Tesfagiorgis’s Story: The Dark Days

I AM LIVING NOW AT PEACE

Tesfagiorgis At Home With Doug – 1966

“I am living now at peace – of course, doing everything I can to forget my dark days.”

These are Tesfagiorgis Wondimagegnehu’s closing words in the video we’d just filmed in my room at the Jupiter International Hotel in Addis Ababa the last morning of my ten-day return visit to Ethiopia this past May.   Sitting across from Tesfagiorgis, keeping my eye on the camera as he tells the story of his experience in the late 1970s under the military group – the Derg – that had overthrown Emperor Haile Selassie, I now understand fully how terribly dark those days were for my Ethiopian friend.  And I realize what a miracle it is that Tesfagiorgis is alive and well – happily married to Almaz with two beautiful children, Bersabel and Natnael – and that we are together again 45 years after saying goodbye when I returned to the States from Ethiopia.

AT HOME IN ADDIS ABABA FOR 2 ½ YEARS

I’d grown very close to Tesfagiorgis during the 2 ½ years he’d lived with me and my Peace Corps housemates while he studied and we taught at Tafari Makonnen School in Addis Ababa.  By the time I headed back to the States for graduate school in June 1967, Tesfagiorgis had become, I realize looking back, very much my kid brother.  A very serious, hard working student, Tesfagiorigis also had an easy going manner, a beautiful smile that we saw often, and an infectious sense of humor.  He was the perfect companion for our long Sunday walks around Addis and into the Entoto hills overlooking the capital city.  He was also blessed with that pride and sensitivity that characterize Ethiopians and make them such attractive friends.

My last few weeks in Ethiopia the summer of 1967 were so busy I didn’t really think much about the impact my leaving might have on Tesfagiorgis and the other Tafari Makonnen student living with us then, Tariku Belay. There were final examination papers to mark, graduate school arrangements to make, travel plans to finalize, packing to do – so much in so little time. Anyway, Tesfagiorgis and Tariku, soon to graduate from one of Ethiopia’s finest secondary schools, were seemingly on their way to a promising future.  I needn’t worry, I thought; they were well launched.  Finally, June 8 arrived, and I left for Bole Airport around 7 a.m. after hugging Tesfagiorgis and Tariku goodbye, carrying the letter the boys had handed me as I walked out the door of the house we’d shared for over two years.  Not long after my Ethiopian Airlines flight took off, I opened the boys’ letter.  I was moved to tears reading their parting words.  I had to laugh, though, as I’m sure they knew I would – in light of my having taught English at Tafari Makonnen – when I read these words: “Whenever we are in a trouble, in the future, we will have a dream about something impossible.  We will make conditional sentences such as:  If Mr. Eadie were here, we would tell him this and he would do that . . . If Mr. Eadie were here we would go to the mountains . . .”  By the way, it gave me great pleasure to email a copy of this letter, which I’d saved for 45 years, to Tesfagiorgis and Tariku shortly before returning to Ethiopia.  They never imagined they’d see it again.

LOST AND MIRACULOUSLY FOUND

So the years passed quickly; life went on as it’s wont to do.  Tesfagiorgis and I corresponded now and then as he completed his undergraduate work at what was then Haile Selassie I University and began his career in public administration at the Ethiopian government’s Central Personnel Agency.  In the meantime, I completed my graduate work, launched a career in nonprofit management, and eventually married and started a family.  Sometime in 1974, after Emperor Haile Selassie’s overthrow by the Derg, Tesfagiorgis and I fell out of touch.  As I followed events in Ethiopia in the New York Times in the mid to late 1970s, I realized that attempting to contact Tesfagiorgis might actually put his life in danger.  I stopped writing, and no more letters from Tesfagiorgis arrived. Thus did our physical separation become a complete break.  By the time the new century arrived, I assumed Tesfagiorgis and Tariku had very likely died under the brutal dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. It was clear that thousands of young educated Ethiopians had been imprisoned, tortured and executed by 1991, when Mengistu was driven out of Ethiopia, and not one of the many Ethiopians I had met in the States over the years could tell me anything about Tesfagiorgis or Tariku.

Now it’s November 2008, not long before Thanksgiving, and I’m settling into my hotel room in Seattle, where I’ll be speaking at a conference the next day.   Calling in for my voice mail, I’m bowled over by the first message, from a man whose voice I immediately know:  “If you are the Douglas Eadie who taught at Tafari Makonnen School in the 1960s, I am your former student, Tariku Belay.”  He left his number, which I called right away and left a message.  We finally talked when I got back home to Tampa Bay, and it turned out he was teaching in a high school in Minneapolis.  He’s been in prison under the Derg, had escaped and lived as a refugee in the Sudan before coming to the States.  He couldn’t tell me anything about Tesfagiorgis.  Staying in touch by phone and email, Tariku and I finally arrange to meet in Minneapolis in March 2011, the day before I am to speak at a conference.  The afternoon before leaving for Minneapolis, Tariku calls with exciting news.  He’s discovered that Tesfagiorgis is alive and well, retired and living with his wife in Addis Ababa.  His daughter is studying in the States, in Boston.  He gives me Tesfagiorgis’s telephone number, which I call right after we hang up.  Tesfagiorgis is home and answers the phone.  We are both soon in tears.  “This is a miracle,” he says.  I wholeheartedly agree.

RETURNING TO ETHIOPIA AFTER ALMOST  50 YEARS

Tesfagiorgis and Doug on Entoto Mountain Overlooking Addis

I began to think seriously about returning to Ethiopia after my 45-year absence that fall at the 50th anniversary celebration of the Peace Corps in Washington, where I reunited with a former Tafari Makonnen student, Abebe (now known as “Abe”) Abraham and with former Addis Ababa housemates Garber Davidson, David Karro, and Mike Altman.  Meanwhile, Tesfagiorgis and I had been carrying on a robust email correspondence, and the more I learned about his life after my departure back in 1967, the more miraculous our discovering each other seemed.  My wife, Barbara, and my kids, Jenny and Will, strongly encouraged me to make the return trip, pointing out that I wasn’t getting any younger and might some day terribly regret missing this wonderful opportunity.  What sealed the deal was getting an email early in 2012 from an Ethiopian named Berhane Mogese, who was practicing law in Addis Ababa.  “I do not think you remember me,” he wrote, but his face came immediately to mind.  I’d met Berhane, then a high school student, my first week in Addis Ababa in September 1964, and although he hadn’t studied at Tafari Makonnen, we’d seen each other several times during my three-year stay in Addis.  In fact, right after seeing his name on the email, I walked down the hall to our storage room and dug a folder of old photos out of my files; there was the photo that Berhane had sent me on July 7, 1967.  His inscription on the back said, “We may see each other some time in life.  I shall miss you.”  OK, that was it.  Could anyone be more strongly called to do something, I thought, and I started to map out my return trip.

Now let me tell you some of what I learned about Tesfagiogis’s experience under the Derg as we sat across from each other in my hotel room in Addis Ababa last May, filming the video clip, and I think you’ll agree that our reuniting is, indeed, a miracle.

TESFAGIORGIS’ DANGEROUS DOUBLE LIFE UNDER THE DERG

Tesfagiorgis and Doug At The Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum

I don’t recall that Tesfagiorgis and I spent much time chatting about Ethiopian politics while he was living with me and my Peace Corps housemates, but his political awakening wasn’t long in coming after his graduation from Tafari Makonnen and enrollment in Haile Selassie I University.  These were heady and hopeful times, as students throughout Ethiopia, sensing that the old feudal order that Emperor Haile Selassie represented was near death, saw a wonderful opportunity to play a leading role in creating a new, presumably more democratic, Ethiopia.  Tesfagiorgis certainly jumped in with both feet, for example, participating  in demonstrations against the Ian Smith regime in Southern Rhodesia and the government’s banning of the Ethiopian University Students Union and passing out leaflets protesting the murder of a student movement leader.  Indeed, Tesfagiorgis was one of a small number of fourth year students at the University suspended for a full year because of their refusal to stop boycotting classes until imprisoned student leaders were released.

The “dark days” that Tesfagiorgis so fervently hopes to forget began not long after the group of military officers known as the Derg overthrew the tottering regime of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.  As the revolt against the Emperor was gaining momentum, Tesfagiorgis received his bachelor’s degree from the University and began his public administration career at the government’s Central Personnel Agency.  He continued to be politically active, joining one of the new political parties that emerged in these tumultuous times:  the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Party (EPRP), which eventually became passionately and violently opposed to the Derg.  He also assumed leadership roles in the new political structure established by the Derg, being elected chairman of one of the 283 local urban dwellers associations known as “kebeles,” and also of the political discussion forum that had been created in the Central Personnel Agency.  When the Derg declared all-out war on EPRP, empowering kebeles to arrest, torture, and execute Ethiopians suspected of being EPRP supporters, Tesfagiorgis found himself leading an extremely stressful and highly dangerous double life that eventually resulted in his imprisonment and near-execution.

THE STORY OF GONDERIT’S ESCAPE AND EXECUTION

One of the dramatic stories Tesfagiorgis told me about his double life concerned a female kebele colleague, Gonderit Girmaye.  One day an official of the security arm of the Ministry of the Interior walked into Tesfagiorgis’s office at the kebele and asked that Gonderit be summoned.  When she appeared, she was informed she was needed for urgent work at the Ministry.  Agreeing to accompany the officer to the Ministry, Gonderit excused herself to straighten up her desk and lock her drawers while Tesfagiorgis and the official had tea.  When she didn’t return and couldn’t be found anywhere in the kebele office, the irate officer and Tesfagiorgis began to search the kebele compound.  Here’s the rest of the story in Tesfagiorgis’s own words:

At the back of the building, there was a big metal structure supporting a water tank. At the foot of the metal structure I saw a pair of female shoes and I knew he saw them too. But the security officer immediately turned his face in the opposite direction and continued shouting “Where is she?” It was logical to suspect that she could have climbed the metal structure, which was very close to the stone fence of the compound, jumped over and escaped. I wondered if the security officer might himself be a member or a sympathizer of EPRP.  I was shocked and confused.

Then all of us kebele workers got together in a room and talked about what had happened until around 6 that afternoon, but we didn’t get anywhere. The security officer warned us to conduct our own investigation into Gonderit’s disappearance and submit our findings to the Ministry of Interior security unit the next morning, along with our passport size pictures. My kebele colleagues and I continued to talk until about 3 a.m., wearing ourselves out and getting nowhere. Finally, we compiled our report and attached our pictures and submitted them to the security unit. We were told we’d be called later and that we’d suffer the consequences for Gonderit’s escape. Fortunately, this never happened.  I later learned that Gonderit had broken her leg  jumping over the fence and was forced to take refuge in a relative’s house not very far from the kebele.  Arrangements were made for her escape, but, I’m sorry to say, Gonderit was caught, tortured and executed. She was a very nice and strong lady that I and all my kebele colleagues cannot forget. 

WITNESSING A HORRIFYING TORTURE SESSION

Another story that Tesfagiorgis told as we shot the video clip in my hotel room had to do with an invitation to his kebele from a neighboring kebele to participate in the interrogation of some suspected EPRP supporters.  Because Tesfagiorgis’s kebele was suspected of disloyalty, the invitation to participate couldn’t safely be refused, so he and his close friend and reliable kebele colleague, Gebrehiwot Asfaw, along with some other kebele colleagues went to the neighboring kebele late one evening.  What Tesfagiorgis witnessed that evening left him shaken and fearful, knowing that he could all too easily become a victim himself.  Watching two or three of the suspects being suspended between two tables and having the soles of their bare feet viciously beaten with sticks and cables was horrifying enough.  But he couldn’t have imagined what would happen next.  One young prisoner from Tesfagiorgis’s kebele was told to take off his jacket and shirt and lie down on a table, to which his hands and feet were tied.   One of the guards then put gasoline-soaked papers on the young man’s bare chest and set them afire.  Crying and begging for mercy, the young man soon lost consciousness, was untied and thrown on the floor.   As Tesfagiorgis observed, “I started to seriously think about myself and knew something worse was hovering over my head.”

SURVIVING TWO YEARS IN PRISON

Things grew ever more dangerous and nerve wracking for Tesfagiorgis, who as chairman of his kebele was forced to participate in door to door searches for EPRP supporters.  “Arrests and killings were widespread,” according to Tesfagiorgis, “and survival was a daily worry of the young and their parents and relatives.  Seeing bodies of people killed and thrown in the streets became more and more common.  In those days, smoking a lot, drinking a lot and sleeplessness were daily routines.  If you asked the people why they were doing that they would jokingly tell you that they were not willing to give away their healthy lungs and livers to the Derg.”  Tesfagiorgis’s exhausting and frightening double life came to an end when he was arrested early in 1978.  After being interrogated and forced to make a videoed public confession on a stage at the Central Personnel Agency, Tesfagiorgis served two years in prison.  One of his most horrifying memories from his two years in prison was when at 4 a.m. one day, 12 of his fellow inmates, including two newly made friends, were taken – hands tied – out of the cell and executed, their bodies thrown in the street and left there for a half day for the public to see.  By the way, Tesfagiorgis later found out from a former official now imprisoned with him that “whenever he saw me I reminded him of a miracle, and the miracle was my survival.  He told me that I survived that bloody night by one single vote in my favor.  I could have been the 13th person to be executed.  That made things fresh in my mind and made me sleepless again for some days.  I never knew who voted for and against my life.”

A HAPPY ENDING

Tesfagiorgis, Almaz and Doug at Home

Tesfagiorgis’s dark days came to an end, as you know.  He suffered terribly, but he is keenly aware how fortunate he was to have survived, when hundreds of thousands did not.  He is grateful to have been able to return to the Central Personnel Agency (which became the Civil Service Commission), where he spent his whole career, and he feels blessed to be happily married and the father of two wonderful young people.  In future blogs, I’ll tell more about Tesfagiorgis’ years in prison under the Derg and his post-prison life.

©Douglas C. Eadie  All Rights Reserved

2 thoughts on “Tesfagiorgis’s Story: The Dark Days

    1. Mike, I appreciate your comment. I would have replied sooner, but got pulled into a hugely time consuming consulting project. I’m afraid the dark days aren’t totally gone for Ethiopians today, but certainly Tesfagiorgis’s life has turned out well.

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