Lives: Red Terror
The New York Times Magazine, July 1, 2001
The story of an escape from Ethiopia
By Mekbib Gemeda as told to Robert Mackey
In 1979, in my homeland, Ethiopia, it was the time we call the Red Terror. The military government was killing people - there was a fight between the government and an opposition group - and there were bodies on the street every day. They left them out each morning for everybody to see, with slogans painted on them like, ''This Is an Enemy of the People.''
I was a theater student at the university. I had some great teachers, but there was no freedom of expression - you just had to say, blah, blah, blah, the usual propaganda. I was looking for a way out, so I applied for a government scholarship to study film in Zagreb, Yugoslavia.
I wasn't really involved with the opposition. But if you had gone to a meeting or had read a pamphlet, you were already in trouble with the government. You had to be with one side or the other. The only thing to do was try to be invisible, but you can't be, not altogether. One day when I was visiting a friend at work, they came to pick him up and they took me too. I didn't ask any questions nor did I know who they were exactly.
At the district prison where we were taken, they beat us and tried to get us to admit that we were part of some conspiracy to overthrow the government. You would say, ''It's not true,'' and they would tell you, ''Yes, it is'' and beat you, and then you would go through the whole ordeal again. They had the power to kill you and not to inform anyone. And that was exactly what they were doing. The most terrifying time was around midnight, when they would call out the names of people they would take to kill that night. You would just lie there and wait for your name. One of those nights, I remember the person lying beside me suddenly got up, having heard his name. From the crowd of prisoners huddled together on the ground came a low voice of support saying, ''Courage, brother,'' as he reluctantly shuffled toward his assassins.
Eventually, they took us to a central prison. It was built for about 500 people, and there were thousands in there. They were mostly political prisoners, including the grandchildren of Haile Selassie, the emperor who had been deposed by the current government. But there were also armed robbers and murderers.
You had to make your own place to sleep. There was a shanty town made of cartons and plastic sheets. It was fantastic, like something out of science fiction. In some ways it was beautiful. It was a madhouse, but also the freest place in town. You could say what you wanted to. I met people there I hadn't seen in years. Everybody invited you for tea, and you would sit and talk.
While I was there, I found out that the Ministry of Education had called me at home. I had won the scholarship! But I thought: There is no way I'll get to go. Here, they keep people for years and years with no trial. Somehow, about three months later, for some crazy reason, my friend and I got out. It was very mysterious to me how it happened. There was no question that I was supposed to stick around. They were still doing some kind of investigation.
The next day, I went to the Ministry of Education and said, ''What's the situation?''
''Where were you?'' they said. ''We were looking for you.''
I lied and said I was in the countryside because of a death in the family, and they said: ''Well, now you'll have to hurry.'' By now the school year had started, and the other students had left for Yugoslavia. ''Where is your paperwork?'' they asked. They sent me off to get a kind of clearance from my neighborhood, from the political cadres, saying that I wasn't involved in any bad political activities. It was the same government, just another office. That's when I thought, Well, then, it won't work out.
I was in another district when they picked me up. I knew someone in my neighborhood's office, so it wasn't as if they looked closely at me. In the end I got the clearance. But I was still scared I would be blocked at some point, getting my passport or my visa. Everywhere I went I was thinking, This is the moment someone's going to say, ''Where do you think you're going?'' But nobody said anything. In a week, it was all done.
Going to the airport, I was miserable and dazed because I hadn't slept for days. I could see relief in my mother's eyes for getting what any mother in Ethiopia would have wished for at the time, her son's leaving the country. The whole way I was thinking, Somewhere, someone is going to stop me. My family dropped me off and said goodbye, and I was still thinking: Don't leave. I'll need a ride back. When I think of it now, it seems impossible. But they just stamped my passport, and that was it. I didn't really feel any relief until the plane took off and we were flying over the highlands in the north. I remember looking down and thinking: That's really it. I am never going to come back to this place again.