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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Chris Flaherty Interview:

Chris Flaherty's Documentary exposes Ethiopia’s political vulnerability amid risks of following Burma and Zimbabwe into tyranny David Calleja
Images © Chris Flaherty courtesy of AP

In May 2005, the ruling Ethiopian Revolutionary Patriot’s Democratic Front won elections amid allegations of electoral fraud and a campaign of intimidation against opposition groups. Six months and two protests later, nearly 200 civilians were killed and tens of thousands had been arrested, including high profile opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa. the former judge and popular politician was initially jailed for life, pardoned and then commanded to serve out the rest of her sentence.

Next year, Ethiopians will go to the polls again but the political manoeuvring is already underway. Last week, the Sudan Tribune reported on the Meles Zenawi government claims of an alleged coup plot masterminded by former opposition leader Behanu Nega, now an academic in the United States of America. And on Wednesday May 27 2009, the opposition Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) had their permit application for a protest against the Zenawi government in Addis Ababa’s Meksel Square rejected by the city’s administration. A spokesman for the UDJ, Hailu Araya, was quoted as saying the government continued to play political games, thus weakening the UDJ’s effectiveness in the country.

Ethiopia is an important ally for the United States. Its strategic location near the Horn of Africa makes the country key to Barack Obama's attempts to win the War On Terror.

Amidst the backdrop of the 2010 election, the documentary Migration of Beauty is due for released on the international film festival circuit. Directed by Chris Flaherty, the film recalls the experiences of Ethiopian genocide survivors of the 1970s and the community activism led by the Ethiopian diaspora in Washington D.C. in the run-up to the 2005 election. Flaherty spent two years researching and befriending the witnesses involved in the historic event covered in the film. Migration of Beauty has screened at the AFI Institute in Maryland and Goeth-Institute in Washington D.C.

The Ethiopian government has sent a chilling message to all opposition groups by declaring that it will achieve peace at all costs, a clear reference to the protests that tainted the last election four years ago and reviving haunting memories of the Dergue's massacre of students and other civilians in the 1970s. Although the country is not officially a one-party state, the signs pointing to political intimidation mean Ethiopia's past risk leading the nation following Burma and Zimbabwe into tyranny.

Chris Flaherty speaks to Foreign Policy Journal’s David Calleja about what could be in store for sub-Saharan Africa’s second most populous country.

D.C.- Four years after the violence that occurred in the aftermath of Ethiopia's general elections, what news do you have of the mood in the country, and how do you think this will affect the lead-up to the 2010 poll?

C.F.- Obviously I have been keeping track of recent events as they relate to the upcoming Parliamentary election in Ethiopia. I would have to say that at this point it looks pretty grim. I think the party in power has been doing a good job at intimidating any possibility of viable opposition against themselves in 2010. With the re-arrest of one of Ethiopia's strongest opposition leaders, Birtukan Mideksa and the recent announcement by the Ethiopian government that they have launched an investigation against people suspected of overthrowing the government, the prospects look grimmer by the day.. From what I have observed many Ethiopians appear to be slipping into a feeling of helplessness. Many are saying, "Here we go again, this government will stop at nothing to retain power." The biggest fear for me is that Ethiopians will simply give up and accept what happens no matter how illegitimate the outcome.

D.C. - What factors compelled you to make your documentary Migration of Beauty? Why did you feel that it was necessary to tell people what happened in the 1970s under The Dergue as a prelude to the 2005 elections?

C.F.- Perhaps the biggest factor that helped me mold the idea for Migration of Beauty was the inspiration I experienced from documenting seemingly powerless immigrants from a third world country engaging the U.S. political process. During the filming I was able to better understand the conditions that drove many of them to zealously fight for ideas that most ordinary Americans take for granted. My approach was to tell their deeply personal human stories about struggling for freedom and dying for it. Some of the people in the film lived through one of the most horrific chapters of Ethiopian history, the "Dergue" period or the "Red Terror".

By bringing their stories to light I was trying to make clear that it doesn't matter who takes away your freedom as much as it is a criminal for anyone to do such a thing. Otherwise, if your freedom has been taken away the end result is always the same no matter who takes it away, weather it's Adolf Hitler, Mao Tse-Tung, Mengistu Haile Mariam or Meles Zenawi. And while the current Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi has not committed acts as open and obvious as his predecessor Mengistu Haile Mariam, he is still repressing democratic ideas and has committed numerous human rights abuses. It was important for the Ethiopian/Americans in Migration of Beauty to connect both stories. They have seen it all before.

