After she was imprisoned in her native land, Ilili Jamal escaped Ethiopia's persecution of the Oromo in a torturous three-week-long journey to take refuge in Egypt.
Ilili Jamal didn’t know that she was pregnant when they arrested her. She realised it sometime throughout the torturous five months she spent in prison, as she saw her belly grow. It was 2013 when she husband and her were arrested in their home, accused of aiding the insurgent group OLF (Oromo Liberation Front). She hasn’t seen her husband ever since.
“I didn't think it was an agent; nobody knocks on the door so late at night,” she says, as she recalls the ominous night when Ethiopian agents came to her home and took them away. “When I went to wake my husband up to open the door, they pushed him aside and went straight to the guest room, broke in, and began beating the men who were sleeping.
Jamal is one of the thousands of Oromo unjustly arrested by the Ethiopian government, under accusation – and often mere suspicion – of political opposition. Together with her husband, she was running a coffee warehouse that distributed coffee to smaller stores across different towns in her native Ethiopia. That day, they were hosting a client whose car had broken down. “I explained to them that it was just a client coming to buy coffee for gross supply,” she recalls.
“We know your house, you host a lot of OLF,” they replied, as they continuously asked who their guests were. As she saw them tying the men up and beating them, she took her baby girl and hid in the adjacent room with her sister. It was only the beginning of her worst nightmare. “Do you know what your husband is doing? He is funding the insurgent army,” they shouted at her, as they took all existing paperwork and receipts from their business. But she knew what they were saying was not true.
Members of the Oromo, Ethiopia’s 35-million strong ethnic group, have been suffering persecution, arrest, torture and murder since 2011, when the parliament declared the insurgent OLF a terrorist organisation. According to human rights watchdog Amnesty international, security forces seek for signs of dissent among Oromo individuals and sometimes arrest civilians pre-emptively based on mere suspicion.
The multiple faces of prison were, for Jamal, terrifying. “I saw faces that I will never forget. People with signs of torture, some of them had no nails, or half-shaved heads,” she recalls. “There were 18-year-old men who had visibly gone crazy due to torture. Some of the people had been there for 30 years.” While in jail, she and her inmates would work on agricultural tasks and be taken to the capital city for the whole day to work.
“The saddest part is that no one knew about us, no one knew even knew we were there,” she said. Away from her cell there was a section for political prisoners, only some of whom had ever left the premises before. “I saw them when I got in the van and they looked really disturbed; for some of them, it was the first time they were going out.”
It took a medical episode for Jamal to be able to leave prison behind. “I was loading crops in the vehicle and I fainted, so the police took me back to prison. I became unconscious so they had to tell my family about my situation. That day, they came and paid the bail,” she narrates. Her husband, however, never had the chance.
In April 2014, she decided it was time to leave. “No one chooses to leave their country. But the government began framing people,” she says. With a baby in one arm and a three-year-old girl on the other, Jamal departed. She paid $3,000 for smugglers to take her to Sudan, where she stayed for four months hoping to find a job. But, as she feared being deported, she left for Egypt, hiring smugglers again.
The trip was a painful three-week-long journey, for the most part on foot. “There were cars taking us for some time, but they stopped at checkpoints and we would have to walk long, long hours; sometimes 12 hours per day,” she recalls. Walking slowly through desert and mountainous landscapes in the pitch darkness of the night, Jamal and her counterparts headed forward as they waited for the smugglers' vehicles coming from Khartoum to join them. They walked for three weeks, sleeping under the shade of rocks in the hills, eating meagre biscuits they bought in Khartoum. “I often spent three days without food, trying to feed my children with it,” Jamal says.
As soon as she recalls her arrival to Egypt, Jamal’s eyes light up. “I never thought I was going to arrive to Masr Om El Donya; I thought I would die on the way,” she says. Crossing the western part of Sudan was no problem, and when she arrived to Aswan she was escorted by people she had met on the way. “I didn’t speak Arabic, but a woman from Somalia whom I met and who spoke Oromo language helped me.” A week after her arrival, the woman offered to help her reach Cairo and hosted her until she found a place to live. “I slowly got to know more people, and I got in touch with UORA, who helped me gather money and find a home,” says the 30-year-old woman, who now lives with her children, now three and six years old, and works as a house cleaner in Maadi.
As soon as she arrived, she applied to UNHCR but only recently – three years later – had the RSD interview. Today, she still awaits the results. “As a refugee, you come to Egypt and apply for refugee status at UNHCR and you get an appointment for RSD after a year and a half," explains Abdulkadir Gumi, Secretary General of the United Oromo Refugees Association (UORA). “If you are accepted, you get a blue card, which gives you a chance for resettlement; and if you are rejected you can appeal, but if the appeal is rejected too, your file is closed and you have no assistance from UNHCR. There is no visa to stay in the country; you can get arrested,” he explains.
Throughout the hour-long conversation it took to tell her torturous story, Jamal never broke into tears; not once, except when we asked her what she would do if her application is rejected. “If they deny us asylum, it means we have no chance to live; it's better to die. There is no hope in the future and there is no hope in this world," she says, in tears. "I cannot go back to my country, but I cannot live here in peace, so it means I have no future. If the UNHCR doesn't acknowledge my problem, who will?”
Photography by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions.
Photographer: Ahmed Najeeb.