The Jesuit Fathers who served as administrators and teachers at Tafari Makonnen School powerfully influenced the intellectual development of thousands of students over the course of their three decades of service to Ethiopia’s premier secondary school, witness the many TMS graduates who have earned baccalaureate and graduate degrees at Haile Selassie I University and other distinguished postsecondary institutions around the world. But the educational mission of these dedicated teachers was far more expansive than traditional classroom learning. They were passionately devoted to shaping their students’ character as well, instilling such values as self-discipline, honesty, and service to their fellow human beings, to their community, and to their nation.
Two distinguished TMS alumni, Dr. Aklilu Habte and Dr. Moges Gebremariam, attest to the tremendous influence of the Jesuit teachers on their intellectual development and character formation in the video interview that Fr. Festo Mkenda, SJ, recorded for this blog a couple of weeks ago, with my and Bisrat Aklilu’s assistance. In their fascinating interview, Drs. Aklilu and Moges also acknowledge the tremendous contribution of Emperor Haile Selassie to education in Ethiopia, including founding Tafari Makonnen School and the University College of Addis Ababa (later Haile Selassie I University).
Fr. Festo, you might recall, is currently writing a history of the Jesuits in Ethiopia, including a chapter on Tafari Makonnen School, A Splash of Diamond, which he describes in a video interview we posted at this blog several weeks ago. Members of the Tafari Makonnen School Alumni Association of North America, which is closely associated with www.entwinedlives.com, can look forward to learning more about his forthcoming book when he appears in person at a future TMSAANA meeting, when such gatherings are deemed safe.
I’m sure that when you watch the video of my recent interview with Fr. Festo Mkenda, SJ, you’ll agree that his forthcoming book on the Jesuit presence in Ethiopia, A Splash of Diamond, will be a must-read for all – including former, present, and future students and teachers – who love and admire Tafari Makonnen School. Fr. Festo, who is on the history faculty of Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, devotes a chapter to His Imperial Majesty’s namesake secondary school, which remained for years the Jesuits’ most important ministry in Ethiopia.
Discussing A Splash of Diamond with Fr. Festo during our video interview evoked fond and vivid memories of my tremendously fulfilling three years on the faculty of Tafari Makonnen in the mid-1960s. It seems only yesterday that Fr. Marcel Gareau invited me to his TMS office to share sage counsel on bringing ancient history to life for my ninth grade students. And a fond memory of Fr. Paul Beaudry comes to mind. He is sitting outside his tent with me and fellow TMS Peace Corps teachers Garber Davidson and Randy Sword – at the end of the day at our Boy Scout vacation camp at Lake Langano, glass of sherry in hand, reminiscing about past holiday camps.
Our readers might find interesting my thoughts on the French-Canadian Jesuits who served as TMS administrators and teachers and who are featured in Fr. Festo’s upcoming A Splash of Diamond. The following is excerpted from my December 2012 post at this blog:
“…..It was easy to forget they were Roman Catholic priests since they wore normal business attire, were addressed as “Mr.”, and never discussed their Roman Catholic faith in the classroom at TMS. But early in my three-year tour of duty at TMS, it was obvious to me that these were men of God on a single-minded mission: to contribute future Ethiopian leaders to the country they so passionately loved who were not only superbly educated, but also imbued with a strong sense of public spiritedness. Looking over my TMS files this morning in my study, I came across the June, 1967 issue of the Tafari Makonnen School Ensign. In the opening pages, the TMS Director, Maurice Richer, one of the Jesuit Fathers, beautifully defines for the graduating seniors what being educated means:
Your intelligence may be in your hands and in your fingers; in your memories or in your imaginations; in your powers of abstraction or in your powers of concentration; in your quick minds or in your logical powers of reasoning; in your hearts and intuition or in your sharp analysis of facts; in a scholarly life spent within the four walls of a library or in the active life with the boundless horizon as a limit.
