Tuesday, August 9, 2016

A peasant Like Me

                                                  A Peasant Like Me
My name is Adugnaw Worku and I was born and brought up in northwest Ethiopia. My parents were peasant farmers like everyone else in the area and I was destined to continue the family tradition as a country farmer. From age seven to twelve, I was a shepherd and my assignment was taking care of goats, sheep, and cattle. At age twelve, I handed over the shepherding assignment to my younger brother and moved on to the family farm. My father taught me what his father had taught him about farming. He taught me how to harness the oxen, how to plow in a straight line, how to sow the seeds, how to weed, and how to harvest. I worked side by side with my father and I was fully trained by age fifteen. Every year, we planted and harvested various crops we needed to live on. We had to buy salt, shirts and pants and some farm equipment in the open market and cash crops like oil seeds, cotton, and spice made it possible for us to do so.

Work on the family farm was backbreaking and the farm equipment we used was primitive and ineffective. We depended completely on seasonal rhythms and weather patterns and hoped and prayed for rain constantly. There were no reservoirs to capture rainfall, and we did not use river dams for irrigation. Consequently, we had only one harvest a year and that did not give us adequate reserves for emergencies. One bad season with little or no rain often put us in precarious situations almost immediately.

In short, my recollections of life on the family farm are mixed at best. There were happy times to be sure. As long as we had adequate rain and a good harvest, we were able to enjoy weddings, holidays, and the many social and religious festivities with family and friends. But we lived a year at a time and almost always on the edge. We depended on God and on our own ingenuity to survive. I have absolutely no recollection that the government did anything for us by way of educating us to become better farmers, or helping us develop better farm tools. There was no health care of any kind and infectious diseases wreaked havoc in our lives. A lot of children died in those days. My poor parents lost seven children. The government did absolutely nothing to help us. What I remember is the additional burdens the government imposed on us every year. And what a burden that was! The tax collectors showed up right after harvest every year and demanded an arm and a leg. They were harsh and very callous.

My parents were very intelligent and proud Ethiopians. My father fought against the Italian occupiers for five years and he voluntarily served as a community leader during most of his adult life. Unfortunately, my parents were illiterate. They had no opportunity to learn to read and write, or even sign their names. Religious education existed in Ethiopia for hundreds of years but it was limited to those chosen to serve the church and the government. As a child, I was very curious and enjoyed learning new things. I recognized the value of education instinctively and begged my father to allow me to attend the local priest school. Some of my childhood friends were attending priest schools and they were able to read, sing, and serve in the local churches. But my father told me in no uncertain terms that being a farmer was better than being a priest. His best wishes and desires for me were to be a good and successful farmer, get married, raise a family, and continue the family tradition of farming. I was not satisfied or pleased with my father's vision for my life and I took matters into my own hands when I was about nine years old. I left home without my father's permission and enrolled myself in a priest school far from home, so I thought. I was enjoying school and I was learning a lot. But one day, my father showed up from nowhere and told me to pick up my belongings and go home. I returned home broken-hearted and very unhappy. Fortunately, that was not the end of the story because better educational opportunities came later and unexpectedly.

When I was fifteen years old, an unexpected event drastically changed the course of life. I had a freak accident which left me blind in the left eye. My lens was destroyed and my cornea was scratched. In addition, I developed a traumatic cataract on that same eye with a white patch covering the middle of it. Both the loss of vision and the disfigurement were hard to take for me personally and for the family as a whole. The best medicine men and women in my village and in the surrounding area tried to help me. But the accident was too severe to respond to traditional herbal medication. In desperation, my family decided to send me to a modern hospital for treatment. I walked with a group of merchants for two days to reach a city called Debretabor. This was the first time I was away from home and the farthest I had ever travelled. I was full of anxiety, expectation, and hope. I had not been to a big city before and Debretabor appeared to me to be a big city. Some of my mother's relatives lived in Debretabor and finding out where they lived was my first a challenge. In the countryside, everybody knew where everybody else lived but it was not so in the big city.

