Emanuel’s Story: Part 2

Note: The first part of this story can be found in an earlier post here.


Strapped into the backseat between two officers, Emanuel realized there was nothing he could do at that moment. So, being the natural extrovert, he started chatting up his neighbors as if nothing had happened. He was lucky—they were receptive to his charisma. By the time the Commander got into the front seat, he had won over his new pals.

In comparison to his subordinates, the Commander was tough to crack. The man was well known in the military for his ruthlessness. Few people dared to even steal a glance at him. It is unclear whether or not Emanuel knew of this reputation in that very moment, but he showered the Commander with compliments. (In other words, he kissed ass as hard as he could.) If the Commander was pleased by the flattery, he revealed no sign of it.

Emanuel decided to shift his strategy. As chance would have it, the sedan they were in formerly belonged to a close friend of his before the Derg confiscated it. Because of this connection, Emanuel was familiar with the intricacies of the machine: when and how the remission failed, why the click-clack-clickety-clack sounded when going uphill, and so on. “Why don’t you take this car into the shop to get it fixed, Commander?” he asked. “It’ll ride much more smoothly and last longer.” Later on, the two officers sitting next to him would express utter disbelief that Emanuel got away with speaking to the Commander in such a manner.

In any case, the Commander explained that they were not familiar with auto shops in the area. Emanuel offered a number of suggestions and useful knowledge about the car. And, with that, he successfully broke down the last barrier of friendship. For the remainder of that long car ride to the jailhouse, the boys chatted as if they were longtime friends, completely oblivious to—or, in Emanuel’s case, in denial of—the fact that his life was about to change completely. By the time they arrived at the prison, Emanuel had extracted promises of a visit to the bathroom, a shower, and a hot meal that night. Supposedly there was even mentioning of turning back, though we know now that that did not happen.


Being jailed during the Derg’s reign was no easy ride. By then, the regime had long perfected the art of running concentration camps. Families and friends were purposefully separated into different blocks so as to turn them against each other. Each day, a handful of unfortunate souls were randomly selected for interrogation. The lucky ones came back with broken bones, dismembered ears and digits, occasionally gauged eyeballs. Many did not return.

Day after day, Emanuel escaped the interrogation chair. But after two months, even his luck ran out. One morning, he and three other inmates were called out of the prison block. They were led to a separate room, where one commander, one Deputy Chief, and two officers awaited them. The fun was just about to begin.

Emanuel contemplated his options. His only proven offense was possession of subversive material. He could argue that they were not his. There was a chance of escaping the session alive. Plus, in an incredible stroke of luck, the commander and the two officers on duty that day were precisely the same ones whom Emanuel had befriended on his car ride to the prison. By contrast, the other Deputy Chief considered Emanuel a thorn in his side. He had tried to make Emanuel miserable since the very beginning.

Despite the latter’s grievances against him, Emanuel cast his bet on his friendship with the other three. It turned out that he was right. Throughout the day, as the other three inmates howled and screamed next to him, Emanuel was spared – even actively protected – by the Commander and the officers from physical torture.

The Deputy Chief, frustrated by his inability to have his way with Emanuel, continued to grill him about the anti-Derg brochures. Eventually, Emanuel “confessed” that three of his friends had given him the materials. The names he gave were of those who had long left Gonder, and he knew that there was no chance of finding them. Nonetheless, the officers decided to go search for the three men. In a stroke of brilliance, Emanuel suggested that they go by foot. “The roaring sounds of the car engines would alert the men to go into hiding. You would not want that,” he explained. The Commander considered and accepted the suggestion, sending his staff off to what would turn out to be hours of futile walking around town.

A while later, orders came from outside to assemble 40 officers. Already diminished by the aforementioned manhunt, the number of officers in the room dwindled even further. This meant that the chances of survival increased correspondingly.

The hours crept by slowly until, eventually, nightfall arrived. The remaining officers brought Emanuel’s mother into the room next door for questioning. One officer was left to watch over Emanuel. Within a few minutes, the officer’s phone rang—it was his girlfriend calling. As the officer exited the room to take the call, Emanuel was left alone in the room. He seized the moment of opportunity, crawled around the room, and eavesdropped on his mother’s conversation in the next room. Through the window, he gathered all the information necessary to avoid providing divergent answers. Because of this, both he and his mother were saved.

Emanuel ended up surviving that day with no physical trauma at all – a feat unheard of in those days. A few weeks later, his case went up for a final decision. Emanuel was either going to stay in prison, be sentenced to death, or – if he was lucky – be granted amnesty. The decisive moment was approaching.


Before we get to the outcome of that trial, another story must be recounted. Years earlier, while opening up the family shop one morning, Emanuel’s mother had found a man slumped unconscious over her doorstep. She fed him water, fresh fruit, and even took him to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with severe malaria and received treatment.

This man would later recover and become an officer within the Derg. And on the day that Emanuel’s case went to trial, he was serendipitously assigned to determine Emanuel’s fate. Remembering the mother’s act of kindness, he signed Emanuel’s papers for amnesty on the condition that he completes ideological education.

And just like that, Emanuel was released from prison.

Many years later, in a small roadside bar near the Sudanese border, the Deputy Chief, who had picked on Emanuel throughout his time in prison, was randomly found and arrested by the resistance forces. In an ironic twist of fate, the man who found him was none other than the Gangster from Gonder. The same man who had made Emanuel’s youth miserable ended up being the one to avenge Emanuel’s enemy while in prison. The Gangster took the Deputy Chief back to Gonder, where the latter has since been imprisoned for more than 30 years.

As for Emanuel, he remained in Gonder until another close-call incident drove him to leave. One of his fellow resistance fighters ended up turning on his comrades, providing a full list of the activists in the Gonder area to the Derg. Emanuel’s name should have been on there. Every single person named on that list was taken and executed. Why was Emanuel spared? According to Emanuel, he had previously gifted this friend a gold watch years earlier for a separate occasion. Perhaps the friend remembered the gift and chose to spare him for that reason. We’ll never find out.


So that is the end of Emanuel’s story. Well, for now at least. His adventures continued on long after Gonder:  how he met a voodoo doctor outside a movie theatre in Addis; his involvement with a Kenyan minister’s attempt to win back a wife; a full ride to the University of Nairobi that he turned down after a disastrous dinner during which the minister tried to hit on his sister; and how he ended up in Miami, FL with a visa and green card… the stories go on.

Emanuel told us that he has long considered writing a book about his life. But the problem, he believes, is that many people in Ethiopia have similar stories. He sometimes struggles to justify why his story is worth telling, and what purpose it would serve. To me, the reasons are clear. History affects everyone, but in ways that are not always similar. Events are largely meaningless unless one considers the effects upon and the experience of the ordinary citizen. Some of the best memoirs in the history of literature have come out of wartime and oppression:  Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of WarOne Day in the Life of Ivan DenisovitchNightWe Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families. The value of human rights is grounded in its universality. For that reason, the story needs to be told, be it from one person or from a thousand people.

And that is why I’ve chosen to recount his story here on WTWFG. I would love to see his personal account make it in to a published book or even a film. I’ll be sharing this post with Emanuel in the coming days. If there is anything you would like to say to him, please feel free to leave a comment.


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