When the Ethiopian government released thousands of prisoners this year, Hannah Tesemma hoped that her three brothers and sisters, and her cousin, arrested on the streets of the capital 24 years ago, would be among them.
They were not, so Hannah and her sister marched with a banner demanding their release during a rally in support of the new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in Addis Ababa, and even stayed there despite a grenade attack that disrupted the public meeting.“We are not living, so why should we hide?” said Hannah, who still doesn’t know where her missing family is.
Since coming to power in April, Mr. Abiy has implemented a vigorous reform programme that includes correcting the mistakes made by his party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). He released dozens of dissidents and publicly admitted that security forces were torturing detainees.
But he still has to deal with the fate of all Ethiopians, opposed to the omnipotent EPRDF, who have never been seen again.
“Our family has been torn apart,” Hannah told AFP with tears in her eyes. “Why do we have to suffer like this?”
The EPRDF took power in 1991 after militarily defeating the Derg junta and overthrowing Mengistu, and established itself as the sole ruling power in the second most populous African country.
Menelik Tesemma, 19 at the time and Hannah’s brother, was active in an opposition party, the All-Amhara People’s Organisation.
Shortly after delivering a powerful speech at a party meeting in 1994, plainclothes police officers in an unmarked car arrested Menelik and his cousin. That same evening, Hannah’s 21-year-old twin brothers left to look for their loved ones before they were also arrested.
None have been reviewed since: there has been no court appearance, no record to the police of their arrests.
Once, Hannah obtained an interview with a government official who listened to her story before rejecting it by saying, “Our government would not do such things.
But in the early 1990s, when the EPRDF was consolidating its power, the disappearance of opponents was an obvious strategy,” said Fisseha Tekle, a researcher at Amnesty International.
Having survived the bloody purges of the Derg against his party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP), Berhanu Ejigu, 47, was arrested in 1994.
It took his brother Gebeyehu Ejigu months to learn that he could visit Berhanu in prison, but the man the police introduced him was not his brother.
“There are fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, wives and husbands, loved ones mysteriously missing,” says Mr. Gebeyehu.
He thinks his brother is one of tens of thousands of missing, but their number is difficult to determine.
“You can count the allegations, but you can’t know how many people have disappeared under this type of government,” says Fisseha.
Search for the truth
One of the main targets of the strategy of enforced disappearances was the Oromo liberation front (OLF).
“People disappeared just after leaving their offices,” says Leenco Lata, one of the leaders of the group that clashed with the EPRDF in the 1990s.
Families have sometimes made desperate attempts to find their loved ones.
After the kidnapping in 1992 of Lencho Bati’s brother, an OLF official, his father went to Tigray in the north, where it was believed that the missing were assigned to road construction. He watched the teams at work, hoping to see his missing son, Yosef Bati. He never found it.
“I don’t expect my brother to be alive,” says Lencho, a former OLF spokesman, who hopes to one day collect his brother’s remains and bury them.
Today, the EPRDF and its allies occupy all seats in parliament and the political opposition is weak.
Abiy has allowed the return of leaders of previously banned groups such as the OLF to his country and has made forgiveness a theme in his speeches, but he has not yet resolved the issue of enforced disappearances.
“The government talks about forgiveness, but the truth should be a priority,” says Fisseha.
Recently, billboards asking “Where are they? Where are they?” have appeared in the Oromia region, along with photos of missing persons, such as Bekele Dawano Hebeno, an OLF member who disappeared in 1992.
His son, Edao, often comes from the United States where he lives in search of information, but in vain for the moment.