- Posted October 9, 2013 by
Oromo journalist, Lalise Wodajo, reunited with family after 8 years
SONY DSCOn Saturday Aug. 10 2013, Jiitu, 14, described her family’s ordeals, in a heartfelt speech that read much like a movie script, before a captive Oromo and Australian audience.
Exposed to politics, suppression, oppression and loss at a young age, Jiitu’s is a story of love, perseverance, resilience, and courage.
“This is my way of taking everyone here back to when everything started,” Jiitu told her audience as she began speaking. “Every adult in my family has had a rough patch with the Ethiopian government. I didn’t understand what was happening when the police came to take my dad…I can’t explain how I felt. I guess I was scared. I mean, who wouldn’t be?”
The event was organized by members of the Australian Oromo Community Association in Victoria to celebrate a reunion of a family torn apart by years of injustice. Lalise Wadajo, Jiitu’s mother and former journalist with the state-run Ethiopian Television, was arrested on October 30, 2008 and later sentenced to 10 years without parole for alleged associations with the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). Lalise arrived in Australia early this month after serving nearly three years in prison.
At Waltz Matilda hotel in Springvale ballroom, where the event was held, a family photo of the Wakjira’s beamed from two screens. The iconic photo shows Dhabasa and his children hugging Lalise as if to never let go off her again.
The story of the Wakjira’s resonates with many in the Oromo diaspora – separation from loved ones, despair and triumph of longing to see each other again. Tables were filled with Oromo traditional food, decorated with an Oromo flag and Oromo attires greeted entrants from all directions.
The auspicious dinner was followed by remarks from the family and a Skype call from Dr. Trevor Truman, human rights advocate and chairman of the UK-based Oromo Support Group. “Galatooma,” said Dr. Truman thanking the organizers in Afan Oromo. “Lalise ani gammade jira” – I am so happy for you, Lalise. Dr. Truman said he was thrilled about Lalise’s release and subsequent reunion with her family. He then commended Lalise for her patience and perseverance in the face of harsh and inhumane treatment in the hands of Ethiopian authorities – something he knows all too well having worked with Oromo refugees over the last two decades.
Unable to finish her five-page speech, Jiitu sat next to her parents, wiping tears off her angelic face. As Toltu Tufa – who campaigned and lobbied the Australian government on Lalise’s behalf for years – narrated the rest of her story, Jiitu fought back tears and as did everyone else in the room. Even in such an emotional moment, the teenage Jiitu was humble and graceful. The roomful audience was sniffing in tears.
Jiitu described how confused and lost she was to witness the alternative imprisonment of her parents. She recalled the first time her father was arrested – with no warrants or accusations. Jiitu remembers the federal police breaking into their house, interrogating her father, and confiscating her video games, tapes of her parent’s wedding and certain newspapers.
“I remember sitting on dad’s lap, watching the policemen open wardrobe after wardrobe,” Jiitu wrote. “My memories of that time are hazy, all I remember is that it was Friday and the next day when I woke up and asked mom where dad was, she said he was, in simple words, gone.”
For the next two years, every time she visited her father in prison, the impressionable Jiitu saw hundreds of Oromos at Kaliti prison.
“My dad told me that I once asked [him], ‘Did you know Qaliti is Oromia’s ‘capital’ city?’ He had asked ‘Why?’ to which I replied, “Because all Oromo[s] are here. They all speak Afaan Oromo.’ I’m guessing I didn’t view it as a prison back then but more like a meeting hall for all Oromo people to converse,” Jiitu said of the infamous prison on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. The room was dead silent, filled only with sniffles, as Jiitu chronologically detailed the harrowing story of the Wakjira’s.
When Dhabasa was released in 2008, the young Jiitu hoped for a normal and steady family. “It came as a shock,” Jiitu recalled in her remarks. “My brother, Bonsen [a toddler when Dhabasa was arrested] believed that a picture of dad was his dad. When dad came home, he didn’t believe us when we told him that dad was really dad. It took him a while to understand that a picture was incapable of fathering him.”
But Jiitu’s excitement did not last long as Dhabasa soon escaped a probable arrest and left for exile first to Kenya, and eventually resettled to Australia. Hopelessness set in for Jiitu not knowing if she would ever see him again. “I didn’t understand that he was gone for his own safety, in fact, back then, I preferred the first departure than the second. At least then, I got to see him weekly [in prison],” Jiitu wrote. Then the police took her mother – literally leaving her and two younger siblings without parents.
The day Lalise was arrested, Jiitu was returning home from school, after taking a major exam, to tell her mother how easy it was. Upon arrival though, Jiitu watched in horror and confusion as her mother was whisked away by uniformed security personnel. Jiitu screamed and cried for her mother as the officers slamming the door on the pickup truck. “I will be back,’’ Jiitu recalled her mother saying as the truck drove off. “Who was going to take care of us…Where’s mom going?” Jiitu remembered pondering as she embraced her baby brother, Bonsen. Jiitu once again found herself trekking back to Kaliti, this time to visit her mother, unlawfully convicted for no other reason than being Oromo.
Separated from both her parents, Jiitu had to learn to be an adult at a young age. But there was another hurdle. She attended school six days a week. This meant she could only see her mother on Sundays, missing church, which upset her aunt Mastawot. Jiitu remembers seeing girls younger than her age living in prison quarters whenever she visited her mother. In one instance, Jiitu describes how her eyes were fixated on a young girl, about seven or eight years old, apparently living in prison, until Jiitu’s mother distracted her with a candy. Unable to comprehend why a girl her age was doing at Kaliti prison, Jiitu asked her mother for explanation. “To this day, I do not understand why an innocent young girl who was obviously not capable of doing any harm to the government [was] in prison,” Jiitu said in her speech.
Jiitu eventually joined her father in exile but with some misgivings. “When I found out that we were going to be with dad, I felt like I was in a dilemma,” she recalled. “I was happy, I mean I was going to see dad but then I was sad too. I was leaving mom. I was going one way or another. It was like a transition, from both parents to mom to both parents and then to none.”
In Nairobi, I had a better understanding to why my parents were arrested. It turned out they were not an exception, they were just Oromo people. I couldn’t get my head around why they were arrested though. Taking pride in one’s country shouldn’t have been a crime. It shouldn’t have been frowned upon; it should be accepted and encouraged.
Even after her mother was released, Jiitu still had to wait for over a year to see her mother. But after learning her mother was granted the family reunion visa to Ausralia, “I literally had a hand-made calendar counting down the days on the back of my school diary and had different scenarios of how I would greet her in my head.”