Guilty of slaying his child's mother, Ethiopian immigrant Solomon Jenbare sits in an Australian prison. In a little over two years, he could be free. How did his escape from torture to live in peace, with a beautiful wife and daughter, lead to this?
By Kathy Marks
24 October 2016
Reading time: 36 minutes
HER SMILE. IT’S the first thing everyone mentions. A smile which seemed to brighten the room and lift people’s spirits. Wubanchi Asfaw was always smiling, always happy – or so it appeared to her friends and workmates.
Asfaw was still at high school in Dire Dawa, a city in eastern Ethiopia, when she received a marriage proposal from Solomon Jenbare, an Ethiopian refugee living in Sydney. She was 18; he was 42. She was living in poverty; he promised her a better life. The formalities completed, she arrived in Australia in 2007.
Sydney’s Ethiopian community is small and tight-knit. For many, life revolves around the ultra-conservative Ethiopian Orthodox Church. While arranged marriages are not uncommon, Jenbare’s new wife elicited more than a few curious glances. She was young and beautiful; he was middle-aged and disabled, with disfigured hands and feet. “People were saying, ‘Maybe she just comes for the visa?’” recounts a neighbour, Mimi Gebrekidan.
Lively, outgoing and smart, Asfaw quickly made friends. She volunteered in the church, sang in the choir and played the kebero, a traditional Ethiopian drum. “She’s very open, very sociable, very easy to get to know,” says one friend, Muna Beyene. “She doesn’t wait to be introduced.”
“We all have blood on our hands.”
Asfaw took English lessons, obtained her driving licence and trained as a nursing assistant. She also learnt hairdressing, including how to braid African women's hair. Within a couple of years, she had given birth to a baby girl, Amara. Both parents doted on her. And “everyone shut their mouth”, says Gebrekidan.
Behind the radiant smile, though, all was not well. The couple’s marriage was stormy. He was jealous. They argued constantly. She walked out on him repeatedly. But she always came back.
Just before midnight on 8 April, 2014, the 25-year-old stumbled out of their flat, bleeding from a knife attack witnessed by Amara, not quite five years old. Shortly afterwards, Jenbare approached two Highway Patrol officers who had cordoned off his street in Auburn, a multicultural suburb in Sydney’s west. “I’m the man you’re looking for,” he told the pair, raising his hands in a gesture of surrender.
A friend of Asfaw's, Senait Sahlu, had arranged to get her hair done at 11am the following morning. “I was just readying myself to go to her place when suddenly the phone rang,” recalls Sahlu, beginning to weep. “It was my husband. He told me, ‘Solomon killed his wife.’ I said, ‘What?’ I couldn’t believe it. She’s gone, just like that? I was running around my house. I couldn’t control myself.”
Asfaw told her it was “not the life she was expecting” and she “wasn’t happy in her marriage, not for a single day”.
After a death, Ethiopians congregate at the deceased person’s home, to pray together and comfort the family. With Asfaw’s flat a crime scene, the shell-shocked Sydney community descended on Jenbare’s sister, Tigist, whose family lived a block away.
As people struggled to absorb the dreadful news, it became apparent that some had known about the couple’s troubles, and even about Jenbare’s violent nature. One or two of the mourners whispered that Asfaw had “disrespected” her husband. Others questioned the role of community elders, at least one of whom convinced her to go back to Jenbare despite knowing she was scared of him.
One person declared that the whole community had failed the young woman. “We all have blood on our hands,” he said.
WHEN A RAILWAY was built at the turn of the 20th century between Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, and the neighbouring port of Djibouti, it was deemed too costly to run the line up to the medieval hilltop city of Harar, home to Asfaw's forebears. Instead, a new city, Dire Dawa, was founded about 50 kilometres away, at the foot of the mountains; a major stop on the route, it soon replaced Harar as the region's main commercial centre.
Modern Ethiopia’s second biggest city, Dire Dawa is known for its bustling markets, entrepreneurial verve and ethnically diverse population. And for the distinctive character of its people, especially the women.
As a female community leader in Sydney, Meskerem Tesfaye, who is from that city, explains: “In Ethiopian culture, if a man tells you to sit down, you sit down; if he tells you to stand up, you stand up. But a woman from Dire Dawa will say, ‘Why do I have to sit down? You need to give me a reason.’”
Wubanchi Asfaw was born in Dire Dawa on 25 June, 1988. Her mother, Asnaku Eshete, worked as a housekeeper and a cook in military camps; her father, Johanes Asfaw, was a soldier. Her mother’s extended family helped to bring her up. Eshete, who sold firewood to supplement her meagre income, says: “When we go out, Wubanchi always holds my hand. She never cries. She has golden behaviour.”
Jenbare turned up late and sat in the shadows – Eshete and Tsegaye suspect he was trying to hide his age and disability.
Fewer than one in five Ethiopian girls attend high school, but Eshete was determined that Asfaw receive a good education. Her daughter was a quick learner, popular with teachers and fellow students, and left Dire Dawa Comprehensive Secondary School with a “very good” grade in her final exams. There was even talk of medical school. However, she was already promised to Jenbare, so on finishing Grade 12, in August 2007, she boarded a plane to Australia.
