Prison Stories, Migration, and Memories of My Father

by Frew Tibebu, EDSP co-founder

We started the day as we normally did in the last 10 days since I arrived in prison. Orders were taken for tea and bread in the early hours of the day. The rest of the day went as normal as it could get. We took turns to sit outside for 15 to 20 minutes, for a bit of sun and fresh air, while taking rotational turns to use the restrooms which were located at the end of the open hallway. We were allowed to go to the restrooms once in the early morning hours before noon and once in the afternoon. There might even be one more in the evening hours. We passed each day as we normally did, some just conversing with other inmates and others playing chess, dominoes and checkers. This game pieces were made of dried items that were found in the cells easily, such as napkin, sugar, bread and so on. Some inmates would plan for the night’s entertainment and rehearse their roles, and look for items that they could use to dramatize their show. Some prisoners will be asked to play a small act in a short drama, which I had participated in on more than two occasions. What was unusual on this particular day was that we were told to eat dinner early.  It might have been around 4 pm.

Prison cell in Addis
Typical Prison Cell

Nobody suspected what was in store for us and we obeyed orders and finished eating dinner. Since our cell (#9) does not get much food from outside, it did not take us long to complete what we had for that day. In the next hour, we heard doors being slammed one after another. They may have been closed by Aser Aleka Gebeyehu, who was the Kapo (a trusted prisoner with some privileges).

Outside the sun was still out, but a somber mood fell on fifty or more inmates as we stood inside a walled, four by four-meter prison cell. Suddenly, all the noise was toned down as our minds wrestled with the thought of what evil might befall us. This was my first experience of an early lock-down. Some prisoners were plastered to the iron bars of the prison doors trying to find out what was happening out there. Eyes were darting across the walls, other prisoners were deep in their thoughts, some could barely contain themselves and were pacing inside the narrow prison walls. In about an hour or so after the doors were slammed on us, we heard  loud motor noises, possibly from a large military truck. Soon after, Aser Aleka Gebeyehu started calling names. We heard the names of some famous prisoners who had been tortured severely such as teacher Belayneh and Engineer Osman. At the beginning it became very quiet after each name, as the prisoners were being escorted by Gebeyehu.

As more noted prisoners were called, it became obvious to the prison population that something sinister was about to happen and that most of us would end up being taken away. We could hear some wrestling outside our doors as some of the prisoners started shouting slogans, we heard “EPRP Yachenefal” and “Sefew Hezib Yachenefal“–“victory for EPRP” and “the masses will win”–followed by one of the famous revolutionary songs, “Yeteglu Newe Hiwete” (“My life is devoted to the struggle”) which was sung by prisoners in my cell and other cells as well. It became noisy outside, and the tension grew inside; it was like a pressure cooker where the temperature was notched up a little higher. The prison room was covered with billows of cigarette smoke so thick you could slice it with a sword. It was like a scene from a horror movie, and that moment remains etched in my memory forever. I heard Kassa Kuma’s name, and a little later it was followed by Tesfaye Zewde Tadesse, and I felt right there and then that my name will come up next.

Ethiopian People Revolutionary Party flag

Kassa, Tesfaye, Million and I belonged to EPRP’s youth league and were organized as a study group in a clandestine cell. Tesfaye was our link to higher ups in the organization hierarchy. Kassa and Tesfaye were taken as prisoners a week before Million and I were picked up. Kassa and Tesfaye were subjected to some torture that led to finger pointing to Million and me as part of the study group. I moved myself closer to the door while leaning on the wall, and I heard quite a bit of encouragement from the prisoners directed to the one’s whose names had been called, Berta, Ayzosh, which simply means have courage. There might have been a total of four or five prisoners from prison cell #9 that were called that evening, and the total number of prisoners that left Meakelawi or 3rd police station that night was close to forty five, according to the tally that was collected by the prisoners the next day.

I found out much later, on this particular day, there were a total 594 prisoners that were rounded up from different prison cells all over Addis Ababa, and taken to the mass graves. A few lucky brave souls had managed to jump from the military trucks that they were being transported, and some were shot as they were attempting to run, but some survived. Among the survivors were Kassa Kuma, Tesfaye Zewde Tadesse, teacher Belayneh, and four other prisoners. Teacher Belayneh was caught a few weeks later and he was brought back to the same prison, Meakelawi. A few days later he was murdered.