The hospital at Debretabor was a Seventh-day Adventist hospital and the physician at the time was a missionary doctor from Norway by the name of Dr. Christian Hogganvik. Dr. Hogganvik looked at my eye and shook his head. Then he informed me through a translator that he was not an eye doctor and that I had to go either to Asmera or Addis Ababa. Once again, I was very disappointed. But something wonderful and profoundly life-changing happened to me while I was in Debretabor. I observed boys and girls going to school every day. And they were able to read and write. Here I was more than twice their age at fifteen years of age unable to even sign my name. Once more, I took matters into my own hands and did not seek my father's permission. I decided to go to school by whatever means I could possibly find. I had only two Ethiopian Birr in my pocket and I had nothing more than the clothes on my back. But my desire for education was intense and I was prepared to do anything. What I did next amazes even me in hind sight.

I literally went from door to door and asked people to give me food and shelter in exchange for work after school. In those days, school was only in the morning and the whole afternoon was available to work on the farm or in the garden. When I asked for food and shelter in exchange for work after school, some people laughed at me. Others admired my determination and felt sorry for me for attempting the impossible. But with luck, determination, and providential help, I became a proud first grade student at the age of fifteen and half, and I never looked back. I found school much easier than farm work and thoroughly enjoyed the enlightenment and the pleasure it brought to my life. By the time I reached grade eight, I had lived with five different families who treated me with love, kindness, and generosity. In my spare time, I cut grass and gathered and carried fire
wood from the forest and sold them to earn money for clothes and school supplies. I am eternally grateful to those generous Ethiopian families that came to my rescue during those critical early years of my education and for treating me as if I was their son.

When I was in grade eight, an American missionary family from the United States came to Debretabor and one of the family members by the name of Carolyn Stuyvesant became my teacher. I got to know this wonderful missionary family well and eventually asked them if they could help one of my brothers to come to school. To my pleasant surprise, they agreed. In exchange, I worked for them. A year later, this wonderful missionary family volunteered to help my other brother and my sister who were still at home. Today, all four of us are college educated.
 I owe Dr. Harvey Heidinger, his wife, Elizabeth, and her sister Carolyn Stuyvesant a debt of gratitude more than words can ever express. These people of God changed our lives dramatically. Who would have thought that four peasant children from the same family would attend school and eventually graduate with university degrees? I started school very late, but I got it done eventually. I graduated from grade eight at age twenty two and from high school at twenty six. Then, I got an opportunity to go to Australia for my college education and graduated there at age thirty. Today, I hold three graduate degrees and an honorary doctorate. What a difference education makes! I thank God and people of good will for giving me the best gift in life, which is the gift of education.

My regret in life has been that I have not returned home to Ethiopia to help my country and my
people with the education and experience I have gained. I have been around the world; I have written two books and numerous articles, and I have produced CDs and DVDs of music and poetry. I have been fortunate and enormously blessed. But the boys and girls I grew up with in my village and in the surrounding villages have not been so fortunate. They never got the opportunity to realize their potential. I find that profoundly sad. I think of them often and wish that they had the same opportunity I have had. I can only imagine what they would have become if they were educated. To this day, their potential remains shrouded in a dense fog of ignorance, superstition, and grinding poverty. Life is very difficult for them and they struggle daily to make ends meet. To think that I can make more money in a few days than they can in a whole year is simply astounding. Education made that possible for me.
Adu and Zewditu

I dream day and night about Ethiopia and my people and I talk, write, and sing about them. Most of my professional and recreational writing and music has to do with homeland. As mentioned earlier, I have written two books and numerous articles. I have produced cassette tapes, CDs and DVDs and they are all about home sweet home. I play three Ethiopian traditional musical instruments, namely, washint, kerrar, and masinko and this has enabled me to put some of my poems to music and express how I feel deep inside. I am successful personally and professionally and I have reached the peak of my profession. But I never forget my roots and my humble background. The depth from which I have come and the heights to which I have climbed would not have been possible without God's blessings, people's generosities, and my own relentless quest for education and adventure. I am and will remain exceedingly grateful for all the blessings I have enjoyed in life. My philosophy in life is to reach out and help people in the same way that others reached out to me when I needed their help. With God's help, I will continue helping others in need as I have been helped when in need.

In 2009, something wonderful happened almost unexpectedly. It became possible for me to build a school in my old village to educate the grandchildren of my relatives and my childhood friends. What a life changing miracle! Over five decades ago, I left my beloved village and everyone I loved behind. And I did so in search of education. Today, there is a school in my village and there are five hundred students in that school already. No doubt the school will continue to grow. My lifelong dream has finally been fulfilled. Education will transform the lives of hundreds and thousands of rural boys and girls as it transformed mine. What a privilege! And what a wonderful feeling to think that I played a role in this monumental project in the middle of nowhere. Let me hasten to state that two wonderful foundations and many generous individuals made this dream come true. May they all be abundantly blessed!

