To all those celebrating Eid in prison
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COLUMN by Blank Spot Projects Editor-in-chief, Martin Schibbye.
This evening I remembered an episod from prison that I would like to share with you.
It was at this time, the time of Eid, four years ago. The Ethiopian Prime minister had just passed away and the prison was buzzing with different rumours. In the Kality prison café there was whispering about Muslim leaders having been arrested, and police officers being killed. Someone claimed to have seen tanks rolling past outside the prison. Nobody knew what was going on.
On the TV images of riot police and demonstrators flickered by.
One evening the chief of police in Addis Ababa warned tv viewers against using religion for political purposes.
The fundamental issue seemed to be that the country’s Muslims where demanding their constitutional right to religious freedom, and that they should be able to choose their own leaders.
The government was responding with violence, arrests and crazy documentaries.
Soon the first buses with indicted Muslim demonstrators where rolling into Kality.
Then came the decree: prayer was no longer permitted in the prison.
You could hear a pin drop in the room.
I remember that despite the tense situation, the muslims in the room collected money for the purchase of a large, beautifully woven blue and white prayer rug.
They dressed up in their best clothes.
And as the sun sank outside the tin shack, they surged through the big cell packed with 200 prisoners in silence, to defy the prohibition on prayer.
Suddenly a young man from Mali in a white tunic and traditional headdress stood up.
Wearing silk from top to toe, he took a deep breath.
Then he started to sing an almost bluesy song:
– Allah humma innaka a’fuvun tohib bul afva fa’afu anni…
Another prisoner translated.
”We pray to Allah, our forgiving God, that He should forgive us and show us mercy.”
I remember that the muezzin put his every scrap of energy into the song, and some thirty men from India to the east to Senegal in the west rested their foreheads against the cold cement floor and dreamt of their pilgrimage. Shoulder to shoulder, barefoot on the rug.
They called out into the night, about the time that was fleeing from them, about the peace of God. They did not pray for freedom, they prayed to become better human beings so that Allah could forgive them.
Their faith was stronger than their fear of the committees and the guards.
They ignored the ban in praying.
And it all became crystal clear. It was not the police officers that kept us calm. It was the fear. The geography of fear. The fear of not being released. The fear of becoming sick. The fear of torture and death.
The muslims that night where not afraid of anything but God.
I will newer forget them.
That evning they helped us all in the large cell keep our dignity and humanity.
By standing up together.
I will newer forget their courage.
They are all celebrating Eid in prison this year to.
My thoughts are with them.
Martin Schibbye is a Swedish journalist and Editor who together with the photographer Johan Persson was sentenced to 11 years for covering the conflict in the closed Ogaden region by entering Ethiopia illegally. Their reportage about oil was transformed into a story about ink, and their daily lives turned into a 438 day long fight for survival inside the notorious Kality prison in Addis Ababa. Schibbye and Persson have published a book in English, about their prison experience, “438 Days”.
Today he is the founder and Editor of Blank Spot Project.
His latest piece from Eritrea can be found here.
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