PAULOS GOTE’S STORY
A Journey to Freedom!
The year is 1979, and I remember when my father (Gebeyehu Gote) and brother (Assefa Gote) dug the hole inside the house and buried the corn and barley in a big pot. Then they sealed the top and painted the floor with cow dung. If they don’t hide the corn the militia guys will come and burn it as ordered by the communist regime. A few days later the police came to our house and took my father and brother to Jinka prison just because they were the leaders of Koibe Kalehiwot Church. Then the church building was turned into a government owned elementary school.
After six years of going to that school, I went to Jinka Junior High School where I started wearing shoes and short pants, ate roasted corn for breakfast and boiled corn for super. It was a one-hour walk every day to school from Jinka Kalehiwot church compound to school for 5 days a week. The weekend trip from Jinka to Koiba, both ways to get corn is unbearable! Sometimes I come back with nothing. I would take a shortcut through the mountains and walk to and from every weekend. It was a nine hour walk through the night.
At school, supplies were very low. Due to the lack materials, pens and pencils were often used by one person to write 3 or 4 lines and then passed to another student to use. The teacher would erase the notes while we share the pen/pencil and many of my friends went back to Koibe and never back to school. Finishing high school gave me the idea to ask the government to build a medical clinic in the Manali area; provide good desks, chairs, blackboards etc for the school and to build roads to connect one village to another.
Asking those and similar questions put me in Jinka prison in 1994. I was 22 when I was first arrested.I was in and out of prison several times, in different polices station jails.In total I spent 2 years at the Jinka Prison. At the Jinka Prison 50 people were locked in a 15X15 foot cell.The prison held over 500 people. Some of those were life sentenced murderers and criminals.On one occasion I was visited by International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC). It became a back and forth occurrence for 6 years. I did not sleep nor did we lay down for a minute. The room was overcrowded. There was not enough room, and everyone had to stand up and push the next person just to make room for themselves. Sometimes I got to rest a little during the day only to wake up to cellmates urinating on one another. By the help of the ICRC I was released from and started working in Turmi Health Center.
My best friend, Samuel Garsho , with whom I shared life in school and in jail was also released with me. After that, he joined the Ethiopian Peoples Democratic Revolutionary Front, the ruling party in Ethiopia. He was a team leader for a group of 16 people including himself (9 police and 7 politicians) that came to my office on Friday May 19 2000 at 3 pm and surrounded me. They found me outside in the compound and Samuel then started yelling and touching me in threatening ways saying: “You skinhead! We are here today to finish you or to finish everything with you forever.”
That was the first and last word in English ‘skinhead’ I had ever heard from him. I smiled and greeted him. I said; “Give me five minutes and I’ll get ready for all you have for me.” Nobody heard our conversation!
I walked out of the compound very confidently for less than 200 meters between them and me. There were a few houses that provided some hiding places and I got to my home to get my wallet with my identification documents and left. I never turned my head towards them. That is it. I did not say goodbye to anyone. I started running when I Felt safe to do so.
There was an orthodox church just outside of town. Once I passed that I thought my fear was over but I was fearful until I got to snow covered Lethbridge, Canada. I walked about 10 km to Angude village where the elder and well respected man, SoraMana, lives. Respected him and he knew about Mr. Samuel’s political power increase.
He knew of my problems with the political leaders, and he listened to my story. I stayed there for 6 hours, just outside of Turmi Angude village.He decided to send aman to town to see how the situation looked. The man came back around 9:30 with the news that most of my friends were arrested and some were taken to Dimekapolice station, which is about 25km from Turmi. I was afraid to go back to the worst jail forever or be killed. The man said the search for you extended as far as Woito bridge km from Turmi. As things were getting worse, we started our journey at 11:00pm, under the cover of darkness. Sora, with his gun, and I with my club and just the shirt and pants I was wearing. He walked with me for 65 kilometers towards the Karo tribe and the village of Kibish at the Kenyan border. Sora left me at Karo, fearing for his life as the Bume tribe would kill him if he traveled further. So I walked on alone, choosing to die in the bush or walk my way to safety.