You may have one or many of these traits; but if you don’t live and think for others and in terms of others, if you don’t use your gifts to make others happy, if you always set yourselves as the norms of all things, if you think that you have everything to give, but nothing to receive, to me you will never be able to claim that you are intelligent persons.”
……In December 1974 – a time of upheaval in Ethiopia – a Christmas letter arrived at my then-home in Columbus, Ohio, from the last Jesuit Father left in the administration at TMS, Marcel Gareau, who had been an invaluable mentor to this fledgling history teacher in the 1960s. It closes with this Christmas wish:
From a land where so much is changing nowadays, and where so much remains to be done, we ask that your prayers obtain for all concerned the selflessness we are taught in the birth of the Lord, without which we cannot achieve the peace and order we yearn for.
Sadly, that peace and order would be long in coming.”
I am pleased and honored to share with you this memoir and recorded reminiscences of another highly distinguished TMS alumnus, Dr. Moges Gebremariam, M.D., who graduated from Tafari Makonnen School in 1965 and received his M.D. from Haile Selassie University in 1972. He maintains a private practice in internal medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. He was kind enough to contribute the following memoir to Entwinedlives.com, and also to record a podcast that reflects on his TMS experience, life in the United States, and Emperor Haile Selassie’s leadership. I am indebted to Dr. Moges’ son, Eyasu Moges, who spent several hours assembling and transmitting the photographs that enrich both the following memoir and the podcast
MOGES GEBREMARIAM, M.D.
My father used to tease me by saying that I enrolled in TMS because of a natural disaster. The disaster was my voice. It sounded so bad to him it shattered his lifelong dream of proudly presenting me to Yeneta Afework, his old teacher, and to Head Priest Melake Hayl Tedla of Intoto Raguel. I still remember those painful contortions of disgust and disappointment that used to form on my father’s face every time he made me practice the songs of the Holy Mass. After two years of rigorous and often desperate coaching, he gave up on me and realized the inevitable. His first born son was not blessed to serve the Lord as a deacon. It just was not meant to be. So he took me to TMS to try my luck with the “Ferenji” education. Fortunately, all of the drilling and discipline I endured during my father’s coaching helped to make me a good student at TMS. I always stood first, second, or third in my class. I was also blessed with inspiring and nurturing teachers like Ato Abebe Techan, Abba Meaza and “Ato Aseffa the scientist”, who always captivated me and opened new worlds of imagination in my little mind.
I used to look up to the senior students and always wondered if I would ever grow up to be like them. They were giants in my mind, whose alleged talents and exploits were exaggerated beyond belief. …….. Ferocious fighterslike Mebrahtu, Cheffikey and Tigabu; great runners like Makonnan Dori and Seyid Moussa; boxers like Girma Drsom, Debebe Eshetu, and Haile-Michael Demisse; and sports heroes like Itana, Iyasou, Tezerra and Tesfaye Gelagai.
High school was full of happy days. The teachers were not like those grade school teachers such as Seife and Akalou, who surely would have been jailed for child abuse had they been teaching in this century. There was no more corporal punishment by Ato Sebhat and Ato Fresenbet, not to mention Ato Birru, whose full-time job was to administer beatings and lashes to unfortunate students day in and day out in Mr. Gagnon’s office. Some afternoons as he walked back to his home, he used to complain to us of his tired arms from too much work! Yes, from dishing out too many lashes for too many bad students!
I was immersed in the Boy Scouts at TMS. I prided myself on earning and collecting merit badges. I enjoyed the campfires, hikes, trips to nearby places like Tinsis, Washa-Mickael, and Akaki’s AZ pool (named for Alemayehu Zegeye), Mennagesha, as well as far away places like Awassa, Langano, Chercher and Harar. Our scout master Father Beaudry’s devotion to us was unparalleled. Every opportunity he got, in groups large and small, or individually, he never tired of counseling us. He convinced me to become a doctor. “Healing the sick, caring for the poor is a noble profession pioneered by St. Luke and Christ himself,” he used to repeat to me. I, therefore, abandoned my favorite subject, geography, and Father Turenne, my geography teacher, to join the Faculty of Science at Haile Selassie University.
