I am a torture survivor who was persecuted by the government of Ethiopia because I was advocating for the Oromo ethnic group in the country. I suffered so much between 1991 and 1996; even now I feel the severe trauma of what I experienced at the hands of torturers. I was trying to search for the right vocabulary to explain what happened to me.
After traveling to the United States in 2000, I came across a book called Night by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. This book helped me describe the human brutality and the need to speak out for others who did not have the same opportunity.
This paragraph in Night (p. viii) helped inspire me to become a voice for other victims of torture. Wiesel wrote about the importance of becoming:
“a witness who believes he has a moral obligation to try to prevent the enemy from enjoying one last victory by allowing his crimes to be erased from human memory.”
When I was a young boy in the 1950s and 60s, I witnessed how the government treated my people, the Oromos. The Oromos are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, more than one-third of the population. They have their own culture and traditions; our language, Afan Oromo, was banned in schools, government offices and the courts. As a child, I remember seeing Oromo boys beaten if they spoke the language. Even today, the ruling elites in Ethiopia still use the term “galla” to refer to Oromos. “Galla” is a horrible, derogatory word used to dehumanize Oromos and to keep them in a low position.
I was distributing a book called “History of the Galla” in 1991 the first time government agents arrested me. They grabbed me by the arms and took me to a military camp. They forced me to drink something, probably a hallucinogenic drug, and made me dance in front of the soldiers. They wanted to know what types of books I was reading, besides “History of the Galla,” I told them Exodus by Leon Uris was one of my favorite books.
My worst torture experience was in a military camp in 1995. Soldiers inflicted a terrible kind of torture called “Code Number Eight.” They tied my elbows together, causing terrible pain in my chest and damaging my ligaments and muscles. Then they suspended me on a metal object and kept me like that for long hours for two nights. It was so horrible I remember asking the security forces to kill me. They said “We don’t want you to die, we want you to suffer.”
I finally escaped Ethiopia in the year 2000, leaving my children behind. My wife was in a special refugee camp in Germany which used to be a Nazi concentration camp. I immediately was granted political asylum. Shortly after that I discovered the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC). TASSC is a place that helps survivors give meaning to their lives. They assigned me a case manager who talked to me about PTSD, she listened and cared about me. She also helped my family by writing a recommendation to bring my daughter from Ethiopia to Washington. Today, TASSC provides counseling, housing, health care and pro bono legal services to survivors in the Washington area. It also has an advocacy program where survivors meet congressional staff to create awareness about the impact of torture on victims and their families.
I have always thought the Oromos and the Jewish people have a lot in common because Oromos were persecuted just like the Jews. I realized this a long time ago after reading Exodus and visiting the Holocaust museum. It was unbelievable to read about the gas chambers and what happened in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. But Exodus also gave me hope. People who were persecuted can rise from the depths of despair to be free. That made me think that one day Oromos can be free too.
Last April, TASSC organized a Passover Seder that focused on the universal desire for freedom by honoring survivors and their journey from persecution to freedom. The Bible teaches us the story of Moses, Pharaoh and the Exodus. I brought Night to the seder and shared what the book means to me with the Jews and the other survivors. The Seder was a wonderful connection for survivors because it helped us transform our pain into strength.
Ultra-nationalistic totalitarian movements brought Nazism and Fascism to Germany and Italy, creating hatred for minorities. Many people do not know that we also have a totalitarian regime in Ethiopia controlled by a small ethnic group who are oppressing the Oromos and other ethnic groups. We have to fight these kinds of movements everywhere in the world. According to the human rights group Genocide Watch, Ethiopia has already committed “genocidal massacres against many of its peoples.”
Elie Wiesel was right when he said “Silence helps the perpetrators, not the victims.” For this reason, over the last ten years, I have become a TASSC “truth speaker,” going to schools, universities and churches to speak about torture and create awareness about the persecution of the Oromo people. If given the chance, I would welcome the opportunity to connect with the Jewish community in Washington by visiting synagogues and Jewish groups.
Feyera Sobokssa is a torture survivor from Ethiopia who received political asylum in 2001. He began his political activities as a young man employed as an accountant by Ethiopian Airlines, helping to distribute publications about the Oromo ethnic group and their history of persecution by the Ethiopian government. Feyera is now a spokesman against torture with the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC). He is a strong advocate for human rights and for raising awareness about the plight of the Oromos in Ethiopia.