Memoirs of my detention at Awash 7: tales of indoctrination, of laughter and the unknown

BefeQadu Z. Hailu for Addis Standard

Wakoma Tafa was planning to get married on Sunday, Oct.10, 2016. But just three days before his wedding he was arbitrarily detained around Alem Gena, 25k west of Addis Abeba, a city within the special zone of the Oromia Regional State.  On the day set for his wedding, Wakoma was taken to Awash 7 Federal Police Training Center, which is now serving as a temporarily ‘rehab center’ (Tehadiso Maekel) to discipline ‘suspected’ political protesters detained under Ethiopia’s sweeping State of Emergency.

I met Wakoma when, after being detained in Addis Abeba, I was transferred to Awash 7 along with 242 other ‘suspects’ from Addis Abeba. Together, we were a total of 1180 people.

From day one to the last of 33 days of stay I had in Awash 7, Wakoma was suffering nosebleeds on a daily basis. I asked him what happened to him and he told me he was beaten by an officer in Awash 7 during an interrogation. Nurses of the Center’s clinic visited him every day but couldn’t stop his nosebleeds.

Tragically, Wakoma was not the only one beaten. Most of the 933 ‘suspects’ who were kept in Awash 7 for 40 days before our arrival have sustained varying degrees of rights violations.  The day we arrived at the Center we saw many youngsters wearing worn-out, dirty shirts, walking barefoot in a row of two. A fellow detainee likened the image “like we are watching the movie series ‘Roots’“.

Then, our turn came to be paraded to the toilets dug in the backyard of the Center’s compound. We had already removed our sandals, as instructed. The rocky gravel path was hard to walk on barefoot but the yelling of the officers who dangle their sticks to beat us from behind was enough to endure running on it. We were told to hold hand in hand and walk in a row of two. When we reached the toilet pits, we were told to sit side by side and do our business. None of us were willing to do it the first day. (Later on, we have accepted that it was the new normal we had to get used to.)

We were then taken to a hall and given a half cup of tea and two loaves of bread. I saw the youngsters who were there before us enjoying the additional loaf of bread they got –before our arrival they used to have only one during breakfasts.  We sat on the floor and ate. We were then taken to a field; the temperature was too hot to be without a roof or a tree shadow, but it didn’t mean anything to the officers who gave us our first day orientations. We were placed in rows as they repeatedly make records of our profiles and mixed us with the previous detainees. Here we were given different group names such as Hiddase Hayil, Selam Hayil, and Ghibe Hayil, among others.

When we came back to the compound we were distributed into 10 different rooms each containing more than 100 detainees. Each room has 16 double-deck beds enough only for 32 people; the rest of us have to share the mattresses on the floor. The rooms have ventilators but not enough to cool the temperature. And despite the soaring heat, we were told that we cannot sit on the verandas. On top, there was not enough water even to drink. I asked a guy next to me if we have a chance to wash our feet. He told me we will not, and said in more than 40 days, he only had two chances to wash his feet. (Later on, after we have complained too much, we were allowed to take shower on Sundays. But by the time I left after 33 long days, I too had only two chances to wash.)

Later on we went for lunch and were given two loaves of bread with shiro wot, (the traditional chickpea powder stew), and went back to our rooms. We were then paraded again to the same toilet pits (being taken twice was a change; for 40 days the previous arrivals were only allowed to do that once in the morning.) In the evening, we were given two loaves of bread with kik wot (ground chickpea stew). This remained our daily routine throughout our stay at the Center, except for when we would sit for training in between meals on weekdays and on Saturdays.

The next day, a team sent by the Command Post, a special unit formed to implement the State of Emergency and is led by Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, arrived from Addis Abeba to begin our training.  They gathered us and informed us that we were going to start the training immediately. They also promised us we would be allowed to wear our shoes. But unfortunately, nearly half of the 933 detainees who were there before us had no shoes when they were brought to the Center 40 days before our arrival.

Nevertheless, we began the training late that day and a few days later, the Center distributed sandals, T-shirts and shorts that were confiscated by Customs officials from contrabandists at several checkpoints. We heard that there might be a TV crew from the national TV.

A team to monitor reports of human rights violations came the next week and spoke with a few selected individuals. Notable opposition party members such as Abebe Akalu, Eyasped Tesfaye, and Blen Mesfin were among the selected individuals. They reported in detail the rights violations we were subjected to and the team promised to further investigate; but later on we learned that the EBC, the state-broadcaster, reported about the human right monitors’ visits but only about claims of logistic problems, leaving entirely our complaints of rights violation.


Befeqadu’s certificate of graduation

In came the training

The training has contained six different modules. Each page of the module is water marked with the phrase ‘Don’t Copy’. They were neither emailed nor faxed but physically brought by the different trainers on the same day when the training was scheduled to take place.  We had, for example, lost a day of training in between because the teams delivering the third module were delayed.

The modules were prepared in Afaan Oromo and in Amharic. But nearly 900 of us took the Afaan Oromo classes while the rest of us attended the Amharic classes. The training took 28 days including 6 days of evaluation at the end of each course.

