no need for a defense to the caustic message bottled in velvety verse. No doubt, some of us will continue to wallow in our mucky lakes of moral relativism: “I am a scientist, a businessman, a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer… I can not get involved.” Some of us will circle the wagons around our personal interests: “No, we can’t get involved. We have houses, bank accounts, businesses, relatives… in Ethiopia.” Others will seek moral remission: “I really want to get involved, help out. But I just don’t have time. I am busy. I have family responsibilities. I have professional obligations…” Then there are the perennial excuse-mongers: “I will be happy to help out. But not today because it is sunny. Not tomorrow, it will be raining; and the day after it will be windy. But I will get involved.” And there are a few who are brutally honest enough to tell you: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn about your cause or you!”

But Dr. Hailu is not asking for much from his “educated” brothers and sisters. His message is not condemnatory; it is redemptive. When he says “stand up and be counted”, he means to remind us to use our knowledge and education to speak out against tyranny and injustice. He wants us to stand up and be counted on the side of the uneducated masses, political prisoners, dissidents, human rights advocates, and the millions muzzled and condemned to suffer oppression in silence. He wants us to stand up for free elections, free political parties, a free and independent media and an independent judiciary in Ethiopia. There is no hidden meaning in message.

When he is asking us to “demonstrate our knowledge”, he is reminding us to put our education, technical skills and specialized experience to help out our people. When he says, “illuminate, give light”, he is asking us to share our knowledge with our less fortunate brothers and sisters, to teach and to educate them. He understands that our people are victimized not only by the tyranny of a wicked dictator, but also by the tyranny of ignorance. He is asking us to fight the forces of darkness with the light of truth. As the Rev. Dr. Martin L. King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” We can be, if we choose, the forces of light and love, and drive out darkness permanently from our homeland.

It is never too late to stand up and be counted; never too late to shine the light of hope on the darkness of despair. It is never wrong to do the right thing. It is always the right time to stand up and speak out against tyranny and injustice. It is always right to right a wrong.

Perhaps many of us will never be able to experience the blazing fire of love of Ethiopia burning deep in Dr. Hailu’s soul. Whenever I read his poem “Yager Fikir Likift”, I am moved to tears by the image of a man on fire, burning in the flames of love of his country. But he knows there are armies of arsonists that have spread out through our homeland to stoke up the wildfires of ethnic and religious hatred, division and antagonism just to cling to power. That is why we, the “educated”, can not afford to watch idly from the sidelines and armchairs the billowing smoke. We must become firefighters.

So, I say to Dr. Hailu, “Thank you for holding our feet to the fire; for putting us, the “educated” Ethiopians, on trial in the court of our individual consciences.” I want you to know that where there is smoke, there is fire; and where there is fire, firefighters will not be far behind. We’ll fight the fire wherever it is sparked, but we will not be like the billowing smoke! Let others tell fairy tales about goblins, unicorns and coups d’etat; let them fantasize fire-breathing dragons, vampires and conspiracies to overthrow the state. You keep on blowing your trumpet of truth, brother! “We have to find the solutions to our problems together, collectively, concertedly.” We hear your sweet lyrics and melodies and notes of harmony, LOUD AND CLEAR!!

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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