Essays - Autumn 2006

Tomorrow Is Another Day

An Ethiopian student survives a brutal imprisonment by translating Gone with the Wind into his native tongue

By Carol Huang | September 1, 2006


Addis Ababa is nine degrees north of the equator, a city of brutal sun and cold nights chilled by mountain air, ringed by hilltops, and fed by springs that tumble into polluted creeks swarmed by buzzards and hawks. It is a city of old palaces hidden by soaring gates and of dirt alleys that vanish into neighborhoods of mud and scrap metal. It is a city that smells of sweat and dung and diesel; a city in which herdsmen chase goats alongside traffic and children sell shoeshines and songs for pennies; a city of beauty as well as of misery, clinging to hope against all odds.

More than 30 years ago this windblown, sunbaked African capital, banked approximately 7,700 feet in the Entoto Mountains, was reeling from revolution. A coup had toppled Haile Selassi, the 82-year-old emperor, the only ruler most Ethiopians had ever known, sparking a power struggle in which a pug-nosed army colonel named Mengistu Haile Mariam emerged as the most ruthless member of a secretive military junta called the Derg. After executing his military rivals, Mengistu went after the civil opposition with a series of search-and-destroy campaigns that he christened the “Red Terror.” People were caught hiding in the woods and at roadblocks, seized jumping over walls, and plucked from demonstrations, buses, and homes. “It was a time when many young people simply vanished into thin air,” wrote Nega Mezlekia in his memoir, Notes from the Hyena’s Belly. “The calamity was beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. The streets, public parks, and market stalls were littered with the open-mouthed dead.” Africa Watch called it “one of the most systematic uses of mass murder by a state ever witnessed in Africa.”

Nebiy Mekonnen (NEH-bee mah-KOH-nun) was a chemistry student at Addis Ababa University when Ethiopia’s last emperor fell. As a member of an underground movement fighting Mengistu’s emerging dictatorship, he’d already been arrested twice when Mengistu’s men captured him a third time. It was May 1978, the year Fidel Castro sent 20,000 troops to help Ethiopia fight Somalia, which had invaded the Ogaden Desert. There were so many Cubans in the Ethiopian capital that year that hotel bars served Cuba Libres and “Guantanamera” played over the state-run radio. Nebiy was en route to a secret meeting near the Ghion Hotel when he saw four white Peugeots, the vehicles favored by Mengistu’s security forces. Before he could alter the direction of his footsteps, two men approached him. One man walked toward him, another came from behind, and when he ran into the street, others circled him. They shoved him into a waiting car and radioed their commander, “The sugar cane has been cut.”

Inside the palace prison they blindfolded him and demanded names and addresses. When he refused to talk, they stuffed his mouth with a rag that was still damp from the blood and vomit of the previous victim. They forced his elbows and knees around a pole, which they lifted over the floor, so that Nebiy was suspended upside down, curled like a fetus, his feet turned to the ceiling. They tortured him in this position for several days, beating the bot- toms of his feet until his soles bled. At first Nebiy thought he could toughen up the soles of his feet by walking after each beating. He would steady himself against the walls of his cell and put one foot in front of the other, leaving a staggered trail of bloody footprints. Eventually, he could no longer walk, so another prisoner offered to carry him. Nebiy had never met the boy before. He was short and stocky with dark, curly hair and thick, calloused feet that looked as though they’d never worn shoes. For eight days Amha Getaneh carried Nebiy between their cell and the toilets, until Nebiy’s feet healed enough for him to walk again.

Three months later Nebiy, Amha, and others were sent to Maikelawi, a police station in the northern part of the city that had been converted into a detention center. A wall of mud and stone blocked the compound from public view. A single-story building within contained a dozen cement rooms. Each room measured just four-by-four meters and held as many as 50 people. At times it was so crowded that the prisoners slept in shifts. An uncov- ered walkway divided the rooms into rows of six, allowing armed soldiers on the roof to see the inmates below. Toilets and showers were at one end, and a solid, metal gate was at the other.

The prisoners were allowed out to use the toilets only twice a day, once at dawn and again at dusk, and that was the only time they saw the sky. When they shuffled to the toilets, Nebiy used to look up at the sky and wonder, among many other things, how long he would be in jail. It wouldn’t have been so bad if they’d sentenced him to 10, 20, or even 30 years. He could have told himself after, say, the fifth year, “You’ve only got 5 or 15 or 25 to go.” But they never sentenced him. They didn’t kill him, either. They just left him there, as though, by simply putting him in prison, they’d obliterated him.

