How can it be? (A poem about oppression)

soldier-mexicoThis poem was inspired by my experience as a professor in Ethiopia between 2012 and 2017. During this time I taught medical and graduate students in Addis Ababa University Medical School. I travelled to various places, spoke to many people about their lives, feelings and opinions. It was an amazing experience, but the hardships, poverty and political oppression there had a lasting impact on me.

I witnessed the laughable 2015 election, in which the incumbent oppressive ruling party (EPRDF/TPLF) and it allies won 100% (547/547) of parliamentary seats through intimidation, jailing, oppression, even murder, of opposing politicians.

I encountered firsthand federal soldiers beating peaceful citizens brutally. Most Ethiopians I met were fearful of speaking out against the government, and party-loyal “informants” infiltrate society, including universities.

I saw how the government has strict control of universities, where political loyalty to the ruling party destroys academic freedom and excellence; where poor quality professors and under-qualified individuals are given better positions if they are party-loyal. Even among students, there are paid party-loyal ones who get a better chance of passing their exams and a better chance of getting a decent position or job than those who refuse to support the ruling party.

Peoples’ land is “stolen” from them by the government and leased to foreign and Ethiopian businessmen, while they work on the land that was once theirs for ridiculously low wages. I saw this firsthand too.

Proclamations and laws, such as the Civil Society Proclamation, 2009 and the Anti-terrorism Proclamation, 2009, restrict freedom and human rights, and have led to journalists and government opponents being jailed, and limitation of the rights of the disabled, children and women.

Ethiopia’s Ma’ekelawi prison is just one of many where torture occurs and inhuman conditions exist. I met many people who had been jailed or tortured, and others whose friends and family members were missing, or were jailed, tortured or killed by the current ruling regime, which has oppressed its citizens for 26 years and gained a stronger grip on society through unethical laws when a state-of-emergency was declared in October, 2016.


How Can It Be?

The elections were fair and square, they said,

But how can it be,

When they beat and jailed

And harassed

And tormented

And eliminated

Those who opposed their policies?

They won one hundred percent of parliamentary seats, they said,

But how can it be,

When eighteen out of twenty people I asked

Despised them

And preferred the opposition?

We are here for the people, they say,

But how can it be,

When the streets are filled

With the downtrod and homeless

And mothers and children

With no hope;

With the blind and the lame

And the sick

And the aged;

And the hungry are eating less

And the poor are getting poorer

And the rich are getting richer,

And the wages are staying down,

While people’s rents

And Party membership

And the price of bribes

Are going up and up

And up;

And the bloated

And ungodly

Egos of tyrants

And ignoramuses,

And the rift between

The haves

And have-nots,

And the lies of politicians and those in high positions

Are getting bigger and bigger

And bigger;

And Heaven’s angels are weeping

More than

They ever did;

And Hell’s fires

Are getting hotter

And hotter

And hotter

And hotter

In anticipation?

We support human rights, they say,

But how can it be

When they silence and slaughter the groups who fight

For civil rights;

When they proclaim Proclamations

That throttle the necks,

And pierce the hearts,

Invade the minds

And break the spirits

Of poor Ethiopians?

We are proud of our Constitution, they say,

But I cannot stop laughing-

Or if I did, I would weep-

For how can it be,

When they arrest journalists and put them on trial,

But not a fair trial,

Then put them in jail

For speaking the Truth,

And stifle protests with real bullets

From real Kalashnikovs?

We are tackling diseases, they say,

But how can it be

When they made a ten billion birr cigarette deal

That will fill their pockets

With filthy cash,

While addicting their youth

To nicotine

And bring the plague of tobacco

Upon the Ethiopian people?

As if the plague of khat addiction is not enough.

We advance knowledge and scholarship, they say,

But how can it be,

When their universities

Are controlled

By party-loyalists

Who – shame on them- fail to see

That universities are not universities

Without academic freedom,

And never excel when political ideology

Overrides scholarly merit

And intellectual excellence.

We love Ethiopia! So they claim,

But how can it be

When they do all this,

When they spit in the face

Of Christ and Allah

And Waqqa

And all of the Gods of all Ethiopians,

And they kill

And confine

And torture

And terrorize

Their people,

And glue their mouths shut with intimidation

And threats and fear

And rob them

Of their land

And steal cash that was meant for the poor,

And tear their country

And their impoverished


Democratization is our way, they said,

But how can it be

When they hold on to power

And strengthen their grip

Whatever the cost,

And never call a free and fair election?

If they did, they would lose.

Tell me: How can it be?



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