In 1965 the Arat Kilo campus was almost like a foreign land to me. The faculty, the students and the whole political atmosphere felt strange and hostile. By the next year even some of my own alumni from TMS shocked me by their new-found iconoclastic views: contempt and condemnation for everything we had held dear in our hearts – for Ethiopia, America, the Emperor, God, our Church, our history and our culture, etc. Street demonstrations, agitation, condemnations and class boycotts became common events.
By the time I graduated and went to Bahr Dar as a junior doctor, the political mood of the country had changed so much that revolution was imminent. For two years, Bahr Dar became my little heaven. I had everything I needed: a lakeside bungalow, a second-hand Volkswagen and a small rubber boat to take me to my own private island in Lake Tana – a small uninhabited island near Kibran Gabriel, where I spent weekends alone or with a few select buddies.
At the airport in June 1974, as I boarded a plane to the USA for four years of training so I could return home to become a famous specialist, I remember thinking about a book called “Montezuma’s Daughter” by Rider Haggard. In the book, the narrator, leaving England for the Americas to avenge his mother’s murder, bids farewell to a villager by saying, “So long.” Upon returning home after twenty long years of unexpected adventure, when he met the same villager, he remembered that and observed, “I never thought how long ‘so long’ was.” In my case “so long” lasted thirty-one long years before I returned to Ethiopia in 2005.
Ethiopia exploded in 1974, three months after I left. The Emperor was deposed. So many high officials were executed! So many students, so many innocent citizens were massacred! So many perished for nothing ! The Red Terror was in full swing. In 1978 when my own mother pleaded with me not to return home I knew things were really bad in Ethiopia. It also put me in a dilemma. I had to adjust my status here in America. The thought of applying for immigrant status felt so shameful and degrading for a proud Ethiopian like me that it almost paralyzed me with fear. But one day, after my friend, Dr. Ahmad Moen, assured me that to apply for a “Green Card” was neither an act of treason nor a stigma, I did it, and became an immigrant! Only a year later started the flood of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians to every corner of the earth; all of them including my own brothers and sisters, vying and dying to get the lifesaver called ‘the Green Card’. How foolish I must have been only a year earlier!
Years came and years went by so fast: residency, fellowship, moonlighting, private practice, CME, children, marriage, mortgages and meetings – meeting after meeting. Minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years flew by fast. After every long day of hard work when my body hit the bed, I would always find myself still half a day behind: things to do, bills to pay, projects to finish, deadlines to meet, promises to keep, and, yes, as Robert Frost said, “still miles to go, and miles to go before I sleep.” Multiply that one day by forty years and it gives you the whole story of my life in the United States.
Time has flown by so fast that now they tell me I am a senior citizen! Me a senior citizen? Me a grandfather? I can’t believe it. No way, I still cling to my youth, my TMS, and my Ethiopia. I have been fortunate in my life to have a wonderful wife, Abebayehu, three loving children, Eyasu, Lydia, and Joseph, and a granddaughter, Eden. I have been blessed by so many dedicated friends and family members, who make life worth living, as well as many saintly Americans who went above and beyond to make me feel welcome and become successful. Yes, I am the beneficiary of so much kindness from so many people who themselves have so little. This world is full of good people. I will always be indebted to America, my people, my school and my country.
Our duty to God and country is to make this world just a little better place for those who are less fortunate than us. I hope TMSAANA will continue to provide us the vehicle. I want to commend TMSAANA and encourage the Board to keep up the good work.
