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Damissee Kabbadaa Sardaa Booraa: So long, precious brother

Photo sketch of the late Damissee Kabbadaa Sardaa Booraa (Addis Standard)

By Martha Kuwee Kumsaa

Damissee Kabbadaa was born to his mother Furoo Roobii and his father Kabbadaa Sardaa Booraa on 23rd September 1945, near Finfinnee in Iluu, Duufaa, Central Oromia. After a lifetime of dedication to the Oromo struggle for liberation and commitment to all marginalized peoples’ struggle for justice, he passed away on 3rd March 2023, in Toronto, Canada, at the age of 78. He was the third of five siblings, two older brothers and two younger sisters. His parents adopted him into their own loving guddifachaa family who pampered and raised him as an only child of their own. After a long journey in life and on earth, he was flown to Oromia, Ethiopia, and buried by his mourning family and friends in the loving embrace of his motherland, closest to the araddaa [heartland] of Sardaa Booraa, on April 9, 2023.

Addis Abeba – On April 13, 2024, families, friends, and comrades from around the world descended on Toronto in person and on zoom to commemorate the first anniversary of the passing of the iconic Damissee Kabbadaa Sardaa Booraa. Damissee was adoringly known as Damee in his close circles, but he chose to take the name of his paternal akaakaa [grandpa] and called himself Sardaa Booraa.

As an Oromo saying goes, maqaan ayyaana hin ta’u [one’s name cannot be one’s ayyaana/destiny]. However, Damee’s life defies this conventional wisdom, and the name he chose for himself did indeed become his destiny. Damee inherited not just the name but also his akaakaa’s ayyaana. It was as though Sardaa Booraa gave it with grace and Damee wore it with elegance and lived it with finesse.  

Damee lived his life engaged in the fight for justice that Sardaa Booraa started and left behind for future generations to continue. He is his akaakaa and his akaakaa is him. His story is deeply tangled with his people’s history. He embodies their collective life. Their fortunes are his fortunes and their struggles his struggles. In everything he did, Damee showed that he is the embodiment of his people’s struggle.

In this tribute I would like to honour Damee and all the sheroes and heroes of the struggles for justice spearheaded by oppressed peoples of the Ethiopian empire because Damee’s life is inseparably tangled with their lives and struggles. Damee embodied these struggles in all his being from the time he took his first breath in birth to the time he took his last breath in death. His is quite a story, and he had always told and retold it as a collective generative voice with many strands and a thousand threads[i].

To honour Damee’s wish, I present this shared story as a historical conversation in three acts: Genealogy of Struggle, In the Eye of the Storm, and Final Moments and Continuities of injustice. I follow the chronology of collective historical trauma in the powerful iconic song of lamentation, Maal Jedhanii, to also pay homage to Ali Birraa who sang it with his distinct aesthetic appeal and the insightful songwriters who helped compose the song but remain in the shadows. Maal Jedhanii sings out loud and laments the traumatic history of brutal dispossession and displacement as well as the genealogy of the struggle for justice and the haunting life of a struggler from first to final breath.

Genealogy of Struggle

Maal jedhanii? Maal himanii?
Yeroo yaadaan dhibamanii
Jiruu afaan wallaalanii
Jiru afaan wallaalanii
Kan lafa dhabee horii saamamee
Kan roorroo jibbee gaaratti gamee
Maal herregaa? Maal dubbata mee?
Maal jedhanii…
Kan jiruun dhabee jaalallee firaa
Kophaasaa hafee ija hihhiraa
Maal abdataa mee jiruu addunyaatirraa?
Maal jedhanii…
What did they say? What did they tell?
When they’re troubled by deep trouble
Losing the meaning and language of life
Existing as mute, not knowing how to talk
When their land was taken, and their wealth robbed,
Abhorring tyranny, when they took to the mountains
What sense did they make? Just what did they utter?
What did they say…
Those who lost loved ones alive, as if they were dead
And they’re left alone, eyes searching far and wide
Just what is their hope in the life of this world?
What did they say…

Father’s Lineage

Damee inherited his struggle for justice from his paternal grandpa, Kabbadaa Sardaa’s father. So, what did Sardaa Booraa say when deep trouble came and troubled him in his Tuulama home? What did he tell when greedy aristocratic families with voracious appetite for land brutally killed and displaced his Tuulama kins and took their ancestral land, following Emperor Menelik’s southern marches of the 1880s? What did he say when they told him a good Tuulama is a dead Tuulama? Just what did he utter when his dispossessed kins were forcefully uprooted and the tightly knit community was scattered?

What did Sardaa Booraa say when the world was turning upside down for Tuulama and when the crisis of meaning was going topsy-turvy? For them, land was the embodiment of meaning, life, and livelihood. Land was the essence of life itself. No, land was not something to be given or taken away. Land belonged to Waaqa. Land was sacred. For Tuulama, land was inseparably tangled with ancestral spirituality and their sense of identity and belonging. Land was also a sacred abode, the dwelling of ancestral bones. They would defend and protect its sanctity with all the might they could muster.

For Tuulama, lafti keenya lafee keenyaa [our land is our bones] was not a simple saying. It was a deeply ingrained ancestral truth, the lens through which they saw the world. Whoever sought to take their land, sought to sever their sacred ancestral connection, and rob them of their identity and belonging. This major disruption of meaning was also disrupting the fundamental truth from which the Tuulama drew their assumptions, deepest values, and beliefs.

