Prisoners were physically and morally abused; there were no charges, no witnesses, no defense, no appeal, no complaints, no accountability for torturing and killing people on grounds of suspicion and for executing prisoners who had surrendered themselves to authorities. It was a time of political madness.
– Tesfagiorgis Wondimagegnehu, August 2012
My Ethiopian friend Tesfagiorgis Wondimagegnehu – who, as you might recall, lived with me and my Peace Corps house mates for 2 ½ years in Addis Ababa while he studied and we taught at Tafari Makonnen School – is talking about his two years in prison in the late 1970s under the military regime – the Derg – that had overthrown Emperor Haile Selassie I. You might also recall that after graduating from Tafari Makonnen and Haile Selassie University, Tesfagiorgis began his career at the national government’s Central Personnel Agency. In my last blog, I talked about the incredible double life Tesfagiorgis lived before he was arrested and imprisoned in February 1978: serving as head of his kebele (a Derg governmental unit also known as an urban dwellers association) while also working against the Derg as a member of EPRP (the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party). In this blog, I tell more about Tesfagiorgis’ prison experience and then share my own thoughts and feelings about that dark time.
SADNESS, DESPERATION, TENSION AND FEAR
Tesfagiorgis’ two years in Addis Ababa’s Higher 16 (the title of one of the Derg’s sub-cities, a local government unit encompassing kebeles) Prison was a searing experience – as he says, a time of “sadness, desperation, tension and fear.” Over 1,000 male and female prisoners – almost all quite young – were crammed into small cells (he recalls over fifty male prisoners sleeping in each of five 10’ by 10’ cells infested with fleas and lice). The first few months in Higher 16 were especially trying. “We were closely guarded and not allowed to talk to visitors, and visitors could only rarely see prisoners from a distance. We were shouted at, intimidated, and threatened. Every morning and evening we were made to stand in line and be counted in groups before being escorted to the latrine. Hearing the beatings and cries of individuals from the torture chamber was frightening. No one from outside could come to our aid in this time of stress, desperation and helplessness.”
Prisoners depended on friends and relatives for their food and clean clothes, although after around a year, “prison cell masters” were selected and allowed to collect money from prisoners to go outside and buy fuel, bread, tea, and sugar for breakfast. Visitors had to line up outside and wait until the prison gate was opened, and guards would receive and inspect the incoming food and other items and hand them over to selected prisoners who were allowed close to the gate. These prisoners would then call the names of their fellows to receive their lunch boxes and thermos flasks. Empty lunch boxes and dirty clothes were sent back home in the same way. “In the beginning,” Tesfagiorgis says, “there were so many prisoners, tensions were so high, the guards were so rough, and things were so disorganized that it took hours for relatives and friends to provide us with essentials. It was so time consuming, tiresome, and boring for visitors that many began to come only every other day.”
Tesfagiorgis recalls that most of his fellow prisoners had surrendered to the sub-city authorities themselves, but “there were a few who’d refused to surrender, but were pressured to by their parents, with the hope that they could survive the Derg’s campaign of terror if they confessed and were detained for some time. Some of these young men and women ended up being executed, leaving their well-meaning parents feeling betrayed, bitter, and regretful for the rest of their lives.”
THE SOLACE OF FRIENDSHIP
As you can imagine, friendship helped mitigate the harshness of life in Higher 16 Prison. Tesfagiorgis describes mealtimes as a bonding experience. “We used to eat in groups in our prison cell sitting on the edges of our mattresses. Deciding which dishes to save for dinner and which ones to eat for lunch and putting the food of different prisoners on a common tray and sitting around it and eating together strengthened our friendship and created a strong sense of friendship.” Tesfagiorgis recalls making six new close friends in prison: a high school geography teacher and father, who was executed; four high school students, one of whom was executed, one – now dead – who became a higher school teacher; and two who became government administrators; and a government manager who later worked in private business.
Humor, as you’d expect, fostered friendship while making prison life more bearable. In a recent letter, Tesfagiorgis tells three jokes that he can remember prisoners telling in Higher 16. He calls the one I found funniest “The Wonderful Conclusion.”
“There was a person who wanted to do some research on insects. He caught a flea and removed one of its legs and put it on a white bed sheet and said “jump,” and the flea started jumping. He caught it again and removed another leg and said “jump,” and the flea jumped again. The person caught the flea for the third time and still removed another leg and said “jump.” This time the flea couldn’t move. This researcher’s conclusion? “If three legs of a flea are amputated, then the flea stops listening.”