The introduction had been an awkward affair. Returning to Ethiopia for the first time since fleeing for his life in 1985, Jenbare – who grew up in Harar – let it be known he was looking for a wife. An old schoolfriend suggested Asfaw. As her elder brother, Tsegaye, tells it, Jenbare’s family then appraised the teenager's suitability by observing her walking to and from school.
Asfaw’s family was invited to a dinner party. Jenbare turned up late and sat in the shadows – Eshete and Tsegaye suspect he was trying to hide his age and disability. The prospective groom said little, and when his family then visited Asfaw’s, he declined to stay for coffee: an almost unheard-of social transgression. His proposal was, nevertheless, accepted, and on 8 January, 2007, a marriage certificate was issued. There was no wedding ceremony.
“You’re a married woman, it’s unbefitting,” he rebuked her.
What did Asfaw make of her new husband? “She always looks on the positive side,” replies her mother. “She never thinks anything negative about anyone.”
The 19-year-old moved into Jenbare’s Housing Commission flat, and almost immediately they began to fight. He was interested in books and politics; she preferred movies and shopping. She disliked his drinking. He was forever telling her to turn her music down. He disapproved of her mixing with the young people in the church choir. “You’re a married woman, it’s unbefitting,” he rebuked her.
His jealousy knew no bounds. When Asfaw visited people’s homes to cut their hair, he fretted about the men who might be present. He was suspicious of those who came over to buy her Ethiopian bread and traditional food – she was an exceptional cook, although he never praised her. “He always thinks she’s going to leave him, even though she isn’t going anywhere,” says a close friend of Asfaw's, Yodit Desta.
Every day they rowed. "They can’t agree on anything," laments Jenbare's younger brother, Demeke, who lived with the couple for more than two years, after he and his wife, Nitush Bogale, moved to Australia. "If one says, ‘This is glass’” – he picks up a beaker – “the other one will say, ‘No, it’s plastic.’”
“You don’t have to suffer with this man; there’s a lot of help in this country.”
In March 2009, Asfaw turned up, crying, on Senait Sahlu’s doorstep, and told her it was “not the life she was expecting” and she “wasn’t happy in her marriage, not for a single day”. Jenbare would taunt her about her poor background, calling her a fool and telling her: “You’re my servant, not my wife.” He kept her short of money – initially they lived off his disability pension – and he would frequently “snap”, hurling glasses and other objects around the flat.
Once, when she was pregnant, he flung a phone at her head; she ducked and just avoided being struck. He would hit her, she said – and she would hit him back.
Sahlu warned her to be on guard, afraid Jenbare “might throw acid in your face”. When Asfaw told her he had repeatedly threatened to kill her, the older woman was horrified. She exclaimed: “This man thinks in his head about killing, he says it in his words, the only thing left is action. What are you waiting for?”
Keying the domestic violence hotline number into Asfaw’s phone, Sahlu told her: “You don’t have to suffer with this man; there’s a lot of help in this country.” Asfaw agreed to call the hotline, but said she wanted to go home first to collect her passport and jewellery – she would let Sahlu know when she and her daughter were safe. She never called, however, and in the months that followed, when the pair encountered each other at church or social functions, Asfaw was distant.
“I always ask her, ‘How have you been?’, and she replies, ‘Yes, good, fine, OK.' Apparently she’s decided to stay with him. So I assume that things have improved and they’re living what seems to be a normal life.”
OUT OF THE front door she flies, clutching the bloody knife wrested from her husband’s grasp.
“Help me!” she cries, as a rush of adrenaline propels her along a communal walkway and down a flight of steps to the road. She turns right, drops the knife in their driveway and staggers across the street, brushing against a parked white Toyota Seca. Rounding the corner into Auburn’s main drag, Rawson Street, she collapses outside a late-night bread shop.
A trail of blood charted Asfaw’s desperate flight from her husband.
Somehow, she has managed to run just over 100 metres. In about half an hour’s time, she’ll be pronounced dead in Westmead Hospital.
The woman all in black at the back of Court Five of the Supreme Court of NSW is moaning softly. While she understands little English, there’s no mistaking the slashing gestures being made by the forensic pathologist, Dr Istvan Santamaria, as he describes her daughter’s wounds: eight in all, up to eight centimetres deep and 17 centimetres wide, caused by a kitchen knife plunged into her neck, arm, back, side and shoulders. The injuries left a trail of blood all the way down the road, charting Asfaw's desperate flight from her husband.
It was Asnaku Eshete’s blackest day when neighbours arrived at her house in Dire Dawa to pass on the news they had received via family friends in Melbourne. Although Eshete had thought her son-in-law a little odd – he never spoke to her on the phone or asked how she was – she had known nothing of their marital woes. Tsegaye explains: "Wubanchi always says she’s fine. She doesn’t want to upset or worry us.”