It is both a pleasure and distinct honor to present this memoir by distinguished Tafari Makonnen School alumnus Dr. Aklilu Habte, who recorded it expressly for Entwined Lives. When another distinguished TMS graduate, Bisrat Aklilu, suggested several weeks ago that I contact Dr. Aklilu, whom I hadn’t met, about recording his reflections and reminiscences, I was, frankly, skeptical that he would be willing to spend the time. I was aware that he was in the midst of an ambitious writing project – a history of the development of higher education in Ethiopia – and couldn’t imagine he would welcome the distraction. But, thank heaven, Bisrat was insistent, so I telephoned Dr. Aklilu, who, to my delighted surprise, readily agreed to do the recording. Before providing you with an overview of Dr. Aklilu’s illustrious career, I want to thank his son, Ameha Aklilu, who took time from his tremendously demanding schedule as a senior IBM executive to assemble a treasure trove of photographs that you’ll see as you listen to the podcast.
Dr. Aklilu received his baccalaureate degree with distinction from the University College of Addis Ababa (later Haile Selassie I University) in 1954, the Bachelor of Education degree from the University of Manitoba (Canada) in 1955, and the Master of Education and Ph.D. degrees from Ohio State University in 1956 and 1958, respectively. From 1958 to 1969, Dr. Aklilu served as Head of the Education Department, Dean of the Faculties of Arts and Education, and Associate Academic Vice President of Haile Selassie I University, and he was the University’s President from 1969 to 1974. From 1974 to 1977, Dr. Aklilu served as Minister of Culture, Sports, and Youth Affairs in the Government of Ethiopia.
Dr. Aklilu’s long and illustrious career has also included serving as Director of the Education and Training Department at the World Bank and Chief of the Education Division and Special Advisor to the Executive Director of UNICEF.
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 February 20 post, “A Time of Political Madness,” tells the harrowing true story of my dear Ethiopian friend Tesfagiorgis Wondimagegnehu’s two years in prison under the Derg, the military regime that had overthrown Emperor Haile Selassie and presided over a reign of terror in Ethiopia until 1991. Despite the disruption of his life, his suffering in prison, and his near-execution, Tesfagiorgis was able to resume his career at the Ethiopian Government’s Central Personnel Agency and eventually marry and have a family. It gave me great pleasure during my return visit to Addis Ababa almost a year ago to see Tesfagiorgis and his wife Almaz enjoying a happy life together in their comfortable home in Addis. The following excerpts from Tesfagiorgis’ recent letter to me tell about his post-prison journey to a fulfilling personal life.
After my release from prison in February 1981, people who wished me well advised me to get married before it was too late. However, it took me almost 10 years to actually get married. In 1986 I went to Italy for short-term training in public service management. There were about 20 trainees who had come from India, Indonesia, Morocco, Madagascar, Ghana, and the Philippines. The majority were younger than me. Many introduced themselves in class as a father or a mother of one or more children. I really felt bad admitting that I was single. Moreover, when we went shopping, many were buying things for their children and their wives or husbands. I was not very clear what to buy and for whom. Feeling somewhat purposeless and empty, I bought some clothes for myself and some gift articles for some friends.
After I returned from Italy, I completed the small stucco house that I had started building before going to Italy and began for the first time to live in my own house. I knew some of my close neighbors, and all were married with children, making me feel sort of out of place in the neighborhood. One of my neighbors had in fact been a student at Haile Selassie I University when I was there. It wasn’t long before we began to talk candidly with each other. We are around the same age. He had three children – a boy and two daughters. One day in the evening while I was watering the small trees I had planted outside the fence of my house, he came up and asked why I am watering them. I replied “to help them grow”. He said “Tesfa, we are mortal. You may not live long enough to see them fully grown. You need to have someone very close to you to own the plants and your house and the piece of land with you and share your life “ And he added, “Otherwise it is better to live anywhere in a small rented house”. Furthermore, with many of my friends getting married I felt more and more lonely. My growing unhappiness finally led me to decide to get married. My criteria for my future wife were simple. In addition to being a Christian, slim and at least as tall as I was, she had to be committed to marriage.
The younger brother of my old TMS friend is a distant relative of my wife Almaz. He told me about her family and her life and arranged for our meeting. And one day he came to my house with Almaz and introduced me to her. The three of us had lunch together and exchanged our telephone numbers and I walked them home. Then both of them visited my home until Almaz felt comfortable enough to come alone.