Sardaa Booraa was a ferocious warrior and an incredibly courageous hero that people held in high regard. His heart took to the mountains with those who abhorred the tyranny of dispossession and displacement and fought to defend the sanctity of their land and the meaning it gave to their identity and belonging. He blessed them for going in the great footsteps of heroes like Tufa Munaa.

His heart also went to exile with Tuulama who were exiled from their sacred ancestral land but making up for their loss by tightly holding their identity close to their heart. They ran to their kith and kin, only to find that the greedy imperial tyrants were already displacing their kins there too. So, they ran further to their broader Oromo kins. Like beautiful shining beads from a broken necklace, Tuulama were scattered throughout the Oromoland, sawing the seeds of solidarity. Even through the suffering of their own brokenness, they were weaving Oromos together from all corners of the Oromoland.

As they ran into exile, they took their sacred truth and their songs with them, refusing to be exiled from what is most precious. And they soothed their wounds of violent rupture in the balms of their sweet melodious songs. Been Sooddoo buunaa, biyya warqee babal’aa; Birraan barihee, beenu Baaletti gallaa [Come, let’s go to Sooddoo, the land of broadleaved enset; Spring has arrived, come, let’s go home to Baale]. And they touched Oromos from Walloo to Gujii and Booranaa, from Harargee to Wallaggaa.

Sardaa Booraa resented how his Tuulama community was fragmenting. He could not fathom how some of his beloved kins could bury their sacred truth deep in their hearts and join in the voracious imperial land grabbing as collaborators. He saw them as traitors embodying the tyrants’ adage: “ye abbaatih beet siizzerref, abreh ziref [when your father’s home is robbed, join the robbers].” He despised them for surrendering their identity to greedy tyrants for small scraps of land and feudal titles. He did not like that they took the footsteps of Imperial heroes like Gobana Daaccee to become imperial subjects.

For himself, Sardaa Booraa wanted neither exile nor collaboration. He chose to remain loyal to his local identity and stay put on his sacred ancestral land to fight imperial tyranny tooth and nail. What about those who lost their loved ones alive, lost them to forced exile as if they were dead? And those they lost to imperial cooptation as if they were dead? All those who were left lonely with eyes searching for loved ones far and wide? What about those who lost their meaning of life, those who lost the very essence of life? And those who lost hope in the life of this world?

Sardaa Booraa was a soothing balm for the ailment and agony of his community. He identified the gaps and provided the services that his long-suffering people needed. He was not only a warrior and a courageous hero, but also a compassionate and influential knowledge keeper. People listened to him because he understood the depth of the crisis in his community. And they went to him for meaning when they lost the meaning of life. He offered himself generously for the service of his people.

Sardaa Booraa distinguished himself as a counsellor of his traumatized community and as a language and voice for those who lost the meaning and language of life and simply existed as mute. He became a brilliant self-made traditional lawyer in the imperial courts, advocating for those who were robbed of their land. Their truth on his side, he challenged the imperial system so much that imperial officials prevented him from attending court anywhere in the area. But, when they blocked one way, Sardaa Booraa found other ways and continued to organize his people against imperial land-grabbing schemes. 

Finally, during the five-year Italian occupation of Ethiopia, Oromo collaborators of the empire approached Sardaa Booraa because they knew he was a ferocious warrior and asked him to lead the arbenyoch [patriots] fight against Italians in his area. He refused to join them saying that they can defeat the alien Italians with shallow roots anytime; so now they must focus on defeating the imperial foe that is soaked to its bones in Oromo blood and entrenching its roots deep in their sacred land. When fight broke out following the row, Sardaa Booraa was killed along with 37 others fighting on both sides.

True to his lifetime commitment, Sardaa Booraa died fighting imperial injustices to his very last breath on earth. Years later, those same Oromo imperial killers hunted down and killed all three sons of Sardaa Booraa in a cowardly ambush for fear that they might come after them for revenge killing. One of these murdered sons was Kabbadaa Sardaa, Demee’s father. So, Damee lost his father and two uncles in the same killing spree. The three brothers were buried in the same grave. It was to resist such imperial violence, fully knowing the deadly risks, that Damee inherited the courageous spirit of Sardaa Booraa.

Mother’s Lineage

Damee spoke very highly of his mother Furoo Roobii. He said that there were many heroes in his family, including Sardaa Booraa, but Damee declared that the greatest of them all was his mother. Furoo Roobii was a principled and tireless fighter who courageously took on imperial injustice. She tenaciously fought to save her sacred ancestral land from imperial land grabbers. She stood in the empire’s supreme court nonstop for 39 years till the 1975 Land Proclamation broke the backbone of the imperial land tenure system. So, Damee inherited courage and tenacity from his mother too. Here is a glimpse of Furoo Roobii’s sheroic lineage.

Damee’s maternal great grandpa, Badhaanee, lived in Salaalee when Ras Kassa’s family was taking over Tuulama land. Like Sardaa Booraa, Badhaanee too was a courageous hero and ferocious warrior who refused to leave his ancestral land and resisted land grabbing and dispossession. For him too, lafti keenya lafee keenyaa [our land is our bones] was not a simple saying. It was a deeply ingrained ancestral truth providing the lens through which he saw the world. Land was the deep wells from which he drew his values and beliefs. Badhaanee was killed while fiercely fighting to protect his sacred ancestral land.

