Stockholm’s Sergels Torg, Demonstration Square

The sharp cold breeze raised my hairs on end, the 14 degree temperature felt even colder as the arrows of wind chill pierced my multi-layered clothing. It felt like I had lost control of my legs. Robots took over my legs and mechanically pushed me on against the cold of the wind.

The hum from below caught my attention. A group of people had gathered and were singing songs in the plaza next to the tall vertical structure. I stopped to take a look, momentarily forgetting the cold.

Many walked past, ignoring the curiosity. This was just another weekend in Stockholm’s main plaza (Sergels Torg) and this was just another public event. Many events have been held since the plaza was completed in 1967.

I stopped because I was surprised, I had never seen a demonstration before, demonstrations are illegal in Singapore and the only legal one is at a single public park with a police permit obtained 2 weeks in advance.

I moved forward to take a closer look.

Sporting yellow vests over their clothes, these demonstrators were waving flags in front of an empty stage. Cameramen and a handful of curious onlookers (like me) stood around pointing and taking pictures. The sad funeral march tune had undertones of passionate indignation. There was no need to understand the language to understand the emotion – the music cried out for justice. These people were asking for justice and begging the world to hear something.

The flag looked to me like that of Tajikistan, but the words looked distinctly middle eastern. I searched my memory for a flag that looked like that, the only one that struck me was the Iranian tri-colour… but the tri-colour had the muslim Tawid… this had some sort of sphinx on it. Maybe it was Persian…

iran-olympics-team-2016Team Iran at the 2016 Summer Olympics (source)

I whipped out my phone to check, Iranian flag… Iranian flag… aha! The flag of Iran before the 1979 revolution, the flag of the Pahlavi dynasty. These guys must be monarchist wanting to go back to the days under the last Shah of Iran. That’s kind of regressive, I thought to myself.

But things didn’t add up, where were pictures of the Shah and what was 1988 about? Wasn’t the revolution in 1979? And what were those white sickle and sword flags about?

So I did some research.

The world knows about the events of 1979, when the Shah was overthrown an an islamic republic was proclaimed in Iran,

but few know about the 1988 massacre of political opponents, particularly those of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK). I certainly didn’t.

Earlier in August this year, an audio file was circulated in which the first Ayatollah, Khomeni was accused of asking his staff to kill off his political opponents by his then heir apparent Hussein Ali-Montazeri. These opponents were members and leaders of the MEK who were based in Iraq and led attacks on Iran because of their belief in a violent political struggle against the Islamic government.

I walked off, not too clear about what was going on then (I researched only later on), but making a mental note about an interesting occurrence in my day.

Errands done, I passed by the plaza again. The weather was even colder now and I hastened to the tunnelbana once more. Yet this time, the cold weather was heated up by the fiery passion emanating from the same square.

Unlike the dark agony of before, boiling anger emanated from the crowd.

My eyes were draw again to the crowds at the Sergels Torg.  The earlier Iranian demonstration group had gone home now to be replaced by a larger group of Africans demonstrators

I recognised the flag immediately, Ethiopia.

My mind flashed back to the Summer Olympics when an Ethiopian athlete raised his arms in protest against the Ethiopian government. Fiyesa Lilesa raised his arms to show his solidarity with a protest group, prompting fears about his life upon his return to Ethiopia.

Despite the rapid transformation that made Ethiopia one of the success stories in Africa in the last decades,

Ethiopia is a country that is in danger of falling apart.

The ruling alliance the EPRDF took power in 1991. It was however dominated by a minority Tigrayan ethnic group (6 % of the population) and instead of governing for all, the alliance divided its citizens by racial groups and focused support and funding for the Tigrayan population in Ethiopia.They could do this because the alliance was dominated by members of the Tigrayan group.

Power and money was concentrated in this single race with the military leadership made up of only Tigrayan generals and almost the whole nation run by MPs of the Tigayan ethnic group. Members of the larger Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups argued that they were systematically shut out of the benefits of progress, as well as economics and political say in the country.

The simmering tension boiled over when the government announced a plan to expand the capital Addis Ababa into the land of nearby Omoro lived on by the majority Omoro group. The plan meant that ancestral land would be confiscated from the Omoro’s and sold to large corporations a decision that sparked consternation and anger. The plan was shelved this year, but the anger of the people did not abate. The simmering ambers burst forth in June this year with the Amhara people, the second largest ethnic group in Ethiopia) who like the Omoro have argued that they have been disenfranchised from the economic and political development of the country.

Protesters were shot by the army and the anti-terrorist forces prompting calls from Ethiopians overseas to stopped what some see as a Rwandan style genocide.

Another 52 died in a stampede in Oromia on 2nd October, reports on how the gathering became a protest are conflicting.

This was a central public square in the heart of Stockholm, Sweden, far removed from the political ground in Iran but with a sizable population of former political refugees who fled Iran during the revolution and the Iran-Iraq war and fled Iran from 1979 until the mid 1980s and settled in Sweden. Ethiopia and Sweden are even further away from each other and the demonstrators are perhaps much safer demonstrating in Stockholm than they are in Addis Ababa.

There was a difference though, when the atrocity is happening now, there is anger and an ability to act, when the atrocity had happened years ago, there is resignation and a deep sense of anguish.
These demonstrators left after their events were over, no unrest in the area, no fuss by the people.

All they asked for was just a chance to tell their story to those who would listen.


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