OCTOBER 24, 2013
QABAATA BORU is an Ethiopian journalist who, like his colleagues, faced a choice of censorship, silence, or of likely being thrown into a gulag after he was tortured and persistently persecuted for his reporting as a second-year journalism student in Addis Ababa.
He chose something else and went into exile in Kenya.
Once in Kenya, he ended up in the Kakuma Refugee Camp near the South Sudan border, where he founded a refugee-run news bureau serving the camp and advocating for refugee rights and free expression called Kanere News. Kakuma is both desolate and cosmopolitan, with temperatures often reaching 104 degrees, malaria, poisonous snakes, and poor access to basic life services while housing 155,269 people from at least five nations and many more distinct regional cultures and tribes. The camp is also a town within the town of Kakuma, but the refugees are not permitted to leave even though many are there for decades without resettlement, growing up and growing old.
The camp is run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (The UN’s refugee agency), and UN camp officials have harassed and menaced Kanere’s volunteer journalists unless Kanere permitted camp officials to have editorial input in their stories, so now the size of the Kanere team has decreased.
Kanere News began as a print newspaper for the camp community staffed by exiled journalists from several nations along with Kenyan reporters, and then funding issues moved it online, where it is currently published.
ANDREW MCGREGOR: Why did you go into exile?
QABAATA BORU: I was arrested and jailed in Ethiopia in late 2004 after writing a news article that was accused of creating tension at Addis Ababa University where I was a second-year journalism student. I was tortured for no reason and indicted for supporting a rebel group called the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). I was freed after two weeks of detention following student protests while the federal government of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi continued its crackdown.
After I was released, life was not normal anymore as the government continued with illegal detentions of high-profile party opposition leaders including the arrests of students, and that sparked more tensions in the wake of the 2005 general election. Due to the warnings and life threatening circumstances I suffered, I was most fearful for my life and I decided to escape from that country.
AM: What was the decision like?
QB: It was such a tough decision to make, however, due to life threatening conditions, all I wanted was just to get to somewhere I could be safe and secure. It’s not easy leaving behind beloved family members.
AM: Did you discuss it with your family?
QB: No. I never had an opportunity to discuss with my family. All they knew was that I went back to the university until later when I arrived in the hideout.
AM: Are they at risk because you are an exiled journalist?
QB: Yes, they were at risk because immediately after I escaped the government security forces visited my home to inquire about my whereabouts and threatened my family members. Then, in 2005 towards 2006, the government security forces visited my home several times and harshly interrogated members of my family.
AM: How did you learn English?
QB: My elementary school was in a rural area where I was born and brought up. I went to a high school in a small town and later went to a university in the capital city. Despite the ups and downs of a life in exile, I struggled to attend several courses in advanced English and literature as well as human rights and media workshops.
AM: Why did you decide to start a news bureau in your refugee camp?
QB: This was essential because a free press is important to any democratic society, including refugee camps. The refugees are not prisoners unless some UNHCR officials think so! The Kakuma Refugee Camp has existed for 22 years now, and it has never been covered by independent media or true refugee voices except the humanitarian mode of controlled information and access to this neglected camp.
Also, after the human rights abuses, corruption, exploitation, crimes, and killings that happen inside the camp, refugees have become victims. The many crimes that I witnessed in the camp break my heart! Therefore, I thought a news bureau would help to redress their legal needs and provide solutions. I wanted to give the residents a window beyond the camp by telling their suffering and stories to the outside world. I thought, someday, a feedback mechanism could also be established covering all refugee suffering in this camp when Kanere appears on the World Wide Web.
AM: Why do you think free thought is threatened in the camp?
QB: Simply because the UNHCR and the entire humanitarian operation would not like the truth to be told. It is such a tough thing when refugee journalists are criticizing UNHCR operations in terms of service, deliveries, resettlement, corruption, favors, and mistreatment of food aid among other things.
AM: Why do you think free thought is threatened in Ethiopia?
QB: In Ethiopia there’s no legitimate and democratic governance. Therefore, the dictatorial regime would never allow the free flow of information, hence suppressing independent free speech and violating the rule of law!