He and Eshete flew to Sydney for Asfaw’s funeral on 6 May, 2014, at St Mary's Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. They stayed on, and spent the next two years waiting for Jenbare’s trial – waiting to see justice done.
Now it’s August 2016 and Jenbare is limping up the stairway from the cells to Court Five, leaning heavily on a stick. He’s a brooding figure in a grey shirt and charcoal suit, with deep rings under his eyes. Eshete, who is clutching a photograph of Asfaw to her chest, glares over at him. At Tsegaye’s feet is a plastic Aldi shopping bag containing more photos and assorted documents, including his sister’s death certificate.
Jenbare has offered to plead guilty to manslaughter, but the Crown insisted he be tried for murder. His lawyer, Belinda Rigg, SC, tells the jury that while he doesn’t deny causing his wife’s death, he has mental health problems which affected his ability to understand events and control his actions. The prosecutor, Paul Lynch, acknowledges the existence of those problems, but argues their impact was not so profound as to justify a manslaughter verdict.
The court hears from two neighbours, Farzana and Shameela Rajpoot, who were woken by Asfaw’s screams on the night, and from a local man, Monir Monir, who was out buying bread and was so shaken by the sight of Asfaw, “bleeding all over”, that he couldn't even pull out his phone to summon help. (Other passers-by called an ambulance.) As Monir gives evidence, he is still shaking, and sounds close to tears.
A crime scene officer, Detective Sergeant Philip Elliott, tells the jury about the blood smear on the Toyota Seca, and the bloody crucifix bracelet found lying on the communal walkway. He describes the blood-stained floors and walls in the couple’s dining room, kitchen and hallway; the child safety gate streaked with blood; the gold-coloured ear-ring and clump of dark hair discovered outside the main bedroom; and the particularly large pool of blood in the bedroom, where an empty purple suitcase lay open on the bed.
On a coffee table in the lounge, officers found packaging from a McDonald’s Happy Meal – Amara’s last dinner, presumably, before her world imploded.
IN 1974, ETHIOPIA’S long-serving Emperor, Haile Selassie, was deposed in a military coup led by Lieutenant-Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. Mengistu instituted a Marxist regime and had tens of thousands of his opponents murdered. Jenbare’s uncle, Selassie’s Minister of Education, was jailed, and most of the family’s extensive landholdings were confiscated.
“The rebels would come every night and day, want money, rape girls and shoot refugees.”
Frightening though these events were, with far-reaching consequences for his family, they did not touch Jenbare directly – not at first. Born on 16 June, 1964, the second of eight siblings, he grew up in a loving, supportive household, dabbled with medical school, then trained as a teacher. He got a job at a primary school. He got engaged to his girlfriend. Rashly, he spoke out against the regime. Just before he turned 21, Mengistu’s thugs came to the school and dragged him to jail.
Eight months of hell followed, during which he was tortured nightly: beaten about the head and face, and left hanging from a ceiling for hours with his ankles and wrists bound. Jenbare was given electric shocks, was forced to stand in boiling oil for long stretches, and had his head held under water until he passed out. His tormentors bashed and stabbed his hands, and beat his feet with a log, breaking all the bones. Friends incarcerated with him were tortured and killed. “They would make us watch,” he recollects.
In late 1985, rebels broke into the jail. (A coalition of guerrilla groups eventually toppled Mengistu in 1991.) Jenbare escaped to neighbouring Somalia, where he spent six years in a refugee camp. That country, too, was riven by civil strife, and he relates: “The [anti-government] rebels would come every night and day, want money, rape girls and shoot refugees. You didn’t know if you would be shot.” He saw fellow refugees killed.
In 1989, he was treated for leprosy in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. Two years later, President Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown, precipitating a power struggle between clan warlords which engulfed the civilian population. Jenbare fled to Kenya, where he languished in another refugee camp for eight years and witnessed yet more brutality. He also worked in the camp hospital, run by Médécins Sans Frontières, after undertaking basic nursing training. For the first time, he was able to contact his family, who had given him up for dead.
Muna Beyene, later to become Asfaw’s friend, was in the same camp, and her parents befriended Jenbare. “He lived with three or four other men, and we often saw him drinking coffee and talking and chewing khat [a leafy plant with stimulant properties],” she remembers. “He would carry us kids around, and if we strayed into an area roamed by Somali bandits, he’d be the one coming with a stick, saying, ‘Go back to your parents right now or you’ll be in trouble!’”
Granted political asylum by Australia, Jenbare arrived in Sydney in April 1999 and was referred to the Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors, or STARTTS. However, he gave up the counselling after only two sessions, because he had heard that the Amharic interpreter – Amharic is Ethiopia’s official language – was a spy for the Ethiopian security services.
The torture had left him with mutilated hands and feet, and the leprosy had compounded his condition – although it was cured, he was plagued by secondary foot ulcers and bone infections. Despite undergoing multiple operations, he remained in severe and near constant pain, particularly in cold weather. Routine activities such as writing were challenging, and he had difficulty balancing on his truncated feet.