Badhaanee’s wife, Damee’s great grandma [Akka-akko/Abaabe], grabbed their two toddlers, Baalchaa and Warqee, and ran southward. She did not have time to bathe or bury her loved ones. In her moment of desperation, she did what mothers do instinctively. She grabbed the children and ran to her kith and kin to make her seeds survive and preserve the generations. Akkakko the nurturer, the one who fed everyone before she had a bite herself, the one who cared for everyone while swallowing her own pain, sacrificed again and ran from Salaalee toward Finfinnee to save the seeds through her own suffering.

But Akkakko was baffled by why people killed over land that belonged to Waaqa, the sacred land that gently cradled the bones of ancestors in its sacred bosom. So, here was a clash of worldviews and meanings. For Akkakko land was enough for all; why would anyone displace and kill people when they could share and live together? With their voracious appetite, however, imperial gluttons did not understand or speak the language of enough, or sharing, or living together. This was alien to empire where land was just for extraction; and they must kill or chase away the inhabitants to grab it.

So, Baalchaa on her back and Warqee in her bosom, Akkakko ran as fast and far as her little feet could take her. With every breath and step she took, she gave a heap of thanks to Waaqa [God] and Lafa [Earth]. She was grateful even through the unbelievable loss of the violent disruption of her life and her meaning. Akkakko related to land with mutual care and kinship. For her, land was Haadha Dachii [Mother Earth], the mother and nurturer of all beings. She had nurtured and protected her all her life and she trusted the mutuality that Haadha Dachii will nurture and protect her and her toddlers.

And Haadha Dachii did not fail her. Akkakko lighted on her when she was bone tired, and Haadha Dachii carried her on her soft back. Her gentle rivers bathed and soothed her callous feet. The fruits of the sacred ancestral forest nurtured her and her toddlers. Birds chirped and sang sweet melodies to sooth them. When darkness fell across the land, nocturnal wild became their friends. Kind folks shielded them from harm, showed them the way, and passed them from clan to clan till they reached safety.

Akkakko the unsung shero was a shero like no other. She hid her own agony and stayed strong for her children and for her people. She preserved the seeds and lived to see the seeds of the next generation when her daughter Warqee gave birth to Furoo Roobii, Damee’s mother, and her son Baalchaa begat Ejjetaa Fayyisaa, Damee’s uncle. But alas! This family could not live in peace. Ejjetaa’s father Baalchaa was killed by poison because he too became a fierce resister of the imperial land grabbing.

In the early 1960s, Baalchaa’s son, Ejjetaa, became a founding member of the Macca-Tuulama Self-Help Association (MT) and introduced Damee to the group while he was still a young man in high school. Damee received his first political awareness on Oromo structural marginalization by attending these meetings where ways of improving economic and socio-cultural conditions of Oromo wellbeing were discussed. Alas! Soon the association suffered a major crackdown from Emperor Haile Selassie’s government where it was banned and its leaders were imprisoned, hanged, or banished.

Ejjetaa escaped the pogrom by fleeing to the Sudan where he carved a prominent niche for himself to serve his compatriots. He founded an Oromo community where he introduced the ancient Oromo flag and the Oromo predicament to the world. To this day there is a neighbourhood community known as Ejjeta Fayyisa Sefer in Sudan. He also supported those who fled Ethiopia by finding them scholarships, jobs, and resettlement in Arab countries. So, Damee also traced his courage, tenacity, and deep sense of community service to the family members he admired and looked up to on his maternal lineage.   

In the Eye of the Storm

Maal jedhanii? Maal himanii?
Yeroo yaadaan dhibamanii
Jiruu afaan wallaalanii
Jiru afaan wallaalanii
Kan facaafatee kadhaa mudatee
Kan irraa honghaawe waani abdatee?
Maal odeessa irraa waan isa mudatee?
Maal jedhanii…
Kan har’a ergamu dur ergate
Bantii duroomaarraa konkolaatee
Hiyyummaa duroomaarraa maal dubbatee?
Maal jedhanii…
What did they say? What did they tell?
When they’re troubled by deep trouble
Losing the meaning and language of life
Existing as mute, not knowing how to talk
Those who sowed their best seeds but met destitution
When drought burnt down their hopes of abundance
What did they tell of what they encountered?
What did they say…
Those bossed around where they were once the boss,
Tumbling and rolling down from peaks of affluence
What did they utter about the poverty of wealth?               
What did they say…

Walking the Thorny Paths

Damee went into the eye of the storm embodying the fierce abhorrence of injustice and the courage and tenacity to engage it – the qualities he inherited from his ancestors in the confluence of his paternal and maternal lineages. But his own struggle against injustice was more complex as forms of oppression had multiplied in his time. Land was and still is the central bone of contention, but imperial landholding generated opportunities of upward mobility and education for amassing status and wealth for some. And that had severely polarized the society into haves and have-nots when Damee entered the fray.  