Years later, Nebiy and the other prisoners were allowed to sit in the open walkway. They’d play chess with pieces molded from dough and sweetened tea and talk as the sunlight slid from one side of the wall to the other. By then Mengistu’s grip on the capital was firm, and each time Mengistu delivered a speech, the guards would haul in a television and make the prisoners listen. There were books then, too—Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit; a book on acupuncture; a copy of Julius Caesar. Things weren’t so bad, and the nightly executions had slowed to a trickle. But that was all later, years later; in the beginning things were very tense, and the prisoners of Maikelawi had just one book—a tattered copy of Gone with the Wind.

When Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel was published in 1936, Haile Selassie had been emperor of Ethiopia for six years. The Lion of Judah would remain on the throne for nearly 40 more years and be the last of a line of feudal kings who’d ruled the lands of ancient Abyssinia since the earliest days of Christianity. According to a text written between the 6th and 11th centuries, the kings descended from a tryst between King Solomon of Israel and the Queen of Sheba. They reigned over Africa’s old- est independent country, a land of myth and majesty, whose waters from Lake Tana fed more than 50 percent of the Nile, and whose southwestern high- lands were credited with producing one of the world’s most widely drunk and profitable beverages, coffee.

Haile Selassie brought the first cars to Ethiopia, including Rolls-Royces for his private fleet, and introduced electricity, airplanes, and the country’s first written constitution. As prince he’d pushed to abolish slavery so that Ethiopia was able to join the League of Nations in 1923, and as emperor he helped found the Organization of African Unity, headquartered in Addis Ababa, in 1963.

Like others of his generation, Nebiy was raised to believe that the emperor was something akin to a god. Though millions of Ethiopians starved while the emperor traveled the world in a private jet and fed fresh meat daily to the lions in his private zoo, Nebiy’s parents raised him to accept the old adage, “You can no more fault the emperor than you can sow the sky.” Nebiy’s father was a bureaucrat in the emperor’s Ministry of Finance, his mother, a deeply devout woman who used an upturned umbrella to collect money for the local Orthodox Christian Church. Her loyalty to the emperor ran so deep that each time the aging monarch appeared on television, she would rise from her kitchen chair and bow. His mother had given birth late in life, and Nebiy, her only child, dutifully ran errands for neighborhood housewives, attended church every Sunday, and earned good grades in school.

But it was the ’60s and ’70s, and the educated youth in Ethiopia, like their counterparts across the globe, were agitating for change. Despite Ethiopia’s proud history of independence, its natural resources, and its rulers’ claims to biblical royalty, the country seemed glaringly backward as its neighbors on the continent moved ahead from colonial rule. Few of Ethiopia’s 30 million people had running water or electricity, and 90 percent of the population lived on tiny farms that barely grew enough food to feed them.

By the time Nebiy was in high school, he had started writing political poems and essays and laughing at his mother’s salutes to the emperor’s televised image. At Addis Ababa University he joined the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP), an underground movement of students and intellectuals who wanted to overthrow the monarchy in favor of a socialist government. They published student newspapers denouncing the government and clashed with police on the streets of Addis Ababa during demonstrations that grew increasingly frequent and violent. Despite their planning and protests against the monarchy, the brute strength of the military ended it.

As an EPRP member, Nebiy was among those who opposed the creation of a military dictatorship. When the EPRP began attacking Derg supporters, Mengistu retaliated. Though the members of EPRP were his initial targets, the Red Terror campaigns rapidly escalated into indiscriminate killing. Armed neighborhood militias prowled the city for “counterrevolutionaries” and “anarchists,” and each day the government radio announced the names of the newly executed and followed each broadcast with triumphant, patriotic tunes. By some estimates as many as 100,000 to 300,000 people were killed between 1977 and 1978, and thousands more were imprisoned. Those cap- tured overwhelmed local jails and flooded prisons around the country, the most notorious of which included Karchele, otherwise known as the Central Prison, and Maikelawi, where prisoners were tortured until they confessed and were either sentenced or executed.

