Healing the Ethiopian Soul. Part I
It was a sunny afternoon in Dire Dawa. Our small neighborhood was unusually,
deceptively quiet. But underneath the calmness and appearance of normalcy,
we all knew or suspected something terrible was about to unfold.
Around late afternoon, the bright sky suddenly got dark, and heavy clouds
threatened rain. Mothers rushed to get their kids from the soccer field,
where many of us grew up playing ye eegir kuas ena Gi'ro.
The only asphalt road in that part of the city cut through the heart of our
neighborhood. There were houses on both sides of it, and sandwiched next
to a famous Italian-run cafe and bakery store was an old house I remember
well. It was used by local Kebele officials as a torture chamber.
Right across the old house was a thriving open vegetable and
"CHat" market. People went on about their business as if nothing
horrendous was taking place in the building across the street. But we all
knew about the heinous crimes being committed behind those closed doors,
and chose to turn a blind eye. On any given night, the agonizing screams
and the cries of the helpless reverberated throughout that little street.
The rain never came that late afternoon, but the darkness lingered into the
night. The eerie quiet was disturbed only by the announcement from Kebele
officials that we should all stay home until the next morning. It was still
early in the evening, way before s'at elafi. Maybe, we thought,
they're anticipating another attack by the Somali rebels.
But we knew better. A few weeks earlier, about a dozen people from the
neighborhood had been picked up by security forces. They were taken to the
main police station in downtown. They were young, mainly in their teens or
early twenties. Initially, the fact that they were taken to the main police
station instead of the old house was seen as a good sign.
Around 8:00 p.m. the excruciating screams of the helpless echoed throughout
the empty streets. Those who dared peek through a window saw a truck full
of soldiers pointing down their guns on what appeared to be a cluster of
naked teenagers. Then came another truck, again full of naked teenagers with
soldiers and their guns.
"They may be taking them to another prison location," some of us tried to
reason. But if they were being relocated, why were they naked? And why relocate
them in the middle of the night? Why the soldiers, and not the police?"
Ye ma lijoch yeehonu? We sat there huddled, gripped in fear
and despair, anger and hopelessness.
Suddenly there were sounds of scuffling near one of the trucks. It seemed
like one of the prisoners had jumped off. Several shots were fired. The truck
slowed down for just a moment, but never stopped. From a distance, more shots
could be heard. Weyegud. A'hun demo min tefeTere?
At daybreak, parents rushed to the main police station to see if the children
there were safe. They were told that the prisoners were transferred to another
location, and were ordered not to bring in food or clothes. Some wanted to
believe the obvious lies, while others wanted the truth.
The truth. The truth was, that night the naked teenagers were executed in
a field not far from the neighborhood. They were screaming because they wanted
us to hear them, and to save them. They could see the lights in their own
homes from the slow-moving trucks. They were our brothers, sisters, our
abro adegoch--cut down in the prime of their lives in cold
Dozens were murdered that night, among them two best friends.
Zewdu was the only child born to an army family. He was soft-spoken, yet
intense. Merid, his childhood friend, was very much like him. They were both
picked up by security forces minutes apart, kept in the same prison location,
and taken on the same truck to their execution site.
That dreadful night, several teenagers had jumped from the truck, but only
one was able to escape. The opportunity to jump came when one of the soldiers
discovered that one of the naked teenagers was his own brother.
That night, Zewdu was able to postpone his inevitable death for just a little
while longer. He had the opportunity to save his life for good, but chose
instead to return home to die.
Zewdu lived with his family in a military housing complex. His father was
at the hospital, nursing a gunshot wound from the Ethiopia-Somali war. His
mother was at home crying for her only child. That night, he sneaked into
his house, passing dozens of soldiers camped outside. He greeted his grieving
and shocked mother and told her to consider him dead because he knew he was
going to die soon. He picked up his father's Klashnikov, and headed straight
to the office of Major X, a man who many had considered a friend.
The Major was sent from Addis, as the locals believed, to stop the torture,
abuse, and killings by pro-government elements. He was a savior. An angel
who would finally put an end to the madness that seemed to intensify with
each passing day.
What we didn't know was that at the heart of the madness was Major X himself.
His mission, apparently, was to pose as a peacemaker while quietly eliminating
those who spoke forcefully against or dared to criticize the Derg.
Only the dead knew the evil deeds of Major X. The dead and Zewdu, who upon
being taken to his death, finally realized who was in charge of this operation;
who was signing the death warrants; and who stood at the execution site
witnessing the final demise of young Ethiopians. He also knew Major X would
continue killings us and we would never know. So, instead of saving himself,
Zewdu came back home to die.
Upon hearing the commotion outside, Major X emerged from his office, unaware
who or what was waiting for him.
Zewdu pointed his gun, called a name, and shot Major X. He called another
name, and shot again. Another name. Another shot. He was calling the names
of those who were murdered that night, including his friend, and my older
Major X died with a bloodstained, bullet-ridden paper inside his shirt pocket,
a hit list of people to be killed next. Zewdu shot himself in the head.
Unfortunately, he did not die right away. He was tortured to death by people
who are still in our midst.
I often drift in and out of the incidents of yesteryears, hoping to come
to grips with my troubled past. After twenty plus years and from thousands
of miles away, I can still visualize the soccer field, the banana trees,
and, yes, the killing fields of Dire Dawa. I daydream about the dead as if
they only left us yesterday.
I live in two worlds: the past and the present. The past won't let go of
me and I succumb to it easily; but the present gives me refuge through my
wife and our three beautiful children.
I often ponder when these memories will fade, and whether I will ever be
able to return to a place I once called home. The nature of my work has given
me several opportunities to go to Ethiopia, but I have yet to summon the
willpower to set foot in Dire Dawa, my birthplace. I look at my three beautiful
children, and as I struggle to teach them about our history, I always ask
myself if I should include the part that forever severed their father from