Damee wove big dreams in the calm eye of the storm while the howling tempest raged all around him. He got good education and job and became a prominent leader in whatever he did. As in Maal Jedhanii, he hoped for the best harvest and sowed his best seeds. What did he say when the protective wall in the eye of the storm burst and swept him into the raging storm, turning him upside down and twirling like a rubble in the spinning water?

What did he utter when his meanings were lost, his hopes were dashed, and his dreams were turned into nightmares? What did he say when he was tumbling down from the peaks of status, beaten down, and bossed around where he was once the boss? Just what did he utter about the poverty of wealth and the lowliness of status?

Damee did not go to school as a child because there was no school where he was born and raised, though not far from the Capital City of the empire. The closest elementary school was 40 kilometers away in Holota. So, he helped his parents with farmwork as a child. When he was around 10 years old, his mother moved to Finfinnee and took him to live with her and go to school. Damee started school there and completed Grade 8 in 1963 with her support. Grade 8 was like a university degree at that time when 95% of the population had no access even to basic literacy. Damee got a full-time job where he worked during the day and enrolled in evening school and completed high school in 1967.

As soon as he completed high school, Damee went through two-and a-half years of military training and became an outstanding soldier by 1970. With his tall and elegant stature, he was chosen for the prestigious job as the Imperial Guard of His Majesty. He was so brilliant that he was promoted to management positions in no time and went north to Asab on a military mission in 1972.

That was at the height of the severe drought and famine in northern Ethiopia (1972-1974). It started in Wollo and Tigray and quickly spread south and east. Damee was shocked to see hundreds of starving skeletons of people on the roadside, and many dying. His unit had a stockpile of food, so Damee and his staff gave out some quintals of flour but painfully realized that the dire need was far beyond their drop in the ocean.

Damee was so deeply troubled that he couldn’t wait for the evening when he could talk with the overall commander of the convoy. He wondered why no one knew about this severe starvation and asked the boss if he could report this to the regional Eritrean government or to the central government. The boss shrugged it off saying that it was none of his business, period. Damee’s shock shot through the sky. Stifled, he could neither advocate for the dying people nor even report the starvation to any authority. A soldier did only what he was told and did not stick his nose in matters that did not concern him.

This was when Emperor Haile Selassie’s government was scrambling to hide the massive starvation in the north from its citizens and from the world. So, Damee was not alone in not knowing about the famine; the public was hoodwinked. In the capital Addis Ababa, things went on as normal and no one would notice anything like famine. Media were gagged and NGOs were instructed to keep it under wrap.

Damee later realized that massive death by starvation was a deliberate government policy of collective punishment for resisting state atrocities, and that mass starvation was linked to areas of insurgency and popular resistance. In the north, Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF, aka Jabha) had been fighting for Eritrean independence since the 1960s. Peasant uprisings in Wollo were repeatedly suppressed by looting their stock of foodgrains, confiscating livestock, blocking the salt trade, thus creating food shortage. In Tigray popular revolt was suppressed by bombing.

By early 1970s Wollo and Tigray were taking the brunt of deliberate repression and starvation. And that was the burning furnace that Damee obliviously walked into in 1972. That realization shattered Damee’s dream of a decent military job. His own silencing by his boss seamlessly tallied with the systemic repression and silencing of the starving people. The very purpose of his military mission north was part of such silencing and starving of dissident populations. If being a good soldier meant being complicit in these atrocities, Damee did not want any part of it. He would die fighting such atrocities.

But how did he let his boss silence him? Where was his own passion for justice? Where was his courage? After a deep critical reflection, he vowed to die courageously fighting injustice. He summoned the spirits of Badhaanee and Sardaa who died courageously fighting. He adopted Sardaa Booraa as his name of struggle to continue their unfinished fight and take it to the next level.

Damee was discharged from military after falling ill with a heart problem and found another job in an Italian manufacturing factory where he joined grassroots labour union. There, he met exploited workers hailing from all peoples of Ethiopia working under inhuman conditions. This was after the emperor was deposed in 1974 and the Derg military took over, posing as a friend of workers and peasants. Heartened by the new change, Damee became a passionate advocate for the rights of workers. And the workers elected him as the secretary of the labour union over all the 9 industries with over 200, 000 workers.

He worked in this position while the Derg organized All-Ethiopia Trade Union (AETU) at the national level and proclaimed it in January 1977. Damee and his Oromo comrade Gezaheny Kassahun Jaarraa were elected to AETU as 1st and 2nd Vice-Chairmen towards the end of 1978. This leadership position put Damee and his fellow union leaders in a constant head-on clash with highest officials of the Derg, including Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam himself, who repeatedly called them in for questioning and intimidation.

That was a dangerously bloody time. Yes, it was long after the Derg unleashed Red Terror on leaders and members of Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) in 1976 and then turned on leaders and members of All Ethiopia Socialist Movement (AESM more known as MEISON) fled underground in 1977 only to be captured and executed. It was also after the Derg declared victory over Somalia in March 1978 on the war Greater Ethiopia and Greater Somalia fought over Ogaden. Even after mass execution of its political opponents and victory over Somalia, the Derg was still jittery and killing all dissidents.