My wife Almaz was born in Addis Ababa very close to Tafari Makonnen School. Almaz’s father, who was an officer in the army during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie, retired not very long after the Derg came to power. Her mother was a house wife. Almaz had completed her elementary and secondary education at Etege Mennen School (named after Emperor Haile Selassie’s Empress). Itege Mennen was the best known girls’ school in the country. The school, now named Yekatit 12 Secondary High School, is located very close to TMS and in front of the house where we used to live, Doug. She is an Orthodox Christian and a regular church goer.
I regularly gave her calls and met her at my home and out in coffee houses and restaurants. We talked about different things including the village and the people we knew around TMS, those who were married and about their lives after marriage, and our school lives. After around six months of getting to know each other, I felt pretty certain that Almaz was the right woman for me. In addition to her family background, I loved the way she carried herself, her self- confidence, and her beautiful long black hair.
One fine day, when we were about to say goodbye to each other, I said “Almaz, now we know each other so well, we need to talk”. And she looked serious and smiled and said, “Talk about what?” I immediately read her positive feeling inside and replied, “About marriage,” adding “Think about it and say something tomorrow. Ok?” That night I felt I had really accomplished something and was very excited.
The next afternoon she came to my house and after lunch and some soft drinks, I raised the marriage issue again. Talking quietly for a while, we looked at each other with love and agreed on our marriage. Thenwe felt lots of anxiety about what to do next. According to tradition, I sent three elderly people to her parents to request their daughter, Almaz, for marriage. Her parents accepted my elderly representatives, listened to them, asked them about my work, education, habits and the like and finally told them that they would consider the request and give them the reply after a week. This is the tradition.
My elderly representatives went to her parents’ house a week later and were warmly received and told that the request was accepted. This was soon followed by a small feast prepared for the occasion. This was the first important step on the way to our marriage. The marriage ceremony included two phases. The first was the church ceremony held in Miskaye Hizinan Medhane Alem Church (very close to TMS) on December 5, 1990. Twenty-six days later, on January 1, 1991, another ceremony was held at the Addis Ababa Municipality. The municipal marriage was followed by joyful celebrations, first at her parents’ house and then at our home, with lots of eating, drinking, singing and dancing.
The first two or three years of our marriage were particularly challenging. I was smoking and spending lots of time after work drinking beer with friends. Almaz repeatedly told me to quit smoking even before marriage. I promised but found it difficult to do. I was smoking in hiding from her parents. In our tradition, as you know, you don’t only shake hands with a friend or close relative but also kiss each others’ cheeks to show true affection. I avoided meeting some of Almaz’s close relatives because they would smell smoke on my breath when I kissed their cheeks and would know I was smoking. I felt the pressure and I tried to seriously quit smoking two times – one month the first time and over three months the second. I asked myself “What is wrong with me?” and thought hard what to do. I knew that in both cases I started smoking again while I was drinking beer and chatting with my friends in a bar. The third time I quit not only smoking but also drinking beer and meeting friends in bars. The first few months were terrible. I got easily irritated and was often negative to Almaz and my office colleagues. I was restless and aggressive. I was going to bed early but could not sleep. But this time I succeeded – a huge change in my life that I know resulted from my marriage. Now I was financially better off, spent more time with my family, and was able to be with Almaz’s relatives without worrying.
Our daughter, Bersabel, was born on 2 June 1991 and our son, Natnael was born on 26 February 1993. Celebrating the birthdays of our children were special occasions for both of us and relatives and friends. Birthday gifts like new clothes and shoes sent by Almaz’s relatives in the US were longed for and highly appreciated. In the midst of all of this happiness, I sometimes remember my dark days under the Derg, when I would talk with close friends about our dream of being married some day – a dream we didn’t think would come true.
