ADDIS ABABA — Ethiopia is God’s way of putting an end to things. — Danachew Worku, Ethiopian novelist.
They were street kids, typical of millions throughout the world, with no
It could have been Moscow, South Africa, Congo, and hundreds of other Third World countries. They happened to have lived in Ethiopia, once Africa’s
breadbasket and now, even in 1998, Africa’s basket case.
One of the world’s oldest civilizations deteriorated when the vile dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam, raped it after murdering the Emperor, Haile Selassie, in 1975.
In 1991, the dictator was driven out of Addis Ababa and into a life of
luxury in Zimbabwe.
Solomon and his brother, Kabada, was left behind as the rebels from the
north stormed the city gates.
Also stranded was a three-year-old girl, with barely a stitch on her frail
body and she was begging for food. I remember well the small hand reaching
up with her eyes pleading for some morsel to keep her alive until the next
morning in this sewer of a city.
It was a scene to wither the most cynical of hearts.
But being in this Ethiopian capital had a way of ripping away the emotions
and exposing the scabs of a world that few westerners will ever know.
It’s a place where life was cheap and where desperate people resorted to
begging and pride was something that was only a distant memory.
Addis Ababa means New Flower, but the only dominant smells were of stale
urine and fear.
The decay was everywhere.
While the government elite occupied some of the great buildings of the
monarchy, the human refuse flowed in the streets. The disparity was evident; the corrugated tin lean-tos, which housed upwards of 20 people in
tight quarters; the dying and destitute groveled for a few Birr, the national currency; along with the street beggars and the maimed.
Human and animal excrement filled the rut-filled side streets while on the
main thoroughfares the pickpockets plied their trade, which were lean pickings in 1991 with the tourist trade almost non-existent.
Parents had been known to break the bones of babies at birth in order for
them to join the brigade of “monkey children,” who walked on all fours and
as beggars were the main source of income for some families.
And vultures circled over the 30,000-seat National Stadium, waiting for the
prey they knew would be theirs.
In this vast land of more than 50 million, the famine in the travel-restricted far North was but one dilemma, which seemed to have no
answer. So was the intensified civil war that turned into a bloodbath.
As the Iraqi-backed guerilla forces of the Eritrean People’s Liberation
Front and the Tigre People’s Liberation Front pushed towards Addis Ababa,
one resident whispered: “What Ethiopia needs is a hero.” It was a whisper
because he feared the reprisals of the Marxist-Leninist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam, which had spies in all aspects of Ethiopian society.
Then the unidentified man said: “Maybe (the late Emperor) Haile Selassie or
one of his descendants will return.”
When the separatist Eritrean forces of Isais Aftework and the Tigreans
joined forces, most Ethiopians believed they could see an end to Mengistu’s
However, the rebels turned into just another corrupt wave.
“One moment, the EPLF says they’re admirers of the Albanians; the next
moment they say they admire Red China,” said our source.
With such an alternative, there was almost a sense of making do with the
devil — Mengistu — they knew, than the devils they didn’t know. Mengistu
had used the barrel of a rifle to keep Ethiopians in line since the revolution of the mid-70s, when Haile Selassie was deposed.
A former royal family member, Mengesha Seyum, once the governor of Tigre
until the revolution, had been touted as a possible alternative to the socialist government.
With his dictatorship challenged once again, Mengistu resorted to strong-armed tactics and the country became an armed camp, particularly in
this city of more than two million.
The war from the north had forced many Ethiopians into Addis, since begging
on the streets seemed more appealing than the alternative — being shot by
the rebels or drafted into their armies.
In fact, there are horror stories by the multitude of young boys being
kidnapped and placed in military compounds either by government forces or
those of the rebels.
Homeless children wandered the streets.
It was heart wrenching and emotionally draining. Tears were only a blink
away when seeing a mother in dirty brown rags trying to care for a sick baby in a gutter and attempting to keep warm from the cold Addis nights by
lighting a fire under some rocks.
This was not an isolated incident.
Older children had to resort to being common pickpockets and were victims
of brutal beatings by gun-toting and stick-wielding security guards and soldiers.
Seven years ago I wrote in my journal that the world pictured Ethiopia as
starving, bloating children with swarms of flies in their eyes. Since then
little has changed.
In 1998, the new government has been oppressive and Ethiopia still ranks as
one of the worst human rights offenders.
And whatever happened to the three-year-old girl, Solomon and Kabada, the
shiny-faced urchins, who followed my business partner, Lyle Harron, and I
around the mean streets as guides and protectors?
They could have all been victims of the civil war. Then again they could
have been survivors. If they did survive, they’d still be trapped in this
city of disease and poverty.