Volume 1 Number 9
Ethiopian's Cry Freedom
01 May 1988

Mulugeta Asseratte spent nine years in jail as a political prisoner - and then met the man who had killed his father.By Michael Smith

When two elephants fight the grass gets trampled. So goes the African saying. Nowhere is this more true than in Ethiopia, where a 25-year-long civil war has claimed some half million lives. As long as it continues the people starve - victims not only of recurrent drought but also of the war between Eritrean and Tigrean separatists and a Marxist government in Addis Ababa.

This year seven million Ethiopians have been threatened by famine. But according to the World Bank, population growth is outstripping food production at such a rate that by the year 2000 some 14 million people will be at risk. That would place an impossible burden on the world's relief agencies, already overstretched.

`Unless a miracle intervenes,' writes the British TV journalist Jonathan Dimbleby in the London Independent, `hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people will assuredly die of starvation. The miracle in question would be an end to civil war in Eritrea.' That `miracle' may require the full force of the world's political and diplomatic pressure. But, according to a member of Ethiopia's royal family now exiled in London, it will also require miracles of reconciliation and forgiveness.

Such sentiment, coming from Lij Mulugeta Asseratte, a cousin of the late Emperor Haile Selassie, is not idle rhetoric, but is born out of his own harsh experience. For Mulugeta knows the anguish of losing loved ones - and alongside other members of his family has spent nine years in jail as a political prisoner.

We first met nearly 20 years ago when Mulugeta's father sent him as a student to a college in my home town in England. Even then he bore the dignity of one who can trace his ancestry back, through 267 generations, to the Queen of Sheba. We would often talk about his country and its historic role in Africa, unaware of the cataclysmic events that were about to overtake it.

Mulugeta returned to Ethiopia in 1973 where he became a television journalist. Meanwhile, his father, Prince Ras Asseratte Kassa, had been representing the Emperor as Governor General in Eritrea. Although very much the imperial power in the province, he set out to build bridges with the Eritrean separatists. In 1969, he invited the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi to Asmara, the Eritrean capital, in efforts to build the peace. Such initiatives so won the respect of the Eritrean population as a whole that, at one point, a leading guerrilla laid down his arms in response to an amnesty from the Governor General.

Today, however, the situation is entirely different and demands new approaches. Mulugeta acknowledges that his cousin, the Emperor, was ill advised to have defederated the province of Eritrea in 1962, an act which brought on the civil war. But he also believes that, had his father's peacemaking work been allowed to continue, things might be different in Eritrea today.

Tragically this work was overtaken by events. In September 1974 a Marxist faction in the army overthrew the Emperor and seized power. Wholesale arrests followed, including that of Asseratte Kassa who was by then President of the Imperial Crown Council (constitutionally the role of the Emperor himself), along with his entire family.

Two months later the Dergue - the military governing council - put 57 of the old guard, including Mulugeta's father and seven other relatives, in front of a firing squad without trial. Mulugeta first heard about it on the radio in jail. Soon he and his brother were separated from their mother and sister. `I was certain we would be the next to be killed,' recalls Mulugeta. `We all prayed but did not believe God would come to our rescue.'

However, nothing happened for seven months. Then President Mengistu came to visit them in jail. Mulugeta used the chance to petition for their release. But it was counterproductive: they were all transferred to the Palace wine cellar, virtually a dungeon. It was the very room where his father had been taken for execution, and Mulugeta found some of his father's personal effects still there.

The Patriarch of the Ethiopian Coptic Church and three bishops were also held prisoner in the cellar. Together they all prayed for their release. But when they heard that two diehard Marxists had been set free, Mulugeta felt that God had been untrue.

`What sort of God is this?' he said to the Archbishop. `Here I pray night and day and his enemies are being released. God is revolting against his own kingdom.' But to his surprise the Archbishop replied, `Those whom God loves are tested in the fire like gold. If you pass the test you will be highly rewarded.'

The Archbishop has since disappeared and is feared dead. But his remarks were a turning point for Mulugeta. Slowly his faith began to return. `It rekindles itself when you are faced with adversity.' He remembered his father's practice of taking time to listen to the `inner voice' of God. `I felt God was saying to me, "Be prepared for the worst but plan for the future." From that moment all the fear left me. Until my imprisonment I had led a comfortable life with all I needed. But in jail, though I was stripped of my freedom, I benefitted on a deeper level: an inner freedom brought about by my total surrender to God. I became a free man.' Now, says Mulugeta, he understands the sense of inner liberation that, it is said, political prisoners in the Soviet Gulag have experienced.

Once more the family was moved - to the prison known as `the end of the world', so called because the only glimpse of the outside world was through a small skylight. Again Mulugeta felt bereft. There was no one among the 1,500 inmates with whom he could talk freely. At night people were being taken from their cells and shot.

