A little over a year ago, I returned from my first visit to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia since I’d returned to the States in June 1967 after my three years there as a Peace Corps teacher at Tafari Makonnen School. During my two-week stay in Addis, Tesfagiorgis Wondimagegnehu, the former Tafari Makonnen student who’d lived with me and my Peace Corps housemates for 2 ½ years, spent several hours with me in my room at the Jupiter International Hotel, talking about his “dark days” under the military regime – the Derg – that overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. If you’ve read my earlier blog posts about Tesfagiorgis, you already know about the extremely risky and stressful period he went through when he lived two lives: holding an official position with the Derg while secretly working against it. You also know that during the two years he later spent in prison, Tesfagiorgis had come within a hair of being executed.
While we sat in easy chairs facing each other in my room at the Jupiter Hotel in May 2012, I videoed around an hour of Tesfagiorgis describing his dark days. After I got back to the States, I roughly edited the video into a clip of almost 36 minutes, which I posted privately on YouTube since I wasn’t sure about the most appropriate way to share it with a wider audience at that point. This morning, thinking about my next post at Entwinedlives.com, I recalled the clip, and realized that the time had come to make it public. By the way, today Tesfagiorgis is just as much of a perfectionist as he was almost 50 years ago as a Tafari Makonnen student, and so when he saw the video after I posted it privately almost a year ago, he found a minor factual error (the name of a musical instrument, I believe) and a couple of rough spots he thought needed smoothing out. I must confess that what you’ll be watching is the original, unimproved version, but I trust that you will find it as moving as I did when I viewed it again this morning.
My former student Tesfagiorgis Wondimagegnehu and Tesfamichael Tekle, a highly articulate and gregarious fellow with a bright smile and affable manner, have been close friends since their students days at Haile Selassie University. They were professional colleagues at the Ethiopian Government’s Central Personnel Agency (now the Civil Service Commission), and they both spent time in prison under the military dictatorship – the Derg – that succeeded Emperor Haile Selassie. The following excerpts are from the written account that Tesfamichael sent me of his experience prior to and under the Derg.
The Beginning of My Radicalization
My radicalization started way back in high school during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie. The clash of college students with the police at the Arat Kilo Science Faculty spilled over, causing major disturbances at my nearby high school, Menelik II. I was beaten along with other high school and college students by police who had jumped into our school compound chasing students, and I was taken to Police Station #1 for detention when I was a tenth grader. If I recall correctly, this happened in 1965.
My joining college students in protests against the feudal regime of the Emperor (“land to the tiller” and freedom of speech, etc.) was understandable when you consider my background. As tenants living on the land of an Addis Ababa landlord, my poor parents, who lived in constant fear of eviction, were subjected to harsh oppression. For example, my parents were forced to plant trees on the landlord’s empty land, which he was preparing for the construction of rental houses. The landlord’s continuous and abrupt threats to evict us are imprinted in my mind, and are the source of my bitter hatred of the then-system and of my rebellious attitude. When he was almost blinded, which he believed was due to my father’s curse, the landlord came to my father to ask for forgiveness for all the mental suffering that he’d inflicted on my parents, but it was too late to make any difference; the old regime was collapsing.
Why I Opposed the Derg
Although the Derg did solve the land to the tiller issue that we students were fighting for, it was clear early-on that the military junta would never bring about the freedom of speech, press, and assembly that we passionately desired. This was all too obvious when the Derg killed around 60 former high ranking government officials without a fair trial to consolidate its power. Arbitrary arrests and detention soon grew common, so many of us students joined the EPRP (Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Party) and went underground. Many of my colleagues involved in the movement were brutally killed in the streets of Addis Ababa, including close friends.
The sound of gun shots was common in Addis Ababa. It was customary to see the corpses of victims in the morning when going to work – a horrible, but very common sight. You can imagine the mental suffering we endured, never knowing what would happen to us in those terrible times.
My Prison Experience
From January to July, 1978 I was an inmate at Higher 18 Prison in the eastern part of Addis Ababa. I’d been taken away from my office one morning, having been surrounded by camouflaged “revolutionary guards” armed with machine guns. Immediately upon arrival, I was seriously warned time and again during my interrogation that I’d be in serious danger if I concealed facts that were later uncovered. Thanks to the absence of modern technology, like the computer, it was extremely difficult to cross-check or verify the results of interrogations. Had they been able to, they would have found lots of discrepancies that would have led to further interrogation and torture and more executions.
At the time I entered Higher 18, there were over 1000 prisoners. We all slept in a corrugated iron building on mattresses in rows on the floor. As the heat intensified, it was suffocating. I heard the crying of tortured people practically every night for more than a week until they moved us to other smaller rooms. The torture, of course, continued the same way even after we were moved. In the mornings when I woke up, I used to see tortured people unable to move because of their severe wounds.
I’ll never forget how horrifying it was to wake up one night to see armed men (who when they saw me signaled that I should remain quiet in bed) searching for a fellow sleeping only three or four prisoners from me, whom they took out and executed. We were told the next morning that the fellow I’d seen taken out was one of twelve prison mates who had been executed that night.
My Feelings About the Derg Period
Those days were really terrible to me and my generation. It disturbs me even now to think about that time under the Derg, when I lost a brother and close friends. Remembering those days sickens me, so I try to avoid thinking about that time and substitute more positive thoughts. One thing that sticks in my mind vividly is the reflection of the early morning sun in the blood of executed people. They used to leave the corpses lying in the open for hours as a way of intimidating people. What a government! I am very bitter about it. As I said, I try to keep memories of those terrible times out of my thoughts. Even writing this down brings back the horror and is really painful.
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.
“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!