‘Never Again (‘ayidegemim)’ 

This was the title of the first module. Its content has details about Ethiopia’s double digit economic growth over the last 13 consecutive years and says it is an economic progress that doesn’t deserve to be challenged with a violent protest. Although it also talks about the government’s failure to deliver good governance, it goes on to sat that there were constitutional ways of demanding the government to correct its problems than taking to the streets.

‘Color Revolution (yeqelem abiyot)’ –

The second module blames Ethiopia’s external enemies, the neo-liberal countries and countries such as Egypt and Eritrea that are using domestic weaknesses to disintegrate Ethiopia and benefit from it. It looks back at the incidents when it claims the concept of conducting ‘color revolutions’ were attempted in Ethiopia and mentions as an example the student protests of the Addis Abeba University (AAU) in 2000, the post-election 2005 protests, pre-election 2010, the time the followed the death of the late Meles Zenawi in 2012, pre-election 2014, and also during the recent protests in Oromia and Amhara. It also talks about the failed attempts of western forces’ alleged use of local agents, such as the Zone9 Bloggers Collective, to which I am a member, to ignite a ‘color revolution’ in Ethiopia. ’

‘Some points on Ethiopian History (yeItiyopia tarik andand gudayoch)’ –

This one goes to narrate the political history of Ethiopia starting from ancient times, (it escaped what happened during the medieval times and resumes from Emperor Hailesilase’s era through the present). It depicts the failure of previous regimes to respect the nation’s ethnic, religious and cultural diversity and claims the incumbent has answered all by way of the current constitution. ‘

‘Constitutional Democracy (higemengistawi democracy)’ –

This module tells the story of constitutionalism including that of the Magna Carta and goes on to discuss how Ethiopia’s constitutions had evolved through time. It criticizes the non-participating nature of the previous constitutions during Emperor Hailesilase I and the Derg times. It praises, in comparison, the great participation by the public and the democratic relevance it had during the adoption of the current constitution.

‘The future is for Ethiopian Renaissance (mechiw gize ye’itiyopia tinsae naw)’

Ethiopia’s enemy number one is poverty, this module says, and goes on to discuss that the domestic discontent created by poverty is exploited by foreign elements to weaken Ethiopia as a proud state. Accordingly, it emphasizes the importance of focusing on economic development, such as building grand infrastructures and attracting foreign investments, to avoid dependency on aid providers of the neoliberal world.

‘The Role of the Youth on Nation Building (ye wetatu mina be ager ginbata lay)’

The youth is a force that can easily be emotionally driven by misinformation, substance addiction and so on, says this module. It is an advise designed to highlight the importance of proving any information before reacting to it; it also notes that the youth should use its potential to create jobs to change the fate of her/his country than seeking employment or taking a short cut, such as by migrating to other countries.

My trained-self‘s take

The modules are biased; they are prepared to present the political narrative of the ruling coalition, EPRDF, as the best alternative we could ever get. On the third module, for instance, it compares liberal democracy with revolutionary democracy, the age-old vague ideology of the ruling party, and concludes that revolutionary democracy is the best Ethiopia can get; it mixes the party’s ideology with the constitution, too.  Funnily, it also misses a lot of simple facts such as the exact age of the late PM Meles Zenawi, (in an attempt to place him in a similar age range of 15 -35, the working average of Ethiopia’s youth, it claims the late PM was 31 when he came to power in 1991.) Other public records say he was actually 36.

Sadly, to many of the trainees tortured in the Center itself, the last module praises the regime for creating a better generation, but blames the same generation for failing to understand the differences in human rights violations between previous regimes and the current one.

The discussions

The trainers (they are Federal Police officers) were the ones who read and explained to us the first two modules. They told us every question and comment we had will be faxed to the Command Post every day. They also wrote our names with our comments. These restricted the active participation of ‘trainees’ due to fear of persecution. I believe it is why, later on, they let us read the modules by ourselves and discuss about the contents while writing our questions and comments. They also stopped writing the names of ‘trainees’ who give comments. Subsequently, for the last four modules we were simply given questions about the next module’s content, we then write our answers in groups containing 20 to 30 people, and read our answers to the general gathering. We will then continue reading and discussing the module in our respective groups before men from the Command Post came to answer our questions and comments for the general gathering.

We had had three general gathering groups: one Amharic group and two Afaan Oromo groups. As there were many individuals who have different and rich experiences, this way of discussion helped many trainees to exchange constructive ideas and understand the complex political situation of the country from one another.

The trainers and representatives from the Command Post made the closing speeches at the end of the reading and discussion of each module. They gave us their version of answers to the non-stop questions by many of us on why we were there in the first place. Their answers can be generalized in to two: one group says we were there because officials have information that we have taken part in protests but didn’t have the evidence to take us to court; and the other group says officials were certain that we have taken part in the protests but did so due to misinformation. The latter explains why representatives of the Command Post (Hayil Medrek Merrys) have repeatedly condemned foreign-based Ethiopian media, such as ESAT and OMN, as well as social media sites such as Facebook. When we challenge, ask questions or give comments to their assertions, the representatives quickly blame these media for having misinformed us instead of giving us proper answers.