Finally, let me say a word about my eye that catapulted me to a world of adventure, enlightenment, and a better way of life. I have had four surgeries and my vision has been partially restored. The first surgery removed the cataract caused by the accident. The second surgery corrected the stigmatism caused by the accident and the first surgery. An artificial lens was also implanted to replace my damaged natural lens. The third surgery replaced the first lens implant with a much improved lens and also transplanted a cornea. The fourth surgery cleaned up scar tissues and opened up the eye for more light exposure. My vision is still not perfect but the surgeries have been worth the pain and suffering. I must confess however that I have often wished I had better vision in my left eye. But I don’t want to complain, because my eye accident has been a tremendous blessing in disguise.

I believe that my experience is a case in point that tragedies and bad experiences can often become opportunities if one manages to look beyond them. While it is true that bad things happen to good people, it is also true that good things can come out of bad situations, if one keeps trying to overcome challenges. To anyone experiencing challenges and difficulties in life, I say don't give up! To any one who can make a difference in someone else’s life, I say it is worth it! To anyone who is cynical about people, I say there are wonderful people everywhere. To anyone who says it is too late for me, I say it is never too late. To anyone who has given up on God, I say not so fast. He is the only one out there who can give courage and restore hope. He is personally interested in us and blesses our efforts. I have been a grateful recipient of God’s grace and people’s generosity and I now try my best to be a cheerful giver to those in need. I know by personal experience that “it is more blessed to give than to receive”. Try it and see!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

EDSP Interview with Makonnen Araya

Recently, Ethiopian Diaspora stories project had an email interview with Makonnen Araya, the author of “Negotiating A Lion’s Share of Freedom-adventures of an idealist caught up in the Ethiopian civil war.” In the interview, you will find some answers as to what motivated Makonnen to write this book, the message he wants to pass to his audience, his upbringing, the hardships he faced along the way, and what lessons if any that he has learned from these experiences.  We find his book and his story to be beneficial to the diaspora community and the global community at large in understanding the period after the downfall of Emperor Haile Selassie.

EDSPYour book "Negotiating a Lion's Share of Freedom" focuses on your involvement in the Civil War that followed the Ethiopian Revolution of 1974. It is a fascinating personal account of how an educated professional living in the capital city of Addis Ababa became caught up in the political turmoil of the time, fleeing the capital after being targeted by the military government and then living for years in rebel-held territory as a guerrilla fighter and peasant organizer.
What circumstances led to you becoming a fugitive wanted by the military government?

I was actively involved in my Kebele — my local community organization — where I was vocal in criticizing the Dergue, the military junta that took governmental power overthrowing the monarchy headed by Emperor Haile Selassie. This led to my being labelled as an enemy of the government. One night in April of 1977, soldiers raided my residence to arrest me and possibly to execute me on the spot as was then the norm of the military dictatorship. Fortunately, I escaped the planned arrest and possible execution. Following that, I became a fugitive in Addis Ababa on the run from the law with no hiding place or place to live. Fortunately, after two months of such a nightmarish existence, I escaped to Asimba, a rebel-held area in the mountainous region of Tigray. There I joined the guerilla fighters of EPRA, the military wing of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP).

EDSP- Can you describe your upbringing, occupation and your overall family status prior to becoming a fugitive?
I was born and raised in Kullubi, a village in the province of Hararghe in eastern Ethiopia. My paternal grandfather was one of the three priests who in 1882 (Ethiopian calendar) brought to Kullubi from Bulga, a district in Shoa Province, the Tabot of Saint Gabriel (a replica of the Ark of the Covenant) to establish the church. I served there as a deacon before beginning my modern education in Dire Dawa. After graduating from high school in Harar, I attended Haile Selassie University in Addis Ababa. By the time, I was suspected as anti-Dergue and went into hiding. I was working as an attorney for the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia.

EDSP-When does the story in your book begin? What is it all about?

The story portrayed in my book begins in April of 1977 with my going into hiding after learning that there was to be a government crackdown on my neighborhood targeting individuals suspected of anti-government activity.

EDSP-What was the most perilous experience you encountered?