Mengistu was aggressively consolidating power not only by purging opponents within and outside the Derg but also by turning the various mass organizations like AETU into mouthpieces of the Derg. The remaining political elite and those in the bureaucracy were regrouping and tripping one another to prove their loyalty to the Derg and survive the pogrom. It was in these dangerous times of deadly political jostling that Damee and Gezaheny put their lives on the line and protected AETU from being a slogan-shouting mouthpiece of the Derg. They demonstrated highest ethical performance in protecting workers rights against the meddling of the Derg and other political parties.

Damee speaking to OMN in 2014 (Screenshot/OMN)

Fighting against the general injustice against all exploited workers of Ethiopia was not the only struggle in which Damee was courageously engaged in these dangerous times. Before and alongside that, he was also active in the Oromo struggle where several activities were coming together. Embodying ancestral refusal to bow down for injustice, Damee threw himself into these struggles from a young age. There was the MT raising awareness on the injustices Oromos were experiencing; there was a budding Oromo student movement in the university; and there was the Oromo Liberation Front organizing itself.

From attending the MT meetings when he was a high school student, Damee got to know key members, not only Oromos like Colonel Alamu Qixxeessaa, Hailemariam Gammadaa, and Mamo Mezemer, but also Mulu Majaa of Walayita, Woldamanuel Dubale of Sidaamaa, Zewde Otoroo of Yem, and many others from oppressed peoples of southern Ethiopia.

He admired their wisdom of coming together as oppressed peoples of the empire and raising awareness and encouraging their peoples to stand firm and demand their rights. Oppressed peoples paid education taxes but had no school, development taxes but had no road, health taxes but had no clinic. This resonated with Damee deeply because it was his childhood experience.

However, government officials did not like MT’s activities. Soon they banned MT as dangerous. Its members were disbanded, banished, imprisoned, and hanged. This evoked quiet rage among oppressed peoples of the empire. Damee remembered how several northern Ethiopian self-help associations were also banned to normalize the clampdown on MT but allowed to resume their activities as soon as MT was out of the way. Damee realized how the fierce power in the coming together of oppressed peoples evoked deep fear in imperial circles, and he promised himself to mobilize and bring them together.

Indeed, the silent anger at the banning of MT was generating the coming together of oppressed peoples in multiple forms, and Damee was active in these spaces as well. University students hailing from the oppressed peoples of the empire were coming together clandestinely within the umbrella of the general university student movement engaged in a bold radical critique of the imperial regime. This was when “Land to the tiller” was galvanizing all in the student movement in the late 60s and early 70s.

Beyond students, the unrest was also simmering within the general population, especially among the large peasanty and workers of the few factories. It was spreading among private employees, public servants, and even people’s representatives in the emperor’s lower house of commons. Indeed, some vocal MT members were representatives of oppressed peoples of the south in the emperor’s lower house of commons. Damee witnessed that the awareness fire the MT started to spread fast amplifying the discontent and grievances and catching wider and wider circles of oppressed peoples.  

Banning MT spread the fire that MT contained within itself and walked with it in calm wisdom. And the spread fire was reignited and continued to light up in many forms. Small groups of the budding Oromo elite, prominent families, and fired up Oromo nationalists were also amplifying Oromo student activities by providing cover and offering up their homes as hubs where students and nationalist groups clandestinely congregated.

These groups continued to discuss the undying demands of justice generated at the MT meetings, long after the MT leaders were murdered, and the MT was banned. These conversations took the narrative of the Oromo struggle to the next level. Much like the disrupted MT conversations, these notable hubs of emerging Oromo nationalism were spaces where oppressed peoples broader than Oromos congregated.

Damee spoke warmly of one such notable nationalist hub where he participated in Oromo university student clandestine conversations. The hub he fondly remembered was the family house of Aadde Margee Miijanaa Jammoo and Obbo Mitikkuu Waaqoo, the parents of Abboomaa Mitikkuu, Abel Mitikkuu, Giiftii Mitikkuu and their younger siblings. Abbomaa was the leader of the university student union at one time. Here Damee met emerging leaders of the Oromo liberation struggle like Galaasaa Dilboo, and fearless but extremely humble heroes of Oromo liberation struggle like Muhe Abdo.

Obbo Mitikkuu was poisoned and murdered at his workplace by those who disliked his nationalist stance, but Aadde Margee and her children swallowed their grief and courageously kept the hub alive and thriving. Abboomaa joined the OLF and was martyred in a tragic massacre along with his precious comrades. Muhe was taken out of prison with his comrades Gezaheny Kaasahun Jaarraa, Kabadaa Damissee, and Yiggazuu Waaqee and summarily executed by the Derg after 7 years of torture and incarceration as prisoners of conscience. Damee was taken down from his prominent AETU position, tortured, imprisoned, and released after eleven-and-a-half years when the Derg crumbled.

Prison, Torture, Release

Damee was arrested in January 1980 along with hundreds of Oromos when the Derg unleashed a major crackdown on those suspected of having ties with the OLF. He was taken straight into a torture chamber the moment he was hauled into the investigation centre at the Menelik Palace. Damee was no stranger to the harassment and intimidation of Derg officials. But this was drastically different and intense. His protective walls in the eye of the storm had burst. He was swept into the raging storm and churned with the churning water as if he was a piece of debris.   

