The Addis Ababa airport I knew was shabby and neglected, an overgrown shack of wood, concrete and tin. Its stagnant air smelled of incense mingled with the dank, sweet smell of sewage. But the old airport had been torn down, and in its place was a sparkling, high-ceilinged structure of metal and glass into which light poured from every direction. As I rode into the center of the city, traffic stopped for a herd of goats, and beggars were sleeping on the traffic islands that divided the road. But people were also bustling around with cellphones stuck to their ears, and brightly lit Internet cafes were filled with young people. Things were changing for the better, I thought. I had no idea Ethiopia was poised to plunge headlong into darkness.
In fact, like many in the West, I arrived in Ethiopia this time ready to give Meles Zenawe, Ethiopia's brilliant, engaging prime minister, the benefit of the doubt. During the rule of Mengistu Haile Mariam, the brutal Communist dictator, fear had been a palpable, ever-present shadow. Hulking members of the secret police patrolled the streets at night, their weapons hidden in long dark coats.
I had been in Addis Ababa 14 years earlier when, three days after the completion of Operation Solomon, Zenawe's Tigrean People?s Liberation Front ?(TPLF?) had entered the city after 15 years of civil war, freeing it from Mengistu. The TPLF fighters, young men and women in frayed, unmatched combat fatigues, had seemed incorruptible as they moved through the city, touching nothing, as though still living in the hills and jungles they had inhabited for years.
Yet even then there were warning signs. The day after the Tigreans entered Addis, Amhara demonstrators carrying long green branches had protested Zenawi's announced intention of allowing Eritrea, Ethiopia?s northernmost region that had been fighting for independence for 30 years, to secede. The Amhara tribe, whose members included both Emperor Haile Selassie and Mengistu Haile Mariam, had ruled Ethiopia for the past 100 years, conquering lands in the south, west and east and turning Ethiopia into an empire.
In particular, they had colonized the lands of the Oromo, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, but traditionally marginalized and disempowered. The Tigreans, though a much smaller ethnic group than the Amhara, were their historic rivals. Now the Amhara, occupied by a Tigrean army, saw their empire beginning to crumble. "Ethiopia must stay united," the protesters had cried, shouting and running with an energy that bordered on violence.
I was standing with the Tigrean soldiers, still dressed in their ragtag rebel clothes, when they singled out one of the demonstrators and trapped him in front of the exterior brick wall of the St. George Church in Addis Ababa. He was a middle-aged man with a paunch apparently one of the protest leaders and I had seen that his hands were raised up in a gesture of submission when they shot at him from close range, once, twice, until he collapsed.
My natural sympathy was not with the protesters. I perceived them as Amhara supremacists who did not appreciate that the Tigreans had liberated them from a vicious, totalitarian dictatorship. Perhaps because of this I didn?t judge the murder of the protester harshly enough. Zenawe himself, an avowed Marxist Leninist of the Albanian strain during the civil war, had adroitly changed ideologies when taking charge of Ethiopia in May 1991. With the United States at the height of its dominance, Zenawe had vowed to bring democracy and Western style economic growth to Ethiopia.
Since then, Ethiopian democracy has been far from perfect. Zenawi's party, now called the EPRDF, won suspiciously resounding victories in two previous elections and was said to have fudged the results in the elections that took place six months ago, in May. But hadn?t a free press been allowed to flourish, at least in the capital? Hadn?t I seen, in visits to Ethiopia over the past decade, that people were no longer afraid to speak their mind? And weren?t the cellphones and the Internet cafes signs that at least part of the population was emerging from poverty?
Angry young men The police were stopping buses, seemingly at random, and searching all the male passengers. This was the first sign, for me, that something was seriously amiss in Addis Ababa. The next day I sat in a gat house, hidden in a crowded attic room of a small restaurant with 20 young men, most of them articulate, well educated and unemployed. They were chewing the mildly intoxicating leaf, and talking about politics, bright green paste dripping occasionally from one corner of their mouth. All had been stopped and searched over the past 24 hours, and all were frustrated and angry.