Other than a door and a barred window just large enough to frame a human face, each room in Maikelawi was completely enclosed. A gutter ran down the open walkway in the center, where a stream of wastewater flowed each morning as the prisoners scrubbed their rooms. There was never enough of anything in Maikelawi—not enough food, not enough room, not enough warmth. To survive, prisoners in each room divided themselves into imaginary huts, whose members pooled their money to buy a blanket, food, and eating trays. To ensure that everyone had something to eat, prisoners organized committees that equally divided any food a hut member received from his family. Prisoners never saw visiting loved ones, who could go only as far as the rear wall of Maikelawi. There runners met the families and carried their dishes of food inside the building. Prisoners poured the contents onto metal trays so that empty dishes could be returned to waiting families and used for their next trip.

The prisoners shared everything—a handful of tea leaves, a box of biscuits, lengths of yarn for darning sweaters. They called it living in the sic, an Amharic word that described being tightly packed, with each person pressed up against everyone ahead while being crushed by everyone behind. They ate in the sic and slept in the sic, and each person who wanted to read Gone with the Wind waited his turn in the sic.

Most of the 500 to 600 prisoners in Maikelawi spoke only Amharic, but others were students like Nebiy, with a proficient grasp of English. They were desperate for something to read, something to do, anything to occupy the hours as they awaited their fates. For those who could read English, the book’s arrival was a miracle. Though everyone was searched upon capture, one man was brought in clutching his belongings. The man had been arrested at the airport and later executed, leaving behind his things, which included a copy of Gone with the Wind. With only a single book among them, Nebiy and his cellmates devised a way to share it. Each person could read the book for an hour a day before passing it to the next reader and awaiting his turn the following day. The hour that Nebiy had the book became the best hour of each day, and after reading it once, he stayed in the rotation to read it again, and then again.

Nebiy started translating the novel from English into Amharic when he began reading it the fourth time. He used the only source of paper available—the lining torn from empty packs of cigarettes. At first he tried to work discretely in a corner, afraid that prison informants would accuse him of pen- ning subversive messages. But it was impossible to go unnoticed in the crowded rooms, so one evening he announced to his cellmates that he was presenting them with some entertainment and brought out his translated passages. When he finished reading, people wanted to hear more. Each day he translated more of the book, and each night he read the translated pas- sages aloud, drawing a circle around him in the room as those in other rooms stood by their doorways to listen. People began giving up their hour with the book so Nebiy could work more quickly, and because he didn’t smoke, those who did passed their crumpled packs of Winstons and Rothmans to his room, where Nebiy sat on the floor, scribbling on rectangles of salvaged paper and puzzling over phrases such as “fiddle-dee-dee.”

Beyond the capital, war raged. Besides fighting Somalia in the south, Mengistu’s army battled uprisings from some of Ethiopia’s 82 ethnic minorities who had long considered the country’s Amhara rulers as black colonialists. Eritreans in the east fought to carve out a sovereign state along the Red Sea, Tigreans battled in the north, and the Oromos plotted their next attacks in scattered positions throughout the south. Nebiy wrote and wrote, poring over outdated, foreign words, laying down one sentence after another, blocking out the chaos, focusing on what made sense. Ashley put down the axe and looked away. . . . “In the end what will happen will be what has happened whenever a civilization breaks up. The people with brains and courage come through and the ones who haven’t are winnowed out.”

Once a month Nebiy’s mother boarded a bus and traveled two hours from her home in Nazareth to the capital carrying an agelgil, a dish made of tightly woven leather strips with a leather cover. Though Nebiy’s father had died many years before the coup, his mother was able to gather the money each month to fill the agelgil with injera bread, eggs, vegetables, and meat—enough, she hoped, to feed her son for a week, unaware that he shared it with as many as 10 or 12 others in his hut. The dish was as big around as a man’s encircled arms, so big that Nebiy and his cellmates took to calling it The Ship. Each time they saw the heavy agelgil from Nebiy’s mother, they cried joyously, “The Ship has arrived!”

The supply of food was sporadic. Prisoners might receive food from one of their families one day, then a week or two or three would pass before their next full meal. Sometimes guards would refuse to accept a family’s dish and shrug in response to the bearer’s panicked questions. When guards returned a prisoner’s clothing, family members would scream and sob as they realized that their loved ones had been killed. Nebiy made sure that the runners took the empty agelgil back to his waiting mother each time she came. The empty dish was their only form of communication, his only way of letting her know that he was still inside, still alive.

