Some of you may recall Ethiopia’s violent history in the late 20th century. Between 1974 and 1991, the Derg regime unleashed brutal repression upon the Ethiopian people, carrying out large-scale killings and bringing about years of famine and suffering.
Today, this history is seldom discussed. Despite how recent the political transition was, and how the Communist legacy has affected nearly every single Ethiopian’s life, there is a notable avoidance of the subject in general. Or at least that’s what I thought.
In truth, it’s not that people don’t want to talk. It’s simply that the gravity of the topic necessitates a proper time and place for discussion. And, sometimes, that convergence can arise from the least expected circumstances. Such was the case two weeks ago, in an old, sleepy Northern town by the name of Gondar.
My friend Rachel and I had been visiting the city on a whirlwind 24-hour tour with only one objective: to see the famous imperial castles of Gondar. Between the sightseeing stops, we wandered into a corner shop to ask for directions. That’s where we met Emanuel the shopkeeper.
A plump, jovial guy in his fifties, Emanuel turned out to be a long-time Miami resident who only recently returned to Gondar to take over the family business. With the charisma and cheerfulness of a true Floridian, he proudly showcased the renovated shelves (pictured below) and his lean inventory. Before long, we were chatting excitedly like old friends. When Emanuel found out that I was looking for good food around town (nothing new, of course), his eyes lit up. “What plans do you have for dinner? None? Well, how about this: Meet me here at 7pm and I’ll show you a good place.” Figuring we had nothing to lose, we immediately agreed.
At 7:00pm—punctual to a fault like two true Canadians—we showed up at the familiar doorstep. Emanuel emerged from around the corner and led us down the road. About two minutes later, he opened an unmarked, green metal gate and ushered us in. Before I had a chance to hesitate, the scent of coffee hit my nose. It didn’t take long for me to realize what was happening: We were in a private home. His home. Emanuel had invited us over for dinner without telling us beforehand. The smell of coffee wafted from a traditional coffee ceremony—one of the highest honors an Ethiopian host can pay to a visiting guest. We were thrilled.
We stepped through the small courtyard and entered the main residence. Inside, we found a spacious living room with high ceilings and bright fluorescent lights illuminating the pale green walls. There wasn’t much furniture: a long L-shaped sofa, a large coffee table, an old TV set, and a couple of mid-century cabinets. Dozens of individual portraits lining the walls hinted at the wealth and status of a bygone era. In the corner was a young girl in her late teens, crouched by a short wooden table, fanning a pot of roasting coffee beans. A few feet away, an elderly woman sat quietly in a worn bamboo armchair, staring intently at the Ethiopian news on television.
We sat down on the sofa, still recovering from the utter disbelief that a complete stranger had so generously invited us into his own home for dinner. Little did we know that, over the course of the subsequent four hours, we would hear one of the most unbelievable personal accounts of survival and escape from the Derg regime.
The story begins in that very same house, where Emanuel was born around the early 1960s. His family was relatively well to do; before the Communists confiscated nearly everything, they had owned the entire block from the house down to the corner store.
When Emanuel was in junior high, he fell in love with the governor’s daughter. The girl, well known for her beauty, had a host of admirers in town, including a “gangster” who was a couple of years older. While Emanuel eventually won her hand, he suffered through many years of bullying and abuse from the gangster, who was envious of their relationship. For reasons that are not clear now, he eventually split up with the girl.
By the time Emanuel graduated from high school, he had become an active member of the underground political movement fighting against the ruling Communist (Derg) regime. In those days, soldiers would routinely search households for evidence of subversion. Emanuel, anticipating their arrival in his house, gathered all of his subversive materials in an old trunk and buried it in his backyard.
One day, Emanuel’s father decided that the family’s possession of two pistols (albeit registered) was sufficient risk that he, too, decided to bury them in the backyard. As chance would have it, he chose to dig a hole in precisely the same location where Emanuel had buried the trunk just weeks prior. Moments later, the original trunk was unearthed. Had Emanuel’s father been literate, he would have exploded in anger over his son’s illegal activities, for they jeopardized his family’s safety. Alas, he could not read. Emanuel’s mother, sympathetic to her son’s cause, falsely explained that those were salvaged educational materials from Gondar University’s libraries before the soldiers destroyed them. When he wasn’t looking, she stealthily picked up a few brochures that were obviously subversive, even to an illiterate reader. She stuffed the brochures under her arm.
Emanuel’s father believed his wife’s explanation. They shut the trunk and re-buried it underground. But Emanuel’s mother still had the brochures with her, hidden under her arm. That afternoon, she slipped the papers into the closet, thinking she could destroy them at an opportune time later.
Except that moment never came. That very evening, the Derg soldiers arrived to search the house. It didn’t take long for them to find the brochures in the closet, and by the time Emanuel came back, there was no need to even put up a fight. He was going to prison.
(To be continued)