D.C. -There were some moments in the documentary in which you were prevented from filming. Who was behind the threats and what level of intimidation did they offer to the crew or yourself?

C.F. - I did B-roll filming in Ethiopia directly after the 2005 election massacres. There was a certain tension in the streets. Foreign journalist and filmmakers are highly suspect in the eyes of the Ethiopian government. The Ethiopian government has a long history of repressing the media so I expected I might run into problems. There were two instances where I and my Director of Photography were stopped by the police. The first time I managed to talk my way out of potential arrest by speaking in Amharic and smoothing my way out of the situation. The second time it was the Ethiopian Army that tried to stop us. I quickly discovered that they did not speak Amharic, therefore my language skills yielded no results. I could not understand what they were saying but it was obvious they wanted the video camera. My DP and I simply took off running. For whatever reason they stopped following us and we lost them. We quickly realized that we had to keep our equipment "under the radar" and out of sight. I have heard of worse stories involving intense harassment and arrest of video camera operators.. There is one such instance documented in my film.

D.C. - Last year, the opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa was jailed for life. According to Voice of America report, Prime Minster Meles Zenawi government's official line was that "she had not asked for the pardon" handed to her. What do you think is the real reason for the order to serve out her life sentence? What does Meles Zenawi have to fear from her?

C.F. - The situation of jailed dissident Birtukan Mideksa is a very interesting one. The former District Judge represented the biggest threat to the party currently in power, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). And while she was jailed for what would appear to be rather "convenient" technical reasons it's obvious to me that she was put away because there was a good possibility she would beat the EPRDF in a fair election. Considering what happened in 2005 the ruling party appears not to be taking any chance of losing a national election. This is an old story and a proven formula: intimidate, jail and kill all of your viable opponents in order to keep power. No matter how proper and clean everything appears on the surface it's all the same.

D.C. - The same report from Voice Of America indicated a tough stance from the government, vowing that they will not allow the protests of 2005 to occur again in 2010. Zenawi allegedly said that, "We will do everything in our power to have peace." He has also vowed to not only stop any anti-government protests in the wake of the results, but also prevent any possible build-up of opposition support. What tactics do you think he intends to deploy?

C.F. - We can only speculate what the Zenawi led government has planned for the next election. I will acknowledge that the Prime Minister is extremely crafty with words and has leveraged this skill to benefit his position in the world view. However, to say, "We will do everything in our power to have peace" is an extremely ominous indication considering his well documented past endeavours to keep the peace. Besides possible use of military force, it's a safe bet to expect him to shut down the press completely and quell all avenues of dissent. My fear is that it could be much worse than it was in 2005. I'm not sold on the idea that everyone will go back into their houses if the government murders a bunch of unarmed civilians. It appears that the populace is deeply frustrated and they might go much further with the civil disobedience than they did in 2005. Either way, I sincerely hope no one gets hurt.

D.C. - You have quoted Dr. Jedyani Frazer as to making remarks about the dangers of a free press being a danger at the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, and that in African countries, could lead to "ethnic cleansing", such as what happened in Rwanda in 1994. What message do you think Dr. Frazer's remarks send, and what justification did he use?

C.F. - I was taken aback with Dr. Frazer's comment. To specifically call out the so called "irresponsible press" without mentioning the dangers of media repression is a horrible proposition. Considering Dr. Frazer’s past influence on foreign policy in Africa it was a chilling comment. If the government in hand deems their press to be irresponsible are we to base our foreign policy on their beliefs? Exactly who gets to decide the parameters of irresponsibility? And while Dr. Frazer did not specifically mention the role of the press in the Rwandan Genocide, most people know it is the 5000 pound elephant in the room. And therein lies the question- how do we balance the two?

My belief is that it is the right of the press to be free.... We must base our foreign policy on the ideas we believe in ourselves, regardless of how uncomfortable it makes us feel. And when a particular government is proven to repress their media we should call them out and do nothing to lend credence to their credibility. It was the Ethiopian Ambassador to the U.S. himself, Samuel Assefa who told me that the Ethiopian government must control the press otherwise Ethiopians might commit ethnic genocide on themselves. All this is coming from a government that has instituted a policy of "Ethnic Federalism" which intentionally creates a divide between the many ethnic tribes within the country. This government has done little or nothing to foster a sense of national identity.. It's an old formula, control the press and divide everyone to decrease the threat of losing power. Comments like the one Dr. Frazer made simply send the wrong signal to the world..

D.C. - What has U.S. President Barack Obama said regarding the Ethiopian leadership and what foreign policy initiative has he proposed? How can he be more effective in dealing with Meles Zenawi than his predecessor, George W. Bush?