One thing I did to the best of my ability was to help my children avoid suffering from the problems I had when I was a child, that is, being unable to speak up, lacking the confidence to have and express their own views, being afraid of making mistakes. I encouraged them to speak freely and loudly and never to worry about making mistakes, but instead to learn from them.
You know, I don’t know how to swim, and there were times over the years when I was embarrassed at having to stand by the side of the swimming pool or on the beach, watching swimmers enjoy themselves. So I was firmly committed to making sure my children learned valuable skills when they are very young. For example, I helped them learn tae kwon do (they both are red belt holders). Both learned to swim at the Ghion Hotel pool, and to play musical instruments: Bersabel the guitar and Natnael traditional and religious string instruments – the Begena (David’s Harp) and Kirar, another traditional musical instrument. They are now socially active and doing very well. I feel I have greatly contributed to that and I am proud of it.
One of the things I will never forget is something that Bersabel did when she was a baby. We were teaching her to use the potty, and we repeatedly said “potty,” “potty,” “potty” to her and helped her to sit down on, and get up from, the potty. One Sunday when I got home from visiting a neighbor, I found Bersabel sitting in the middle of our living room. As soon as she saw me she smiled and for the first time uttered the words “potty”. I was very happy and said “bravo, my daughter.” Then she stretched her two hands to me to help her get up from the potty. That’s when I saw that she was sitting on my lunch box! This is something I always enjoy talking about and will never forget.
The second time I went to Italy I had, unlike my previous visit, a clear purpose for my shopping trips: buying gifts for my wife and children. And when I later visited the US, I was again thinking about what to buy for my wife and children and how to save money to build extra rooms for our house. My wife and children made my trips purposeful and lovely.
It is now 22 years and 4 months since we got married. Bersabel, our daughter, now lives in Boston, USA. She is a second year student at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. Natnael, our son, is a second year engineering student at Gonder University. We now live a happy and peaceful life looking forward to seeing our children complete their education, start work and stand on their own feet.
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.
It’s strange that I can remember what I was teaching that morning in my ninth grade history class almost a half-century ago: Roman General Varus’ loss of his three legions – and his life – in Germania. In those days, you found the ninth grade classrooms in the academic section at Tafari Makonnen School lined up in a row in a single-story stucco-faced building behind the main administration building. TMS teachers were itinerant, traveling the sprawling campus from class to class, while the students stayed together all day. I think I was in 9-C that morning. Anyway, the angry voices from the classroom next door that have been distracting my students for the past ten minutes or so have turned into a real ruckus that I can’t ignore any longer, so I stop lecturing and walk over to the window to find out what’s going on next door. I’m flabbergasted by an extraordinary sight: students actually pushing a fellow Peace Corps teacher out the door of their classroom. “Oh my God,” I think, “there’s some kind of revolt going on. What if it spreads?” Several of my students have jumped up to join me at the window, and I’m standing there wondering what I can possibly do when, thank heaven, one of the Jesuit administrators arrives on the scene, and order is restored. Back to Rome in the time of Augustus.
A DEADLY SERIOUS BUSINESS
It turns out that my Peace Corps friend and colleague, in good naïve American fashion, had violated some cardinal rules of the Ethiopian classroom: be formal, keep your distance, take a business-like approach to teaching, and for God’s sake, don’t try to turn your students into your friends. You see, education was no casual matter to our students at TMS, and, so far as I could tell, all over Ethiopia. We aren’t talking about blasé, mildly bored American students here. Education was THE key to a better life in a desperately poor country, and our students came to the classroom – many after a long trek from the provinces, and some even barefoot when arriving in the capital city – with sky-high expectations. To their mind, education was a terribly serious business, and we teachers were very important people in their lives. Their passionate commitment and high expectations were a major reason why teaching in Ethiopia in the 1960s was so satisfying. You couldn’t help but feel what you were doing in the classroom was making a real difference. But woe unto you if you broke the unwritten contract with your students and appeared not fully in command or the least bit frivolous in the classroom, as my friend learned to his acute embarrassment. By the way, this little story has a happy ending. My friend, having learned his painful lesson, bounced back and become a very in-command, popular teacher.