My sister Firehiwot and I with my dad

We heard the motor again and about an hour later, we were allowed to open our doors. We were suffocating inside smoke filled prison walls. There was a desperate call from prisoners to use the rest rooms, and the guards were letting a few people at a time to use the rest rooms. I got my chance to use it, and the noise inside was terrible, diarrhea attack, and loud noise from bowel movement. On this night, prisoners were flocking to the rest rooms almost until the dawn hours as the terror had drastically altered our mental and physiological state. I was uncertain as to why Million and I were not included with the group that left that night, and I thought maybe it was some kind of administrative error, but I was not about to question that, other than just accepting the fact that my day had not arrived yet.

Back in prison, there was a similar routine that took place a month later, and I was expecting my name to be on the list of names called. I stayed close to the door so as not to cause any commotion should I had gotten called. However, my name was never announced, and neither was Million’s. Two months later, Million and I along with some other prisoners were transferred to the main prison, Kerchele, in Addis Ababa where I was greeted by my father.

My father, Lieutenant Colonel Tibebu Daba, during his service in the Imperial Ethiopian Army. He had attended the U.S. Army Engineer School and graduated from Fort Belvoir, Virginia on July 2, 1968.

My father, Tibebu Daba, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Imperial Army was serving a ten-year, military court martial sentence at the time, and he was wondering why I stopped visiting him on Sundays, the designated day where family members and friends were allowed to bring food and see their incarcerated family and friends. Since the time my father had learned that I was in prison at Maekelawi, he had been praying and calling on his friends in the army to get me transferred to Kerchele. It was sort of a relief for him to see me there. At the time Maekelawi was considered a death chamber, the worst prison in the nation, and he was afraid that my life would be taken if I stayed there. Million and I stayed at Kerchele over a year, he was detained at Alem Bekagne, an enclosed, dome-like structure with 57 rooms where historically prisoners with life sentences and death sentences were housed. I was at Ketero, a more open quarter with eight dormitories next to Alem Bekagne, where prisoners with pending cases were housed. As more political prisoners were sent to the Kerchele prison, the classifications no longer represented the designated names.

While I had the privilege of moving around the prison complex, Million stayed within the prison walls of Alem Bekagne for most of his stay there, other than special events like sporting events and the like. Unlike Maekelawi, at Kerchele food was provided to prisoners by the prison administration, but the food was not something that you would want to eat every day unless one had no choice.  Most prisoners form a Mekrus, a small group of friends or acquaintances who pool and distribute their resources for the benefit of the group. Families and friends of prisoners with modest means were allowed to bring food to prisoners almost every day at certain hours other than Saturday. My family, including extended family members, neighbors and friends took turns preparing and delivering food to my Dad and me. At some point, when my sister, Frehiwot, got arrested at the local Kefitegna, my family was stretched thin and suffered quite a bit physically and financially. Luckily, my sister was released within three months, and rejoined the effort to feed my Dad and me.

My sister Firehiwot, Seble, Atnaf, and Woinshet. My four angels who were my regular visitors in prison. Picture taken at a reunion in Las Vegas, November 2019.

Not long after, my Dad and I formed a new Mekrus and saved my family from preparing and sending extra meal. My Dad was able to bribe the wardens inside Kerchele to allow us to eat lunch together at Firdegna (where prisoners with sentences stay). I remain forever indebted to Etagegne (a close family member) who did most of the food preparation while I was in prison. There were times when she even delivered food to us while carrying her infant daughter on her back, standing in line for long hours, all the while facing the scorching sun. My friends and neighbors, Seble, Atnaf, and Woinshet were regulars at bringing food, money and cigarettes until the time they fell under the crushing weight of the DERG. Dehab, who was a Muslim in her faith, was another neighbor who sent food semi-regularly for so many months. I am sure there were so many others, but those mentioned stand out to me. If it were not for their sacrifice and compassion I would not have come out of prison with my dignity intact.

