Friday, January 7

The long fetasha

This post from Meskel Square was particularly striking to us for what it questioned that we had long numbly accepted.

Many of us were used to being subject to constant physical searches every time we left home. In more distant memory for some, entire neighborhoods were surrounded by armed thugs and subject to systematic home invasions and searches by revolutionary cadres and soldiers.

We always figured they must have been looking for something ... but not necessarily. The actual and most effective purpose of such continual assaults on human privacy and dignity was not simply to reinforce fear of the government's already absolute power but also to create a sense of paranoia and impotence within the self.

In addition, dictatorships carefully maintain concentric networks of broken, opportunistic informers and liars among friends, neighbors and even relatives. The culture of absent morality, insecurity and corruption thus fostered, dehumanizes all, demeans traditional culture and tears apart all loyalties but those to the state.

Every breath drawn to speak about anything could be among one's last in freedom or in life. 'Revolutionary measures' - meaning death - were common results of bad luck or even hints of incorrect opinions.

Eventually, this combined assault on the minds of millions of victims gave the oppressive state a constant offensive presence in individual minds. Dictators like that kind of thing, it makes them sleep better at night but seldom lasts as long as they would like.

In Ethiopia, 1984 really was "1984" ... and 2005 is still far away.

Thanks to Andrew Heavens for letting us post his entire piece below.

The long fetasha

One of the few downsides to life in Addis Ababa is the number of times you are searched and frisked going about your daily business. You are searched going into the bank, searched before queuing up to pay your telephone bill, searched going into the city's main shopping mall the Dembel Centre, searched going into the compound of Addis Ababa University.

You are searched on the way into the National Museum - but, oddly, not on the way out. You are searched every time you walk into the main post office to engage in the highly sensitive business of buying a stamp. (The post office guards make a particular point of confiscating all cameras.) Every time you visit the Ministry of Information - the headquarters of Ethiopia's state TV company ETV - your bag is stripped of all information-gathering equipment including microphones and tape recorders. Your bags are x-rayed every time you go into the Hilton for a swim or a quick drink - although if you are reasonably well-dressed the guards just nod you through even if your bag sets all the alarm bells ringing.

If you ever ask why you are bring searched, no-one seems to know. Up until recently, it was all a mystery. That was until my wife, Amber, came across the following passage in Ryszard Kapuscinski's book The Emperor about the reign of Haile Selassie. The passage describes the regime imposed on the streets of Addis immediately after the Emperor's downfall in the 1970s.

To get things under control, to disarm the opposition, the authorities order a complete fetasha [amharic for search], covering everyone. We are searched incessantly. On the street, in the car, in front of the house, in the house, in the street, in front of the post office, in front of an office building, going into the editor's office, the movie theatre, the church, in front of the bank, in front of the restaurant, in the market place, in the park. Anyone can search us because we don't know who has the right and who hasn't, and asking only makes thing worse. It's better to give in. Somebody's always searching us. Guys in rags with sticks, who don't say anything, but only stop us and hold out their arms, which is the signal for us to do the same: get ready to be searched. They take everything out of our briefcases and pockets, look at it, act surprised, screw up their faces, nod their heads, whisper advice to each other. They frisk us: back, stomach, legs, shoes. And then what? Nothing, we can go on, until the next spreading of arms, until the next fetasha. The next one might be only a few steps on, and the whole thing starts all over again. The searchers never give you an acquittal, a general clearance, absolution. Every few minutes, every few steps, we have to clear ourselves again.

So there you have it. Thirty years have passed and the fetasha lives on.

<< Home