After months on the run from government agents seeking to arrest me, I was on the last leg of my journey to freedom. I was to meet a guide who would facilitate the escape of my four friends and I to Assimba, the rebel-held area. I did not know the man, but I had a password to
meet him at a specific location in the City of Makalle, capital city of Tigray Province. I went there at the appointed time. A man was standing there that met the description I was advised to look for. A Land Rover was parked across the intersection. As I walked closer, I noticed the heads of three people bobbing in the front seat of the car. I immediately suspected that to be a trap, set up by government agents to capture fugitives like me coming to meet the guide. Ignoring the person who was about five feet away from me, I continued walking.
Years later, I learned that the man was indeed our would-be guide but had been captured by the security forces. By using him as a bait the agents had captured three other groups of fugitives, a total number of 18 before my group arrived there. All those captured thus were later taken to Addis Ababa where they were executed en masse as enemies of the Dergue.

EDSP-Once you arrived in the rebel-held area you spent time at a guerrilla training camp. As someone accustomed to city life, what aspects of the guerrilla life were especially challenging?
Once I was in the guerrilla training camp, I found every aspect of life challenging, wearing a great deal of my physical and mental endurance. To begin with, the so-called camp was just a wilderness located in a semi-desert and very hot dry river valley. It had no other special landmark to its credit.
We cooked our own food of boiled corn or bean seeds (nefro), dry-roasted seeds (kolo) and baked bread in an open kitchen in the bush under some acacia trees. To fetch our provisions, every other week or so, my group traveled along rough, treacherous mountainous path to our supply store located half a day of foot travel away from our camp. At the time, my group consisted from 16 to 20 individuals.
At night, rain or shine, we slept in the open, either in a desolate bush or in a dug up hole on top of a hill. We wore the same cloth and a pair of shoes day and night. We left our sleeping place at 5 a.m. to start our daily physical training in the art of guerrilla war. We had no breakfast.
The whole time I was there, my feet and legs remained covered with wounds from scratches and stumbling over tree roots or rocks. There was no medicine available for that. At the training camp it did not take much time for everyone one of us before being emaciated for lack of sufficient and proper diet. Except for drinking water from the only well in the area, there was not enough water for cleaning ourselves or our clothes. On top of that, it did not take long for lice to dominate our miserable lives.
It took us some months living under such condition before completing our training program and left the place.

EDSP-In your book you talk about resigning from the guerrilla army, EPRA. You say "thereafter you headed alone on foot to Sudan to seek asylum and lead a life as an immigrant abroad". How did you make it to reach Sudan and then move on to enter the USA in 1980?

After staying for two years with the EPRA, suffering from disillusionment and frustration, I was forced to negotiate with the rebel leaders for my own individual freedom and life.  Once I quit the guerrilla movement, I immediately started the long journey that would take me to exile. After a few days of arduous journey through the rough, mountainous and treacherous landscape, starting from the highland of Tselemt, I reached the town of Ady Remetse in Welkait. There I was stranded. I could not continue with my intended journey to Sudan for lack of a guide.  If one tried to do so certain death was imminent. As a result, I stayed in the town close to two months until seven comrades and I found a caravan of peasant smugglers of goods who allowed us to travel with them to Sudan.  
 After a few days of traveling through the semi-desert region of Humera and across a section of the Sudanese desert, we finally reached our destination.
As a refugee, I lived in Khartoum for the next 17 months with minimal assistance from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and an American whom I befriended there.  Through my friend, the American, I found sponsors in the United States. I arrived in New York in September 1980 and from there I went straight to Rockford, Illinois where my sponsors, Mr. and Mrs. Eklund welcomed me to their home.
I am now a US citizen. I have two daughters and live in California.
 EDSP- What lasting impact did your experiences in the Ethiopian Civil War have on your life, and what lessons did you learn from those tough times?
It turned my life upside down. I was living a good life and had a reliable profession. As could be expected, participation in the armed struggle for freedom and democracy changed all that. Life forces on us difficult situations we have to face headlong that require great patience and a lot of sacrifice on our part. However, I have never had any regret; in fact, I cherish the sacrifices I underwent in the struggle for democracy and freedom [that began during the time of the Ethiopian Revolution and continues to this day]. What I learned from those desperate times is that one should never lose hope but continue in the struggle and do one’s best to turn the negative situations into positive ones. Maintain a positive outlook on life.