By his third year in prison, Nebiy had translated Mitchell’s entire novel onto 3,000 scraps of paper. He kept the pages in a bag he had stitched together from two-inch squares of plastic he’d salvaged from empty pouches of milk. After a time, he could hardly fit all the pages in his satchel. Although he knew the pieces might be seized during one of the periodic searches, he was unwilling to destroy them. A fellow inmate convinced him that he had to get rid of the papers to avoid an inquiry by prison administrators. If Nebiy was unwilling to destroy the pages, he would have to get rid of them another way. Uncertain of when he’d be freed or if he’d survive, Nebiy agreed.

The pages didn’t go all at once. They went in bits and pieces, folded and packed into empty packs of cigarettes. The prisoners resealed each pack with sweetened tea and made it appear like an unopened pack by sliding the bot- tom portion of the cellophane over the top. They even reattached the tax stamps. Although prison officials never announced their plans, prisoners learned the clues that indicated when someone was to be moved to the Central Prison or released. Surnames would be checked, and the man would be sent for a haircut and shower. Sometimes the man was gone in an hour, sometimes in a day. Those who agreed to take the pages out carried each pack up front in their shirt pockets, casually. One by one, over weeks and months, the pages of Nebiy’s translation trickled out of Maikelawi, disguised as packs of cigarettes.

In an interview shortly after Gone with the Wind was published, Mitchell said, “If the novel has a theme, it is that of survival. What makes some people able to come through catastrophes and others, apparently just as able, strong and brave, go under? It happens in every upheaval. Some people survive; others don’t. What qualities are in those who fight their way through? I only know that the survivors used to call that quality ‘gumption.’”

Nebiy is a compact, burly man with a round, heavily freckled face. When I first met him in Addis Ababa in November of 2004, he seemed reluctant to discuss his translation or any of his prison experiences. As a friend of his and I talked over dinner, Nebiy listened, his expression at times attentive, and at other times seemingly lost in the drift of his thoughts.

The next morning, however, he arrived at my hotel in a lighter mood. He took my elbow as we walked down the side of a busy road swarming with taxis, buses, and trucks. Barefoot urchins tagged after women carrying baskets, and young men kicked up puffs of dust behind a soccer ball in a field across the street. As we hailed one of Addis Ababa’s tiny, blue-topped taxis, Nebiy marveled at the insanity of the years under Mengistu. He recalled how prison officials once ordered him to prepare a bar chart showing the number of people they’d captured and killed so that they could demon- strate their revolutionary zeal to their commanders. But they were afraid to let it be known too widely how many people they’d killed, so they told him to leave the numbers off the chart. “A bar chart with no numbers—can you imagine?” Nebiy asked.

We arrived at a small café on the road to Bole International Airport. Like other major roads in the capital, many of which have no name, the road was known by its principal landmark and simply called “Bole” (BOH-lay). After Nebiy and I sat down, he reached into a briefcase and brought out three stacks of paper, each sheet about the size of an outstretched hand, each cov- ered with tiny, Amharic script.

In 1984, as another famine swept through Ethiopia, Nebiy entered his seventh year in prison. By then they’d sent his fellow prisoner Amha to Karchele, and Nebiy was the only member of EPRP arrested during the Red Terror who remained at Maikelawi. Prison officials put him in charge of their books and had him keep track of each prisoner transferred, released, or executed. They ordered him to put the names of those they’d executed under a column titled “Transferred to Other Places.”

New prisoners were still being arrested, among them, members of the Oromo Liberation Front and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Each new arrival walked into a cell crowded with bone-thin men wearing rags that hung from their hipbones like diapers. Nebiy pleaded to each newcomer, “We have run out of jokes. We have run out of smiles. We have run out of anything humanly warm, and run out of money. We have only two questions. One, can you help us with some money? And second, can you share any jokes, some songs if you have them, to enliven us? It has been too long a time since we heard any sounds from the outside.”

One day the prisoners convinced the administration that they should be allowed to play table tennis in the yard so that their families could see them.

They argued that after a decade of bloodshed and horror, it would be good for public opinion to see that the regime was not so evil and treated its pris- oners humanely. Their plea was granted, and Nebiy finally saw his mother. She was in her 70s then, and her face appeared briefly 100 yards away through a crack in Maikelawi’s rear wall. Nebiy smiled and waved and tried to make a great show of playing with his paddle, but failed. As the tears fell from her face, he began crying too. In seconds she was gone as other families, desperate for a glimpse of their own children, pushed forward. A guard told him later that his mother sat outside the wall for a long time afterward, unable to move.

