A prisoner of conscience for many of the past 15 years, Eskinder Nega smuggled out the following plea from his detention in Addis Ababa.
If not in how my incarcerators have treated me, then in how I have been handed by government sponsored trolls on the internet, this episode of my eleven years (and counting) imprisonment under a series of false charges is a novel experience. Gone are days of yore, where the dignity of those who experienced suffering and our empathy for their trials was universally acknowledged.
Enter our present times, where any would be noble martyr has been transfigured into a public joke, a caricature of the ultimate attention seeker. But while the dethronement of wannabe martyrs may be desirable, the concomitant assault against empathy in the public domain is profoundly troublesome.
Consider the two sides of Ethiopia’s ongoing internal war. Beginning in trickles and then in flood like thrust came stories of impending famine, mass murders and gang rapes in all the conflict zones of Ethiopia’s three northern regions – Tigray, Amhara and Afar. And while limitations imposed by lack of access to the conflict zones blurs the full picture, human rights organisations have been able to verify a series of gross rights violations by all the belligerents.
But none of these chronicles of callous cruelties – against children, women, the elderly – has transcended the political divide and resonated with the other side. Tears have indeed been shed, petitions signed, and rallies held, but always unwaveringly for one’s side, never the other.
This is not who we are. When did we lose our empathy? I remember a time when we prayed side by side, when we fought under the same flag, when we laughed and cried together, when we joyed over and ate our harvests as one, when we tied our children in matrimony, when we whispered our secrets and dreams to each other, when were our brothers’ keepers.
Do we know what we have now become? There is more to us than mere “I shall look, hear, speak no evil about my side”. For now, we insist gawping, laughing, mocking, and denying the suffering on the other side. And I fear too few of us will pass a chance for a cute selfie with a victim on the other side. We have become a spectacle to the world, shocking for our lack of empathy for the plight of our fellow citizens, our fellow humans. We must change. We must change for our sake.
We must change to sustain our humanity, our conscience, our soul. No victory is greater than the God embedded morals in our hearts. Of the numerous lessons of history, none is greater than the knowledge the end, however noble, never justifies the ignoble means. Only at our peril do we fail to heed this caution against moral permissiveness. In change lies our only hope.
We cannot and must not deny that the two sides do not have moral and political equivalence. One side is on the right and the other not. One side needlessly fired the first shots and the other had no choice but to shoot back. One side fight to preserve and the other to shatter a nation. And we know one side strives to hate more than the other. We also know on which side history stands.
But ultimately, true victory will not be secured on the battlefront alone. For there are multiple fronts. There is victory to be secured in the legacy we leave behind, in the stories we tell our children, in the pages of history, in the deep interiors of our conscience, in the face of our creator who hears and sees all, who knows the entire breadth and depth of our secret desires, thoughts and deeds. It is better not to wage war.
But if it is an absolute necessity, let it be on terms of a just war. Such is just war: a war where empathy has a place, a humane war as far as possible, a war without hate, a war without vengeance, a war without triumphalism.
If there must be war, let it be war for peace, for love, a war to end war.