Bank Robbery, Uprising and the Skinny 13-Year Old Boy
Short Story by Zimita Maryam
It was a hard blow to the left side of his skinny 13-year old body that will eventually slow him down to a crawl in the crowded alleys of the Lideta neighborhood of Addis Ababa. The blow came from a limping skinny "Federal' with a protruding stomach and a big scar on his left arm. This 'Federal' who landed the blow on the kid had un-even beard that strangely seemed to cover only parts of his face. He looked un-kept with his wide-gapped teeth and mouth darkened by the stains of cigarette smoke. These were small and sketchy details that Markos, the skinny 13-year old from Lideta neighborhood who was at the receiving end of this blow, was able to register as his mind was racing full-steam in the sole mission of those critical 15 minutes of his life. May be if there was some justice in this country, these sketchy details may prove helpful. Maybe these sketchy details may one day help this country stop adult soldiers and militias from beating up helpless 13-year olds. But at this point, to talk about justice and protecting of young Ethiopian lives, we risk getting ahead of ourselves and our story.
Perhaps some social scientist could explain the phenomenon of spontaneous gathering of people that happen in a matter of few minutes. But in this Tuesday morning in early November in this city of Addis Ababa, all it took was something like 30 minutes or so for almost all the kids in Lideta, a closely nit poor neighborhood of Addis Ababa of barely ten square kilometer area, to heed some call of some nature - only which the Almighty knows about - and come out first in tens, and then in twenties and then in hundreds to protest. What they wanted to protest is, of course, open to different interpretations. But in a city that felt cheated out of an election and that is begging for a change, the talk everywhere from dimly lit family rooms to cafes and school yards was that change is needed and the people will continue to protest. In an environment such as this, all that is required, it seems, is just a small cause to rally the first five to ten people. How these ten people turn into hundreds and in some cases thousands and millions, as we have said, is better left for social scientists to study and comment on. Markos was perhaps among the last group of 13 and 14-year olds to join this protesting group of kids who were making their way from the old Prince Tsehay Hospital (now Army hospital) to the Samson Bakery area of Lideta neighborhood. If his mother, Woizero Muluworq Tamene, had her way and if he was as obedient a child as he was all his life, that morning, Markos would have stayed at home and never ventured outside. But a 13-year old boy's curiosity is a hard thing to contain. And when, from the cracks of the corrugated tin fence surrounding his family's modest house, he heard the voices of his best buddies, who play with him football every day at four in the afternoon in school days and perhaps the whole day in the rainy season when school is closed, it became more than a curiosity. Samson 'buna' who loves football and excelled in it even earning the nick name of 'buna' after one of the city's best teams, Dereje (also known as 'Mandiba' for his resemblance of Nelson Mandela), Yonas 'tinishu' and almost all his 8th graders living in Lideta were later to join this protest march. School was, for all practical purposes, out following the big disturbance in the Merkato area the previous day.
For exactly 30 minutes, these kids were kids playing adults. For the curious, a brief look at these innocent kids playing adults would have given a glimpse to what the city has come to. The Lideta neighborhood houses some of the city's hard-pressed families. These kids numbering perhaps just a hundred or more were, in many ways, the faces of Lideta. In their torn clothes, and in some cases bare feet, and empty stomachs, they gave a witness to their difficult lives and lots. These children of factory workers, taxi and heavy truck drivers, retired soldiers and just ordinary Addis Ababans are citizens that this country has not been generous to. To their names, just like most of their parents, they carry almost nothing. May be, if we take our time and enquire if these kids had a filling breakfast or not, or if they had a comfortable sleep in their falling houses held together by hope and dignity alone, who is to tell us that things are going good for them?
And yet, in hundreds, they chanted about issues bigger than them like poverty, election, hope for tomorrow, AIDS/HIV etc. And yet, these kids that the country has not been generous to were the first to demonstrate for a better Ethiopia - that magical future that their parent's generations and the many generations before them awaited for in hope. So far in vain; one may add. In many other places on this globe of ours, thirteen and fourteen year olds do not worry about these kinds of issues in public. But hardship is strange; it forces kids to grow faster than their ages. Just like everywhere else in the world, it used to be that adults protested social issues. But in today's Ethiopia, adults learn to persevere and accept things as they are. But kids? No, they are too young for that. May be this tells us something about us. But then, that is only a side-lesson.
