Lij IndEt Yimotal?
Behind the Assembly Hall of Sandford School were several steps leading down to the pre-school. They were my favorite place to sit and pass time. Often, my companion would be Imamma, one of the attendants who befriended me; she had looked out for me since I was in pre-school.
She used to smell so nice and fresh -even in the late afternoon Addis Ab'a sun. Imamma and I would sit on the steps looking at the kids playing and chat as if the 40 or so years between us meant nothing. She would throw her neTela over her head, retrieve her neat meffaQia from behind her ears, and tell me amusing stories about the kids and her years at the school. Occasionally, she would pause to reprimand a kid who was using his classmates as a ladder to reach the highest point of the Jungle Jim. "Ante Simon,... ante seyTan.... Indew mn yishaleN yihon? W'red! Dimbajam!" Simon, a flushed British boy with dainty shorts, surely didn't know what all that meant, but Imamma's voice had changed octaves and he knew better than not to obey.
Imamma would then turn her attention back to me and regale me with stories of expatriate British kids who had more mischief in them than their Ethiopian counterparts. "Ye hagerachew b'rrd new meseleN indih miasabidachew," she offered as a salient explanation. I agreed. By then I was twelve.
We had no set time for our rendezvous, but whenever I went, she would see me and climb the steep, broken stairs to talk to me. I started to break off a twig before I'd go to see her, so we could both attend to our teeth while on the lookout for errant pre-schoolers.
Our conversations had almost always been about light matters, until one day I asked her if she had kids. Imamma "isssh"ed an imaginary fly. Several times. She paused a while before she breathed, "Lij'mma nebereN...mote inji." My twelve-year-old mind couldn't comprehend... old people died. Not children of old people.
How did he die?
"INa hager weTat indEt yimotal... tegelo!"
Whoa. Not only did he die, he was killed?? I primed myself for yet another of her riveting stories.
She had only one son whom she referred to as AnjetE, WegenE, but not his name. He was in 9th grade during the Red Terror, and she hid him in the house, forbidding him to go to school. She was a single mother, I gathered, and without the QuTa of a stern father, she had resorted to begging her son not to be involved in politics. Luckily, he had a baby face, she told me, so she had managed to get away with "Ere'su lij new" when Qebelle officers came around to hunt for fodder. Every day, she would light a candle to ImebEtachn Mariam, and hope that when she came back home from work, her little boy would still be reading in his room. And every day when she came back home, and he was there reading in the low light, she would whisper her thanks before she called out to him. "WegenE... dehna walk?"
After her ritual visit to Lideta one Sunday, she headed hurriedly home to start on an early dinner. Just as she was about to cross a major street, one of those dark green vans with a canvas cover came barreling down the road, dangerously close to the pavement. "Ye sewu menQejQej," she muttered and made way for the van, which noticeably slowed down as it passed her.
She had reached the middle of the street, ready to negotiate another car careening towards her when she heard a faint voice coming from the van. "ImmayE!" She looked up and saw a little commotion inside the van, which was a few meters away from her, the motor running. In those days you never waited for trouble, you tried to beat it, so she resumed her brisk pace. The van screeched back to life and its tire tore at the fragile Addis road as it reversed towards her. "ImmayE!" she thought she heard again, and she stopped and turned, this time the pit of her stomach turning. She looked up, and peeking over another baby-faced boy with a gun slug over his shoulders, was her son. His clothes were tattered, his eyes swollen, "ImmayE!" he screamed again, the terror in his voice laying glaciers in her heart.
She said she flew to the back of the van screaming words she can't remember. She tried to jump to touch the palms of her son who were reaching out for her. The boy soldier slapped down his prisoner's palms. Imamma looked at the boy soldier's eyes and expected to see the same hardened look of death she saw in youths. Instead, she met the gaze of a frightened boy trying to drown out her piercing screams and the stout hollers of the drivers up front who couldn't quite grasp what was happening back there.
The boy soldier stood up and broadened his shoulders, preventing Imamma from seeing her son. Her son dodged left and right trying to get a peek at his mother. Finally, unable to handle the situation, the boy solider stood to the right and let Imamma hang on to her son's bloodied palm. He yelled out "Assnessa!" to the driver and whispered to Imamma "YigeluNal... weine...lemn aQomk b'lew yigeluNal"! He motioned for her to hurry up, and in a firmer voice yelled to the drivers "Assnesaw inna inihid bakih!" When her son managed to bend down a little more, Imamma was able to hug her son's neck, and through the rumbling of the van's engine heard her son's last "ImmayE".
I can't remember what shocked me more, the story or the way Imamma was telling it. So matter of factly... so detached and inanimately. Meanwhile, my heart raced, and I still don't know how I managed not to cry.
Imama noticed a boy beating up on a little girl and stood up... "Ante werada! Atimata altebalkm!" She sat back down after she verbally broke up the fight and adjusted her shash. "Wui! MinQrQrE weTtwal leka!"
We never talked about it again. And thus, at twelve, I was introduced to that part of our history, a time when we think we have no heroes.
To all the women who never got a chance to say goodbye to their sons, who still suffer in silence and with dignity, you are my heroes.