The New Statesman Christmas campaign 2013: Help get Eskinder Nega home

The 44-year-old journalist was recently imprisoned for eighteen years on "terrorism" charges after criticising the Ethiopian government's use of anti-terror laws to silence free opposition.

Inside the front cover of the programme for Amnesty International’s Media Awards earlier this year was a list that made for sobering reading. Under the headline: "The following journalists have been killed or imprisoned for carrying out their work", a list of over 300 names in tiny print filled four columns of the A4 page.

One of those names was 44-year-old Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega. In June last year, Eskinder was convicted of "terrorism", somewhat ironically, after writing articles criticising the government’s use of anti-terror laws to silence its critics, and for speculating on whether the Arab Spring uprisings could be replicated in Ethiopia. His reward for exercising his right to free speech? Eighteen years behind bars.

Eskinder is no stranger to the dirty cells of his Addis Ababa prison block. This is his eighth spell in jail in ten years. Each time he’s been sent down for defending human rights.

And he’s not the only one. Last year Amnesty recorded a number of cases in Ethiopia where journalists and political opposition members were sentenced to lengthy prison terms on terrorism charges after calling for reform, criticising the government, or for links to peaceful protest movements.

To make matters worse, their trials were marred by serious irregularities, including a failure to investigate allegations of torture; denial of, or restrictions on, access to legal advice; and use of confessions extracted under coercion as admissible evidence.

The crackdown on journalists and opposition politicians is part of a wider worrying pattern. According to Amnesty’s 2012 annual report, dissent is not tolerated in any sphere and peaceful protests are suppressed. Arbitrary arrests and detention are common, and torture and other ill-treatment in detention centres is rife. Further, many communities around the country have been forcibly evicted by the authorities to free up land which is then sold to foreign investors.

A few years ago, Eskinder’s wife Serkalem - also a journalist - fell foul of the Ethiopian legal system. She was pregnant in 2005 when she was sentenced to two years in prison, where she was forced to share a small, filthy cell with 70 to 80 prisoners and where she gave birth to their son, Nafkot. Eskinder was also in prison at that time, as was family friend and former opposition leader Birtukan Midetska.

Birtukan told Amnesty that Eskinder is one of the most "virtuous" people she knows in Ethiopia.

"He really believes in the good of all of us," she said. "It’s vivid in his personal life and his activism. The love he has for his country, his dedication to seeing people live a dignified life – it’s really huge."

"He didn’t start his activism with just criticising the government. He always gave them the benefit of the doubt. He was relentlessly committed to expressing his views, his ideas."

It was that commitment that triggered a campaign of harassment including threats, a ban on the newspaper he ran with Serkalem, and his repeated imprisonment. In 2005 when all three were jailed, Eskinder was thrown into solitary confinement for months on end. Somehow he managed to retain his optimism and belief in his cause, said Birtukan.

Amnesty has designated Eskinder a "prisoner of conscience" - as it did with Serkalem and Birtukan when they were in prison - and is calling for his immediate release. His case features prominently in Amnesty’s annual Write for Rights campaign, which the New Statesman will be supporting in the run up to Christmas.

The campaign successfully connects men and women, young and old in the UK with people elsewhere who have been wrongly imprisoned, at risk of harassment and intimidation for carrying out human rights work and to family members seeking justice for their loved ones.

As Amnesty has seen in previous years, not only does sending a letter to the authorities and the people at risk remind the recipients that thousands are aware of their plight and are standing in solidarity with them, it also sends a worrying signal to the authorities who see the number of messages being delivered to these men and women at risk that the world is standing up with them, and for them.

When Birtukan’s case was featured in Write for Rights in 2009 after she received a life sentence for her opposition politics, all the cards and letters were a lifeline.

"In 2009 only my mum and daughter were allowed to visit me," she said. "I was really cut off from the whole world. I didn’t have access to the media. We were not allowed to talk about Amnesty International’s initiatives but my mum mentioned to me that Amnesty people were trying to advocate for me. That was like a silver lining. It gave me hope. It connected me to the real world."

Birtukan was finally released in October 2010.

“The pressure you guys were exerting on the Ethiopian government was instrumental in securing my release,” she said.

It takes just two minutes to do the same for Eskinder. Visit https://www.amnesty.org.uk/eskinder and do so today.

Every week in the run up to Christmas the NS will feature a profile from Amnesty of a figure we particularly urge you to support. You can see all the pieces together here.

Serkalem Fasil and Nega Eskinder with their son Nega Nafkot. Image: Private.
Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.