He was blindfolded and gagged with dirty bloody socks pulled from the mouth of the person tortured just before him. He was swallowed in total darkness in broad daylight and his voice was muffled. This tall man was made to fold up and hug his knees like a child and his hands were tied together around his bent knees. A pole was passed through the nooks of his bent arms and behind the back of his bent knees. A dignified human being the moment before, Damee was now flipped upside down like a ragdoll and brutally beaten in the soles of his feet till he lost consciousness.

No one would know what he said in that agony of torture, if he called out to his mother Furoo Roobii or uttered a vow to Sardaa Booraa, if he said prayers or if he just hollered. Damee’s voice was muffled by the bloody gag socks to which he may have added his own blood to be passed on to the mouth of the next person to be tortured. What did he feel when he hollered but no one heard? What did he say when tumbling down from the peaks of status, hitting the ground hard? What did he utter when he was at the mercy of tormenters who ordered him to sit or get up, eat or pee just to show their power over him?

However, Damee was troubled more by bigger tormenting tragedies than his personal torture. He was tormented by the torture of his revered high-profile iconic Oromo figures, how they were bossed around and tossed like garbage to break the spirit of those who respected them as they watched their icons being humiliated. Damee knew that the beaters and torturers were trained in sister socialist countries on the most efficient torture techniques. But he was shocked by their sadism as they joyfully boasted about how many big ministers they flipped and beat up. He was terrified by their total oblivion to the meaning of thinking beyond themselves and caring deeply about the oppression of others.

Beyond Oromos, Damee was shocked to find that the cream of the Ethiopian society surviving the mass killing of revolutionaries was in prison, that the compassionate hearts and brilliant minds of the country were in prison. He was shocked that the surviving leaders of political parties, doctors, engineers, educators, ministers, and lawyers were all in prison. He was horrified that most of these brilliant minds wasting away in prison were the precious children of poor taxpayers who sent them to school without the privilege of education for themselves. He was shocked that these parents fed, clothed, and looked after their children before they met their own basic needs.

Yet, in this sea of incarcerated brilliance and compassionate hearts, Damee’s incisive eyes deciphered between those treated as children of the mother empire and those Othered. He came to the painful realization that Oromos were the only ones treated as invading aliens out to destroy the mother empire. While the children of empire were jailed and tortured for rehabilitation, Oromos were in for torture and starvation, for the calculated destruction of their bodies and souls, to purge their resilient spirits of Tufaa Munaa, Sardaa Booraa and Badhaanee who courageously fought imperial aggression.

In the pogrom, even innocent Oromos like the revered Obbo Zegeyye Asfaw who seamlessly embraced the spirits of his ancestors on both sides of the imperial fight, was not spared. Obbo Zegeyye inherited the spirit of his maternal lineage like Tufaa Munaa who courageously fought against the empire as comfortably as he inherited the spirit of his paternal lineage like Gobana Daaccee who collaborated and courageously fought for the empire. Just being a brilliant and influential Oromo was enough to mark him for destruction. And this intense fear and hatred of Oromos was what shook Damee to the core.

Damee spoke of the shockwaves that shook government officials from across the board when they saw the arrest of such high-profile Oromos who were supposed to be loyal servants of the empire. They could not believe how they could even be suspected of involvement in Oromo politics. How could they commit such an incredible suicidal taboo? So, their punishment of torture and starvation was extra harsh and extra murderous.

Damee, along with the high-profile Oromos and those suspected of being ring leaders of the OLF were separated from the rest of prisoners and held in the palace prison where no food, clothing or medicine was allowed. This was where they were hatefully beaten to pulp and left bleeding between life and death, while their families searched for them carrying food and clothes. No one was allowed to tell families where their loved ones were held. In search of their loved ones, these grieving families may have passed by the palace a hundred times, totally oblivious that their loved ones were crammed in there between life and death craving food and warmth just a few meters away.

Sometimes god-fearing guards fed the starving prisoners by scouring for leftover food crumbs dumped in the garbage bin of the cafeteria where the palace security dined. Other times the guards were not as kind. Damee remembered how he tried to feed the starving people on his way to Asab in the heydays of his career. It was now his turn to starve and need to be fed. He empathized with the kind guards who secretly brought leftovers to feed him and his friends. Still, more than his own pain, he was hurt for his revered once-high-profile icons who were now reduced to garbage and left craving for the garbage bin crumbs that a kind guard might throw their way. The tumbling and rolling down was harsher for them.

Like Sardaa Booraa, Damee also distinguished himself as a caring counselor and inspirer for his esteemed comrades in that space of torture and agony. In those times of trauma and desperation when their collective meaning of life was turning upside down, Damee swallowed his own pain and strove to inspire his comrades. He coordinated fun activities amid desolation to reframe their shared meaning and withstand the agony of mental and physical torture. In an ugly dungeon where the beaters and torturers humiliate, dehumanize, and erase their sense of dignity and self-worth, the comrades cheered and rehumanized each other, sang songs of liberation, dreamed and shared inspiring stories of defiance.

After two years of torture and starvation, Damee and his comrades were still alive, and they were transferred to Maekelawi alive. Even there, however, they were all crammed into one isolation cell to separate them from the prisoners there, especially new Oromo prisoners and the ones with whom they were arrested in the initial clampdown. Rumors had it that the Derg had sentenced Damee and his icons to death, but Mengistu fled and the Derg itself crumbled before the prisoners were executed. And they were freed from the ugly dehumanizing bondage on May 23, 1991, after eleven and a half years.

