The Ethiopian Ordeal in the Middle East: How can we end it?

By Fekade Shewakena

In Ethiopia we have a habit , I am not sure if I can call it a culture, of going through an agonizing massive problem and forgetting about it once we get the feeling that we are through it. We simply hope the problem will go away and not come back again. We don’t seem to have a “never again” collective mentality as many other people do after going through horrifying ordeals following natural or manmade disasters. We often leave it to God or government and refuse to investigate why something bad happened to us in the first place and find ways to stop it from happening again. Consider the famines we went though in the past. After having gone through a devastating famine and the arrival of aid or the next rains, life seems to turn to “normal”. We refuse to go back and examine how it could have been prevented, learn from the experience, and make adjustments for the future. The result is often another famine down the line that is even more devastating. I lost count of how many large scale regional famines we have had let alone the more localized ones that occur more frequently. At present it seems we have succeeded in distributing the regional famines into geographic ubiquity and in the process succeeded in hiding it. We keep eluding ourselves that we have controlled it but people continue to suffer. What is even more disturbing is, whenever we cared to solve the problem, we often prescribe the problem itself as the solution. International food aid and invitation of charitable NGOs are the major solutions we still seek. In the process we produced a culture of dependency on aid and charity at the cost of innovating our way out of the problem. As a result our food insecurity problem keeps persisting. Consider also another devastating experience we have in Ethiopia that we simply refuse to learn from and make changes. Throughout our history we go through destructive internal conflicts to solve political problems. Moments after one is solved, often militarily, the ground is set for another round of conflict. At the end of the conflicts we don’t do the needed deliberations and plans that will pull us together to build a conflict free society. When we do, as the TPLF/EPRDF tried to do at the end of the derg era in 1991, it was exclusionary and self serving. We all remember so much talk about ending wars. We were told we ended the Ethio-Eritrean war once and for all. But look what we have done only seven years later. There was talk about solving the problem of “nations and nationalities” in Ethiopia. What we see now is a compounded problem of ethnic hostility and conflicts of various levels perhaps more than any other time in the recent past history of the country. I am afraid we are going to do the same thing with the current problem of massive labor migration, better be called slave trade, of Ethiopians to the Middle East and the harrowing ordeal Ethiopians face in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.

There may be enough blame to go around for the current problems. Ultimately we Ethiopians own this problem and each one of us have some responsibility to share. If we fail to realize this fact, the problem is not going to be solved both in the short and long term. We Ethiopians should understand that the Saudis did not create the problem. It is foolish to expect them to solve it for us. They are solving their own problem the way they know how – through a barbaric way. We may even thank them for paying for the cost of returning many of our citizens and helping the incompetent rulers of Ethiopia cope with this massive problem.

It is also good that we stop lying to ourselves. The suffering we witnessed in Saudi Arabia is only the peak in an ongoing suffering that we Ethiopians including officials of the government were watching for years with willful blindness. The real culprits in this problem are we Ethiopians particularly the Ethiopian authorities who allowed this slave trade to go on for more than a decade. The officials were more concerned about the remittance these slaves send back than the humans themselves. Let’s stop pretending that we don’t know about the magnitude of the problem Ethiopians go through in the Middle East. We do know. Who hasn’t heard of an Ethiopian maid throwing herself from a high-rise building or the widespread rape of Ethiopian maid servants or the many on whose faces was thrown boiling water or oil by their masters, the mentally disturbed returnees, maids who were denied of their wages and those who committed suicide to end their ordeals. Painful reminders like the dragging of Alem Dechaasa in front of the Ethiopian Embassy in Beirut and her tragic suicide happened not in the distant past. There are books written about this problem and I remember seeing a movie about the problem of Ethiopian maid servants in the Middle East made about a decade ago. We know about the problem full well.

Yes, Ethiopians around the world are rightly outraged at the horrendous crime perpetrated by the Saudi Arabian government and its vigilantes against Ethiopians. The savage killings the gang rape of helpless Ethiopians by the Saudi Shabab, and the savage beating are hard to bear for a once proud people. I am only surprised that nobody hasn’t burnt down the Saudi embassy in Addis Ababa or harm any of their many economic interests elsewhere in the country. Perhaps it takes a decent and cultured people not to have done that; or is it that we have completely forgotten how to be angry? Saudi Arabia may have a 21st century wealth and economy thanks to their fossil oil, but this is a country where backward institutions of medieval culture still operate. There are many people there who operate on a 15th century mindset and with very little sense of human rights or human dignity. This is a country where people are still punished by stoning. We should not forget that this is also the country and a culture that supplied most of the beasts that flew airplanes carrying innocent travelers on to buildings packed by innocent people in New York. The Saudis, and to a large extent, most middle Easterners have a visceral hatred towards Ethiopians as anyone who has experienced living with them would tell you. A lot of it is racism. We know they have all kinds of derogatory pejoratives with which they refer Ethiopia and Ethiopians. We now know that they were doing anti Ethiopian propaganda on their media prior to the carnage in Riyadh. Some of it has to do with the fact that Ethiopia is a predominantly Christian country living at peace with its large Islamic population. That in part explains why the violence of the Saudi police and the youth vigilante was targeted against Ethiopians more than the immigrants from many other countries. I sincerely doubt that they do this because of commitment to their religion as some would claim. The Saudis did not discriminate between Muslim and Christian Ethiopians when harming them. If it had to do with their religion, I would think that they would have been reminded of the words of the Prophet Mohammad about the story of the First Hegira and the respect for Ethiopians in the Koran before they lay their hands on a single Ethiopian.

