Friday, May 20, 2011

Ethiopia Day Eight -- Outrage and Regrets

It was the final day in Ethiopia, and would be a long one -- our plane departed at 10:30 in the evening, and I was expecting another night of limited sleep.

We stayed at the guesthouse until late morning, delayed by the untimely return of our laundry -- it seemed the weather had been too wet to actually "dry" the clothes, so they were returned somewhere between damp and soaking.

Eventually we departed for the "Red Terror" museum, a tribute to those who suffered during the years when the fascist "Derg" government tortured and murdered half a million Ethiopians. The Derg came to power on the coat-tails of a series of increasingly militant student demonstrations in Addis in 1974. I found it ironic Haile Selassie, who wanted to be remembered as Ethiopia's education emperor, was essentially overthrown by activist students and professors.

The Derg, which started out as an idealistic communist government was eventually siezed by dictator Mengistu. In Mengistu's attempt to consolidate power, he launched a series of brutal massacres and crack-downs that would have been the envy of many a brutal dictator. Eventually ousted in 1991, Mengistu was granted asylum in Zimbabwe (birds of a feather...) where he still lives today.

We were led through the museum by a "Red Terror" survivor who was able to provide graphic descriptions of the brutalities inflicted on the Ethiopian people. He urged us to "never forget" -- much as holocaust survivors have done since the end of World War Two. The similarities are frightening. I was moved, horrified and eventually outraged that such brutality could be inflicted on a people I'd come to think of as gentle and welcoming.

Next we moved to the National Orthodox Church, where Haile Selassie and his queen are entombed. It was beautiful, and built entirely with the "private" funds of the emperor -- although I'm sure he got them from the people. At this site was the Ethiopian equivalent of the tomb of the unknown soldier -- guarded by two armed soldiers who angrily waved away one of our party as he tried to take a picture. I never understood their reluctance to be photographed. On the grounds were several people begging for help -- suffering terrible injuries or illnesses. Although I don't generally like to pass out money on the streets to beggars (you're likely to be quickly swarmed), I was so moved I couldn't help but press a few birr into a couple of outstretched hands.

After lunch we toured the National Museum -- a bit of a disappointment, really, other than the extensive exhibit on "Lucy" and other early hominoid fossils discovered in the Rift.

Then we spent a couple of hours shopping -- I already had most of the toys and trinkets I wanted, but ended up purchasing two replica spear tips (hey, our surname is "Spears" after all), and a bayonnet used during the border war with Eritrea. I'll eventually mount those on a framed board and display in my basement somewhere.

After dinner we loaded into the van for the last time, and traveled to Addis airport to join a completely full flight to Washington DC. Goodbyes were sad but blessedly brief before we entered the main terminal -- our guides had become close friends, and it was sad to leave them behind. I hurried into the terminal ahead of the group, trying to keep my feelings under control. The airport security and check-in were complete chaos, and it took almost all of the three hours prior to the flight just to reach the gate. I found myself in the back row of the Boeing 777, tired and a bit overwhelmed by emotions from the day.

On the long flight home, I spent considerable time thinking about everything I'd seen in this remote country. I'd experienced joy, hope, anger, surprise and love. I regretted having to leave, but would be happy to see my family again soon (and get over the now nasty cold I was sporting). As we made the long flight home, I knew I would be back to Ethiopia again -- and more than just my upcoming trip to complete our second adoption from the country. My real question was: how could I make a difference for these people who had won my heart.

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