Jenbare took a TAFE course in medical terminology, perhaps hoping to pursue his nursing, and enrolled in an IT course. But his only paid work in Australia comprised two stints as a security officer, which he had to give up because the job involved standing for long periods.
While not much of a churchgoer, he found community life in Sydney congenial. He attended social gatherings, and helped new migrants to fill in forms and contact service providers.
“He’s talkative and sociable, he laughs a lot,” says Senait Sahlu. “He’s very generous and supportive, a really good person. Like if someone needs visiting, he’ll visit. That’s why, when this incident happened, everyone said, ‘Not Solomon!’”
That was the reaction, too, of Daniel Mekonen, the then secretary of the NSW Ethiopian Community Association. He says the Jenbare he knew was “always the first to come out and denounce the bad things happening in our home country… He’s participating in demonstrations, speaking in discussion forums… Whenever there was injustice, he would stand up against it. So, to me, he seems to stand for justice."
IT’S A WELL-TRODDEN route for Ethiopian men who migrate to Australia: once settled, return home, find an often much younger wife and bring her back to their adopted country.
Such is the poverty in Ethiopia that a man with an Australian passport – even a middle-aged, disabled man reliant on welfare – can take his pick. Asfaw jumped at the chance to support her family. “She told me, ‘You always looked after me so well,’” says Eshete. "‘Now it’s my turn to look after you.’”
In 2009, Asfaw landed her first job, at a nursing home in Lidcombe. Between shifts, she cooked Ethiopian food, selling it to shops and restaurants. She took courses. She braided hair. She was hard-working, enterprising and energetic. “The women from Dire Dawa, they are strong people,” remarks her friend Yodit Desta, who grew up there. “The mentality is, ‘Just go for it.’”
Asfaw sent money to Ethiopia. Her family built a house. That led to rows with Jenbare, who was also providing for relatives. While she worked, he cared for Amara. Their lifestyle improved – they bought new furniture and light fittings. She was solicitous, tending to his sores and bathing his feet in salt water. Still he belittled and insulted her. He complained that “all the money is taken away from me”. He accused Asfaw of “not respecting me… going out and leaving her daughter with me”. A friend who went to stay with them reported: “He treats her like shit. He tells her, ‘Come change my bandages.'"
“I know the law in Australia. Because I’m disabled, I’ll sit in prison for a few years and watch TV and then I’ll be free.”
Jenbare yearned for a second child; Asfaw refused. His sister-in-law Nitsuh Bogale, Demeke's wife, recalls: “At family gatherings he always raises this question, and always her answer is, ‘I don’t want another child because we don’t have a good and honest relationship.’”
Back when Asfaw was eight months pregnant with Amara, Bogale saw Jenbare violently shove her. On another occasion, Asfaw told a family friend, Issayas Melesse, her husband slapped her face. In 2008, she called the police, claiming he had waved a kitchen knife at her. Says Bogale: “He gets easily angry, and he shouts a lot, especially when she [Asfaw] answers him back.”
Bogale, who was Asfaw's closest friend, “tried every angle” to persuade her to leave. And leave she did, at least half a dozen times, taking Amara and going to stay with friends and in-laws, including Demeke and Nitsuh, who were renting their own place in Blacktown. But she always went home after a night or a few days. Demeke tried to play peacemaker, urging the couple to resolve their differences or separate. “I told them, ‘If you can’t live a harmonious life, then it’s better not to live together.’”
As Demeke tells it, when Jenbare turned violent, Asfaw would respond in kind – her lack of physical handicap offsetting his superior strength and size. “If he hit her once, she would hit him twice,” he claims. In 2011, Jenbare called the police at 1am, alleging that Asfaw had smacked Amara and kicked him, Jenbare, in the chest. As with the knife episode, no charges were laid.
Although she stood up to her husband, Asfaw was scared of him. He was still threatening to kill her. And he would tell her: “I know the law in Australia. Because I’m disabled, I’ll sit in prison for a few years and watch TV and then I’ll be free.”
OUT OF THE front door he flies, carrying Amara, shielding her from the trail of blood. “Don’t be scared, just close your eyes,” he reassures the girl, pressing her face into his chest. As they pass beneath her window, Farzana Rajpoot hears him repeatedly tell his daughter: "I love you, baba, and it's going to be alright.” Some 10 or 15 minutes have elapsed since Asfaw's screams pierced the night.
Jenbare turns left up the road, heading for Tigist’s place. He tells his sister: “There’s been an incident with my wife, just look after Amara.” He walks back down to the police cordon. As they watch him approach with his customary unsteady gait, Senior Constables Michael Johnson and John Gayford initially assume he’s drunk. Then they notice his bloodstained clothes.
He’s agitated, distraught. “Can you tell me what’s happened to my wife? Is she alright?” he demands, as the pair switch on the video camera in their patrol car. “We don’t know at this stage, but we don’t think she’s doing too well,” one of them replies. Jenbare perches on a low brick wall. He says: “She goes to the kitchen and gets a knife, I take the knife from her and then I don’t know what happened.”