LEARNING ON THE JOB
On reflection, it’s surprising that not more of us Peace Corps teachers at TMS ran into problems in the classroom, in light of our pretty skimpy preparation. The great majority of my group – the “Ethi IIIs” – didn’t come from education colleges in the States or draw on real-life teaching experience, aside from a brief stint of student teaching in LA schools as part of the Peace Corps training program at UCLA. And the orientation I received from the TMS headmaster, Maurice Richer, a week or so before the fall semester began in 1964 couldn’t have been briefer: I was given my teaching schedule of seven or eight different classes of eighth and ninth grade ancient history and tenth grade English and told where I could pick up my copies of the textbooks for my classes. That was it, except for some handy tips on classroom procedure, such as asking students to be seated after the silent prayer that opened every class, expecting students to stand when reciting, and the like. Nothing else. You were basically on your own, learning on the job.
MY PETITE CRISIS
On top of our lack of professional education courses and extensive classroom experience, many of us Peace Corps teachers at TMS found ourselves saddled with badly outdated textbooks, which meant having to create supplemental materials while also learning the teaching ropes. My own crisis was less dramatic than my buddy’s being run out of class, but extremely stressful nonetheless. I vividly recall waking up in the wee hours for four or five days in a row around a month into my first semester at TMS, feeling totally overwhelmed and frightened. I’d been faithfully going through the 19th century English literature text that’d been assigned to my tenth graders (Does George Eliot’s “Mill on the Floss” bring back happy memories, or even ring a bell?), having my students read passages aloud, explaining a culture long gone and trying to clarify abstruse phrases. The weekly quizzes I’d been giving indicated that some relatively unimportant facts were being learned (such as the names of characters and locations), but few of the truly important concepts you’d expect to glean from good literature. Worse, their brief essays were for the most part incoherent. My students were growing more frustrated by the day, as was I, and I really did fear I might be facing a revolt if things didn’t change in the very near future. As I lay awake in bed one night, it finally hit me (I admit that I’m not fastest learner in the world) that I couldn’t win at this particular game; rather, I had to begin a new one with new rules. My students had to tackle first things first: learn to speak and write correct English, starting with the simplest declarative sentences, and working their way up to more complex constructions, and they weren’t going to learn how – not in this lifetime – by plowing through Victorian literature. The solution? Write my own “textbook,” in the form of page after page of practical real-life exercises, involving for the most part filling in the blanks. To give you a sense of the pace of technological change over the past half-century, I hand-wrote these exercises, which were then typed on what were called stencils, and, using the stencils, copies were run off on the mimeograph machine (You can probably find one at the Smithsonian if you’re curious). After three years, I was pleased to hand my “book” to an incoming Peace Corps teacher who was saved from the anxiety I’d experienced. This was probably a pretty typical Peace Corps teaching experience, so I don’t deserve any special credit for ingenuity.
Did we Peace Corps Volunteers at TMS during my time there consciously see ourselves as ambassadors of the United States? Speaking only for myself, I’d answer “yes,” but definitely not in the sense of being a formal part of the American diplomatic establishment in Addis or being passionate defenders of the democratic or capitalistic faith, either in the classroom or outside. I can recall only one visit to the American Embassy during my three years in Ethiopia – to spend a memorable evening with New York Senator Bobby Kennedy, who, as you’d expect, was a strong advocate for the Peace Corps. And evangelical patriotic fervor would without question have boomeranged, doing far more harm than good. I think most of my TMS colleagues would agree that our most effective friend-making for the good old US of A resulted from doing our utmost in the classroom – letting good works speak for themselves. But, looking back, I’m pretty sure that informal interaction outside of the classroom was a pretty effective tool for teaching – without preaching – about America. Over the course of many Saturday open houses for our students at our home just two blocks from TMS, directly across from the main gate of Empress Menen School, sitting around the living room munching popcorn and cookies, we shared details of our lives and answered questions about our country that would’ve been inappropriate in the classroom.