I spent my days in the bush, and night time was for walking. It was dangerous as the reptiles and other wild animals use the night to survive.The local tribes (Hammar, Karo, Bume, Geleb, and Turkana) are always fighting one another. For most of the trip, on the roadways, I walked backwards hoping to fool anyone tracking me. I would run through the bush when there were no roads. I stayed two nights just outside of Kangaton where I ate their food and drink water. After careful assessment and direction of the Kenya Ethiopia border situation from those wonderful Bume elders I started my journey towards the direction they pointed out on that day. It is hard to know sometimes at night whether I am on the right direction or not. After 12 hrs of walking that night all I said to God was“I love the people and the country but without my intention just only for deserving best for them I have been forced to flee the. However, I know you will guide me through my destination andme back to share their burdens in the near future.” The final words in the land of desert.
Arriving in Kenya:
It was May 26, 2000 when I crossed the Kenyan border at around 11am!I came to the village of Kibish, and was looking for a flag to show me a police station, and I walked in. The police officer seemed nervous due to the unexpected situation of my arrival. One of the officers told me that he never saw a person come to the police station and introduce himself as an asylum seeker. He said people were hiding from us but you come to us directly. My answer to him was “I saw the flag then I know I’ll be protected. I thought I’ll be killed by someone before I get into the station now I feel safe!”
Then I asked for water, and he gave me water. After a few minutes a lot of officers arrived at the station and interviewed me in a different style. Then they gave me roasted beans and corn mix (Marague). The station commander told me that I have to stay the night in the station safely, andearly in the morning I will be sent to Lodwar.
The night was too long by myself in the room without a mattress, blanket and light. The morning came and nobody opened my door. Around 10:30am two police officers opened the door and took me to the back of a trailer which was packed with people, goat wood, sheep, cow skins and goat skins as well.The stench was very bad. Around 3pm, in one small town they told us that somebody died from our truck, and the driver has to be interviewed. After few hours, we started our journey to Lodwar where I thought I will be treated as refugee. We arrived there Sunday May 28, 2000 and I realized that I had to stay in the police station until I saw a judge before they took me to the refugee camp. I was registered as a prisoner around 11:30pm in Lodwar police station. The size of the room and the number of the prisoners are same as Ethiopia. The only difference was the temperature inside the room, it was too hot and I was there for 5 1/2 days. I didn’t eat, but I drank mud.
After three days, the judge ordered the police to escort me to Kakuma refugee camp. That was June 2 ,2000. I spent just about a month in Kakuma, along with the thousands of refugees without any mattress, sleeping on dust. I felt the coldness around 3:00am; that is always when it feels the coldest.
Mr. Hazam, a United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) Field Officer, called me to his office and said, “Due to the sensitivity of your case, we are sending you to Nairobi, and you will be protected there. Here is money for transportation ticket.” The budget was only for transportation, no money was given for food and drink, but I was happy. After two days of horrible journey,Friday June30, 2000around 1:30 am, I arrived to my 6 month feature homeNairobi UNHCR gate. The driver of the bus showed me the building and dropped me and left to his final destination. I went to the door, and the security guard showed me where the refugees sleep. Nothing fancy; it was just on the street. I remember the days I spent without food and water.
One day, I heard a person crying in Ethiopian language, so I approached him and started speaking to him in his language.He Increased his voice and kept shouting. Another Ethiopian woke up and told me about that person’s mental and visual disabilities due to the lack of UNHCR care. He introduced himself as Girma Chewakafrom Addis Ababa university and told me that he was there for six months. He forecasted that I will stay even more than him. Friday around 8:30am I went inside for registration. I was called to the office, and after they took my picture, they told me to wait outside the office. Later in the afternoon I received appointment slip for two months. I shouted and told them that I have no place to stay the night. Then they called me back to the office to meet the protection officer, Mr. Samuel Nyakirega. He gave me a referral letter to see Mr.Cyril Ubiem,a social worker, on Tuesday July 4, 2000. He gave me 200 Kenyan shilling equivalent to $4.00 Canadian. Then I went outside and stayed at the UNHCR gateWestlands . I met with the social worker, and he sent me back to see Mr.Samuel.ThenI was interviewed by Samuel and he said I will get resettlement, but before that, he has to add people in my file then he must receive$3,000-$5,000 US dollars (a bribe). I said “no” to him and everything changed. I was escorted out from the office by security.Finally, I went to see the senior protection officer, Mr. Peter Okoth Aingo. I told him about the incidents with. Samuel and Mr. Cyril, and he then told me to leave the room.Every day when they come to office and when they go home I had a chance to say some thing to them. I askedAlingowhen will they start to see my case? He said “When you die in the street”. That was the day I laid in front of Jacqueline’s (UNHCR branch office protection officer) car and said to her, “Listen to me or drive over me”.When I was asking for protection from Peter Olengo, the UNCHR protection officer, I didn’t feel hungry or thirsty but I worried about my safety, my fear from Ethiopian securities personnel from fellow refugees due to the tribal division between us. From my tribe I’m alone for many reasons which increase my chance to be attacked at any time.