A LIFE RESUMED
Tesfagiorgis’ two years in Higher 16 Prison came at a high price, as he pointed out in a recent letter: “My political involvement and imprisonment diverted my attention from advancing my career and improving my personal life. I lost my work and income during my two-year stay in prison and endured lots of worry and mental torture. I might have gotten married early enough to have become a grandfather by now.” However, I think it’s fair to say that Tesfagiorgis is nonetheless fortunate and, as he’s said, blessed. After all, thousands of Ethiopian of his generation were brutally tortured under the Derg, and he wasn’t, and thousands died while he lived – to resume his career at the Central Personnel Agency, marry Almaz Aklog, and with her have two children, Bersabel and Natnael.
In many long conversations with Tesfagiorgis during my visit to Ethiopia last May, and in our subsequent correspondence, I’ve been struck by his lack of bitterness at the price he – and Ethiopia – paid under the Derg. He – and other Ethiopians I talked with during my visit, including Tesfagiorgis’ friends Berhane Mogese and Tesfamichael Tekle – don’t have any desire to dwell on past wrongs, preferring instead to look to the future with what you might call guarded optimism. Here’s Tesfagiorgis on the future: “My attitude towards the future is positive. Future generations have the opportunity to learn from the political events that took place after Emperor Haile Selassie’s reign ended, and they can also use technology to learn more about the world and their own country.” In the same letter, to my surprise, Tesfagiorgis also enumerated what he saw as some of the accomplishments of the Derg, including the destruction of the feudal system – “one of the most popular and fundamental demands of the people” – a “commendable job” of reducing illiteracy, and the absence of corruption.
It will be interesting as others from Tesfagiorgis’ generation weigh in to have their assessment of this dark time in Ethiopian history.
FROM MY PERSPECTIVE
Tesfagiorgis and I spent six to seven hours over the course of two days in my room at the Jupiter International Hotel during my visit to Addis Ababa last May. We sat in facing easy chairs as I filmed him telling about the double life he’d led as chair of his kebele and his imprisonment under the Derg. Sitting across from Tesfagiorgis, I could see the 17 year old boy I’d said goodbye to in 1967, when I returned to the States after my three-year stint as a Peace Corps teacher, in the face of the 62 year old man facing me. It really hit me then that I’d loved that boy – and now this man – like a little brother, and that I was truly blessed to reunite with him 45 years after our parting and some 38 years after losing touch completely.
As we talked in my hotel room, on our travels around the capital city, and over many meals of injera and wat – painting in the canvasses of our lives for each other – I was often roiling with emotion: deeply sad at times and viscerally angry at others. Sad and angry that someone I love had suffered so much so needlessly, that this fundamentally good-hearted, gentle, highly moral human being had been treated so hideously. Also sad and angry over the unfulfilled promise and thwarted dreams, not only of Tesfagiorgis but also of his generation of Ethiopians. He and his compatriots had been educated to lead Ethiopia’s development in the post-Haile Selassie era – at least that’s how I and many of my Peace Corps colleagues at Tafari Makonnen School and other secondary schools around the country saw our work in the classroom. Our former students were the elite, desperately needed few who’d graduated from secondary schools and gone on to earn university degrees. Freshly minted degrees in hand, they’d entered the adult world with bright promise and high hopes for their country and their lives, only to have their dreams dashed in less than a decade. Even though many, like Tesfagiorgis, managed to survive the Derg and build productive careers and rich personal lives, they, it seems to me, were in a real sense a lost generation that, in their prime, missed the opportunity to lead Ethiopia’s transition in the two decades after Haile Selassie’s overthrow. God knows, their loss was equally Ethiopia’s – a huge price for such a poor country to pay.
Could the United States, have done more to pave the way for an orderly transition from Haile Selassie’s feudal monarchy to a more modern, more or less democratic government? That question has nagged at me over the years. It seems inconceivable that the violent overthrow of the Emperor could have come as a surprise to our State Department; after all, the regime had been tottering for years. My Peace Corps house mates and I certainly hoped that we’d be safely back in the States before the Emperor died or was overthrown since the potential for chaos and widespread violence seemed such a clear and present danger. But whether the US Government could have played a stronger role in shaping events isn’t clear. After all, our experience in the years since World War II has proved that nation building is an extremely complex, high-risk game easily lost despite the best of intentions. I’d certainly like to hear from anyone reading this who’d like to weigh in on the question.
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