But these representatives from the Command Post were contradictory to one another. One of them whom we know by his first name, Addisu, for example, was very articulate. He was the one who gave the final remarks at the end of the first two modules. He carefully avoided responding to controversial questions and even apologized for the wrongful mention of the Zone9 Blogging Collective as a ‘western agent’ after the group was acquitted by a court of law.

But on the other hand was another member of the command post named Colonel Mulugeta. He was too foul-mouthed while trying to answer to our concerns that two trainees have tried to commit suicide.  The next day other members had to apologize for his rude remarks. He even said court acquittals can be reversed by executives and gave us as an example the court case for former defense minister, Siye Abraha. Unsurprisingly, at the end of the training, he was the most disliked member of the command post.

The third and the last member of the command post, Commander Abebe, gave closing remarks to each of the last three modules. He is a very polite person but unflinchingly loyal to the ruling EPRDF than the loyalty he was supposed to display to – the constitution. He took questions, listened to comments and gave answers similar to what senior cadres of the ruling EPRDF give all the time, but politely. He flatly denies the presence of human rights violation in Ethiopia, even though most trainees spoke of their experience of rights violations there at the center.

Things that kept us going

Jokes made by some fellow detainees made all of us laugh and forget our conditions. Political humors told by men like Habtamu Gebre and Zerihun were unforgettable. One ordinary day Habtamu told us a joke in front of Commander Abebe: “A man on a street shouts out saying ‘let EPRDF reign for a thousand years, let it reign for a thousand years’” Habtamu said, “Then a federal police officer stopped him and beat him hard. The man, as scared as he was, asked what his fault was and the policeman replied ‘who will replace EPRDF after a thousand years?’” ”

Zerihun even came up with fresh jokes animating the way our trainers behaved and the way we were treated. At first we were served with ‘kik wot‘ for dinner and when they later on stopped serving us with it, Zerihun joked “kik wot is released from the center.”

A sour reminder about most detainees who came from Addis Abeba, however, is the fact that a considerable number of them have complained to the officials saying they were there as victims of personal revenge. Some have said their names were tipped to arresting officers by someone with whom they have had previous disagreements. Similarly, most detainees from the Oromia regional state maintained they have fallen victims for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But all of us were there and had no option but to take the Tehadiso (rehabilitation) course to see the day that we were promised to be released. So we resorted to spending those trying times comforting each other, exchanging tips on how to survive the water scarcity, the horrible taste of the food served, the propaganda indoctrination and the daunting insecurity ahead of us.

And we were happy for the smallest gesture done to improve our situation. One of the members of the command post, Commander Abebe, for example, has done some improvements in the way we were treated (we began getting a full cup of tea during breakfast after his visit) and we showed him our relative respect. He also arranged for us to sit on benches during meal times and watch night shows on a screen.

We were made to watch four documentaries: two about the recent destruction by protesters of foreign owned investments in Ethiopia and two about the ruthless crimes of the previous regime, the Derg. For reasons many of us didn’t understand, one of the documentaries was about the infamous market day bombing by the Derg’s military of the city of Hawzen in Tigray. The last one was about the bravery of members of the TPLF army in either destroying the Derg or recovering Hawzen from its past wounds. The rest of the days, we would just be taken out during the evenings and be showed songs up until 8:00 PM and the nighttime news bulletin from the national broadcaster, EBC.

One of the musics they have regularly showed us on the screen was the Afaan Oromo song, ‘Madda Seenaa’ by artist Teferi Mekonen. Ironically, Teferi Mekonen was detained there with us. On our “graduation” day, he was invited to sing on the stage. He pleased us all by singing the politically charged song, ‘Maalan Jira’, by the prominent Oromo artist Haacaaluu Hundeessaa.

Sadly, though, Teferi Mekonen is re-arrested. I was shocked to see him in a prison here in Addis Abeba when I went to visit my friends, journalists Annania Sori and Elias Gebru, whom I only came to know about their arrest the day I was released. What a vicious cycle!

Of the ‘trainees, 17 were women and one of them is pregnant. There were also about 15 underage boys. Old or young, women or men, minor or adult, we were all in it together and we all survived.

The very last days

After it was known that we were on the last module, everybody was excited and began to relax. Even the usually shrewd guards of the Center left us relatively free to move around the compound. Smiles were flickering on previously gloomy faces; hairs were growing on shaved heads. Beautiful we became. A day before we left the center, we were told that we will be wearing a white T-shirt on which the words ‘ayidegemim/Irra hin deebi’amu’ (never again) were printed in both Amharic and Afaan Oromo. None of us hesitated to wear it; it is fresh and clean and our souls were desperately looking beyond the center and into getting back to our homes; we were exhausted and we were looking forward to resume our lives that we have left behind.


The next morning was December 21, our so-called graduation day and the next day we left Awash 7 behind. But I only believed it when I arrived in Piassa and re-joined my family and my friends. In the back of my head, I was also hoping the 28 years old Wakoma would be enjoying the company of his love. May be re-organize his wedding party again?

Cover sketch: Befeqadu’s re-creation of the toilet pits

Inside photo: Befeqadu wearing his white graduation T-shirt, visibly looking malnourished after being released

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