When onemy refugee friends, Million Terefe (an Eritrean refugee now living in Denver, Colorado) saw me on the ground he joined me and another guy who was sleeping at the gate joined well to block her car. Three of us on the . The security guards pulled our legs and beat us. Jacqueline left that night with the names of her three employees,we never saw her again. In the morning, we called the National TV and listed their. It was all over the media. After the media intervention, the officers took us from outside and to the head social work department of the UNHCRbranch office. Speaking in Amharic(Ethiopian language)said “Starting from this hour we do not want to see anyone out here. Everybody must go camp”. That was the time I said “Without wiping you out of this shopping we do not want to go anywhere. If you want us to go camp you need to change the name UNHCR to Peter Samuel Cyril shoppingcenter. If not we will keep fighting till you start responding to the questions of true refugees.”
Following this incident the individuals were investigated and were found guilty of corruption and were relieved of duties. Many newspapers had reported on this issue and I have included a link to the news articles below.
It took 6 months for us to see the corrupt person’s names listed on the gate, saying that they are no longer allowed to enter the building. One day, I was sitting as usual, when a tall white guy called my name and told me he is looking to meet me . When he took me inside to his office he introduced himself as Sargio Cole Norena: the new senior protection officer for UNHCR BRANCH OFFICE FOR NAIROBI.Saying your question is answered, I have your documentsI received them. He told me he had reviewed my file from the beginning and now he is sending me to Goal Accommodation. On the 26thof January 2001, I went to the Goal Accommodation Center. After 6 months of life on the street without basic needs, I had hope. On February 12, 2003, I flew over the desert between Kenya and Ethiopia on my way to Canada!
Coming to Canada:
I arrived in frozen, snow-covered Lethbridge, AB, on Feb 13, 2003. I could not understand why the people drove so slowly. I thought they didn’t know how to drive!
Two weeks after my arrival to Canada my priority is speak to individuals or organizations who would be willing to hear desperate needs of those refugees in Kenya camps and Nairobi.
When I got out of the bush in the Ethiopia-Kenya desert I looked for a flag. When I was in the middle of snow covered Lethbridge, I started looking for a cross.
One day I left my house not knowing where I was heading, only knowing the purpose . Beside the street, I Found the sign I was looking for, and I walked in. The person who was shoveling snow followed me and introduced himself as Wes Midgett, the Pastor of the Central Church of Christ. Due to the work he is doing , the way he approached me, his clothes, and everything in that moment made me not trust him until I saw him preaching. That day was a huge impact on my life. He answered my, and became my best friend.
The rest of my family eventually joined me. On Feb 4, 2004 my wife Sofia came to Canada. Then, Biruke, my son was sponsored in June 2005, and then, in May 2012, my daughter Ruth. Sofia and I have two children born in Canada, Hannah and Efrem.
Besides the Central Church of Christ, I would like to thank all those who responded for the needs of refugees particularly, City Light Church of Lethbridge, Coaldale Mennonite Brethren.
In 2003 Wes and I started to think about the urgent needs of refugees in Kenya and of the people still living in my village and the entire region of South Omo. We and many wonderful people started and supported Friends of South Omo to try and raise awareness and resources to help the people of that region. Our organization is now called; GALATA MINISTRIES which in many of the Ethiopian dialects means: THANKS!
One particular person needs a special thanks: Barb Marchuk served as Executive Director ofFriends of South Omo from 2007-2015. She, and her family, sacrificially served the organization, traveled to South Omo, and organized a host of community events and funding projects that impacted thousands of lives and villages in the South Omo region. That impact still continues to this day.
Finally I would like to thank each and every person who stood beside us for these years providing care for those refugees and for the tribes in South Omo, Ethiopia.
I strongly believe that to bring positive change in someone’s life,
sharing the burden with them is most important.
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