The interview is surreal, almost chatty. Jenbare spells out his name, using the international phonetic alphabet, then corrects the officers' pronunciation. One enquires: “You like Australia, good place to live?”
“I never intended to hurt her,” he insists, before declaring that she bears “some responsibility”.
The conversation returns to Amara. "My daughter, my daughter," Jenbare cries. "I love my daughter and I don’t know what I’m going to do.” They try to comfort him, telling him: “It’s OK, your daughter’s safe.”
Was the girl awake during the dramatic events? The chilling answer comes back: “Yes.”
He’s arrested and taken to Auburn police station. The next morning, in the interview room, he catches sight of a document containing a reference to Asfaw’s "death". He sobs uncontrollably. It's the first he knew of it.
Jenbare tells Detective Senior Constable Peter Phillp, who is leading the investigation, that he tried to take the knife from his wife and a struggle ensued. (Later, he withdraws his claim that it was she who fetched the knife and attacked him.) He believed her injuries were minor, and thought she had left the flat to seek treatment. He was focusing on his daughter, who was sitting up in bed and bawling, but once Amara was with her aunt, he was desperate to find Asfaw and help her – but he never got past the cordon.
How did his wife suffer “such catastrophic… horrific injuries”, while he emerged with just two scratched fingers, Phillp asks? Jenbare can’t explain it. It must have been an accident. “I never intended to hurt her,” he insists, before declaring that she bears “some responsibility”.
Phillp: “Do you care that your daughter no longer has a mother? Do you care that your daughter will grow up without a mother?”
Jenbare: “Yes, absolutely. She doesn’t have any hope, and I can’t replace her mother, I can’t be her mother, I can’t do what her mother does for her. And if I die, she’ll be an orphan.”
THE INTERVIEW IS relayed on two large screens in Court Five. Jenbare watches himself, impassive. On screen, he’s a hunched figure wrapped in a police-issue yellow blanket. In court, Eshete pulls her black shawl tightly around her.
Jenbare answers questions in a low, husky voice. At one point, remembering Asfaw is dead, he breaks down, emitting choking sobs and animal-like howls. "I don’t want to live any more,” he wails.
Two forensic psychiatrists and two neuropsychologists have interviewed Jenbare in custody, and diagnosed chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), no doubt stemming from his experiences in the Ethiopian jail and the refugee camps. He's also suffering from major depression and, possibly, a psychotic illness.
The psychologists have run neurocognitive tests, which indicate an “extremely low” intellectual capacity. Jenbare has weak judgement, decision-making and problem-solving skills, as well as poor memory, attention and concentration. An MRI scan has found brain damage consistent with repeated blows to the head and being starved of oxygen while held under water.
For many years, several times a week, the jury learns, Jenbare has had nightmares about being tortured and seeing his friends killed. He “would wake up suddenly and hear the voices of his friends who had died talking to him”, he told psychiatrist Dr Stephen Allnutt. He started drinking to shut out images of those friends, and to dull his physical pain.
Whenever he saw a police officer or someone with a gun, Jenbare “felt afraid of them and would think they were coming for him”. Watching TV, he would switch channel if a film or news bulletin depicted war or violence. Every few days, he experienced distressing flashbacks. Sudden noises terrified him.
Prone to “angry outbursts", he would shout at people, sometimes becoming physically aggressive and starting fights. According to Allnutt, that’s typical of people with PTSD, who “live with a heightened sense of vigilance [and perception of threat]… They’re always on guard.”
When he looked in the mirror at his disfigured body, Jenbare grew anxious. He had “zero self-esteem” and “hated his life”. He derived no pleasure from anything. “I’ve never been happy,” he told psychologist Dr Ilana Hepner. “I just try to force myself to become OK.”
The most crushing aspect of being in custody, he said, was not being able to see his daughter. He would hear Amara calling his name, and have visions of her toys.
The four experts agree that Jenbare’s ability to understand events and control his own actions would have been “substantially impaired” on the night Asfaw died.
Eshete and Tsegaye are enraged by what they have heard. Sheltering beneath black umbrellas on the courthouse steps, Tsegaye exclaims: “He doesn’t have any mental problems, it’s all false! Why are they talking about him the whole time? What about Wubanchi? Who’s speaking for Wubanchi here?”
He mourns: “Wubanchi is gone, just like this.” He mimes the action of squashing an insect under his foot.
IN LATE 2012, Asfaw realised she was pregnant. Jenbare begged her to keep the baby, telling her: “It’s a gift from God.” He even offered to bring her mother out from Ethiopia to help. Asfaw terminated the pregnancy. Jenbare swore he would never forgive her. She moved out with Amara and went to stay with a family friend in Mount Druitt.
This time, she didn’t go back. Jenbare was miserable. He missed his wife and daughter. The stand-off continued for weeks. At his wits’ end, Jenbare phoned Solomon Kebede, an Ethiopian elder living in Mount Druitt.
