“There was gunfire and beatings in all places” – We interview PhD student and refugee Fasil Demsash

PhD student Fasil Demsash has always been proud to identify himself as Ethiopian.

But because of his name he found himself at the centre of deep political, social and economic tension in his country – which began from an early age.

“I joined Addis Ababa University in 1998 to study educational administration but that was not an easy process,” he says.

“After I got a letter of acceptance, the university blocked me and 150 students from being registered for the course mainly because of our ethnic background.

“By virtue of my name, I was always identified by the political leaders and authorities as Amhara, the most influential tribe in Ethiopian history that lay the foundation of governance, culture and traditions including the official language (Amharic).”

Being identified in this way meant Fasil was up against a number of challenges. If there were seen to be more Amhara people who applied to courses at Addis Ababa University than other tribal groups, then his registration to study would be blocked.

“It was considered by the university authority that students from Amhara tribe will become headteachers after graduation and will influence the educational policies and procedures in that country in the future,” he says.

“Instead they wanted to recruit educationally unqualified political cadres to administer schools and play a role in diminishing the holistic and unified views of people from Amhara tribe and their legacy.”

When his registration was eventually blocked, Fasil decided on direct action by demonstrating in front of the Ethiopian Parliament and Ministry of Education.

After winning his case following four weeks of long continuous demonstrations, Fasil was allowed into the university and was invited to join the students’ union.

But it was not until Fasil became involved in a much larger demonstration in his third year at university that the actions of the authorities took a much darker turn. In 2001, he led a demonstration of more than 3,000 students and attracted a lot of attention from wider society and campus academics.

“There were at least three major factors contributing to this demonstration,” he says. “The first one was that the ongoing arrest and disappearance of students from the university dormitory for the reason of their political thoughts and membership with the opposition political parties.

“The second one is that the university compound became more of a political institute than an academic one. Segregation of the students and academic staff into different ethnic groups became the new norm of the country against the will of its people. The third one and probably the most triggering factor was the ban of student newsletter and the rights to hold meetings in the university compound.”

Because of this Fasil became angry and ordered the peaceful protest to demand greater rights.

“I saw no other alternatives,” he says. “This was completely justified as our (former student union) formal request to the university to hold meetings had been all ignored by the university authorities and the Ministry of Education and we – the student leaders – were under threat and harassment by police on daily basis.

“The increasing number of students missing from their dormitory, illegal detention, arrested and torture of students due to their difference in political ideology and membership to the opposition political parties brought students together to demand their rights and challenge the government to respect its promises on human rights and freedom of expressions as stated in the constitution.”

On day two of the demonstration, Fasil was arrested and detained. “Police stormed the university and shot live ammunition randomly on to students,” he says. “I was detained, arrested and beaten by police for speaking about the ill of the government to international media.”

Released by the police, Fasil joined the march again and made a speech on the third day as the momentum had grown bigger. But suddenly, he was interrupted from his speech amid scenes of fighting and brutality.

“I asked the students to stop fighting and bring me the two people they were angry about.

“When I saw the two men, I asked them why they were there with us. They said they were students but when I asked them to prove that, they showed me two ID cards which identify them as a postman and electrician.”

It was clear to Fasil and the students that the men had been sent by police to spy on them, but many were upset about such behaviour.

“There were a reasonable level of anger against these people but I stopped the mass of students from beating up these two men. I hold them on my right and left hand and took them to the main office to make the point that the two people were allowed to enter the university to bring chaos and alter the peaceful demonstration we students were intended to have.

“The vice academic president invited me to come in and discuss this further. I refused the offer as it was a strategic approach to minimise our demands. He again came back and said the Ministry of Education was on the phone to speak to me regarding the demonstration and propose a general meeting with all students.

“At this point I entered the vice president’s office and started talking with the Ministry of Education over the phone. As I was talking, the telephone was hanged and I found myself surrounded by two gun men inside the office.”

Frightened and confused, Fasil did not know what to do. “They shouted at me and said you are the one who was leading this trouble,” he says.
“I explained back saying that it was a peaceful demonstration and we had the rights to do so. At this point, I saw students running away from the demonstration centre as armed police were running to attack them. There was gun fire, shouting and beating of students in all places. The university compound completely controlled by armed police.”

By this point, Fasil knew many students were injured and something needed to be done. He called for calm.

The police later apologised to him and the students for sending in spies, and the university decided to close all its classes.

But Fasil was later detained and arrested again, kept in confinement for nine days. When released, his struggle did not end. Police once again came looking for him.

“I became a refugee in my own country and could not live peacefully anywhere in the capital city,” he says. “I had no option left but to flee from my country.”

For organising and taking part in the demonstrations, his university failed to recognise him as a student. He failed to complete his final year and graduate.

“That was a very shocking experience for me,” he says. “Looking ahead, I could not see where I could live and how I could engage with the public.”

In the middle of night, Fasil left his country and headed to the Ethiopian-Kenyan border. From the border, he was helped by smugglers to reach the capital city, Nairobi. “I knew that I would never come back. I have never been back for the last 14 years since I left Ethiopia.”

Inside Kenya, Fasil noticed there were already several thousand refugees who helped him emotionally and physically.

Eventually, he found accommodation to stay in before Canadian authorities offered him asylum in Canada.

He finally managed to complete his degree in 2005 at the University of Manitoba and also completed a master’s degree in education in 2007.
Before moving to the UK, he met his partner and they had a daughter, called Naomi.

When they did move, Fasil, his partner and Naomi settled in York. At first, Fasil became lonely and ended up as a full-time dad.

“My first impression of York was really bad, close people that I met at first told me how York is so white and people are not friendly to people like me, a black African man,” he says.

“As there was no Ethiopian community in York we usually travel on weekends to other parts of the UK such as Leeds, Manchester and London. But, soon I decided to learn more about the English culture by engaging with people. It was very hard to be friendly with people in York.

“So, I turn my face to the politics and social issues as it was described in the newspapers and TV. But, this was not the British (English) culture that I thought I knew before I came to York. It didn’t take me that long to understand the true value of the British people in this country by leaving the Westminster politicians and TV show aside.

“I admired the British people’s courage and solidarity and their great generosity and support to people in developing countries such as Ethiopia through local charities.”

Fasil has been studying within the department of education since 2011. His current PhD looks at BME people.

Jack Gevertz
Jack Gevertz is the former editor-in-chief of York Vision.