Alene was a taxi driver in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 2005 with little interest in politics. But then politics found him. Shortly after the contested 2005 election, federal police began stopping his taxi and seizing his customers. “Police would open the door of my taxi, a mini-van, grab a customer and start beating him. I saw them punch a man in the face -- in his eyes, nose, teeth—try to break his arm and drag him into the street,” said Alene. “This happened a few times a month. If you asked any questions, the police would flash their badge and show you their gun. You knew to keep quiet.”
Alene heard similar stories from other taxi drivers. He became angry and decided to attend a political meeting organized by Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ), a multi-national opposition political party. “The ruling party wants to divide Ethiopia’s ethnic groups, UDJ wants to unite them. Their message inspired me and I decided to join.”
He put UDJ pamphlets and posters in his taxi and distributed party literature in small town around Addis. The police were watching his movements and arrested him in 2010. “They slapped me around and warned me to stop supporting the UDJ,” said Alene. But he refused to be intimidated. Between 2010 and 2013 he was arrested almost 20 times just for seeking to participate in political life.
Police beat him on his back with wooden sticks and spit on him, saying: “You are never going to change anything, you will die for nothing.” The worst time was in 2012, when they took Alene to a secret building with three other political activists. “They broke my teeth, my nose, the inside of my mouth and my backbone. The injuries still hurt, even more when it is cold or when I stand a lot.”
“Then they took him to a prison. “ But police were afraid to beat us there because other detainees would hear our cries and start pounding on their cells. So they took us to the secret building again to torture us. Three months later I was released, I was weak, hungry and had injuries all over my body. I made up my mind to leave Ethiopia.”
He fled to Sudan and flew to Turkey from there. He passed through Spain, Central America and Mexico, then crossed into California on July 9, 2013. He asked for political asylum, but was immediately detained by Customs and Border Protection (CBP), part of the Department of Homeland Security, and in a short-term holding cell called an “icebox” because it is so cold.
Customs and Border Protection kept him there for two days under miserable conditions. “It was freezing and people had to sleep on rubber mats, there was no shower or privacy and the room smelled horrible. They kept the light on all day and night, you never knew what time it was.”
Konjet was a young mother working in her family convenience store in Addis Ababa when Ethiopia held its first multi-party competitive elections in 2005. Her father was active in a major opposition party; when the opposition received far more votes than expected, the ruling party cracked down, killing leaders of opposition parties and imprisoning at least 30,000 of their supporters. This even included people like Konjet who did nothing more than distribute political flyers for her father.
The police knocked on her door and forced Konjet, her father and brother to go with them. She never saw her father again. She was imprisoned and tortured for six months in one of Ethiopia’s brutal prisons where she was sexually assaulted by a prison guard. After she became ill, she was released and managed to escape the country, leaving her little girl behind with her mother. She travelled thousands of miles, through Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa and South America, finally ending up in Mexico.
As soon as she crossed Mexico’s border with Texas, agents from Customs and Border Protection (CBP), part of the Department of Homeland Security, arrested Konjet and some 20 other immigrants. They detained her in one of the infamous “iceboxes,” short-term custody cells kept deliberately cold to “convince” immigrants to return to their country of origin. Konjet knew that if she returned to Ethiopia, she could be jailed again, and maybe never get out.
No U.S. government agency monitors what happens in the iceboxes, unlike the case with the long-term detention facilities used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE. “The conditions in these cells were horrible,” says Konjet. “We kept banging on the walls, asking the guards for a blanket, but no one responded. The bathroom was a hole in the ground, there was no privacy. The officer and other people could watch us while we were in the bathroom. All we got to eat was a sandwich once a day -- two pieces of white bread with a slice of turkey. We tried to sleep on the hard floor but we couldn’t because it was so freezing inside this small room.”
Konjet had no idea about how long she would be kept in this cell -- there was no phone, no one to talk to, no chance to go outside at all. “I did not know if they were going to deport me to Ethiopia or what was going to happen.” After 3 days, Konjet was put on bus and sent to the Don Hutto Detention Facility near San Antonio, where she remained for almost two months until a cousin in Washington DC agreed to sponsor her. In Washington she found the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC) International, which provided her with supportive services and a community.
Konjet now lives in Bethesda, Maryland and is working in local restaurants. She was granted political asylum in July 2014 and is excited about seeing her daughter after four years of separation.
This survivor’s name and image have been changed to protect her identity.
Tesfaye Belay (a pseudonym) was a student at Addis Ababa University in May 2005 when he first became active in politics. Ethiopia was about to hold the most competitive elections in its history— Tesfaye and his friends believed their country could evolve into a multi-party democracy and he wanted to be part of the process. But when the main opposition party performed much better than expected, the ruling party started arresting anyone who dared to criticize the government.
Tesfaye remembers when police came to his house two months after the election. “They forced their way into my house, beat my mother and tortured me so badly that I fainted,” he says. I woke up in a forest with broken ribs, a hole in my head and a torn ear. I was forced to stay there for seven months before they finally let me go.”
But he did not give up trying to bring democracy to his country. Tesfaye wrote plays, directed dozens of short TV dramas, translated English books into Amharic, taught English and trained teenagers in political theater. In 2010 he participated in a discussion group with friends, where they discussed “dangerous” topics like corruption and youth unemployment. That was when the police took him to the notorious Maekelawi prison. They kept him there 20 days, until he signed a statement he was not allowed to read.
According to an October 2013 report by Human Rights Watch, Maekelawi police use various methods to torture prisoners. Detainees said they were “repeatedly slapped, kicked, punched and beaten with sticks and gun butts. Some reported being forced into painful stress positions such as being hung by their wrists from the ceiling.”
In 2013, Tesfaye managed to get a visa to enter the United States and was referred to TASSC, where he is working with a pro bono lawyer on his asylum case. “I am still rebuilding my life, torture leaves a legacy,” he said. “I have scars, physical and emotional. My physical scars force me to always remember each and every prison I went to, each and every person who was involved, the rooms where they kept me, the hunger, the taste of the food I had, the thirst for water and the plastic bottle with my water. I remember the pain, the guilt I had because I always feel I caused insecurity and suffering to my family.”
“TASSC has helped me so much with the healing process,” Tesfaye says. “Caring case managers have allowed me to share what happened to me in Ethiopia and to release my feelings. I have also had the chance to meet other Ethiopians with similar experiences.” He is doing what he can for friends in Ethiopia, especially the six bloggers and three journalists arrested in April for speaking out against the government, days before Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Ethiopia. “I know these people, they have the right to express themselves. That is what democracy is all about.”
Names and images have been changed to protect survivors of torture.
Warning, Contains Graphic images and Descriptions of Torture. Viewer Discretion Advised.
"One beautiful morning, I was sitting with writers and poets at a coffee shop. Suddenly a group of men showed up. They looked like gang members.
And they said to me "we invite you to have coffee... just 10 minutes." And I was a journalist. In Lebanon I wrote a report about the desert prisons in Egypt, Syria and Iraq.
Because of that, the Syrian Intelligence kidnapped me and took me from Beirut to Damascus. I was tortured for 100 days..."
Warning, Contains Graphic images and Descriptions of Torture. Viewer Discretion Advised.
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So my Christmas was spent away from my children, 8 months pregnant. I was kidnapped for 2 weeks of torture. They didn't give me food or water for weeks. But they put food and water in front of me as psychological torture.
All my concentration was on my unborn child..."