In 1985, after nearly eight years in prison, Nebiy was released. He went to Karchele to visit Amha and promised to return again soon. A few weeks later, he learned Amha had been killed. Nebiy knows few details of how or where Amha died. “He was like a brother to me,” Nebiy said.

That same year Nebiy began looking for the pages of his translation. It seemed unlikely that he could recover every sheet, but since as many as two out of every three young men in Ethiopia had been arrested during the Red Terror, Nebiy was able to track down the pages by asking each of his acquaintances who had been in prison. “It wouldn’t have been that dif- ficult to retranslate the book, but the attachment I felt to each little leaflet—it was really very passionate,” he said. “They are like your little babies. You have suffered with them, written on them. All that would be lost if I retranslated it.”

When he had retrieved all the pages, he took a copy to the censorship committee to get it published. They did not like the word baria, the Amharic word for slave, because the word was also slang for Ethiopians from the south. Mengistu was a southerner, and they accused Nebiy of mocking the chairman. They told him he would have to remove the word if he wanted the translation published. “Time and again I went to the censorship chair-person, and I tried to explain, ‘There is no such thing as Gone with the Wind without mentioning slavery. I’m not suggesting a person. I’m suggesting a whole society—black American slaves,’” Nebiy recalled. He won on the third try and, with a loan, printed 20,000 copies in 1986, 50 years after Mitchell published her novel. It was one of the longest English books ever translated into Amharic, and sales went slowly. Shortly afterward, the price of paper skyrocketed, and Nebiy did not publish any more copies.

Beyond loving Mitchell’s novel as a story, Nebiy said that he saw its historical backdrop as an allegory for Ethiopia, a promise of sorts, of what might yet come. “Whether you have black history or white history, history is history,” he said. “You have to look for the outcome, which was the America that emerged. The present wouldn’t have been had the Civil War not been. That was the basic thing. I really prayed that the country would reach that level. And really, if you were in prison and read that book and saw the end of it, where out of destruction reconstruction comes, where out of war comes peace—that is the utmost you can dream of.”

It has been 15 years since Mengistu fled into exile in Zimbabwe. Trials against those accused of genocide and other crimes during the Red Terror began in 1994, and though the trials were scheduled to conclude in 2004, only a third of some 5,100 people charged have appeared in court. Meanwhile, Ethiopia’s population in the last three decades has more than doubled to over 70 million. More than 80 percent of the country’s people still live on small farms without running water or electricity, and a new killer has joined famine and war to claim lives, leaving a million children orphaned by AIDS.

Seven years ago Nebiy and a partner founded an Amharic newspaper. He serves as its editor-in-chief and works on the side for nongovernmental organizations to develop public education messages about HIV and malaria-prevention measures. A collection of poems he wrote in prison was translated in France, and in 2003 he wrote the lyrics to an HIV-awareness song that became a local hit. On occasion he returns to Maikelawi and Karchele to visit colleagues who are still jailed.

On our last day together, I met Nebiy near the Ghion Hotel, not far from where he was arrested, and hired a taxi. We drove by the walled, hilltop palace where Nebiy spent his first months in captivity. “All those trees were not there before,” Nebiy noted, pointing to a driveway that vanished behind a clump of bushes. We followed the curved, sloping road past a neighborhood of unpaved streets and drove past Addis Ababa University until we turned onto an unpaved, rock-strewn road, bumping alongside a stone wall topped by razor wire. Parched, yellowing weeds grew from its crevices and clung to thin layers of dirt at the top. “There, the back side,” said Nebiy. “That is where my mother brought me food.” I turned and glimpsed three small windows in the stone. Though Maikelawi still serves as a prison, there were no families lined at the wall, just a small barefoot boy running down a dirt alley that disappeared beyond a row of shacks.

As we returned to my hotel, Nebiy pointed to a new high rise under construction, where men balanced on wooden scaffolds made from eucalyptus trees. “It is a different world now,” he said. “The military regime has fallen. That’s one big thing. A new start has come, which is not really consolidated, but nonetheless better than the old regime. I am doing fine here, my life is good, and society is changing, moving toward democracy, I hope.”

He’d shown me a copy of his published translation, a heavy book with a roughly illustrated cover depicting a woman in a red dress behind a man with a thick, dark mustache. Nebiy said the translation is as close as he could get to Mitchell’s words, except for one conscious change. He named his translation Negem Lela Ken New, which are Scarlett’s famous last words, “Tomorrow is another day.”

“There is some hope in this title,” he said. “Hope for us prisoners, hope for Ethiopia.”

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