EDSP-What motivated you to write about your life experiences in Ethiopia?
I wanted to document my experiences in the struggle for freedom and democracy.  Prior to this time there had always been obstacles holding me back from fulfilling my desire to do so.  I finally decided that since I had survived so many life-endangering experiences, it would be a disservice to society and to my children to let this important piece of history remain untold and lost forever.
EDSP-What is your greatest accomplishment?
From the positive and encouraging receptions I received from readers, my book is one of my greatest accomplishments. To see my hard work produce such a book that makes sense, order and coherence out of a confusing, complicated and chaotic civil war makes me feel most fulfilled and satisfied.
 EDSP- What are you most thankful for?
Having carefully studied my book and all the life-threatening incidents I had encountered, once a friend said to me, “You have admirably made it through the eye of a needle.” To be able to survive and get away unscathed from all those near misses from capture and certain death by my enemies and to be able to tell my story to the world, I consider myself as most blessed.


Sunday, December 27, 2015

Prison Stories, Migration and Memories of my Father

We started the day as we normally did in the last 10 days since I arrived in prison. Orders were taken for tea and bread in the early hours of the day. The rest of the day went as normal as it could get.  We took turns to sit outside for 15 to 20 minutes, for a bit of sun and fresh air, while taking rotational turns to use the restrooms which were located at the end of the open hallway.  We were allowed to go to the restrooms once in the early morning hours before noon and once in the afternoon.  There might even be one more in the evening hours. We passed each day as we normally did, some just conversing with other inmates and others playing chess, dominoes and checkers. The game pieces were made of dried items that were found in the cells easily, such as napkin, sugar, bread and so on. Some inmates would plan for the night’s entertainment and rehearse their roles, and look for items that they could use to dramatize their show. Some prisoners will be asked to play a small act in a short drama, which I had participated in on more than two occasions. What was unusual on this particular day was that we were told to eat dinner early.  It might have been around 4 pm.
Typical Prison Cell
Nobody suspected what was in store for us and we obeyed orders and finished eating dinner..  Since our cell (#9) does not get much food from outside, it did not take us long to complete what we had for that day.  In the next hour, we heard doors being slammed one after another. They may have been closed by Aser Aleka Gebeyehu, who was the Kapo (a trusted prisoner with some privileges). 

Outside the sun was still out, but a somber mood fell on fifty or more inmates as we stood inside a walled, four by four meter prison cell. Suddenly, all the noise was toned down as our minds wrestled with the thought of what evil might befall us. This was my first experience of an early lock-down. Some prisoners were plastered to the iron bars of the prison doors trying to find out what was happening out there. Eyes were darting across the walls, other prisoners were deep in their thoughts, some could barely contain themselves and were pacing inside the narrow prison walls. In about an hour or so after the doors were slammed on us, we heard  loud motor noises, possibly from a large military truck. Soon after, Aser Aleka Gebeyehu started calling names.  We heard the names of some famous prisoners who had been tortured severely such as teacher Belayneh and Engineer Osman.  At the beginning it became very quiet after each name, as the prisoners were being escorted by Gebeyehu.
 As more noted prisoners were called, it became obvious to the prison population that something sinister was about to happen and that most of us would end up being taken away.  We could hear some wrestling outside our doors as some of the prisoners started shouting slogans, we heard "EPRP Yachenefal" and "Sefew Hezib Yachenefal" the "masses will win" ..."victory for EPRP" followed by one of the famous revolutionary songs, "Yeteglu Newe Hiwete" (my life is devoted to the struggle) which was sung by prisoners in my cell and other cells as well. It became  noisy outside, and the tension grew inside, it was like a pressure cooker where the temperature was notched up a little higher. The prison room was covered with billows of cigarette smoke so thick you could slice it with a sword. It was like a scene from a horror movie, and that moment remains etched in my memory forever. I heard kassa kuma's name, and a little later it was followed by Tesfaye Zewde Tadesse, and I felt right there and then that my name will come up next.  Kassa, Tesfaye, Million and I belonged to EPRP’s youth league, and were organized as a study group in a clandestine cell along with one contact person Tewodros, a university student, who was not arrested at the time.  Kassa and Tesfaye were arrested a week before Million and I were picked up. Kassa and Tesfaye were subjected to some torture that led to finger pointing to Million and me as part of the study group.  I moved myself closer to the door while leaning on the wall, and I heard quite a bit of encouragement from the prisoners directed to the one's whose names had been called, Berta, Ayzosh , which simply means have courage.  Their might have been a total of four or five prisoners from prison cell # 9 that were called that evening, and the total number of prisoners that left Meakelawi or 3rd police station that night was close to forty five, according to the tally that was collected by the prisoners the next day.
I found out much later, on this particular day, there were a total 594 prisoners that were rounded up from different prison cells all over Addis Ababa, and taken to the mass graves.  A few lucky brave souls had managed to jump from the military trucks that they were being transported, and some were shot as they were attempting to run, but some survived.  Among the survivors were Kassa Kuma, Tesfaye Zewde Tadesse, teacher Belayneh, and four other prisoners.  Teacher Belayneh was caught a week later and he was brought back to the same prison, Meakelawi. A few weeks later he was murdered.