Kebede agreed to mediate, went to see Asfaw and asked her what the problem was. He recounts: "She said it's been going on for a long time, he's intimidating her, he's threatening her, he's violent and she's scared to live with him. I said, ‘I don’t want to hear any details about that. But I’ll talk to him, he has to behave properly now he’s in Australia.’”
Going back to Jenbare, he told him, sternly: “You can’t act like back home. Domestic violence has no place here. If you raise your hand, you’re hurting yourself, hurting your wife. If you make her happy as a wife, then you'll be happy.”
Kebede brokered a deal: Jenbare would allow Asfaw to take Amara to Ethiopia to meet her family, and when she got back, she would have another child with him. Asfaw moved back to Auburn, then in August 2013 she and Amara left for Ethiopia, staying away for nearly six months. Jenbare insisted on Skyping with them every night – making sure she wasn’t out with other men, thinks Eshete.
Initially, at least, Asfaw had no intention of honouring the deal. She wanted her Ethiopian holiday, and then she planned to leave Jenbare and rent a house with a colleague from the disability centre in Lidcombe where she worked. However, by the time she returned in February 2014, she had apparently changed her mind. And she had a new project: to convert the couple’s garage space into a hairdressing salon. Jenbare was enthusiastic, and carried out the renovations. Friends booked in for appointments.
On 8 April, Asfaw worked a morning shift at the disability centre, then drove to Blacktown to join other family helping Demeke and Nitsuh to move flat. Jenbare was already there, but was feeling unwell, so he was keeping an eye on the children. Although Asfaw lent a hand moving furniture, she also, to her husband’s evident annoyance, spent more than an hour on the phone to her 24-year-old nephew in Ethiopia.
She saw the knife in his hand and jumped up, shouting: ”You’re going to kill me?”
At about 7pm, the couple left in separate cars; Jenbare dropped Tigist’s family off on his way home, with Asfaw and Amara following close behind. Jenbare fed their daughter, put her to bed and was watching the evening TV bulletin when Asfaw delivered her own piece of jaw-dropping news: she wanted to divorce him and enter into a fake marriage with her nephew, so that he could come to Australia.
Jenbare was scandalised. He told her: “You can’t do that. It’s not Christian, it’s against the law, and you’re going to destroy our family.” She retorted: “Everyone does the same thing, to bring their family to Australia. It’s none of your business, and if you won’t help me, I’ll do it by myself.”
She disappeared into their bedroom to make another phone call. He drank two bottles of Becks beer and two gins. He decided to make some food, went into the kitchen, picked up a knife and looked in vain for some onions. Opening their bedroom door to quiz Asfaw, he noticed an empty suitcase on the bed. She saw the knife in his hand and jumped up, shouting: "You’re going to kill me?”
Jenbare's memory of the next few minutes is hazy, but he says Asfaw tried to grab the knife. He pushed her; she pushed him back. During the scuffle, he fell backwards against a wall. He saw that his wife's arm was bleeding, and heard her cry out: "You cut me!”
Then she left the room. And that was the last time he saw her.
IN ETHIOPIA, THEY call it “disciplining” your wife. “They say they hit them because they love them, to correct their behaviour,” says Mimi Gebrekidan, Asfaw’s neighbour.
Ethiopian academic Tayechalem Moges has written that domestic violence is “intertwined with the very fabric of Ethiopian society”. In her grandmother’s day, men would “prove their manliness” by beating their wives so hard that their screams could be heard by neighbours.
Despite modest progress, Ethiopia’s domestic violence rate remains one of the world’s highest, afflicting up to 78 per cent of women, according to various studies. A government report pointed to women’s inferior status “coupled with the dominant position of men, further justified by culture and religion”. Grinding poverty and widespread illiteracy complete the picture.
“In Australia, first comes the woman, then the children, then the dog, then the man.”
Like any new migrants, particularly from developing countries, Ethiopians – there are nearly 8,500 of them in Australia, according to the 2012 census – face multiple challenges. Women often integrate more easily, forging social networks and, like Asfaw, working in caring roles. As they earn their own money and gain some independence, relationship dynamics shift, “and the man thinks his position as king is under attack”, says Hirut Woldemichael, who works with family violence victims in Hobart.
Muna Beyene’s family settled in Sydney in 2003. Her mother got a job in a nursing home, while her father battled to find work. “Suddenly she was bringing in all the money, and he’d be saying things like, ‘Now I’m relying on a woman to provide for me.'”
A common refrain among Ethiopian men is that, “in Australia, first comes the woman, then the children, then the dog, then the man”. Beyene sighs. “They see gender equality as a form of oppression.”
Anecdotal evidence suggests levels of family violence are high among Ethiopian-Australians. “We moved, but the problem followed us here,” believes Assefa Bekele, a community leader and multicultural liaison officer with Blacktown Police.
Along with the problem came the social attitudes, such as trivialising domestic violence, blaming victims for bringing it on themselves, and stigmatising divorce and single mothers. It’s not surprising many Ethiopian women suffer in silence and choose to stay in abusive relationships. Isolation, shyness, the language barrier, lack of knowledge about support services and a distrust of authority can also militate against them seeking help.