Out in freedom within days after the Derg crumbled and before the new transitional government was formed, Damee and his friends seized the opportunity of the political vacuum for collective reflection. They gathered Oromos from across the spectrum of political, traditional, social, and cultural leadership and led the reflection on what is next for Oromos in the face of looming TPLF domination of the entire country? And Oromos came flooding to them searching for a new direction in the new context. Mostly old members of MT that remained banned during the Derg, traditional gadaa leaders, students, peasants, workers, and students came out. They discussed how Oromos would respond to the replacement of one form of domination by another?

Sure enough, TPLF hastily organized the EPRDF and formed the transitional government with the OLF as a junior partner. Damee saw this as TPLF’s calculation to leverage the EPRDF as a counterweight against their fear of the OLF large mass base. Their desire to oust OLF was clear as seen in the ensuing conflict between the two. In the meantime, however, some prominent OLF members and sympathizers took ministerial portfolios, and Damee entered the Transitional Council as one of the OLF representatives.

Along with his responsibilities in the Transitional Council, Damee was also deeply engaged in raising awareness and galvanizing Oromos to demand their democratic rights. He threw himself into this work so completely that he did not even have a moment to visit his aging mother whom he had not seen for over 12 years. Things were changing so fast and the conflict between TPLF and OLF was intensifying, as the vast majority of Oromos rallied behind OLF and it became clear that the OLF was set for a landslide win in the local snap elections across Oromo areas. TPLF’s calculation to discredit OLF was backfiring.

Damee worked so tirelessly to contribute to galvanizing the Oromo voice for the OLF. Not only did he not see his family, but he also sacrificed a lot in terms of his own health and wellbeing. Realizing that it cannot discredit or oust OLF by vote, TPLF escalated the violence to oust it militarily. To Damee, it was as clear as daylight that the TPLF was not interested in the junior partnership of the OLF in the first place or in transitioning towards any semblance of democracy. It created the EPRDF as a tool to oust the OLF from the transitional arrangement and pave way for establishing its own dominance over the country.

Damee engaging locals in Jaldu, Central Oromia alongside senior OLF figures such as colonel Alemu Kitessa in 1991. (Screenshot/Lagatafo Studio)

Working nonstop under conditions of escalating violence took such a tall on Damee that his heart condition deteriorated, and he collapsed. Amnesty International supported him to go to Europe for open heart surgery. Damee left with the confidence that the OLF would win the snap elections with a landslide. He and his team worked so hard for it. The TPLF also knew that, and its officials lamented that Oromos were going to simply raise their hands (ballot) and rob them of the victory they won by bloody bullets. And they made sure that would not happen.

Damee wanted to hurry back to Ethiopia as soon as he had his heart valve replacement procedure. But alas! OLF had been forced to withdraw from, rather pushed out of, the transitional arrangement and gone back to the familiar armed struggle by then. Soon TPLF made sure that OLF did not have a toehold anywhere in the country or in the neighboring countries.

That was déjà vu for Damee. He had repeatedly said that the policy of all governments that took power in the empire was to alienate Oromos as enemies of Ethiopia, reduce them to spaces of marginality and servitude, and control their vast fertile land and resources. He had repeatedly lamented that what changed with every change of government was only their names and ideologies, but the policy of the empire on Oromos remained the same. So now Damee had no country to go back to. He was forced to seek asylum and eventually resettled in Canada in 1992.

Exile and Exilic Work

Damee did not waste anytime grieving over what was lost. As was the hallmark of those who dedicated their lives to their vision, he swallowed his pain, revived his hopes, and continued the intricate struggle against the grand injustice, now from the space of exile. Just as he galvanized the Oromo voice in the country, he refused to bow to the petty bickering in the diaspora and strove to bring communities together for the bigger goal of the Oromo struggle. He identified critical service gaps and created a niche for himself to contribute his bit to the versatile facets of the Oromo struggle in his new context.

He called on the spirit of Ejjetaa Fayyisaa and Sardaa Booraa, and started advocating for the Oromo struggle against injustice. He also started helping refugees who fled Ethiopia, just as Ejjetaa did when he was in exile in the Sudan. He gave invaluable service assisting in the processes of putting together their asylum application, finding lawyers who understood the history of Oromo predicament in Ethiopia, going through the hearings, and resettlement. Like Sardaa Booraa, he became efficient and quite successful in his self-made niche. He facilitated hundreds of asylum applications in Canada and around the world wherever refugees fled Ethiopia.

In his Advocacy, he raised awareness on the Oromo predicament in Ethiopia throughout the brutal repression of the EPRDF. He worked tirelessly to support the qeerroo peaceful protests in the homeland and the solidarity Oromo protests in the diaspora. When the EPRDF finally crumbled under the pressure and OPDO rode to power on the backs of the qeerroo struggle, Damee went home into the euphoria after 27 years of exile. He had bags full of dreams and revived hopes. The dreams of justice and peace for which generations of his long-suffering people had sacrificed heavily was finally coming to fruition.