C.F. - To date, I haven't heard much from the Obama Administration in regards to issues of democratic process in Africa. It's obvious they are being very careful. In this respect I believe they are doing the right thing. However, many Africans as well as those in the diaspora appear to be holding their breath to see exactly where he will stand. I can safely say that many have high hopes. It's a very difficult line for Obama to walk. News coming out of Somalia gets grimmer by the day and the Zenawi led government is the only one that appears to support our interests in the region.

In fact, the Ethiopian government makes this very clear to our elected officials. In my view, it is perhaps the biggest bargaining chip Zenawi can leverage. He knows that many U.S. Congressmen and Senators deplore his style of government but they are willing to deal as long as he represents our so called interests. He's proven himself to be very skillful in keeping just within the parameters of acceptability in the U.S. As far as Obama is concerned he must make clear where his priorities lie. It was the Bush Administration that justified dealing with any despotic regime in the name of fighting the war on terror.

This policy has proven to be disastrous for the U.S. It makes no sense to support governments that use military force to control their people in the name of fighting terrorism. In fact, the whole idea is absolute insanity to me. This is a special time in U..S. history. We stand at a precipice. We are forced to decide who we are as a nation in the eyes of the world. So often we have preached the virtues of democracy and freedom to virtually everyone. And now more than ever we are understandably challenged on those core beliefs. It is my hope that the Obama Administration will understand and adapt our foreign policy with this in mind.

D.C. - Do you believe that Birtukan Mideksa is Africa's answer to the jailed leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi? Are there any similarities between the Burmese military regime and the Ethiopian leadership?

C.F. - No doubt, jailed dissident leader Birtukan Mideksa is an aspiring figure. I notice many similarities between her and Aung San Suu Kyi. Besides both of them being women they possess the types of charismatic characteristics that would help them go far in national appeal. Both are smart and unwavering in their ambitions to see true democracy and freedom in their countries. In the case of Ethiopia I think many Ethiopians have become disillusioned with the opposition in the past. From what I have been able to access there appears to be tremendous anger with the Coalition for Unity and Democracy Party (CUDP) opposition, the party Birtukan used to lead with Hailu Shawel.

Like anyone anywhere, Ethiopians need to believe in the strength of their leadership. Many felt let down and betrayed when the CUDP failed to stand their ground after their arrest in 2005. Many felt that they made deals selling out the cause of democracy and freedom simply to get out of jail. However, Birtukan was able to help form her own party, the Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) Party and appeared to have a change of heart concerning the conditions of her release from prison. At this point she appears willing to stand her ground against Meles Zenawi and her popularity has dramatically risen as a result. Like Aung San Suu Kyi, her status could become legendary as long as she remains unwavering in her peaceful struggle for true democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Ethiopia. It will obviously be a long hard struggle but if she has the stomach for it she could be instrumental in leading her country to a better future.

While there are many similarities between the regimes in Ethiopia there are also many differences. The regime in Burma appears to be "straight out" dictatorial rule. They make no secret of their endeavours to ruthlessly quash dissent. They have shown time and again that they will send out their military to shoot unarmed civilians in the streets and make no apologies for doing it. However, it's a bit more complicated in Ethiopia, as the government claims to have something called an "emerging" democracy and says it's not perfect as it is evolving. In the mean time the end results are always the same.

When push comes to shove, the Zenawi-led government has shown to the world they will commit the same exact human rights crimes the regime in Burma has done. And while Ethiopia has labored very hard to create the perception of legitimacy they will use their military on their own people if they feel threatened to be removed by democratic process. In my opinion the only measure of democracy is weather you have it or weather you don't. If you have no ability to change the government by virtue of free and fair elections then it doesn't exist. This is the case in Ethiopia.

D.C. - How organized and active is Washington DC's Ethiopian community? What messages have they delivered and who has been at the forefront of such efforts?

C.F. - From what I see, organization within the Ethiopian diaspora over opposition and election issues is sporadic at best. Certainly I have seen nothing on the level I witnessed a couple years ago in the fight for the Human Rights and Accountability Bill, HR 2003. True, the Ethiopian government has spent millions to stall the bill in the Senate but zealous petitioning from the Ethiopian diaspora has gone flat. I get the sense that many are just frustrated and tired of the fight.

I believe one of the biggest problems is their inability to nationalize the cause. They have a tendency to internalize the issues and keep it to themselves. It's sad because their causes are ones most Americans can identify with. In my opinion it might work best for them if they phrase their cause as a universal human rights struggle rather than as an internal one. I think it would be most effective if they appealed directly to the American voters themselves the way the Cuban/Americans have done.

