The 1001 days and nights of Reeyot Alemu’s imprisonment

“Every new stretch of prison for a group of political prisoners gave birth to a new batch of freedom songs. Jail spells had not broken us; they had helped make us.”
Ruth First: 117 Days: An Account of Confinement and Interrogation Under the South African 90-Day Detention Law

Sunday, March 16, marked the 1000th day Reeyot Alemu spent in an Ethiopian prison, the notorious Kaliti Prison, for the crime of writing critical news pieces. Alemu followed a path similar to that of Ngugi wa Thiong’o in Kenya, Paulo Freire in Brazil, Ruth First in South Africa, Angela Davis in the United States, and so many others. That is, she is a teacher who was called upon to write. Nothing heroic. Just write. Write the news. Write the facts. Write the analyses. These acts of writing qualify as terrorism in Ethiopia (as they do in much of a world covered by interlocking Wars on Terror).

In Reeyot Alemu’s case, her terrorism was to focus on poverty, inequality, corruption, and gender inequality, or, more precisely, women’s rights and the oppression of women. For that, she was initially sentenced to fourteen years in prison. The sentenced was then `reduced’ to five years.

In 2012 Alemu won the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Courage in Journalism Award. In May 2013, she won UNESCO’s Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize 2013. Each time, she managed to smuggle out notes that called on journalists to be of courage, to report and write and expose, to “be voices of the voiceless [and] reveal the truth of the oppressed ones.”

Since the UNESCO award, it appears that life has grown even more difficult for Alemu. Her visitors have been restricted. At one point, she was only allowed to see her parents and a priest. Her fiancé and her sister have both been prohibited from seeing her. In September, Reeyot Alemu was on hunger strike. Alemu’s family says she is living with breast cancer, and the prison is refusing her medical treatment. Reports suggest that the State has paired Alemu with a “tormentor”, a prisoner whose job is to make another prisoner’s life a living, and dying, hell. When Alemu is not in the living hell of her cell and cell mate, she’s in the torture hell of solitary confinement.

Some, such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, have broadcast Alemu’s case, but in general the media has remained silent. Why? Have the abusive and abysmal conditions of Kaliti Prison become the new normal? Has the abuse of journalists and teachers become beside the point? Is the War on Terror so much a part of the global everyday that the struggle of one woman to address the conditions of women and the corruptions of State become just so much collateral damage?

Some suggest that Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law, passed in 2009, was actually forced upon the nation by the United Nations. While that’s doubtful, it is the case that in passing the law, and entering into the global prison regime, Ethiopia joined the 21st century’s league of nations.

The pedagogy and the literature of the oppressed will emerge from the prisons of the world. One day, Reeyot Alemu will teach us that the voiceless are not voiceless. They are working and giving birth to new batches of freedom songs, and to new practices of justice.

Meanwhile, today, Monday, March 17, 2014, marks day 1001 of Reeyot Alemu’s imprisonment. Tell someone … now.

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa.