“I stayed as chairman of the kebele until my arrest, and I am proud of working in the kebele and hopefully being remembered for withstanding the pressures from all angles and contributing to saving lives from red-terror executions in our kebele.” ~ Tesfagiorgis Wondimagegnehu in a letter to the author; October 1, 2012
TESFAGIORGIS’ DANGEROUS DOUBLE LIFE
In this blog post, I return to the story of my dear Ethiopian friend, Tesfagiorgis Wondimagegnehu, who lived with me and my Peace Corps housemates for 2 ½ years in the mid- 1960s in Addis Ababa, while he was studying and we were teaching at Ethiopia’s most prestigious public school, Tafari Makonnen. If you’ve read my fourth “Entwined Lives” blog post – “Tesfagiorgis’ Story: The Dark Days” (August 9, 2012) – you know that I hadn’t been in touch with Tesfagiorgis for almost 40 years when, with the help of another Ethiopian student who’d lived with me in Addis, Tariku Belay, I reunited with Tesfagiorgis by phone in March 2011, and in person at Bole Airport in Addis last May, on my first visit to Ethiopia since returning to the States in 1967. Reuniting with Tesfagiorgis, along with another recently discovered Ethiopian friend from almost 50 years ago, Berhane Mogese, last May packed an especially powerful emotional punch because I’d thought they, along with many former students, had most likely been executed under the brutal military regime that had overthrown Emperor Haile Selassie I in 1974. Our re-uniting after so many years was, as Tesfagiorgis aptly observed, a real miracle when you consider those dark days Berhane and Tesfagiorgis had lived through.
You might also recall from my “Dark Days” blog post that after his graduation from Haile Selassie I University in the mid-1970s, Tesfagiorgis joined the Ethiopian Government’s Central Personnel Agency as a mid-manager and began to lead a dangerous double life: serving as Chairman of one of the 283 urban dwellers associations – known as “kebeles” – that the Derg had created, while also actively working undercover against the Derg as a member of the opposition Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Party (EPRP). This extremely stressful double life came to an end early in the morning on February 3, 1978, when Tesfagiorgis was arrested and taken to Higher 16 Prison in Addis, where he spent most of the next two years. In this and my next blog post, I’ll tell you about some of Tesfagiorgis’ experiences as a kebele chairman, and then you’ll learn more about Tesfagiorgis’ two years in prison.
AN AFFABLE BULL
Preparing for my trip to Ethiopia last May, I found a copy of the June 1967 issue of the Tafari Makonnen School Ensign in my files. Thumbing through it, I found this profile of twelfth grader Tesfagiorgis Wondimagegnehu: “Short, but strong as a bull. Don’t stand in his way when you play football with him! But his good temper makes up for his roughness.” That’s my extraordinary Ethiopian friend in a nutshell: tremendously hard working and tenacious, but at the same time even-tempered, affable and good humored – one of those extroverted people-centered persons who naturally attract friends. It’s not surprising that, despite those traumatic dark days under the Derg, Tesfagiorgis was able to work his way up to an executive position in the Central Personnel Agency before his retirement after a 28-year career: Head of the Planning, Policy Analysis and Review Department. And these traits, along with a generous dollop of good luck, undoubtedly explain how Tesfagiorgis was able to survive for so long as chair of his kebele while secretly working against the Derg.
Heading one of the kebeles in Addis Ababa didn’t give Tesfagiorgis immunity from the Red Terror, which could strike at any time without warning, catching victims up in a net from which thousands didn’t escape. As a couple of Tesfagiorgis’ real-life stories attest, his life more than once hung by just a thread despite his leadership position.
AN UNPLANNED VISIT TO THE NOTORIOUS DERG INVESTIGATION BUREAU
One of Tesfagiorgis’ close neighbors in the kebele was Beza Geberkidan, who owned a small traditional hotel near Arat Kilo (a prominent roundabout four kilometers north of the Addis city center) and a small shop selling soft drinks, cigarettes and the like in Tesfagiorgis’ kebele. One evening, Beza joined Tesfagiorgis at his home for a game of chess. Twenty minutes into the game, a bayonet on an automatic rifle was thrust through the open window near where they were sitting. Here, in Tesfagiorgis’ own words, is what happened:
As it was dark outside, I couldn’t properly see the soldier at the window. The door was violently opened and two soldiers pointing their machine guns entered the house one after the other. We stayed seated. The first shouted “Stand up and hands up”. We obeyed fast. The second rushed into the other room of my house. We were searched and told to stay outside. The second shouted “There is one more in here”. I did not know that my friend Gebrehiwot was sleeping in the other room of my house. He came out wearing his eye glasses and holding his hands up. Two young neighbors who were working in public companies joined us outside. There were 9 of us out in the compound, along with 8 or 9 soldiers. The women were told to return to their homes, and the remaining five of us were led out of the compound and taken to a military truck parked in front of Beza’s shop.
Three people were already on the truck. One was the wife of Ato Yewlchaf, who was later killed in the Merkato area of Addis (a huge open air market) by security forces. One of the two men seemed to have been taken out of bed and not given time to dress himself and was shivering. The third was sitting in one of the front corners of the truck with his head down. We joined them.
Then the truck was driven fast in the direction of Entoto Mountain, nearly reaching the foot of the mountain. I thought, as often happened, we were going to be summarily executed and buried there. But the truck turned around and came back via the American Embassy to Arat Kilo and entered the Grand Palace. That was where the notorious Derg’s Investigation Bureau was located. We had no idea why the truck had made such a meandering trip.
We were then told to get down from the truck and join others who’d been arrested. We were all commanded to stand in line and taken some distance and then ordered to get into a narrow and very dark ditch almost as deep as my height.
It was about 10:00 p.m. and very dark. We didn’t know where the ditch would take us or what we were stepping on. We were simply following one another and slowly moving forward.
At the end of the ditch there was a kind of stairway. As soon as a suspect came out of the ditch, he was told to stand on a podium about five meters away from the mouth of the ditch. A very powerful beam of light was then put on the face of the suspect and it was very difficult for the suspect to open his eyes and see and identify the persons in front of him.
Each suspect on the podium was ordered to stand straight, to turn his face left and right, to tell his name, age, work, kebele etc. and finally told to go to group A or group B and sit on the ground.
Beza was in front, Gebrrehiwot was next and I was third in our group. Beza was on the podium and questioned and told to join group A. I knew Beza was older than all of us and was head of a large family. I assumed he wasn’t involved in politics. Also, he was very likely known by some of our captors who’d eaten in his small hotel close the Palace. So I said to myself that it would be better to go to join Beza’s group and waited for my chance.
Then Gebrehiwot came out of the ditch and stood on the podium. The beam of light was on his face. He was ordered to remove his eye glasses and did all the rest and was sent to group A. My turn came and I did the same and according to my guess work I was luckily told to join group A. All the suspects went through almost the same process and were divided into the two groups.
It was about midnight. The chief investigator came to our group and made a threatening speech and gave a stern warning that if anyone of us told anyone about what’d happened to us that night, he would certainly be brought back to the same place. Then we were put on a truck and dropped off at our kebele at about 1:30 a.m. The woman prisoner in our group was unfortunately dropped at a police station on our way home.
Group B prisoners were not fortunate. Some were thrown into prison and left there for years.
THE FASIKA HOTEL BRUSH WITH DEATH
One Saturday afternoon Tesfagiorgis met a friend of his, Tesfaye Ayele, the youngest brother of an old friend from Tafari Mekonnen School. They ate lunch together and sat talking and drinking beer until about 9:00 p.m. at the Fasika Hotel. Worn out, they decided to spend the night at the Fasika. Tesfagiorgis had been asleep for a few hours when another harrowing adventure began. Here’s the story in his words.
It was about 1:00 a.m. I felt something very cold on my forehead. I woke up and saw a tall man in uniform standing by the side of my bed and aiming at my head with a hand gun. It was the gun that I’d felt on my forehead. He told me to dress fast and get out of the room. I did. It was very cold outside. Everyone spending the night at the hotel were out there in the compound of the hotel. I joined them. The light in the compound was very dim. Each and every one of us was searched and ID cards checked. Many were told to go back to their rooms including my friend Tesfaye Ayele.
A young man who was claiming to be a relative of the owner of the hotel and myself were taken by 3 armed revolutionary guards to a nearby kebele and thrown into a small room possibly three by three meters. The room was so dark we couldn’t see each other, nor could we tell if anyone else was in the room. Using my hand as a guide and touching the wall to my right, I found the corner and leaned back in silence. But my roommate was moving here and there and stumbling on something. He was shouting and complaining. I was really worried that someone would hear the noise and come to question us, or worse, but nothing happened for the rest of the night.
At dawn, some light began to come in through a small window close to the ceiling of the room. The room had brick walls. There was only one wooden bench and a chair in the middle of the room. The walls to the right and to the left, the bench and particularly the floor were stained with blood. We were almost certainly sitting in a torture chamber. Those who’d been tortured were either dead and disposed of or taken away for execution.
Then early in the morning I heard an announcement by megaphone of a meeting of all kebele residents to be held at the kebele office at 8 a.m. Kebele meetings were normally held on Sunday mornings and lasted for hours. My roommate began shouting louder to make our presence known and hopefully get us released before the meeting began.
Not only was the torture chamber a terrible place to wait, we were also terribly anxious about being confronted by guards who’d been brutalizing suspects the night before. Someone opened the door about 4:00 p.m. and asked us why we were there and who’d locked us in. We told him the story, but couldn’t identify our captors. . He locked the door again and walked away. This time I was really worried and frightened, ready to start shouting like my roommate had. Some thirty minutes later the man came back, handed us our ID cards, and explained that we’d been detained because our names on our ID cards couldn’t clearly be read in the dark last night. Then we were released.
Hearing his stories, I realized that it truly was nothing short of a miracle that Tesfagiorgis lived to participate in our reunion in Addis Ababa in May 2012!
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