Of course, not all Ethiopian men are abusive or violent, nor is Ethiopia unique – similar problems are found across Africa, not to mention the Western world, including Australia. In Ethiopia, though, religion – and the pervasive influence of the Orthodox Church, the dominant faith for 1,600 years – adds an extra layer.
A Pew Research Center survey last year discovered that 98 per cent of Ethiopians – the highest proportion of any nation – count religion as very important in their lives. For the Orthodox Church, divorce is permissible only when adultery has been committed. Along with other factors, such as worries about money and childcare, and the fact Amara was very close to her father, that edict would have weighed heavily on Asfaw, a devout Orthodox Christian, as she tried – and ultimately failed – to leave Jenbare.
“The domestic violence begins the moment they are given to their husband, and it never stops.”
Her killing, the first to stain Australia’s Ethiopian community, prompted calls for domestic violence to be hauled out of the shadows. With the backing of Auburn Police, among others, a group of dynamic women organised a series of workshops on women’s health, covering topics including family violence and female genital mutilation. In Ethiopia, the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF reported in 2013, 74 per cent of girls and women aged 15 to 49 have been subjected to FGM. In Australia, as an NSW Health Department program reminds migrants, it is illegal, whether carried out here or overseas.
The women arranging the workshops include community worker Seblework Amareassefa, herself a survivor of domestic violence, who contends that men, too, need help and education. “After Wubanchi died, the whole community felt guilty," she says. "But the guilt shouldn’t stop. Instead of crying, we need to open our eyes.”
“Nobody talked about domestic violence, or how she was killed, or said we should learn from this.”
Assefa Bekele coordinates the multi-agency Blacktown Is United Against Family Violence initiative, and also volunteers with the anti-FGM program. Growing up in the Ethiopian countryside, he saw young girls being taken away to be circumcised with sharpened fragments of meteorite rock. As Bekele tells it: “At four they are circumcised, at 11 they are child brides, at 13 they have their first child. The domestic violence begins the moment they are given to their husband, and it never stops.”
Here, as in Ethiopia, the people who wield most influence are the priests. In Brisbane, Mengistu Hailu has tackled the subject of family violence with his small congregation at St George Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. Hailu, who is also a social worker, is unusual, though; most priests steer clear of social issues. A special mass was held for Asfaw at St Mary's, where she worshipped, but “nobody talked about domestic violence, or how she was killed, or said we should learn from this”, relates Beyene. “The priest [Deresegn Mengiste] just said, ‘We’ve lost a member of our society, she was a very good girl, a dedicated churchgoer, and we’ll miss her sadly.’”
The traditional role of elders in resolving marital conflict is also under scrutiny. Even in Ethiopia, it is said, such mediation consists of little more than telling a woman to go back to her husband, who may apologise, give her flowers and promise not to beat her again. While that might be accepted in Ethiopian village life, say critics, it’s not appropriate for 21st century urban Australia – and especially not for situations involving actual or threatened violence.
Mengiste was one of at least four elders who, over the years, intervened in Jenbare’s marriage. Senait Sahlu, whose worst fears were realised almost exactly five years after Asfaw confided in her, was another. The friend with whom Asfaw stayed in Mount Druitt, an older woman, also mediated, alongside Solomon Kebede. She implored Asfaw not to return to her husband.
Asked if he has any regrets, Kebede replies: “No. I mean, why? There’s nothing to regret. This thing happened nearly a year after the mediation. The core problem was between themselves, and obviously they didn’t resolve it. They didn’t use the advice we gave them.”
He adds: “There’s always the thought that you could have advised differently. You think, maybe she should have hidden herself in a women’s refuge – maybe coming together was not a good idea, but nobody knows, only God knows, and who are we to advise that anyway?”
Assefa Bekele is urging his community to leave the old ways behind. “People need to wake up and stop ignoring what’s happening in front of us,” he says. “We need leaders who understand the Australian way of life.”
"We need help, I’m telling you, we need help,” proclaims an emotional Gebrekidan. “Because it’s going to happen again and again. It’s not going to stop with Wubanchi.”
ON 30 AUGUST, the jury of four men and eight women retired, having listened to the lawyers’ closing speeches, and to directions from Justice Lucy McCallum, who described Asfaw’s killing as “a momentary act with catastrophic consequences”.
Barely two hours later, they were back. Jenbare stood up in the dock. He was wearing the same grey shirt and charcoal suit. The foreman of the jury announced the verdict: not guilty of murder, guilty of manslaughter.
Eshete was devastated. Outside court, she shrieked and beat her chest. “He brought an innocent woman to this country and he murdered her," she cried. "When he gets out of prison, he’ll be free, but my daughter is gone forever. Is this the justice system in Australia?”
“My mum had a beautiful smile. She never judged anyone. She never got cranky. She cared about everyone. I miss my mum every day.”