When I shared some of my own story one Saturday afternoon – a small town baker’s son whose mother went to college in her forties, with five of us six kids still at home, and who was able to go to the University of Illinois on the way to building a new life for himself – I could tell from the expressions of the students sitting around the living room that I’d conveyed something really essential about America as the land of opportunity. I think it helped, by the way, that we went out of our way to be candid, and not defensive, about obvious national shortcomings. Yes, we readily admitted, millions of African Americans had lived in slavery a mere hundred years before my Ethi III contingent arrived in Addis Ababa, and a tremendous battle for equal rights was still being waged under the leadership of Dr. King and others while we were teaching at TMS. And, yes, we acknowledged, there were ghettos in cities like, Cleveland, and Detroit teeming with Americans not fully living the American dream . These were facts; we didn’t deny them. But we could honestly point to significant progress on that front, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
A FAVORABLE TIME
I must acknowledge that our indirect ambassadorial role was made much easier by the times we were living and working in. We were only 20 years removed from World War II, and President Kennedy, a hero throughout Africa, had been killed less than a year before we arrived in Addis. And, of course, Viet Nam wasn’t yet a full-blown war, and Iraq was years in the future. We didn’t really have a lot to defend in those days. Our students’ appetite for information about JFK was insatiable, by the way. When I told how I’d stood on the street in Washington on November 25, 1963, watching Emperor Haile Selassie walk by with other world leaders in President Kennedy’s funeral procession, they were enthralled.
A CLOSING WORD ON THE JESUITS AT TMS
Tafari Makonnen was a public, non-sectarian school, but at the special invitation of the Emperor, French Canadian Jesuit Fathers administered TMS and taught several upper-level classes. It was easy to forget they were Roman Catholic priests since they wore normal business attire, were addressed as “Mr.”, and never discussed their Roman Catholic faith in the classroom at TMS. But early in my three-year tour of duty at TMS, it was obvious to me that these were men of God on a single-minded mission: to contribute future Ethiopian leaders to the country they so passionately loved who were not only superbly educated, but also imbued with a strong sense of public spiritedness. Looking over my TMS files this morning in my study, I came across the June, 1967 issue of the Tafari Makonnen School Ensign. In the opening pages, the TMS Director, Maurice Richer, one of the Jesuit Fathers, beautifully defines for the graduating seniors what being educated means:
Your intelligence may be in your hands and in your fingers; in your memories or in your imaginations; in your powers of abstraction or in your powers of concentration; in your quick minds or in your logical powers of reasoning; in your hearts and intuition or in your sharp analysis of facts; in a scholarly life spent within the four walls of a library or in the active life with the boundless horizon as a limit.
You may have one or many of these traits; but if you don’t live and think for others and in terms of others, if you don’t use your gifts to make others happy, if you always set yourselves as the norms of all things, if you think that you have everything to give, but nothing to receive, to me you will never be able to claim that you are intelligent persons.
I grew especially close to Fr. Paul Beaudry, beloved French teacher and Scoutmaster, who presided over the annual two-week Scout camp at beautiful Lake Langano, around 200 kilometers south of Addis Ababa, where we Scouts and teachers gathered every evening by the campfire for songs and traditional dances. I fondly recall nightly sitting with other teachers at the entrance to Fr. Beaudry’s tent, enjoying post-campfire cigars and sherry and musing about the future of our students and their country.
In December 1974 – a time of upheaval in Ethiopia – a Christmas letter arrived at my then-home in Columbus, Ohio, from the last Jesuit Father left in the administration at TMS, Marcel Gareau, who had been an invaluable mentor to this fledgling history teacher in the 1960s. It closes with this Christmas wish:
From a land where so much is changing nowadays, and where so much remains to be done, we ask that your prayers obtain for all concerned the selflessness we are taught in the birth of the Lord, without which we cannot achieve the peace and order we yearn for.
Sadly, that peace and order would be long in coming.
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!