Alas! The jubilation died down in no time and the familiar brutal repression was taking shape. Damee was dumbfounded when a new form of drought burnt to the ground his peoples’ collective dreams once again. Adding insult to injury, he observed seeds of unparalleled cruelty growing out of the malicious drought. Damee was certain that these were not the seeds his peoples’ struggle sawed. He swallowed his dashed hopes once again and continued his exilic struggle for justice to the very end of his life.

Final Moments and Continued Injustice

Dur qarayyoon boonee kan har’a jaame
Kan ifni jiru guyyaan itti dhaame
Maal anaannataa gufuun yoo dhawamee?
Maal jedhanii…
Kan roorroon halagaa mukatti galchitee
Kan bilisummaan dhiiga qaadhimtee
Maalii abdiinsaa yoo duuti isa argatee?
Maal jedhanii…
When their old piercing sights were now blinded
And darkness swallowed them in broad daylight
Whom do they fault when barriers hit them?
What did they say…
When brutal repression drove them into the woods
And liberation doled engagement rings of blood
What is their hope if they encounter death?
What did they say…

So, what did Damee say in his final moments? What did he whisper when he took his last breath on earth? What did he utter when his sharp piercing eyes of his flesh were dimmed, and the darkness of death swallowed him in broad daylight? What did he say of the brutal repression that dragged him into prison and drove his comrades to the woods? What did he whisper about the engagement ring of blood that liberation doled out, and about the darkness of Waaqa opening into a brilliant light? Putting his life into perspective in that final moment, what was his hope when he encountered death?

Damee envisioned continuity after his death. He didn’t beget children out of his own loins. He never married. Like many who fully dedicated their lives to the Oromo struggle, he never started a family. His family was the struggle. But his sister implored him to have children. She said he should not break their genealogy; he must continue the lineage. Take a guddifachaa child to carry your name and continue your line, she pressed. But Damee already had Oromo children, thousands and millions of them, who would continue his line. Do not call me Damee, he said, call me Abbaa Hoomaa [Father of Multitudes].  

Indeed, Damee was the father of multitudes who loved, revered, and celebrated him, who looked after him and cared for him in his moments of need. Yet, this iconic father of multitudes met his death alone as he must. No one can cross that river with him. But freed from the bondage of his flesh and passing into the spirit world, his unbounded ayyaanaa was no longer restricted. He became a spirit that freely flowed into all spaces, connecting everyone, and every being, including the deceased and the living.

Indeed, multitudes gathered by Damee’s deathbed to pay homage to their icon and send him off with love. Damee’s freed spirit loved them back and gave them his precious fatherly blessings. To the very end of his life, he prayed to Waaqa to give them the wisdom to live in unity, to see that the problem for Oromos is their vast land and its wealth of resources. That is your gift from Waaqa, his spirit told them. Never take your eyes off it. You have held the tail of the leopard. Never let it go. Take it to the finish line.

And his children heard him loud and clear. And they sent Damee’s still bounded body travelling across vast continents and oceans, homing on his homeland. His freed spirit found a brilliant light in darkness, comforting home in homelessness, and glowing hope in hopelessness, as his bounded body went home into the warm embrace of the Haadha Dachii [Mother Earth] he had always honoured. He went home into the soft sod of Araddaa Sardaa Booraa [the heartland of Sardaa Booraa], and into ayyaana Sardaa Booraa that chose him, the spirit that Damee gracefully embraced.

The iconic legacy of the iconic Damee continues in ways that are both beautiful and ugly. He stood for and struggled for something beautiful and precious, something undying, something transcendent across all times and spaces, and that is continuing. Unfortunately, the ugly counterpart of this beauty, the cruel injustice that Damee and millions of his comrades abhorred and fought, is also continuing. His country is plunged into endless civil war, visible and invisible. His precious people continue to suffer and die daily. Iconic gadaa leaders are massacred, millions of his people are dispossessed and displaced. Promising leaders and courageous heroes who speak truth to power are hunted down and murdered.

On April 9, 2024, exactly one year to the day after Damee was buried in her warm embrace, Haadha Dachii was once again forced to gulp down the precious blood of her younger son, the iconic Battee Urgeessaa. May he rest in eternal peace. He represents the thousands of our promising young leaders who continue to be murdered. Unparalleled cruelty has cut down their brimming potentials. Their blood continues to scream to Waaqa for justice. And we continue to mourn as we celebrate and celebrate as we mourn.

We are a nation in mourning because we are robbed of our icons and our collective dreams. We cry because of the huge holes our martyrs leave in our hearts. But we also rejoice because every murder generates millions like them. Because we know the energy their death releases will continue the struggle that claimed their lives. We know our martyrs are heroes and sheroes to celebrate and not to cry for. We thank Waaqa for their lives, for their legacies, and for their spirits that continue to inspire us. And this is the hope that our martyrs inspired when they encountered death, as sung in Maal Jedhanii.

[i] Here is a caveat. Some dates and time references in this tribute are extrapolations. For example, when Damee started school, when he completed high school and military training, how long he worked for the military, and when he started working in industry are unknown dates for me as I could not access his school or work records. The estimates I offer for these unknown dates are extrapolated from objectively known dates and sequence of events in his story.

Editor’s Note: Martha Kuwee Kumsa, is a Siinqee feminist and a Professor Emerita at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada, specializing in Oromo culture and immigrant identity. Professor Kuwee can be reached at [email protected]

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