In a victim impact statement, Asfaw's family grieved for a woman “with an exceptionally good heart”, who often aided the destitute and homeless. They told a story of how, in Addis Ababa, she once came across a young girl who had been raped, was pregnant and had been cast out by her family – she took the girl home and looked after her until the baby was born. Asfaw's death, they told the court, was “not only a disaster to the family, but also a nightmare for her daughter as she has to live with this for the rest of her life”.
In a touching statement of her own, Amara wrote: “My mum had a beautiful smile... She never judged anyone... She never got cranky... She cared about everyone... I miss my mum every day.”
Delivering her judgement on 16 September, McCallum paid tribute to the family and to Asfaw herself, noting that her loved ones had “painted a picture of a warm and vivacious woman with a beautiful soul”.
The judge concluded that Jenbare's actions were not premeditated, but most likely caused by a “fear of abandonment” triggered by the fake marriage plan and the sight of the suitcase – he then reacted "emotionally, impulsively and aggressively”.
“I honestly thought it would be life in prison. Five years is a joke.”
McCallum said there was no previous history of domestic violence, apart from one relatively minor alleged incident. She accepted that he “loved his wife and was deeply committed to her and the child”.
Taking into account his early guilty plea, previous good character and “genuine... deep remorse”, she sentenced Jenbare to nine years in prison, with a non-parole period of five years. With time already served, he could be free in April 2019.
Jenbare betrayed barely a flicker of emotion. But there was uproar in the public gallery. Tsegaye was on his feet, shouting at the judge: “No! Please! Wubanchi is dead!” Half a dozen Ethiopian women, in court to support the family, were also yelling and weeping. One slumped against a wall, as if winded. “Not fair, not fair!” she cried.
Outside court, Meskerem Tesfaye, the community association’s current secretary, shook her head in disbelief. “This is the law promoting the killing of women. I honestly thought it would be life in prison. Five years is a joke. What kind of example is that? The whole community will be shocked.”
To her, it seemed as though Jenbare’s boastful prophecy that he would spend only “a few years” in jail had been fulfilled.
AMARA DARTS AROUND, engrossed by this and that, chattering away, flashing her smile. She loves school, particularly story writing and drama, and is reading Roald Dahl – Matilda is her favourite. She glides seamlessly between English and Amharic; the latter is easy to speak, difficult to read, she tells a visitor. A friend comes over, and they improvise a little play. When her grandmother gets upset, she comforts her.
The trauma and grief which this seven-year-old girl has already experienced are unimaginable. Somehow, Amara is managing to survive. She flicks through photographs of her mother and shows off her hairdressing trolley, stuffed with hairclips and rollers. The rest of Asfaw’s belongings are contained in two big cardboard boxes. “When I get sad about my mum, I write letters to her,” she confides.
Amara is brave and strong. Many people love her. Sadly, she no longer sees many of those people. The Ethiopian community is itching to support her and her family, but Eshete holds the community responsible for her daughter's death, because, she says, “they kept making her go back to him [Jenbare]”. She and Tsegaye have removed themselves from community life. They don't go to church, or to social gatherings, and they rebuff most offers of help, although they can barely support themselves.
For most of her young life, Amara was close to Demeke and Nitsuh, her aunt and uncle. The couple has a daughter similar in age to her, and so does Jenbare's sister Mestawot, who has also followed him to Sydney. The three girls grew up together, and were inseparable. They celebrated their birthdays together. Demeke says of Amara: “I love her like my own child.”
What will happen when the child’s father gets out?
A technical engineer with the NSW Roads department, and highly regarded in the community, Demeke sponsored Eshete and Tsegaye to come to Australia. "I respect them, and I was trying to help everyone," he explains.
For the past year and a half, though, members of Asfaw’s extended family who are looking after Amara have shut Demeke out – shut his whole family out. Amara hasn’t seen her uncle, or cousins, or anyone from her father’s side. Friends of Asfaw’s, including Amara’s godmother, have also been given the clear message they are no longer welcome in her life.
It’s hard not to sympathise with the extended family's way of thinking. After all, a member of Demeke's family killed their beloved Asfaw. Naturally, they have turned inwards and become protective of Amara. What will happen when the child's father gets out?
Jenbare sits in Long Bay prison. He has had just one visitor – his brother-in-law – in two and a half years. Years ago, Demeke tried to talk to him about the torture, and Somalia, and his disabilities, but Jenbare closed the conversation down. Demeke has not seen or spoken to his brother since Asfaw's death; however, with the trial over, he plans to visit him in jail and discuss Amara’s future.
Amara is digging up the front garden with her bucket and spade. She looks just like her mother. Like her, she’s an extrovert. Like her, she is always smiling. And, just as with her, you can only guess at what lies beneath.
Photography by Noel McLaughlin.
Some names in this story have been changed.
Thanks to Kassahun Negewo for his assistance.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. For more information about a service in your area, download the DAISY app in the App Store or Google Play.
If you’re suffering from mental health issues and need immediate support, contact: Lifeline 13 11 14 - Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636 - MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78.
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