The May 15 elections had been massively rigged, they told me, an assessment later confirmed for me by high-level Western diplomats. When the government realized it was losing in the rural village areas, its traditional power base, as well as in the cities, it began to steal ballots and stuff the ballot boxes. Right after the elections, Zenawe imposed a state of emergency, outlawing public protest and ferociously attacking the opposition over the state-controlled television and radio. In June, students at Addis Ababa University shouted out protest slogans and were arrested. A high school girl lay down in front of the trucks that were to cart the university students away. She was shot by a sniper, and only then did all hell break loose. 40 students were killed.
The struggle that was shaping up in Ethiopia, the gat chewers said, was not about ethnicity but about democracy and economic rights. To be sure, it was hard to distinguish between these three categories. The Tigreans, so I was told in a description I came to believe was broadly accurate, using the power of the ruling party they controlled, had monopolized vast swathes of the Ethiopian economy, including the fertilizer and seed that farmers 80 percent of the population depended on. The command structure of the army was also closely controlled by the EPRDF, and was thus perceived by the other ethnic groups as the private domain of the Tigrean elite.
My hotel, a low-rate backpacker?s haven, was located on a downtown street filled with beggars, prostitutes, children peddling cigarettes and tissues, and destitute young men who offered their services as guides. One of these young men pointed out for me the apartment where Prof. Mesfin Wolde Mariam, one of the architects of the main opposition party, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy ?(CUD?) lived. Prof. Mesfin, 75 years old, was a leading Ethiopian intellectual who had championed human rights under both Haile Selassie?s regime and Mengistu Haile Mariam?s and had been jailed by both these men. Now he was at the center of a struggle against a third regime.
White-haired, frail and coughing as he chain-smoked Marlboros, Mesfin?s deep, gnarly voice expressed both hope and outrage. ?The opposition is engaged in peaceful political struggle, but the government is using brute force, trying to force armed confrontation. Yesterday, the police entered the CUD offices, beat people and carted them off for arrest. Hundreds are in prison.? Mesfin coughed, lit another cigarette and continued. ?But for the Ethiopian people, the masses, there is a new awakening, a totally new political consciousness. They once believed that God gave you rulers. Now they are beginning to realize they have sovereign rights. The basic democratic principle has been absorbed at the peasant level and it can?t be put out any more.
Burning tires, throwing stones The CUD had called for a general strike the day after Ramadan ended, on November 4, but the day after I spoke to Prof. Mesfin November 1 the violence began unexpectedly. Several hundred high school students, joined by street children, in the sprawling crowded market called Merkato confronted Federal Police and red-bereted army special forces, blocking the streets, burning tires, throwing stones. All across the city, stores closed their metal gates; the minivans and taxis disappeared, city buses were attacked with stones. By nightfall, eight people were dead, including two policemen, and most of the opposition leadership including Prof. Mesfin had been arrested and charged with treason, an offense punishable by death. Virtually all the independent newspapers had been closed by the army, and editors and journalists were in prison or hiding. The following morning the violence spread to a dozen flashpoints across the city including elementary and high schools, and was quelled with a huge show of force.
I wandered through the city on foot, trying to reach the gunfire I heard from different points in the distance, asking passersby for their assessment of the number of dead. ?30 died near the French Embassy, trying to protect an opposition leader from arrest,? I was told. ?There are 37 bodies in Menelik hospital alone,? the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, whose offices remained open even during the rioting, told me. ?Ethiopia-Rwanda do you understand?? said a young man in dreadlocks, Rasta style. The paranoia crossed ethnic boundaries. In the Merkato, I met a Tigrean merchant who supported the government and was keeping his store open in defiance of the protesters, who demanded a general strike. ?I fought with the TPLF, and I?ll defend my store until the mobs come to kill us all,? he said. Accounts of police and army excesses were pouring in. A French journalist I met had seen army troops firing at the backs of retreating demonstrators. A young woman ran up to us breathlessly she had seen soldiers burst into a house a block away and begin to shoot. Red-bereted soldiers roared through the now empty streets by the truckload. By the afternoon, most of the shooting had subsided. But not all of it. In the morning, in one of the thousands of long dirt alleyways that turned Addis Ababa, between its broad avenues, into a grid of interconnected African villages, I was led into a mud-brick home, where mourners for Tsegahun, a 17-year-old student, wept and danced in an ecstatic frenzy of sorrow, leaping into the air, embracing each other and me. Tsegahun had been standing with some friends in the alleyway at dusk yesterday. ?We didn?t hear the soldiers coming,? Ayenu, one of those friends, told me. ?When he saw the soldiers, Tsegahun exclaimed in surprise. They called him over, told him to kneel down, and shot him twice in the midsection.? ?They were looking to kill someone,? said Fasil, another eyewitness. ?Maybe as vengeance for the death of the two policemen who died the day before.?
