SOOMAL: DISPATCHES FROM A NOMAD

Tales of death, torture and hunger from a notorious Ethiopian jail

In Summary

• Generally, African prisons are often dirty, dimly lit and seem to be purposely left neglected as a form of psychological torture for inmates.  

• ONLF was used as a reason to kill, arrest or torture people. It's like how the al Shabaab card is often used by security agents in Somalia or Kenya.

Abdullahi Shuriye and Abdirisak Aden seen leaving Jail Ogaaden
FREE AT LAST; Abdullahi Shuriye and Abdirisak Aden seen leaving Jail Ogaaden
Image: Hassan Mohamed

Last time I goggled the word “Jeel Ogaaden”, it had 65, 200 references with YouTube videos, media articles and statements of victims and human rights defenders. This included Human Rights Watch speaking out against the inhuman treatment of prisoners at the notorious Somali Region State central jail in Jigjiga, Ethiopia,  built in 1996. 

On September 22, 2018, the Somali Region State closed Jeel Ogaaden, saying it would be turned into a museum. Former President Abdi Mohamed Omar, accused of misusing power and arresting many during his reign, is currently detained awaiting judgment in an Addis Ababa prison for gross human rights abuses. 

In one of his last sermons, he inadvertently requested for forgiveness from the public. It is as if he knew what his people went through. Many say he was simply following orders from the top. Ethiopia is a federal government.

This jail has a weird history. The man who won the tender to build it and the one who actually built it both ended up as prisoners there. Jigjiga residents say at least 80 per cent of the Somali Region State population has at once in their lifetime been jailed there. They say there was a systemic State-sponsored human rights abuse in the region for years. 

Locals nicknamed it Jeel Ogaden because most of its inmates were from the Ogaden sub-clan considered the majority in the region, and also since most of those detained there were either members of the outlawed Ogaden National Liberation Movement (ONLF) or simply accused of being its sympathisers or supporters.  

PSYCHOLOGICAL TORTURE

Generally, African prisons are often dirty, dimly lit and seem to be purposely left neglected as a form of psychological torture for inmates.  

What I saw left me speechless. Imagine one-meter square isolation chambers with no windows prisoners would be kept in isolation after being tortured for weeks or months. The small room had a hole in the middle, which is the toilet. It's basically living in a toilet for a month, so small you cannot turn or even sleep. Prisoners said you either sat with your legs raised on the wall or you had to stand. They call it the standing cubicle. 

Abdirizak and Shuriye seen outside cell number 8 inside Jeel Ogaaden where they once served together.
Abdirizak and Shuriye seen outside cell number 8 inside Jeel Ogaaden where they once served together.
Image: Hassan Mohamed

If you think that’s cruel sample this: Prisoners would also be dropped into a caged wire mesh where a leopard and a hyena are charged to fight, the prisoners are dropped there as a form of punishment. Some fainted out of fear; others cried until they passed out while many were seriously wounded in the deadly encounter with the man-eaters! I cannot even fathom such a scene. Even in Hollywood standards, this would make the worse horror movie based on true events. 

Abdirizak Adan Careys, the Director of the Somali Region Television (SRTV), was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for crimes he never committed. He was jailed for his mother's crimes who lived in America and accused of being an ONLF member. He ended up serving only three years.

“I was arrested and told to bring my mother so that she could be jailed. I told them she is in America.  They said in that case, then I will be jailed for her sins,” Abdirizak narrated sadly after taking me through the prison, showing me the torture chambers, isolation rooms and a small cell where he spent most of his time crumpled together with five or six other prisoners. 

THE ONLF CARD

ONLF was used as a reason to kill, arrest or torture people. It's like how the al Shabaab card is often used by security agents in Somalia or Kenya.

Deeq Ahmed, an Arab from Wardeer town, was jailed for seven years because he was mistaken to be Deeq Omar Osman, a brother to Mohamed Omar Osman, the ONLF chairman. Of course, he was not the ONLF brother but ended up in prison. 

An Oromo man who got lost from his village near the historic town of Harar and found himself in the Somali Region was jailed for six months accused of being an Oromo Liberation Front member. He then waited for another six months to be released after it was evident he was wrongfully jailed! 

Another unnamed man in Jigjiga went to report someone else for illegally selling his land. He took his titles as evidence to court. On his way out, he heard the call of prayers and decided to pray with some prison guards whom he saw praying. As he was walking away after prayers the very prison guards pointed guns at him and accused him of being a prisoner trying to escape. When he tried to explain himself, he was hit with the barrel of a gun and quickly handcuffed and taken to prison where he was jailed for one year and four months before being acquitted. One former judge, who did not wish to be named, said they were forced to jail suspects many of whom were innocent.

These cases are just a tip of the iceberg.  No wonder angry Ethiopian protestors forced their former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to resign on February 15 last year.

SWEEPING REFORMS

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took over power on April 2, 2018 and has since then introduced sweeping reforms, including improving human rights as well as released thousands of prisoners. He has even invited political dissidents to return home.  Abiy has also made peace with Eritrea, signed a peace deal with ONLF, among other historic milestones. The man deserves a Nobel peace prize for his bold decisions. 

In the Somali Region, he has won the people’s heart by forcing the resignation and arrest of former President Abdi Iley, in whose term most of the worst human rights abuses were committed. Somali Region President Mustafa Omar Mahamud is on record vowing to improve human rights conditions in the Somali State.  

Meanwhile, in Jeel Ogaaden, there is a time between 2013-14 when many inmates died of hunger. Abdirizak vividly remembers what really transpired.

“One of the saddest moments I remember was in September 2013 when we faced the worst hunger of all times inside the prison and we lost many prisoners from September to April 2014. Back then we lost a prisoner every day. During this time, rations were reduced we used to barely eat any food. I remember one day around 10:30am we were standing outside when a bird dropped from the roof and fell. It could not fly again and we were just watching it when suddenly a prisoner jumped and cached the small bird and ate it together with its feathers. I tried to stop him but after seeing the blood all over his hand I left him to maul the bird alive uncooked. He ate it out of biting hunger,” Abdirizak narrated.  

DEGRADING CONDITIONS

His jail mate, Ahmed Abdullahi Shuriye , says he was forced to join ONLF. For two years between 2000-02, he was wrongly accused of being ONLF and was on numerous occasions detained and tortured. His wife did not escape the punishment too. Just eight days after delivering their first-born daughter Sulal, she was arrested for two months together with their baby. 

Shuriye peeps from a hole in a prison cell of Jeel Ogaaden
Shuriye peeps from a hole in a prison cell of Jeel Ogaaden
Image: Hussein Mohamed

“On December 28, 2002, I decided to join ONLF having been wrongfully beaten tortured. When my young family were not spared,  I decided to be who they wanted me to be. In 2012, I was arrested in Moyale and brought to Jigjiga where I was jailed for six years. I was tortured, beaten, deliberately denied sleep for days. I became so weak and frail and many times wished I death," he says.

Shuriye says it was the worst punishment he could endure.