Healing the Ethiopian Soul. Part I


By: Tewodros

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 blood.

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 brother, Merid.

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 his home.