In the past, the diaspora worked so hard to gain the assistance of people like Congressmen Chris Smith and Donald Payne and now the diaspora is almost never heard from. Nonetheless, I still have high hopes that they will eventually use their rights as U.S. citizens to bring deafening light to their cause, especially as the next Ethiopian election approaches in 2010.

D.C. - What role has Ethiopia's past played in shaping a future catastrophe? Do you believe that the persona of former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam is still prominent in shaping the fear instilled by the Ethiopian leadership today?

C.F. - This is a very good question.. No doubt, many Ethiopians possess what I call "generational fear" which is the type of fear passed down and learned from family and others. For the latest generation of Ethiopians this is not a fear based on personal experience. During the period of the Red Terror thousands were brutally murdered in the streets and as a result an overpowering sense of fear has virtually become part of the culture. Who could blame them? If you knew how young men and women were systematically murdered, their bodies pinned with notes warning everyone to heed the Red Terror, you might better understand. It’s no wonder that the older generation warns their children to, "stay away from politics, it will get you killed". The damage of cultural fear has stifled healthy interest in governmental participation.

Without a doubt, the Zenawi government has effectively capitalized on the culture of fear instilled by Mengistu Haile Mariam. I am aware that some Ethiopians might be offended by what I am saying but I am speaking from my heart. Recently I read that an opposition party was desperately struggling to get a permit to hold a peaceful rally in a public area known as Meskel Square. Of course the government denied the permit. I was dismayed because no one had the courage to stage the rally without the permit. The rally was planned to be peaceful with no malice intended against the government. While I absolutely do not condone violence, I do believe in peaceful protest. Martin Luther King routinely staged public demonstrations without permits. He knew people would get hurt but he also knew they would never be able to advance their movement if everyone stayed home because there was no permit.

D.C. - In 1999, the BBC reported that the US Embassy in Harare admitted to assisting Mengistu in finding a safehaven where he was eventually offered sanctuary by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. Should Obama publicly acknowledge that this tactic was a mistake and has this contributed to the political unrest experienced by Ethiopia since?

C.F. - While it might not bring total closure for Ethiopians the gesture would certainly go miles to break down the years of mistrust they have been feeling as a result of our misguided foreign policy. Besides the issue of the U.S’s involvement in Mengistu’s escape to Zimbabwe they should also be more transparent about their motives with the current regime. From my point of view, the U.S.. has very little to lose by appealing to the Ethiopian people apart from the government.

As I said, many politicians in the U.S. are very uncomfortable with the Ethiopian government. Since the 2005 election massacres their credibility has never been the same. The U.S. absolutely needs to acknowledge the bravery of the thousands who struggle for true democracy and freedom in Ethiopia.

Authors’ note: Following a trial that lasted 12 years, an Ethiopian court sentenced Mengistu to life imprisonment in absentia in March 2007 for his role in the genocide that took place during the 1970s. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch estimate that between half a million and 1.5 million people were killed during Mengistu's reign, beginning in 1974 and ending in 1991.

Before receiving asylum in Zimbabwe, Mengistu is said to have pocketed an undisclosed figure following Israel's purchase to evacuate 5,000 Falasha Jews at a cost of $USD300 million. to Israel. In addition, he pocketed all proceeds following the sale of the Livestock Development Company for $USD10 million shortly before fleeing Ethiopia for Zimbabwe, where he is now a permanent resident. The Ethiopian people received no compensation.

The Zimbabwean Government has said that it would not force Mengistu to return to Ethiopia. A spokesman for Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe said that the role Mengistu played in supplying arms and pilot training to the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) in its war against white minority rule in the country formerly known as Rhodesia, helped resistance fighters achieve independence. The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) accuse him of masterminding President Mugabe's Operation Murambastvina (Clean Out The Trash), whereby government militiamen allegedly bulldozed the houses of between 700,000 to 1 million civilians in Harare, mainly MDC supporters. He is reportedly offered personal protection by Mugabe's Presidential Guard battalion and owns multiple properties.

(Source: Bridgland, F. (2007), "Ethiopia; Why Mugabe Rejects An Appeal For Extradition of Mengistu", The Addis Ababa Reporter, in Genocide Watch,


Email Chris with your questions and comments about his documentary or the article at

David is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy Journal and HackWriters. You can also view his video, A Garbage Diet, about life for residents in the compounds of Stung Meanchey Municipal Waste Dump in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

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