Americans feel safe whatever political party they choose to join, they feel safe when they protest a government policy or action. That is not the way in many countries of the world. It is not the way in Ethiopia.
Mahmud, a member of the Oromo people, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia (about 40% of the population) was born and lived his entire life in the capital, Adids Ababa. The land of the Oromo is being taken over by the national government under the auspices of the ‘Addis Ababa Master Plan’. In numerous protests against this policy many have been killed or arrested.
Mahmud never joined a political party, but he did attend meetings and protests against the government, because he felt that the government was denying certain ethnic groups their basic rights, even water. He attended meetings of both the ruling EPRDF party, (the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) and of the opposing political parties. At these meetings he would ask critical questions that people were afraid to ask.
In September 2014, Mahmud was arrested for “inciting and mobilizing people to be against the government,” and taken to Kaliti, one of several federal prisons of Ethiopia, commonly referred to as a gulag. There he was tortured, as he remembers, on 20 occasions. As a consequence of these sessions, his foot became badly infected, though it ultimately healed. After three months of torture and hard labor, he convinced the authorities that he was not a member of any political party and he was released with the warning not to oppose the government in the future.
Protests against the Master Plan grew nationwide and Mahmud continued to attend rallies and demonstrations until he was warned and detained again. On November 11, 2015 the police came to his home and arrested him. Again he was tortured, but continued to deny that he was a member of any political party. On January 10, 2016 his grandfather was finally able to bail him out of prison, with another warning to not attend protests or demonstrations.
But soon after his release, a nationwide protest and opposition to the government’s seizure of the Omori land erupted and the military began hunting down potential organizers. The protests grew and protesters set fire to police stations and other buildings, and even broke into prisons, freeing many prisoners. During one demonstration Mahmud’s father was shot and killed as Mahmud watched.
Mahmud and his mother feared for his life. Nowhere in Ethiopia was safe. So he took a bus from Adids Ababa to Kenya where he boarded a plane for Botswana. From Botswana he walked and hitchhiked to South Africa. South Africa is not a safe haven for immigrants, so with a forged Canadian passport (he had lost the travel documents he used to leave Ethiopia), Mahmud flew to JFK, arriving in the United States, at age 33, on September 16, 2016. He requested asylum and was immediately put into detention in the Elizabeth Detention Center. Mahmud was granted asylum in the U.S. on January 30, 2017.