The young men were weary and caked with dirt. At midnight, soldiers had come knocking on doors throughout the neighborhood, looking for the young males. Along with hundreds of their friends, they had slipped away and spent the night by the river, in a deep gorge located a few hundred meters away. As I moved through the city, I heard the same story in neighborhood after neighborhood. Thousands of young men had been arrested that night, and the arrests continued every night for a week, until an estimated 20,000 were taken and hauled 350 kilometers away, to the malaria-infected lowlands near the Sudanese border. Rumor had it that they were to be trained as soldiers and sent off to fight in a renewal of the war on Eritrea that the government was planning.
Teshome, an aspiring young businessman who actually supported the government "Do people really expect democracy? This is Africa!" he had explained - had been beaten and arrested in a bar while drinking a beer and taken to a holding center with over a thousand young men before being, miraculously in his mind, released. "Police were kicking people who refused to confess they took part in stone-throwing demonstrations," he told me. "I heard them pleading for mercy."
Spreading unrest News filtered into Addis Ababa that the unrest had spread to cities in the south, west and east - including in the Oromo regions - as well as in the largely Amhara center-north. I took a plane up to Gondar, 800 kilometers to the north and then a bus to Bahar Dar, on the banks of Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, halfway back to Addis again. In Gondar, the riots had begun in a high school. "We started protesting the government's educational policy limiting access to university on Friday morning," five high school students told me, in an impromptu interview, as well as the arrests of the CUD. Our principal called the police, and they shot into the campus. They took some of us into custody, and then released us, but one of our friends never returned. They killed him." How do you know they killed him? "It's obvious," they said.
In Bahar Dar, I interviewed three female university students who spoke in hushed tones over machiattos at a neighborhood cafe. "All the students were doing was shouting. The police came and shot from outside the gates of the campus, killing one of us and seriously injuring another. Then they locked the gates of the university, with us inside, and the Tigrean and Amhara students battled each other with rocks until the Amhara, who felt the army might intervene on behalf of the Tigreans, retreated. The Tigreans started throwing stones at us, at the girl's dormitory. "This is our government, our building, our university," they shouted. The next night the army came in and arrested many of the Amhara students."
Addis Ababa was quiet again. The shops were open, the taxis were running. Parents wandered through the city, from police station to police station, trying to gain information about their arrested children. The kind of suspicion that reigned during the Mengistu area had returned - people were again afraid that the couple sitting at the next table might be government spies. I arranged to meet the editor of one of the newspapers, an Oromo, who was hiding from police. His eyes darted to the left and right nervously. "How will this crisis end?" I ask him. "The government is trying to change this into an ethnic conflict, but its not, it's political," he answers. "The government won't give up. Neither will the people. When things will boil over again? No one can say. The people had hoped their vote would count. Now, only the West, if they stand up for democracy and withhold the aid they usually give to the government, only they can save us."
"The crisis is deepening", confirmed Dr. Merera Gudina, a lecturer in political scien ce at Addis Ababa University and chairman of the Oromo National Congress, which had won some 40 seats in the May elections. I met Gudina in his office at the university, whose long halls were empty -the university had been ordered closed after the June riots and was yet to reopen. Although the Tigrean-led government had counted on the support of the Oromo as a counterweight to their Amhara rivals, the June elections had dashed that hope.
"The resentment against the government is far greater in the Oromo region than elsewhere," Gudina continued. "The government promised autonomy to the Oromo, as to all the ethnic regions in Ethiopia, but instead they created their own ethnic parties and appointed puppet leaders. The elections were a rebellion against the hierarchy the government set up. It may take some time to bring down the government. But we are sitting on a time bomb."
I went back to see Tsegahun's family. They told me that soldiers had arrived the day after I had visited, and had threatened to kidnap Tsegahun's body unless the family signed a statement saying his death was the opposition's fault. "You are our messenger to the outside world," Tsegahun's older sister Mariam told me. Dressed in mourning black, eyes burning with passion, she pleaded. "Please tell them this: We don't want bread. We don?t want money. But please don't allow the government to take away our hope."