By: Geoff Kirbyson (Winnipeg Free Press )
Ali Saeed, a victim of Ethiopia’s Red Terror, reflects and prays in the Garden of Contemplation in the centre of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights amidst towering windows, large boulders and tragic memories. Saeed was tortured. imprisoned and forced out of his homeland because of his efforts to support Freedom of Speech. His story will be one of many tragic events in history to be displayed in a installation at the museum this fall.
Ali Saeed graciously offered to take off his shoe and sock to reveal a deep scar on the bottom of his left foot, the handiwork of a drunk prison guard in Ethiopia.
He then proceeded to describe unspeakable acts of torture to which he had been subjected: being hung upside down by his ankles and having his feet whipped, having bottles hung from his genitalia.
Sneak peek of galleries
GALLERY & ARTIFACT
1. What Are Human Rights? — A metal ballot box from South Africa’s 1994 election in which Nelson Mandela was elected president.
2. Indigenous Perspectives — A Josephine Bacon poem and an original work of art, known as a spirit panel, part of a nationwide program engaging aboriginal youth.
3. Canadian Journeys — Excerpt from a re-enactment video of Viola Desmond, a black Nova Scotian who spent a night in jail after sitting in the “whites only” section of a segregated movie theatre.
4. Protecting Rights in Canada — Excerpts from a video about B.C. firefighter, Tawney Meiorin, who was fired after failing a newly instituted fitness test. She argued the new standards were excessive and discriminated against women.
5. Examining the Holocaust — Sigi Wassermann (see story).
6. Turning Points for Humanity — Illustrated flip cards of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the world’s most important document related to human rights.
7. Breaking the Silence — Ali Saeed (see story).
8. Actions Count — A video clip featuring Andreanne Pacquet, the founder of Ce Qui Nous Voile, a photo exhibit that attempts to promote mutual understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims.
9. Rights Today — A video clip featuring Craig Kielburger, the co-founder of the Free the Children charity and one of the driving forces behind We Day events, which are designed to inspire youth to learn about social issues and provide tools to turn that inspiration into action.
10. Inspiring Change — The 2013 prom dress of Mareshia Rucker, who organized an integrated prom at Wilcox County High School in Rochelle, Ga. Previously, the parents organized private, racially segregated celebrations.
Then he stopped, temporarily transported back in time.
“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice trailing off, his eyes wet.
Saeed survived Ethiopia’s Red Terror in the late 1970s, a time when the country’s dictators tortured and murdered hundreds of thousands of people . His crime? Promoting freedom of speech.
After a few moments, he regained his composure and took in his surroundings, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
“I’m privileged that this museum is opening because I have a chance to breathe and tell many kids when they come (visit), ‘This is what happened to me, (you must) stand for human rights,’ ” he said.
Saeed’s story was one of 10 unveiled by the CMHR Wednesday morning — one from each of its core galleries — to give people a sense of what’s to come when it opens on Sept. 20.
Sigi Wassermann was also on hand to tell his harrowing tale of surviving the Holocaust. He was just seven years old when his parents registered him for an exit visa out of Germany following a nationwide attack on Jewish homes and synagogues known as Kristallnacht.
They took him to the train station for what he initially thought was an adventure to Great Britain. As he waved goodbye to his parents, he had no idea it would be the last time he would ever see them.
“They were murdered in Auschwitz,” he said.
Wassermann, along with many other Jewish children, lived in various places throughout England, as administrators shuttled them out of potentially dangerous areas whenever it was feared the Nazis might attack.
His three siblings, two sisters and a brother, also survived but not without a few close calls.
Wassermann admitted it’s very difficult to talk about his experience — something he only did for his children for the first time 15 years ago — but he feels the story should never be forgotten.
“It’s part of history that unfortunately occurred. When my generation is no longer around, where will this story be? It may be written in books but while we’re alive, I feel to be able to tell it first-hand will make more of an impression,” he said.
Saeed agreed that making the next generation aware of the world’s atrocities is the best way to ensure history doesn’t repeat itself.
“Many people don’t understand what we have here (in Canada). We are privileged. We don’t know about other parts of the world. Never again (should there be) torture, never again to be killed and left on the street. Now we are here to teach our kids there is a better life, a better way. Why do we kill each other? We have to stop,” he said.
Saeed eventually escaped Ethiopia, only to arrive in Somalia, where he was suspected of being a spy, put back in jail and tortured. Again.
He barely kept himself alive on 200 grams of food per day. Luckily, he discovered when he was allowed to go to the washroom, banana peels were often discarded in the garbage can.
“For five months, that’s how I lived in one cell,” he said.
He was on death row and avoided a date with the executioner thanks to the work of Amnesty International and people like Art DeFehr, the president and CEO of Winnipeg-based Palliser Furniture, who lobbied on his behalf.
Saeed arrived in Canada — barefoot — in 1984. He has lived in Winnipeg ever since with his wife, Ayni, and six of their children. One daughter, however, remains in Ethiopia and he can’t go back into the country to get her. He hasn’t seen her for 32 years.
Gail Asper, the driving force behind the museum since it was envisioned, said she is looking forward to the grand opening with “relief and excitement.”
“It’s the most thrilling and satisfying thing that I’ve ever done in my life. This museum is always about people, about action and inspiring (people) to action,” she said.
Asper said her father Izzy, who passed away in the fall of 2003, would have loved Wednesday’s event.
“He would have been the first person to go and look at every single thing and read every line. He’d be tickled pink and saying, ‘When are the kids going to be here to enjoy this?’ ” she said.