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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Life of an Ethiopian Journalist: Nuhamine Biqilaa

The Life of an Ethiopian Journalist: Nuhamine Biqilaa

This is the story of Nuhamine Biqilaa, the former VOA’s Afan Oromo Service Correspondent, based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia - By Tamiru L. Obole

One morning a phone rang. I picked it up and said, “Hello.” The voice from the other end was clearly my friend’s. “Nuhamine!” he said, “Today, there will be a trial of the Mecha and Tullema members case.”

collected my journalist’s tools and rushed to the Federal High Court. After being searched very well by the policemen, I was allowed to the courtroom.

The point was that following the May 2005 Election and the transfer of Oromia regional center from Addis Ababa to Adama, Addis Ababa University students of Oromo origin revolted against the decision by the government. Series of explosives were detonated in the metropolitan. And, the government accused the oldest political organization (the Mecha and Tullema) of the Oromo people for supporting and agitating the students, and for being behind the explosions.

After the trial, a policeman approached me and said, “you are arrested for recording the trial!” He snatched my camera, mini-recorder and notebook.
They put me in a cell in the premise of the High Court. After six hours in jail, the policeman returned with my tools. They erased all the documents (pictures and voice records) from my camera and mini-recorder. I lost my documents. They released me after threatening me not to do so again.

Disappointed! Shocked! Worried! I went home and rested for a while. It was late evening, I was breastfeeding my four-month baby, and a heavy knock at my door almost made me leap! “Open! We are the security!” someone shouted. Quite nervous, I opened. Three armed policemen entered. One of them, pointing his gun at me said, “Where have you hidden the explosives?” I told him that there was no explosive in my house. They searched, searched, re-searched and found nothing! They left at last after issuing me some warnings.

This is the story of Nuhamine Biqilaa, the former VOA’s Afan Oromo Service Correspondent, based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She was born in 1974 in a small town near Addis Ababa to a peasant family of eleven. “We are a small clan,” Nuhamine jokes smiling broadly. She spent her early childhood as a shepherdess near her hometown. As a small girl, Nuhamine had a masculine personality; playing football with the boys, chatting with the boys and even never being shy of fighting with the boys.

Her farmer parents were too poor to send Nuhamine to school. Boys have the priority! When she was ten, her eldest brother, an elementary school teacher took her to Wellega, extreme western part of Ethiopia. This has given her an opportunity to see the other side of life. For years, this place was known for harboring the Oromo Liberation Front, a political organization fighting to claim independence from Ethiopia since 1960s.

Now, Nuhamine started to experience a war-zone life. The way government soldiers and rebels compete to get local people’s support. Where one was not allowed to be non-partisan and live an independent private life. It was her first experience to see human rights abuses in the conflict area. Beatings, raping, missing, imprisoning, and killings were the normal day-to-day part of her village’s life.

At this point, one simple, but important passion conceived in little Nuhamine’s mind. The passion of telling others what was happening in her new village in the conflict zone. “My passion of reporting human rights began in the land of authoritarian state of Ethiopia. My childhood observation of human rights violations in my home village has greatly influenced me to take up journalism as a career,” Nuhamine said.

As almost every other journalist, Nuhamine started her career with the government media as a private broadcast media are not allowed in Ethiopia. She joined the Ethiopian Television’s (ETV) Oromo Language Programme in 2002 as a reporter. She learnt basic journalistic skills on the job. But, the Ethiopian Television was not the right place for her at all! The editorial policy was purely pro-government propaganda. Independent reporting was not something thought by a reporter like Nuhamine.

To develop her journalism career, Nuhamine joined the Addis Ababa University, School of Journalism and Communications, Extension Programme. However, her managers did not like it. They fired her from ETV. She became jobless. A year later, she joined the Voice of America (VOA) Afaan Oromo Service in 2005. Her job was based in Addis Ababa, the capital. Now, she got her right place where she could satisfy her passion of independent reporting about human rights situation in Ethiopia.

She covered various human rights related stories. The Oromo-Somali conflict in eastern Ethiopia - which claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians, and the government’s slow action to resolve and stop the conflict. The May 2005 Election in Ethiopia and the aftermath. The Ethiopian government allegedly stole ballots and won the election unfairly. And, hundreds of unarmed civilian protesters were killed by armed Meles Zeawi’s special forces, called Aghazi Commandos. She also reported the conflict between Borana Oromo and Guji nomads - which was allegedly incited by the Ethiopian government to control the operation of the Oromo Liberation Front in the area. Nuhamine is particularly proud of her investigative reporting about the handling of Oromo prisoners in Ethiopia - where university students of Oromo origin were arrested from their campus in Addis Ababa University at night, beaten, tortured (verbal and physical) and finally shot by the government security forces. She continued reporting on the imprisonment and torture of Mecha and Tulema members for allegedly supporting the students.
One way or another, the Ethiopian government was not happy with her reporting and snatched her VOA license and refused to renew it. In Ethiopia, correspondents have to seek license from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be legal. And, the government security continued intimidating her.

She was left jobless again. She became so desperate. She got divorced and lost her father to a car accident at the same time. She finally got a serious mental problem and entered a rehabilitation center for people with mental problem. She left the center after one year and stayed with her 68-year-old mother for sometime. She is traumatized and her entire body shakes whenever she talks about this experience. Her unstable life has left her with future uncertainties. She could not stand it, and, at last, she left the country. She now resides in the United Kingdom (UK).

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