Sundays were the most festive and exciting times at Kerchele. This was when families and friends were allowed to visit with prisoners. In anticipation of Sunday, some of us would subject ourselves to extra cleaning on Saturday evening by prisoners with life sentences, who were physically strong. They earned extra income by washing bodies of prisoners who were willing to pay 25 cents for a quick rinse with warm water and a little torture, as we called it. It was amazing how a bucket of hot water was used to wash three or four prisoners right inside a small wash room at one of the corners of our dormitory. On Sunday mornings, we would get up early and put on our best clothes and wait for the criers to sound names of prisoners who had visitors waiting outside to see them. As the prisoners who were called arrived back at the dormitories saddled with piles of banana and other items of care, we would immediately start devouring the bananas as quickly as they arrived. It was normal for us to eat ten or more bananas before lunch time. Bananas were by far the choice of fruit for visitors to bring because they were inexpensive and readily available at every fruit stand in the city. Other than food, we were also allowed to receive clothing, books, cigarettes and some money depending on the discretion of the guards, who were stationed between two wooden rail fences and inspected all items of exchange.

Etagegne, taken 12/5/2006 on my first return trip to Ethiopia.

At Kerchele most of our time was consumed by reading, occasional walking and aerobic exercise in the morning hours. We read mostly Marxist/Socialist books, and anything we could find there. The most read and well circulated book in prison was Papillon, by Henre Charriere, followed by the Gulag Archipelago by Alexander SolzhenitsynJust as Henri Charriere was consumed with one goal, escape, we were contemplating and discussing ways of breaking out of KercheleThe discussion on escape peaked while the Red Terror raged outside. Some prisoners (mostly at Firdegna) with radios were able to circulate the news as to what was going on outside, and the general consensus was that most political prisoners would end up getting killed.

Red terror door to door
Door to Door Search, Assesa

The Red Terror officially began after Mengistu, the leading DERG member, in a public speech and display of terror, smashed three bottles filled with red liquid and attempted to rally the crowd against all enemies of the revolution. It went on until late April 1978. The term itself might have been borrowed from the Russian Bolsheviks, but it signified the random mass killings, arrest, torture and systematic door to door search that left thousands dead in major cities across Ethiopia. At the time Million and I were released (6/28/78),  the DERG had wiped out and completely crushed the main opposition group, EPRP (Ethiopian People Revolutionary Party). It even purged most of the MEISON (The All Ethiopian Socialist Movement) members who were loyal supporters early on.

Mengistu Haile Mariam
Mengistu smashing bottles

A little after midday on June 28, Million and I heard our names called and eventually we were collected and transported back to Maekelawi. There, we were given stern warnings and release papers from Hamsa Aleka Teshome. If I recall the words right, it goes like this, “If you ever get caught again, it does not even have to be associated with politics, you will be executed.” As we were still standing, I thought it to be like a death sentence that was communicated to us in clear terms. As we left the main gate of the prison, Million and I looked at each other, and we could not believe that we were walking freely outside the iron gates of the prison walls. It became apparent that we could not walk away fast enough from the prison gates, and we decided to hail a taxi and headed to our respective homes because we could not agree where to go first.

As I walked through the back door of my mom’s house unexpectedly, I was welcomed with cheers and screaming. The neighbors were alarmed. They came running over to ask if everything was okay. They then joined in on the excitement. Even though I was outside the prison gates of Kerchele, I was engulfed with a sense of disillusionment. I no longer had the sense of purpose I held before going to prison. Most people of my age group had left the country, though some were still languishing in prison, and some were even killed. The party that we were a part of had turned ghostly. At the time, I did not fully understand what really happened to cause such a disaster for human life from all political sides. I was looking for answers, but information was hard to come by, and everyone clung to their own versions or interpretations of the events that unfolded.

Tibebu Daba Grave
My Dad’s grave site in Addis Ababa

A few months later, after lunch was served and a coffee ceremony ensued, my mother asked me if I would be interested in fleeing to neighboring Djibouti. The warnings from Hamsa Aleka Teshome rang in my ears once again, and it made the decision to leave for Djibouti much easier. The last Sunday before my planned departure to Djibouti, I went to visit my Dad at Kerchele prison to say goodbye. I did not know then that it would be the last time that I would ever see my father again. He was released from prison in March of 1986, after having served a ten-year sentence. Five years later on December 27th, 1991, he passed away. The first Tuesday after visiting my Dad, I said goodbye to my mother and sister and started walking with Etagegne to the main train station Legehar, which was located not far from my mom’s home by the stadium. Once I got there, I bought a one way ticket to Dire Dawa and boarded the Addis/Djibouti railway line.

