Edom Kassaye, Mahlet Fantahun, Zone 9, and the writer’s freedom

On April 25 and 26th, the Ethiopian government arrested nine writers, six of whom are members of Zone 9. In Addis Ababa’s notorious Kaliti prison, Zone 9 is where political prisoners end up. Reeyot Alemu has been there for over 1000 days, for the crime of having written essays and articles critical of the government.

Now, members of Zone 9 sit in Zone 9.

For over 80 days, the nine writers were held without any charges, or better, under “informal accusations”. This past week, they were hastily charged with various forms of terrorism, under the anti-terrorism law passed in 2009.

Freelance journalist Edom Kassaye and blogger Mahlet Fantahun will join Reeyot Alemu in the women’s section of Kaliti. A third woman, Soliana Shimeles, was also charged with terrorism, but she’s outside of the country.

Almost forty years ago, in the throes of the anti-apartheid struggle, Nadine Gordimer asked, “What is a writer’s freedom?” Her answer, in part, was: “A writer needs all … kinds of freedom, built on the basic one of freedom from censorship. He does not ask for shelter from living, but for exposure to it without possibility of evasion. He is fiercely engaged with life on his own terms, and ought to be left to it, if anything is to come of the struggle. Any government, any society – any vision of a future society – that has respect for its writers must set them as free as possible to write in their own various ways, in their own choices of form and language, and according to their own discovery of truth.”

The Zone 9 writers’ slogan, and rallying cry, is “We blog because we care!” What do the writers care about? The truth. The end of censorship, lies, and suppression. The right to write. This week, Ethiopia charged ten writers with the terrorist act of writing, just writing. The rest is fog and mirrors.

In a tribute this week to Nadine Gordimer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o – who knows something about the combination of writing, truth, censorship, lies, imprisonment and exile – wrote:

Dear Nadine Your Name is Hope

You found broken hearts
You put them back together with words
From a pen that flowed ink instead of blood.”

The imprisonment of the nine writers, and charges against ten, is part of an Ethiopian story, as the name “Zone 9” suggests. At the same time, it’s part of a global assault against writing, all writing, under the guise of anti-terrorism. What was once particular to Gordimer’s South Africa or Ngugi’s Kenya or Paolo Freire’s Brazil or Angela Davis’ United States is now a coherent global regime. In that context, thinking of the ten writers charged with terrorism, thinking of Reeyot Alemu and so many other imprisoned writers, it’s time to ask, “Can pens still flow ink instead of blood?” Whose name today is hope?

(Image Credit: GlobalVoicesOnline.org)

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.


(Image Credit: Global Voices)