GOODBYE AT BOLE AIRPORT – MAY 2012
Three Ethiopian friends accompanied me to Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport the evening of May 24 to catch my 10 p.m. flight back to the States after my ten-day visit – my first since leaving Ethiopia in 1967 after three years there as a Peace Corps teacher: Berhane Mogese, an attorney in private practice whom I’d met my first week in Addis in 1964; Tesfagiorgis Wondimagegnehu, who had lived with me and my housemates for two years while studying at Tafari Makonnen School; and Tesfagiorgis’ wife, Almaz Aklog. It’d been such a busy last day in the Ethiopian capital – including my filming a half-hour video clip of Tesfagiorgis talking about his two years in prison almost 35 years ago after the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie – that I hadn’t really had time to feel sad. We were certainly a lively group on the drive to Bole, laughing about Tesfagiorgis’ getting lost two or three times as we walked around Addis, his native city, about Tesfagioris and I getting left in the dust by our friend Tesfamichael on our long trudge up to the top of Entoto Mountain, and Berhane’s heartfelt devotion to his always ringing cell phone. But it really hit me as I was hugging my three friends goodbye in the parking lot at Bole that we might never see each other again; after all, this was our first reunion in almost 50 years, and we were now in our sixties. When I turned to wave to my friends standing in the parking lot before walking into the terminal, tears were running down my cheeks.
REUNITING WITH BERHANE AND TESFAGIORGIS
I hadn’t returned to Ethiopia to see the sights as a tourist, although I’d love to go back some day with my wife Barbara to introduce her to this beautiful and exotic country. The primary reason I’d returned after my near half-century absence was to spend concentrated time with Berhane and Tesfagiorgis, whom I’d said goodbye to in 1967, so I hadn’t made plans to venture outside of Addis Ababa, now a sprawling city of over 4 million. You see, I’d been out of touch with Tesfagiorgis and Berhane since the mid-seventies, when Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown by a military group called the Derg, and the brutal dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam soon killed his way to power. It’s estimated that over 500,000 Ethiopians were killed during Mengistu’s reign of terror, the great majority of them educated youth, and as the years passed, I assumed that Tesfagiorgis and Berhane were among the victims. However, over the past year, learning that Tesfagiorgis and Berhane were alive and well, and reuniting with other former students now living in the States, including Abe Abraham in Washington and Tariku Belay in Minneapolis, I felt powerfully called to make my first trip back after almost fifty years.
To be very honest, on my 13-hour Ethiopian Airlines flight to Addis on May 14, there were moments when I wondered if I’d taken leave of my senses. Doing the tourist thing would have been a no-brainer; re-visiting Axum, Lalibella, Gondor, Harar, and Lake Tana would, with a couple of days in Addis, have very nicely filled the time. But here I was about to spend the full ten days with two fellows who’d been only 17 or 18 when we’d last seen each other. What did we have in common after living our adult lives totally apart? I recalled my time with Berhane and Tesfagiorgis fondly, but I couldn’t possibly know who they’d become over the past 45 years. In Tesfagiorgis’ case, we’d carried on an extensive email correspondence over the prior nine months, and had talked by phone twice, so I knew a lot about major milestones in his life, but the person I would soon reunite with was yet a mystery.
THREE VIVID IMPRESSIONS
My heart said I was doing the right thing, but, believe me, in my head, I was less certain, and I was feeling pretty apprehensive as I walked out of the terminal at Bole International Airport the morning of May 15 to our reunion in the parking lot. As it turns out, I needn’t have worried; I knew in our first hour together that my heart had been a trustworthy guide. I plan to write several blogs about my Ethiopian trip over the next few weeks. I’ll also be sharing photos and video clips. For now, I’d just like to share three vivid impressions from my 10 days with Berhane, Tesfagiorgis, Almaz, and their friends:
- Walking through the new Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum near Meskel Square with Tesfagiorgis and Berhane, looking at the hundreds of photos of young victims, including many from the school I taught at, Tafari Makonnen, really brought home the tremendous cost of Mengistu’s reign of terror, in terms not only of shattered lives and immense human suffering, but also of the arrested development of an already desperately poor country. The cost to Ethiopia of losing over half a million educated young people is incalculable. A deep sadness came over me and my companions as we scanned those photos covering the walls, but anger as well. Such a pointless and tragic waste of Ethiopia’s most precious resource!
- Both Tesfagiorgis and Berhane suffered under the Derg, but their spirits weren’t crushed, and their lack of bitterness and their gratitude for the lives they have lived since those dark days under Mengistu are testimony to the resilience of the human spirit – and to their strength of character. As we passed those ten days together, I realized that what had drawn me to my two Ethiopian friends originally, back in the mid-1960s, and what had kept them in my mind so vividly during our separation, was their fundamentally life-affirming natures.
- And, finally, on a somewhat poignant note, as we made our way through the Addis Ababa Museum looking at the fascinating photos from the city’s early days and strolled by what had been Emperor Haile Selassie’s Jubilee Palace, reminiscing about how exciting it was to see his Rolls come through the palace gates, we realized that our still-vivid recollections were only ancient history to the great majority of Ethiopians. Time does inexorably march on!
Enough for now. Stay tuned for more on my Addis Ababa odyssey.
©Douglas C. Eadie All Rights Reserved