Legehar Train Station
Legehar Train Station, where I boarded the Addis/Djibouti line

Upon arrival, I was received by a member of a prominent Dire Dawa family, the Gonji family. Anyone who has lived in Dire Dawa at the time knows something about the Gonji family. I was told Gonji, the head of the family, used to be part of the entourage for Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie whenever he visited Dire Dawa. Gonji had already passed when I made it to Dire Dawa, but his wife Amune who we use to call Uma, which means mother, was the one who received me. After staying three days or

So at her residence, one afternoon, Uma and I boarded the local bus and headed to Melka Jebdu, a small contraband town in the outskirts of Dire Dawa. We sat separately in the bus; she was in the front and I was at the back, and my eyes were constantly focused on her. As we got out of the bus, I followed her with a little distance between us. We were told that the town was full of government informers called Besas in the local language, and we did what we could to not arouse any suspicion.

Once I saw her enter a small cottage, I joined her a few minutes later. After a brief introduction with my guide and his wife, Uma left the room. At the time when we arrived, my guide, an elderly gentleman was sitting around near a brazier and chewing Khat, a leafy plant that is considered a stimulant that suppresses appetite and causes a euphoric state of mind. It was considered as part of the social custom in the region and it was used widely there. He offered me a handful of khat, and I joined him in the ritual. We had couple of cups of hot tea, and I could already feel my head racing and my heart pumping fast. A couple of hours later, I entered the state of nirvana as the temperature soared outside, and the sun was beating on the thatched roof cottage. I was getting restless, thus I asked him when we were going to leave. He replied that we should wait until the sun went down. The moment he was done answering me, two young adults came running and entered our space, one following the other. We were all startled, and we did not know what was going on or why they had entered the cottage. They left as they came in, racing out, which triggered some fear that we were possibly being spied on.

Amune/Uma, who arranged a guide to take me across to Djibouti

My guide and his wife held a conversation in the back of the cottage, and soon my guide left through the back door. A few minutes later, the wife told me to follow her at a distance as she disappeared in the back woods behind the row of cottages and tin-roofed homes, calling out, pretending as if she was looking for a missing animal. After walking for about five minutes or more, my guide’s wife spotted her husband from a distance, and she signaled me to go join him as she returned back to her cottage. My guide had all our items for travel on the back of a donkey; water, kettle, cups, and cans of sardines, tea, khat and the like. He and I split the items and placed them on our shoulders, and then he let the donkey go. That afternoon, my guide and I walked quite a distance away from Melka Jebdu in the direction of Djibouti. I felt my body warming up as I strolled in the heat of the evening hours; I was energized from the khat and my mind contemplated what might await me at the end of the journey as this was the beginning of a new chapter in my life. I remember vividly that it was a full moon that night, which allowed us to cover more territory until we felt exhausted. We spent the night in a nearby ditch, and got up early before the sun rose.

Map of Djibouti

We walked until it became unbearable to walk. All in all, it took us six days to make it to the border town of Dikhil, a sprawling town of refugees, traders and locals, where the ground was littered with make shift tents made of plastics, cardboard, and tarps. I was overwhelmed with appreciation and gratitude to my guide, whose skill and eyesight I doubted at times, and who on two occasions placed his life on the line to save mine. I simply told him thank you, goodbye, and gave him all the money that I had stashed on me, as we sat outside a nearby tent drinking chai tea, courtesy of US AID. To this day, I regret the fact that I do not even remember his name. At that moment, I felt all my biggest problems were behind me, a country that devoured its youth with no regard for human life. I wanted to stay away from such a place as much as I could, and I swore never to come back again. However, the nightmares followed me all the way to Djibouti and even to America for the first few years before they disappeared for good.

My picture was taken in Silver Spring, MD, at Summit Hills Apartments as I arrived from New York, on my second day in America

On September 26, 1980, I made it to the United States as a refugee along with three hundred or so Ethiopian refugees who shared the same fate. As I was going through customs, I saw Kassa Kuma on the top floor. That same day, he arrived from Khartoum, Sudan after being processed through the UNHCR. I shouted out his name, and as he turned to face me, I waved at him. I was shocked to see him there. I thought to myself, this is almost a miracle that a man taken to the mass graves on that dreadful night is walking around inside JFK airport.

Watch Frew tell his story below: