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Soweto in Ethiopia

Most of us think that slavery on sugar plantations or in sugar factories is a story of the past - yes, it is, but still the impact exists. In history, when slaves were captured and traded, they had a significant market value to keep them in good health and functioning. Not in this story.

Even though Ethiopia is the only country in Africa that never had been colonized, there were three towns colonized in the name of development. That brings us to the question - what it was like to be a black employee of the three sugar factories Wonji-1954, Wonji/Shoa-1960 and Metahara-1968 under HVA International, a Dutch giant corporation? HVA International had squeezed every drop of sweat from all of its black employees, made huge profit and dumped them behind mercilessly by paying an average wage of US$0.40 cents a day (Revolutionary Ethiopia page 111, by Edmond J. Keller).

Are we still reading about Wonji, Wonji/Showa and Metehara victims? The answer is yes, As an Ethiopian, given my deep roots in this country I strongly felt the need to speak out. That is why I keep writing articles since 2003 to individuals, NGOs, media, agencies and to the United Nations about the neglected fluoride/asbestos, the segregation and discrimination victims of these three towns, Wonji, Wonji/Showa and Metehara.

In 2003, Ethiopia and the Netherlands were questioned by a UN Special Rapporteur. The Ethiopian government declined to comment. The Netherlands government and HVA International denied that any human rights abuse, segregation or discrimination took place despite all crucial evidence. HVA International also responded by denying its abuse and discrimination to the editor of New Internationalist who published my article in 2003.

Until now HVA International and the Dutch government continue to deny the reality of Wonji victims’ injuries, undermining the power of the poor communities of these three towns. In 2012, my husband and I traveled to The Hague to bring light to the sad story of the neglected Wonji, Wonji/Showa and Metehara fluoride/asbestos victims.

Why this article is named "Soweto in Ethiopia?"

Ethiopia and South Africa are different countries in many ways. When "SOWETO" is mentioned historically, it brings to mind apartheid, "apartness" in the Afrikaans (Dutch-based South African) language. HVA International, a Dutch company, practiced apartheid for Wonji, Wonji/Showa and Metehara former employees and their families. Black employees under HVA International suffered exploitation, physical/mental abuse, discrimination, segregation and huge environmental human rights violation. All those mentioned violations can give full illustration of apartheid - total racial segregation by systematic oppression.

Taking advantage of the inefficient Ethiopian government labor and environmental policies at that time, HVA International exercised discriminatory policies against black employees and determined the rights of whites. In conclusion, HVA International company's policies meet the definition of apartheid through systems that are institutionalized by rules/regulations and policies that bear similarity to South Africa's apartheid era.

Did Wonji, Wonji/Showa victims get justice? No. HVA International carried out some of the most horrific human rights abuses of modern times on Wonji victims and is still denying it! So, for big corporations like HVA International to get off the hook without prosecution is like us patting them on the back and telling them: "Job well done!"

What kind of support did Wonji, Wonji/Showa and Metehara victims get? They got a donation of 550 wheelchairs from Free Wheelchair Mission in 2007. Plus, the Ethiopian government resumed providing fluoride-free drinking water in recent years after I brought some awareness about their situation.

Do any media paid attention to this sad story? Sadly but not surprising that this sad story is given little sustained attention by the big news outlets. But New Internationalist, OVI magazine, some Ethiopian blogs and local newspapers published my articles. Last year the NCR Handelsblad International editor got interested in this story and approached me in Amsterdam but his boss rejected the idea as "too far away and too long ago." (See In the eyes of Dutch NRC International Handesbald newspaper.)

For us Wonji victims, speaking up and been vocal serves as both the ultimate battlefield and the ground zero in the search of justice. We wanted to force ourselves to be "present" at the crossroads of hope, change and justice. This a is hard pill to swallow and it breaks my heart knowing that we have the right to fight for our human rights and it has been a long journey. All I know is that we, Wonji victims, are willing to walk in the dense forest in the hope of finding some clarity and justice at the end. Even if this justice/clarity ends up blinding us, our voices will grow stronger than ever. Fortunately, our networking online, via email Face book, Twitter blogs and other social networks will create pervasive flow of information that serves as a disinfectant. Ultimately this may be a venue to bring justice not only to Wonji victims but to people around the world.

Why does the Shibo Gibi (Fenced Area) deserve to be called the "apartheid fence?" Because no blacks were allowed to live side by side with the white Dutch citizens. That fence separated the two communities even though a few educated black employees were allowed after some years.

Is it accurate to consider HVA treatment of its Wonji, Wonji/Showa and Metehara Ethiopian employees as a form of apartheid? Yes. HVA International's Dutch white employees had the full rights and benefits denied to Ethiopian black employees. For example, medical facilities, housing, drinking water, recreational facilities and schools for white and black employees were separate. After reading this story, we should not always be readers or spectators. I believe each of us has a duty to push for what is right, helping each other and becoming a vigilant society by setting standards as to what we can tolerate collectively as citizens of this planet. Every member of society has a duty to be vigilant and push for what is right to set standards for abusive corporations.

While HVA enjoyed to the fullest in billions of profits from sugar, Wonji employees and their families suffer the bitter impacts of its production without the Ethiopian government meaningful action to protect or prevent damage of its' citizens at that time and now turned deaf ears to fight for their justice. Fortunately, the rapid and pervasive flow of information nowadays comes to light via email and blogs, Facebook, Twitter or other social networks serves as a disinfectant by bringing awareness to Wonji victims.

Even though years had passed since HVA International left Ethiopia for good, our hearts are bruised everyday as we watch Wonji victims of the fluoride/asbestos pollution die or suffer with no medical treatment! The fact and the sad thing is big companies like HVA International and the Dutch government can turn a blind eye to this issue. These barbaric actions against innocent people must not be forgotten; their voices are clearly heard beyond the apartheid fence SHIBO-GIBI!

Almaz Mequanint