The kids marched past the Lideta High Court, past Samson Bakery, and past the small 'beg tera'. They even marched past a small bank building, a structure so obscure and insignificant that one even wonders how the bank does business. Incidentally, this is the same bank that the bold man in the Menelik Castle who sent his ferocious 'Federals' and Agazee militias would later accuse the kids of trying to rob. Did these kids know where they were marching to? Again, that is a matter of contention. Days after the event of that morning, if you ask their neighbors, parents and relatives, and the rest of Addis Ababa that has heart and conscience, you would be told that "Yes, these are kids. They go to where they think is going to be noisier and more chaotic". But for the short bold man, protected by a thousand army and living in Menelik's castle, who proclaimed that he alone is in charge of safety and well-being in Addis Ababa, these kids were heading for 'bank robbery'.
But deducing from how the traffic operates in Addis Ababa and how kids are attracted to attention and more crowd, one could safely assume that they were heading to the chaotic and noisy Mexico square where Lideta meets Popolare, Senga Tera and the Mesqel Square neighborhoods. On their way, they would have passed the Lideta Maryam Church - the respected and adored house of the favorite patron of the neighborhood, St. Mary, the Mother of Jesus, herself. They were barely past the Officer's Club and the Police Hospital when the chants of 'We want freedom! We want change! Weyane stole the election!" drew the attention of the "Federals" and the Agazee militiamen - the modern day cavalry that protect the bold man in the castle. Past the Dejach Balcha Hospital, these kids who were playing adults still felt that they were in charge of their fate and lives - at least for those fleeting moments. In less than few minutes, however, hell broke loose and the chanting and singing of these group of kids in Lideta in this fateful morning of November was interrupted by the arrival of a truck load of "Federals" and Agazee militiamen who descended on these kids with a ferocity that one imagines happens only in battle fields in remote areas. Before the kids knew which direction the 'Federals' had come from, the first few few kids had already taken the brunt of the blows from clubs by these ferocious "Federals" and Agazee militiamen. Gunshots were not even fired when this crowd of children dispersed and run for their lives; some in the direction of Mexico square where more "Federals' were waiting for them, some in the direction of Lideta Church, and some in the direction of Police Hospital.
Again for reasons only social scientists can explain, the "Federals' and Agazee militias seemed more focused in chasing the small group that run in the direction of the Church. Unfortunate for him, Markos, the skinny 13-year old who has not set his foot in the hollowed grounds of the Lideta Maryam Church since the baptism of his little brother, Brook, only a few months ago in May, fate had it that he was running with this group of kids in the direction of the church. As the first sound of gun shots from that infamous and familiar Russian export, Kalashnikov, were heard, perhaps, these kids were thinking that their only salvation was refuge in the Lideta Maryam Church. Only 100 meters or so separated these kids from the church. As two kids were hit by a club and fell down, the chase narrowed down to five kids. Who would have guessed, early that morning, as the sun rose from the Bole plains as it always does, that five 13-year olds from Ato Hailu Kassa's class in Shimelis Habte High-school will be chased by the fearsome 'Federals' and Agazees shooting Kalashnikov guns. Only 50 meters from the Lideta Church, the tip of a powerful club from a limping skinny "Federal' with a protruding stomach and a big scar on his left arm caught the left side of Markos. Days after this event, the neighbors would whisper amongst themselves that the man was indeed an Agazee militiaman. Again, which internal organ of this skinny kid from Lideta was hit by this blow and whether there was immediate internal bleeding or not would have been a good thing to know for Markos' family and even the rest of Addis Ababa; but once again, we risk being ahead of our story.
It was a beautiful morning in the first weekend of May 2005 in Ato Atalay Mulatu's household. His youngest child, a second son, Brook who came to this world in late March in the Easter fasting season was baptized on this May Sunday. Ato Atalay, a tall and gracious man who seems to bloom with age, was approaching his fiftieth year and was ecstatic that he was now a father of two boys - off-springs that came late in late life. His excitement was matched and perhaps exceeded only by the happiness of his wife, Woizero Muluworq who was approaching the age of forty herself. In this beautiful season when the Ato Atalay household was blessed by the smile of God in the form of a baby boy, the only complaint (mainly from Ato Atalay and Markos) was that Brook was born during Hudade - the Lent fasting season where they couldn't eat "genfo" with W/o Muluworq's spiced up butter. Come Fasika, Ato Atalay and Markos and all the neighbors and relatives feasted on the 'genfo'. But the big celebration, Woizero Muluworq proclaimed was going to be on the baptism day in the end of Miazia. If Ato Atalay had his way, he would have wanted to avoid the huge preparation that would have gone to the feast of the baptism day. When W/o Muluworq reminded him that it has been many years since they celebrated anything significant, he, however, relented and joined full-heartedly the preparations.