By now ideas and questions about the future had also begun to pour into his mind. `No matter how long I was in prison I knew I would come out spiritually intact. But if I was let out how would I adjust emotionally to the new Marxist society? How would I rid myself of bitterness and hatred?' For, though Mulugeta hated the new regime, he also felt that there was no future for Ethiopia in violent revolution based on hatred from any quarter. He found himself longing to share his innermost thoughts with someone and prayed that God would send him a friend.

His one solace was in reading. The prison guards censored books perfunctorily, according to their titles. So while George Or-well's indictment of totalitarianism, Animal Farm, was freely available, a novel called Operation Royal Family was banned. Nonetheless it came as a shock when, one day, Mulugeta saw a student in the prison compound carrying a book entitled Ideas have legs. Perhaps the prison guards had thought it was a revolutionary Marxist tract. But Mulugeta knew, from his father's bookshelf, that it was about Moral Re-Armament.

The student was a Muslim from Sudan and the two men became friends. Mulugeta felt that God had answered his prayer. Over the next months the Christian and the Muslim encouraged and sustained each other in their captivity.

It was nine years after his arrest that the prison guards came for Mulugeta one Sunday evening - the usual day and hour for executions. `Why me? Why now? After all these years,' he thought. But instead they set him free.

He was being released thanks to the campaigning of Amnesty International. To this day, Mulugeta cannot understand why the regime should choose to let him go while they continue to hold his elderly mother - ,an innocent housewife and grandmother'and other members of the royal family after 13 years without trial. They remain in appalling conditions despite continuing diplomatic pressure from the West for their release.

Shortly after his release, Mulugeta's resolve not to hold bitterness against his oppressors was put to the test. At a wedding reception he recognized one of the men, a politburo member, who had sent his father to execution. He felt impelled to speak to the man and began to walk towards him. A friend pulled him back, saying, `If you speak to that man our friendship is at an end.' But Mulugeta pressed on, telling the Marxist who he was.

Bolt out of the blue
The man started back, shaken. `What do you want from me?' he asked. `Nothing,' replied Mulugeta, `only to tell you that I bear no malice or resentment towards you for what has happened.' Sweat broke out on the man's face but he said nothing. Mulugeta continued, `You should regard me as an Ethiopian first and as a Royal second. Judge me by my merits and demerits. Don't let my class reflect on me.' Later, when Mulugeta had difficulties in getting an exit visa to leave the country, he was surprised to find that it was this man who made sure he was given one promptly. In fact, Mulugeta was in need of urgent medical attention in London. His years in jail had taken their toll.

Two days later he was on a flight, with just $50 in his pocket. For me, it was a bolt out of the blue when he phoned to say he was free and in London. Mulugeta cannot return to Ethiopia without being rearrested, and has been granted refugee status in Britain.

What explains Mulugeta's extraordinary willingness to forgive in such extreme circumstances? He is aware that it could be misinterpreted among his fellow exiles as appeasement. He replies, `Forgiveness does not imply condoning a crime. My concern was not so much the effect it might have on my enemy as a determination to be free in my own heart. It was a way of giving vent to my pent up feelings. In fact it helped me a great deal in emotionally adjusting to the new society I found myself in after nine years in jail. And, anyway, "Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord" '. His decision not to harbour hatred, he adds, was `an extremely painful one'. `But one has to forgive and forgive absolutely if one is to be an instrument of peace.'

He believes equally strongly that, for a country that has known 1,600 years of Christianity, and has been occupied but never colonized, Marxist-Leninism is `an alien ideology' imposed on a rich and historic culture. It is a point he made forcefully on a radio broadcast two months ago, widely listened to in Ethiopia.

Mulugeta sees his future not so much in political terms as playing a part in `bridging the gap that exists between the different groups of Ethiopians no matter what their political ideology'. He says, `We need to form a cohesive Ethiopian community that, one day, will be able to transform Ethiopia into a country we all want to see.' As an Amhara, traditionally the dominant race in Ethiopia, he asserts that his country could yet demonstrate a`unity in diversity', and equality, among all its ethnic groups.

Mulugeta expresses his `eternal gratitude' for all those who have given so generously to emergency relief. He is sceptical about the effectiveness of long-term development aid to the Ethiopian government without a radical change in their collectivist agricultural policy. Such unconditional aid could not reach the people who most need it, he maintains.

Equally he is aware that criticism may be levelled against the old feudalistic system that failed to deal with famine.

The nobility owned a quarter of the land area of Ethiopia until the Mengistu regime took control of all productive land. But Mulugeta feels he cannot admit to past errors, at least in public, for fear that anything he says might be taken out of context by the present regime and used for their own propaganda - or to justify their equally disastrous policies. Mulugeta can catalogue stories of children, separated from their mothers, who have starved to death because of the regime's handling of its enforced resettlement of villagers.

Nonetheless he appreciates the effective work of over 40 international development agencies now operating in Ethiopia. For the future, though, something else is also needed: agencies of `moral aid', as he puts it, that will help others to find the same liberating experience as his own. On that the future of his country may depend.