AM: How big is the Kanere News team, and what do they do?
QB: In 2009 to 2010, we had 20 Kanere reporters, but, following security threats from the camp authorities, Kanere was faced with opposition and harassment, and the team dropped to 15 members. From 2011 the number dropped to 12, then to 10. Finally, we only have seven active journalists.
AM: What are your hopes for your own life in the future?
QB: I wish to go back to school in a safe and secure environment. I am inspired to be an international journalist or an advocate. Also, it might be valuable to get resettled abroad some day, though I don’t know how it will happen or when!
AM: If you spoke to the editor-in-chief of an American news bureau, what is something you would ask that person?
QB: Well, I’d have told the person several things, but majorly I would ask the person to raise the protection and value of Kanere journalists. For instance, I’d ask if the journalists in exile are entitled to equal protection as compared to other journalists of the world?
Secondly, I’d ask the person if they can help Kanere to grow and develop through sufficient funding particularly from the American government, citizens, cooperates, or media houses in the USA!
Lastly, I would ask the person if they can create an awareness campaign for Kanere to increase chances for material support and publicity for the paper!
AM: What is your dream for the future of Kanere News?
QB: My dream for the future of Kanere News is to see it grow, develop, and prosper.
Refugees in Kakuma are purposefully kept isolated from the rest of the world. We have no work rights, no freedom of movement, and minimal opportunities to advocate for our rights — out of sight, out of mind. Many camp residents live here in excess of 20 years. We need our story to be told by us and not people speaking on our behalf. Telling our story, we can give the outside world an insight into life in a refugee camp and the issues refugees face, share vital information between camp residents, and advocate for our needs. Refugees need a voice, Kanere is that voice.
AM: How do you access the internet in a refugee camp?
QB: It’s very hard and frustrating. I don’t have access to any reliable internet in the camp. However, I have to buy the Safaricom internet data bundles, spending at least $3 per day, which is expensive for me/Kanere. The best internet connections remains with UNHCR, but they don’t allow me to use their internet or computer! In the past Kanere has requested material support from UNHCR, but they denied supporting Kanere unless they are allowed to play a role within its editorial board. We declined censorship!
AM: How big is the camp?
QB: Kakuma Refugee Camp is in three major sections, namely Kakuma 1, 2, and 3, which is further subdivided into zones and blocks. The blocks are the smallest refugee settlement units and are comprised of a mix of nationalities that have a population between 500-1,000 individuals. As of the beginning of June 2013, the camp population stood at 155,269 people according to a UNHCR official report.
AM: How long does the average person stay there, or is each case different?
QB: The average stay is 15-20 years, but each case is different in nature. However, the people from Darfur and Somalia are regarded as prima facie refugees, meaning asylum seekers from these countries are recognized by the UNHCR without assessing them for refugee status determinations as happens to other refugees from Africa or Iran.
AM: How many people find new permanent homes?
QB: Every year the number of people who find new permanent homes is minimal compared to the increasing camp population that is estimated to be from 1,000 to 2,000 people, though the figure varies from year to year according to UNHCR.
AM: What do people do for entertainment?
QB: There’s no better entertainment to lift the spirit of camp residents from humanitarian NGOs, et cetera . . . than through songs and dances.
The refugees live in a blocking system, and concentration is according to their countries of origin. For instance, drum beating is a cultural entertainment for the people from the Great Lakes region. Generally, there are several TV halls that football fans overcrowd to watch movies, sports, football Champions League, and the World Cup season! Other residents normally walk around the camp in the evening hours as the humidity drops. The temperature in Kakuma usual sticks from 38 to 44 degrees Celsius.
AM: How would you like people to help?
QB: Kanere is a small news organization but its vision burns. Kanere News is in strong need of sufficient funding and material support for its smooth operation. It will need to build a small office and be well equipped with supplies. Kanere will need to pay its volunteers who have worked entirely for free since its inception.
The people of the world can help us with funding, purchase of media equipment, donations of laptops from either private individuals or organizations, donation of used laptops and cameras, et cetera et cetera, as we welcome all forms of support, big or small!!