After days of preparation, the Ato Atalay household held what was perhaps the biggest celebration that any one in the Lideta neighborhoods in front of the High Court had seen in years. Both Ato Atalay and his wife of 20 years, W/o Muluworq felt that they, together, had finally achieved what they had always wanted; two boys running around the house. Markos was born after 7 years or marriage and these two proud parents spent years enjoying seeing the boy grow. However, their efforts to conceive a second child did not bear fruits until Markos was 13 and they had long given up. It is "Kidist Maryam" herself, the Mother of Our Savior, who gave her Brook, W/o Mulu proclaimed. Ato Atalay who had always been shy about expressing his faith in the Angles and Saints that protect his family was, for the first time in his life, appreciative of what Kidist Maryam herself had given his family at such a late age. As appreciation to what the Mother of Our Lord and Savior has given the family, Ato Atalay and W/o Mulu had invited all the priests and deacons from the Lideta Maryam Church. Despite the household's modest life (even in Addis Ababa's standard), where the money came from to feed and entertain all these people is a miracle itself. But where there is faith of this nature, the focus of the day was to host a celebration that Lideta will talk about for long.
After feasting on the delicious doro weT, siga weT, ayeeb, and qiqil firfir and imbibing what the Lideta Maryam deacons later called 'the finest Tej since Itegue Taytu - Zebrhane Ethiopia's time', Ato Atalay pulled a 'burchuma' chair and sat next to Ato Hailu Kassa, the 8th grade teacher at Shimelis Habte where Markos was a student. As Brook's God Father, the 60-year old Ato Hailu Kassa was the guest of honor and was seated next to the parents. Perhaps it was the fine tej or his usual upbeat personality, Ato Hailu Kassa was very complementary to W/o Mulu and Ato Atalay on how they raised Markos. As a father, this was what Ato Atalay had always wanted to hear about his first-born. A word of complement to come from his teacher made Ato Atalay's pride even greater. He then called his first-born and asked him how school was and if he and his friends were behaving in the neighborhood. Markos and his friends loved football too much and were quite notorious in spending hours on the small football field only to quarrel among themselves later on. On this day, however, Markos told his father that he enjoys 8th grade and that he intends to study more. "What do you want to become when you grow up?" Ato Hailu asked Markos pulling him gently by the arm. Unusual to his shy demeanor, Markos replied quite immediately that he wanted to become a doctor. This was a surprise to both Ato Atalay and Ato Hailu - the English language teacher - because almost all kids in Lideta who see helicopters and small planes land in the Lideta Army Aviation airport behind the barbed wires long to become pilots. "Didn't you say that you wanted to become a pilot the other day?" asked Ato Atalay teasing his son. Markos, continuing in his unusual seriousness, replied "I will then be a pilot and a doctor". In Lideta, dreams like this are abundant. For the parents, however, these drams of their kids are sweet-bitter. They love them for their dreams; but at the back of their minds they wonder if this country that has not been generous enough for them will ever be generous for their children. Ato Atalay smiled; so did Ato Hailu. They thought the 13-year old Markos was on his way to becoming a man.
Life has its own strange moments that are impossible to explain. For instances, how can one explain the fact that Woizero Muluworq, Markos' mother, got this premonition - in the middle of the morning - that something was not right in her household in that fateful day in November five months after hosting the biggest celebration that her neighbors have seen in years? Her back already bent from work on the shoe sewing machine at the Darmar shoe factory which is located on the road from Lideta to Abnet Hotel, W/o Muluworq brushed aside this fear that gripped her. "I am sure all Mothers in Addis Ababa have the same fear. I should not overreact," she tried to comfort herself. "Besides, I have told Markos not to leave and have asked the neighbors Itiye Yitayushal and Ato Wondimu to keep an eye on him," she said to herself. Comforted by these ideas that eased her worries for the moment, she went back to her station and continued sewing shoes. But only two or three kilometers away in the narrow alleys of the the neighborhoods across the East Gate of the Prince Tsehay hospital, the first five to ten kids were already forming the nucleus of that morning's big march of 13 and 14-year olds. As it is with Nature, most of the times, the premonition would have been useful if it was acted upon and if it came with a better description of what is at stake and the dangers that lie. Woizero Muluworq wasted time and brushed aside the idea of running to her house. May be if she was as fortunate as the some of the city's lucky citizens, she would have had her mobile phone and, without leaving her work, checked on her household or her toiling husband at his Saris Winery work. But that would have required the unlikely triple blessing or miracle of having a mobile phone of her own, a phone in the house, and then a mobile phone of her factory worker husband. These conveniences, much like her neighbors, relatives and friends, she was not fortunate to have. Almost another forty minutes or so had passed before Woizero Muluworq acted on her premonition and headed for home, almost certain that something bad had happened. "Has the Mother of God, Kidist Maryam, forgotten me and my family?" she thought as fear she had never known before gripped her. By then, however, the kids of Lideta were already being chased by the "Federals' and the "Agazee" militias near Lideta Maryam Church. As she turned the corner towards her home near the Lideta High Court, her first-born son, the 13-year old Markos, was already hit on his side and was running for his life - perhaps with an already bleeding internal organ.