Can this Misery be turned into an Opportunity?
The tragedy that took place in Saudi Arabia can be turned into an opportunity to work through a solution and avoid a larger scale problem. Why not? Some of the greatest achieving countries around the world are those that have taken misfortunes as opportunity for rethinking and changing their reality. I challenge all Ethiopians, particularly the educated elite and the officials of the government to organize conferences to discuss this serious problem and come up with measurable recommendations over time and mechanisms to implement solutions. The regime, if it is not willing should be pressured to do so. Anger and feelings of shame are good in as long as they lead toward solving problems. I for one am sick and tired of listening to these painful and shameful stories over and over again.

There is no question that the Ethiopian authorities who have tolerated and, in many instances, oversaw and supervised this massive slave trade have the most to account for this crime. Their response to this massive tragedy is also disgraceful and disrespectful to a once proud people and country. Ethiopia is the only place where Ethiopians were unable to demonstrate and express their anger at the way their fellow Ethiopians were treated in Saudi Arabia. Perhaps that may be the reason why the Saudis were emboldened to do their crime on Ethiopians with a sense of impunity. If there was even a semblance of democracy in Ethiopia there could have been a lot of officials that could be fired from their jobs for incompetence and insensitivity. A parliament of a democratic Ethiopia would have grilled these officials before firing them and would have set up a fact finding commission to find out details. But this is Ethiopia where the government never makes mistakes, you know. But at the end of the day, this does not exonerate the rest of us, the Ethiopian elite in particular, and all of us born in this unfortunate country, from responsibility. Let’s not forget that we are also responsible for owning this kind of regime that has little respect for the survival, dignity and pride of its people. There is some truth to what some political scientists say – “people deserve the governments they have”. We own the Woyane as much as we own these terrible problems. We cannot end this and other problems only through blaming. It is possible that we may have a solution that the government may refuse to impermanent. I think it is better to have some idea of the solution even if it is not implemented.

Let’s begin by asking these tough questions:

Let’s use these national conferences to ask some serious questions and work hard to find answers. How did we come to this disgrace in less than a generation? Why are young people making life and death decisions looking for work elsewhere including in hostile societies even when they have the information that it is full of high risk gamble? What can we do to stop it? What is leading families to send their teenage daughters and sons to slave in the Middle East? Is it poverty? Hasn’t Ethiopia been always poor? What kind of poverty does lead people to shade their sense of dignity and pride? What has changed in Ethiopia that should not have changed? Why were Ethiopians studying abroad eager to return back to their country at the end of their studies until the 1980s? Why wasn’t better life a lure then? Why are our best and brightest people leaving the country in mass? How much is the country losing monetarily through losing its educated manpower? Can we stop outmigration? How can we use it to the benefit of Ethiopia and Ethiopians if we cannot stop it? How did some poor countries keep their best and brightest from going to the West? Why have we become number one in the world in terms of losing its educated people through labor migration to the West? Is Ethiopia incapable of carrying its growing population? Should we reexamine the land holding system in the country? Does the current landholding system have anything to do with the problem and the solution? What are we doing in the education area? Are we educating our youth for a better future for themselves and the country? What real and latent resources do we have to make full employment of the population? What about the ethnic federalism? Why is the problem of the returnees from the Middle East different from the unemployed still living in the country? What has this problem to do with the lack of democratic culture? Why are other countries with poor population and serious economic problems not opting to leave their countries in massive numbers and migrate to other countries? What should we open up? What should we close? What is the role of religious institutions in helping our society? What is the private sector employing a minuscule proportion of the population? What is unique in Ethiopia that disproportionately leads its young to become so hopeless in their own country? When did the word “sidetegna” stop being an insult to an Ethiopian? I am sure you can add more tougher questions to this list. I know these questions are easy asked than answered. But we have no alternative than face them.

The Ethiopian authorities should stop covering their rear end by coaching traumatized returnees at Bole airport to give testimony about their work and the “life saving work” of their despicable embassy in Saudi Arabia on television. It could have been laughable if it was not painful to watch these traumatized people being coached and used by the government media for this silly purpose. Currently the government is trying to do some quick fixes and some lip service to chase the problem from the public arena.

Those of us who spend energy demonstrating at Saudi Embassies around the world should spend some energy to pressurize the officials ruling Ethiopia to respond to our demands for both the short term and lasting solutions. I suggest that we demand the government set up an independent commission to examine what happened to Ethiopians in the Middle East, to find out the number of people that died, those that are hurt and the many that are missing and languishing in the prisons of countries in the Middle East. There should be a comprehensive and lasting solution to this problem. Keep protesting and demanding and don’t go back home without getting the end of this misery in sight. How much is the life of an Ethiopian worth? Shouldn’t it be better than that of dogs?

(The writer can be reached at [email protected])