The political climate in Ethiopia progressively got worse. My sister was sent to Zambia to live with my aunt and finish her high school there. The red terror and scenes of dead bodies on the streets (“of anti-revolutionaries”, mostly young people) were common happenings in Addis during my high school days. The house next to ours was a beautiful villa nationalized by the government and turned into a prison. Political prisoners, mostly members of the E.P.R.P. (high school and university students) populated it. They were tortured every night by the prison guards and their cries and lamentations were too loud to bear some nights. During the day, one or two of them would approach the back side of the fence that separated the prison-villa from our house and whisper to get my attention. I smuggled Khat for them as I sympathized (Khat is a leafy green plant containing two main stimulant drugs which speed up your mind and body).
It was a rainy Sunday morning. Mom had made sure that Dad’s food was packed nicely. She asked me to get in the car. When we got there, many beggars were lined up by the fence; Kerchelai, as it was known back then, the main prison in Addis that housed thousands of prisoners; political detainees, robbers, and criminals of all kinds. Mothers and wives would give the beggars few cents, and get in the long line to be checked and let in. When it was our turn, the guard used a long sharp stick (the same one he was using since we got in line) to pock into Dad’s food (Firfir) to make sure there was nothing else in it. Mom had this look of disgust.
Hundreds of people rushed towards the main visit area to see their loved ones. We walked as far as we were allowed to. As we stood by a fence (waste-high), the military standing in-between the visitors and prisoners were calling out names of prisoners. I was amazed at how they had memorized the names of the prisoners, and how they knew who was there to visit who. “Telahun! Telahun!” My Dad came out and stood behind the guards next to several other prisoners. He saw my Mom and I from a distance and he teared up. I could only see him shoulder up. Still, I can tell he had lost weight. He was there for two months by then. “I have met some of the nicest people in here”, he smiled. “They are so nice. They gave me a hair- cut, as you can see, but they did not charge me a dime for it”. Dad and all the other prisoners were bold; prison protocol for hygiene purposes.
Dad spent his days in prison writing poetry, a passion he had ignored for a long time. He was released on December 18, 1979, on a sunny day. That afternoon, literally as he walked out of the prison gate with a couple of bags in his hands, he ran into the government official who had ordered his imprisonment. My mother and I saw their interactions from a distance. After we cried and hugged, Mom asked him what he was saying to the man. Dad told her that he was giving the x-minister tips on how to survive prison, “afterall, he is a family man”, said Dad.
Dad vowed to himself “I have come out of prison with my spirit untouched, and my zest and zeal for service and self-improvement will not be diminished”. However, In 1983, after I graduated from Saint Joseph School, my Dad began his self-imposed life in exile as an émigré because he had to give his children a better life somewhere else.
I left for Athens Greece shortly after, and a few months later, I migrated to the United States of America and joined a college in a small Baptist town called Cumberland College, in Williamsburg, Kentucky.