We heard the motor again and about an hour later, we were allowed to open our doors, we were suffocating inside smoke filled prison walls. There was a desperate call from prisoners to use the rest rooms, and the guards were letting a few people at a time to use the rest rooms. I got my chance to use it, and the noise inside was terrible, diarrhea attack, and loud noise from bowel movement. On this night, prisoners were flocking to the rest rooms almost until the dawn hours as the terror has drastically altered our mental and physiological state. I was uncertain as to why Million & I were not included with the group that left that night, and I thought maybe it was some kind of administrative error, but I was not about to question that, other than just accepting the fact that my day had not arrived yet.

Back in prison, there was a similar routine that took place a month later, and I was expecting my name to be on the list of names called. I stayed close to the door so as not to cause any commotion should I had gotten called. However, my name was never announced, and neither was Million's. Two months later, Million and I along with some other prisoners were transferred to the main prison, Kerchele in Addis Ababa where I was greeted by my father.
My sister, Firehiwot and I with my Dad
Frew's father during his service in the Imperial Ethiopian Army. 
Graduation from Fort Belvoir, Virginia (July 2, 1968)
He had attended the U.S. Army Engineer School

 My father, who was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Imperial Army was  serving a ten year, military court martial sentence at the time, and he was wondering why I stopped visiting him on Sundays, the designated day where family members and friends were allowed to bring food and see their incarcerated family and friends.
Alem Bekagne Prison in Kerchele
Since the time my father had learned that I was in prison at Maekelawi, he had been praying and calling on his friends in the army to get me transferred to Kerchele. It was sort of a relief for him to see me there.  At the time Maekelawi was considered a death chamber, the worst prison in the nation, and he was afraid that my life would be taken if I stayed there.
Million and I stayed at Kerchele over a year, he was detained at Alem Bekagne, an enclosed, dome like structure with 57 rooms where historically prisoners with life sentences and death sentences were housed. I was at Ketero, a more open quarter with eight dormitories next to Alem Bekagne, where prisoners with pending cases were housed.  As more political prisoners were sent to the Kerchele prison, the classifications no longer represented the designated names.  While I had the privilege of moving around the prison complex, Million stayed within the prison walls of Alem Bekagne for most of his stay there, other than special events like sporting events and the like.  Unlike Maekelawi, at Kerchele, food was provided to prisoners by the prison administration, but the food was not something that you would want to eat every day unless one had no choice.  Most prisoners form a Mekrus, a small group of friends or acquaintances who pool and distribute their resources for the benefit of the group. 
Families and friends of prisoners with modest means, were allowed to bring food to prisoners almost every day at certain hours other than Saturday.  My family, including extended family members, neighbors and friends took turns preparing and delivering food to my Dad and me.  At some point, when my sister, Frehiwot, got arrested at the local Kefitegna, my family was stretched thin and suffered quite a bit physically and financially.  Luckily, my sister was released within three months, and rejoined the effort to feed my Dad and me.  Soon enough,  my Dad & I formed a new Mekrus and saved my family from preparing and sending extra meal.  My Dad was able to bribe the wardens inside Kerchele to allow us to eat lunch together at Firdegna (where prisoners with sentences stay).  

Etagegne, picture taken 12/5/2006 on my first return trip to Ethiopia. 
I remain forever indebted to Etagegne (close family member) who did most of the food preparation while I was in prison.  There were times when she even delivered food to us while carrying her infant daughter on her back, standing in line for long hours, all the while facing the scorching sun. My friends and neighbors, Seble, Atnaf, Woinshet were regulars at bringing food, money and cigarettes until the time they fell under the crushing weight of the DERG.   Dehab, who was a Muslim in her faith, was another neighbor who sent food semi-regularly for so many months.  I am sure there were so many others, but those mentioned stand out to me. If it were not for their sacrifice and compassion I would not have come out of prison with my dignity intact.   
Sundays were the most festive and exciting times at Kerchele.  This was when families and friends were allowed to visit with prisoners.  In anticipation of Sunday, some of us would subject ourselves to extra cleaning on Saturday evening by prisoners with life sentences, who were physically strong, in their attempts to earn extra income by washing bodies of prisoners who were willing to pay 25 cents for a quick rinse with warm water, and a little torture as we call it.   It was amazing how a bucket of hot water was used to wash three or four prisoner’s right inside a small wash room at one of the corners of our dormitory.  On Sunday mornings, we would get up early and put on our best clothes and wait for the Criers to sound names of prisoners who had visitors waiting outside to see them.  As the prisoners who were called arrive back at the dormitories saddled with piles of banana and other items of care, we would immediately start devouring the bananas as quickly as they arrived.  It was normal for us to eat ten or more bananas before lunch time.  Bananas were by far the choice of fruit for visitors to bring because they were inexpensive and readily available at every fruit stand in the city. 
Other than food, we were also allowed to receive clothing, books, cigarettes and some money depending on the discretion of the guards, who were stationed between two wooden rail fences and inspected all items of exchange.
At Kerchele most of our time was consumed by reading, occasional walking and aerobic exercise in the morning hours. We read mostly Marxist/Socialist books, and anything we could find there.  The most read and well circulated book in prison was Papillon , by Henre Charriere; followed by the Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.   Just as Henri Charriere was consumed with one goal, escape, we were contemplating and discussing ways of breaking out of Kerchele .  The discussion on escape peaked while the Red Terror raged outside.  Some prisoners (mostly at Firdegna) with radios were able to circulate the news as to what was going on outside, and the general consensus was that most political prisoners would end up getting killed. 

 The Red Terror officially began after Mengistu, the leading DERG member, in a public speech and display of terror, smashed three bottles filled with red liquid and attempted to rally the crowd against all enemies of the revolution. It went on until late April 1978. The term itself might have been borrowed from the Russian Bolsheviks, but it signified the random mass killings, arrest, torture and systematic door to door search that left thousands dead in major cities across Ethiopia.
Door to Door Search-Assesa
Mengistu Smashing Bottles 


At the time,  Million and I were released (6/28/78),  the DERG had wiped out and  completely crushed the main opposition group, EPRP (Ethiopian People Revolutionary Party).  It even purged most of the MEISON (The All Ethiopian Socialist Movement) members who were loyal supporters early on. 

A little after midday, Million and I heard our names called and eventually we were collected and transported back to Maekelawi.  There, we were given stern warnings and release papers from Hamsa Aleka Teshome.  If I recall the words right… it goes like this, "If you ever get caught again, it does not even have to be associated with politics, you will be executed." As we were still standing. I thought it to be like a death sentence that was communicated to us in clear terms.
As we left the main gate of the prison, Million and I looked at each other, and we could not believe that we were walking freely outside the iron gates of the prison walls. It became apparent that we could not walk away fast enough from the prison gates, and we decided to hail a taxi and headed to our respective homes because we could not agree where to go first.  As I walked through the back door of my mom’s house unexpectedly, I was welcomed with cheers and screaming. The neighbors were alarmed. They came running over to ask if everything was okay. They then joined in on the excitement.
Even though I was outside the prison gates of Kerchele, I was engulfed with a sense of disillusionment.  I no longer had the sense of purpose I held before going to prison. Most people of my age group had left the country, though some were still languishing in prison, and some were even killed.  The party that we were a part of had turned ghostly.  At the time, I did not fully understand what really happened to cause such a disaster for human life from all political sides. I was looking for answers, but information was hard to come by, and everyone clung to their own versions or interpretations of the events that unfolded. 
 A few months later, after lunch was served and a coffee ceremony ensued, my mother asked me if I would be interested in fleeing to neighboring Djibouti.  The warnings from Hamsa Aleka Teshome, rang in my ears once again, and it made the decision to leave for Djibouti much easier.
The last Sunday before my planned departure to Djibouti, I went to visit my Dad at Kerchele prison to say goodbye.  I did not know then that it would be the last time that I would ever see my father again.  He was released from prison in March of 1986, after having served a 10-year sentence. Five years later on December 27th, 1991, he passed away.
My Dad's grave site in Addis Ababa

The first Tuesday after visiting my Dad, I said goodbye to my mother and sister, and started walking with Etagegne to the main train station (Legehar ), which was located not far from my mom's home by the stadium.  Once I got there, I bought a one way ticket to Dire Dawa and boarded the Addis /Djibouti railway line.  Upon arrival, I was received by a member of a prominent Dire Dawa family, the Gonji family.

Legehar Train Station, where I boarded the Addis/Djibouti line
Anyone who has lived in Dire Dawa at the time knows something about the Gonji family. I was told Gonji, the head of the family, used to be part of the entourage for Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie whenever he visited Dire Dawa.  
Gonji had already passed when I made it to Dire Dawa, but his wife Amune who we use to call Uma, which means mother, was the one who received me. After staying three days or so at her residence, one afternoon, Uma and I boarded the local bus and headed to Melka Jebdu, a small contraband town in the outskirts of Dire Dawa.
We sat separately in the bus; she was in the front and I was at the back , and my eyes were constantly focused on her. As we got out of the bus, I followed her with a little distance between us. We were told that the town was full of government informers called Besas in the local language, and we did what we could to not arouse any suspicion. Once I saw her enter a small cottage, I joined her a few minutes later. After a brief introduction with my guide and his wife, Uma left the room.
Amune/Uma, who arranged a guide to take me across to Djibouti
  At the time when we arrived, my guide, an elderly gentleman was sitting around near a brazier and chewing Khat, a leafy plant that is considered a stimulant that suppresses appetite and causes a euphoric state of mind. It was considered as part of the social custom in the region and it was used widely there. He offered me a handful of khat, and I joined him in the ritual. We had couple of cups of hot tea, and I could already feel my head racing and my heart pumping fast. A couple of hours later, I entered the state of nirvana as the temperature soared outside, and the sun was beating on the thatched roof cottage. I was getting restless, thus I asked him when we were going to leave. He replied that we should wait until the sun went down. The moment he was done answering me, two young adults came running and entered our space, one following the other. We were all startled, and we did not know what was going on or why they had entered the cottage. They left as they came in, racing out, which triggered some fear that we were possibly being spied on.
My guide and his wife held a conversation in the back of the cottage, and soon my guide left through the back door.  A few minutes later, the wife told me to follow her at a distance as she disappeared in the back woods behind the row of cottages and tin-roofed homes calling out, pretending as if she was looking for a missing animal.  After walking for about five minutes or more, my guide's wife spotted her husband from a distance, and she signaled me to go join him as she returned back to her cottage. My guide had all our items for travel on the back of a donkey; water, kettle, cups, and cans of sardines, tea, khat and the like. He and I split the items and placed them on our shoulders, and then he let the donkey go.

That afternoon, my guide and I walked quite a distance away from Melka Jebdu in the direction of Djibouti. I felt my body warming up as I strolled in the heat of the evening hours; I was energized from the Khat and my mind contemplated what might await me at the end of the journey as this was the beginning of a new chapter in my life. I remember vividly that it was a full moon that night, which allowed us to cover more territory until we felt exhausted. We spent the night in a nearby ditch, and got up early before the sun rose.We walked until it became unbearable to walk.  All in all, it took us six days to make it to the border town of Dikhil, a sprawling town of refugees, traders and locals, where the ground was littered with make shift tents made of plastics, cardboard, and tarps. I was overwhelmed with appreciation and gratitude to my guide, whose skill and eye sight I doubted at times, and who on two occasions placed his life on the line to save mine. I simply told him thank you, goodbye, and gave him all the money that I had stashed on me, as we sat outside  a nearby tent drinking chai tea, courtesy of US AID.  To this day, I regret the fact that I do not even remember his name.

At that moment, I felt all my biggest problems were behind me, a country that devours its youth with no regard for human life, I wanted to stay away from such a place as much as I could, and I swore never to come back again; However, the nightmares followed me all the way to Djibouti and even to America for the first few years before they disappeared for good.

On September 26, 1980, I made it to the United States as a refugee along with three hundred or so Ethiopian refugees who shared the same fate.  As I was going through customs, I saw Kassa Kuma on the top floor. That same day, he arrived from Khartoum, Sudan after being processed through the UNHCR.  I shouted out his name, and as he turned to face me, I waved at him. I was shocked to see him there.  I thought to myself, this is almost a miracle that a man taken to the mass graves on that dreadful night is walking around inside JFK airport.