It was September 11, 2010 (January 1, 2003, new year's day in Ethiopia … The Ethiopian calendar is 7 years behind the Gregorian calendar and the months are different as well). I started the day in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia when my friend Andualem Arage, Secretary General of the UDJ (Unity for Democracy and Justice) picked me up in a cab to take me to the notorious Kaliti prison.
Andualem wanted to support his party leader Birtukan Mideksa, who was then serving a life sentence in Kaliti.
A few minutes after our arrival Birtukan's mother, Almaz Gebregziabher and her 5-year-old daughter, Halley arrived by cab dressed in the finest traditional Ethiopian dress to commemorate the New Year. Halley had a small drum with her so that she could play her mother a song. I greeted both of them with the customary three kisses on the cheek, introduced myself, and handed Almaz a small bottle of perfume to pass along to Birtukan, as only her immediate family was allowed to visit her.
We all walked over to a row of benches right outside the prison gate where several soldiers stood watch. We were joined by a small group of people waiting to visit their loved ones and awaiting their turn to be called by the guard to enter. As I sat in support, Andualem told me stories of when he was imprisoned at Kaliti – the horrible conditions, and how that experience drove him further in his commitment to peaceful struggle in the hopes he would see the day of democracy in his beloved country.
Immediately following the 2005 elections, Birtukan, Andualem, and 21 other members of their party were thrown into prison accused of trying to overthrow government order and were all sentenced to life in prison. The party believed along with most Ethiopians that the election results had been rigged. After 18 months of negotiations and pressure from the international community, the prisoners were released.
While Birtukan was delivering a speech in 2007 in Sweden about the unconstitutional way in which their release was handled, the hammer of injustice slammed down hard on her again and as a result of her comments, her life sentence was reinstated and she was thrown back into prison when she returned to Ethiopia.
Birtukan would spend the next three years in prison. In response to her request for pardon, the government set her free to the exhilaration of her many supporters both within Ethiopia and within the international community. Some people saw her request for a pardon as a sign of wavering commitment to the struggle for democracy. Others view it as a smart move on her part as a woman who longed to be with her family again, and who realized she could best serve her people out from behind bars. In any case, she has decided to take some time to rest and collect her thoughts before communicating to the world what her next steps will be. The next election in Ethiopia is in five years.
Both Birtukan and many of her fellow opposition leaders have proven their courage and commitment through suffering and sacrifice and are now faced with the challenge to organize their people to inspire mass action to bring about the hope of a much needed change for Ethiopia.