The ranks of the five 13-year olds from Ato Hailu Kassa's 8th grade who were being chased by the "Federals" and the Agazee militia dwindled from five to three and then two as Samson 'buna', Dereje "Mandiba' and Yonas 'tinishu' were clubbed down and lay wreathing in pain by the alleys near Lideta Maryam Church. That Markos could run more than 50 meters after suffering a blow to his side was a miracle itself. But why that miracle that enabled him run that far only landed him in a position where he was cornered by the very same militiaman who had clubbed him 100 meters or so ago is a question that no mere mortal can answer. For the next 5 minutes or so, the narrow alley where the skinny Agazee militia with a protruding stomach and a big scar on his left arm cornered Markos, the skinny boy from Lideta became the loneliest and most dangerous place in Ethiopia and perhaps in God's own wide Universe - at least for one helpless soul. In that narrow alley, a 40 plus year old Agazee militia with a Kalashnikov and a pistol stood towering over a fallen skinny 13-year old boy. A morning that started as any other sunny November morning in Addis Ababa in a season when Jacaranda trees bloom into a magical purple, turned into initiation to Hell to Markos. Who will ever know what went through the minds of this boy as he faced an angry man with a gun and a pistol ready to kill him? Did he know what was set to happen? Did it occur to him and his tormentor that it is un-natural for a man of 40 years and plus to point a gun at a 13-year old and threaten to take away his dear life? After a minute of his cornering, young Markos must have eventually understood that the moment he was facing was that of life and death. With tears streaming down his childish face, he pleaded with the Agazee militia to let him go to his mom, dad and little brother. Like a kid caught stealing candy in a neighborhood shop, Markos then thought that, perhaps, an apology and tears and maybe some 'qebeto' beating would set him free. He begged to be beaten and let go. The militiaman was still cold and seemed unmoved. May be if there is justice in this country of ours, we will one day learn what the militiaman was thinking. For Markos, however, that may be a day too many days late. As the pleadings of Markos gave way to moaning as the pain from the blow he had received minutes ago became unbearable, the scared women of Lideta who were watching this un-natural spectacle from the cracks of their fences burst into wailing - wailing so loud that one would think it will pierce the roofs of Heaven that had remained silent and deaf. The militiaman became agitated toying with his pistol that remained pointed at skinny Markos.
In despair, for the first time in his life, from depths of faith and last hope that he never knew existed, Markos started pleading with the Heavens. Cries of "Oh, Mary, Mother of God, save me" were heard by mortal men and women who had no power to help. Did Heaven, where the favorite Patron of Lideta, St, Mary and Her Son, the Father and Holy Spirit rule the mighty universe hear this boy's cries? In those closing minutes of this boy's life, only evil seemed to triumph. Markos even begged the Agazee man. "Gashe be feTerwo, be-lijiochwo". He imagined this militiaman with a protruding stomach had a wife and children somewhere and he would spare his life. What skills of negotiation and dealing with one's adversary is a 13-year old expected to possess? Could he have talked to this evil man who had been ordered to kill anyone in Addis Ababa by the bold man in Menelik's castle about the vanity and un-naturalness of killing a young life? How about tomorrow when things could turn over and the chaser becomes the chased?
Markos' cries continued as old women wept behind their doors and as old men who had fought Italian Fascists in their young ages were unable to even raise a finger and a voice to save this young life. Two shots were that were heard; two gun shots that stopped the life of this future of Ato Altaye, W/o Muluworq, little Brook, Lideta, and perhaps Addis Ababa and Ethiopia.
This fictional rendering of events that led to the killing of a 13-year old young boy in November 2005 by TPLF militiamen in Addis Ababa is based on a true story. It is dedicated to the sacrifice paid by this 13-year old boy and the many that died in June and November of 2005.
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