Mengistu outlawed private land ownership and put collective urban planning under the authority of local councils called kebeles. This fueled resistance in northern Ethiopia's rural areas, and Mengistu met the opposition with terror. For 17 years all human assembly was assumed to be subversive. Ethiopians needed written permission for a wedding party. Chatting on a street corner could lead to interrogation by council tribunals or Revolutionary Guards—armed citizen enforcers.
Ethiopians deemed disloyal were killed by the thousands. The Dergue reportedly made its morgues run at a profit. A family claiming the body of a loved one was charged 10 Ethiopian birr ($1.60) for each bullet used in the execution. Since more holes meant more revenue, death squads reportedly were asked to observe a two-bullet minimum.
All this seemed to mean that Mamo, who had been identified with the deposed emperor, could be in great danger. Being an Olympic champion and a national hero does not ensure safety in a nation that is ruled by fear of counterrevolutions and whose leaders are always on the lookout for a rallying point for insurgency.
Yet Mamo was hardly that. He had never seemed a martial sort of man or even ambitious beyond his sport. He seemed to owe his captain's rank more to his Olympic success than to personal or political connections to Haile Selassie. He was not of a rebellious tribe. The only Ethiopians he seemed to want to inspire to action were his country's young runners, several of whom he coached. But so effectively did the Dergue embargo information that for years if I thought of Mamo at all, it was only to wonder what had become of him amid benighted Ethiopia's incessant war, famine and purge.
In May 1991 the Dergue, having lost military aid from the collapsing Soviet Union and East Germany, was overthrown by the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front. Mengistu, who was responsible—through his Red Terror and by blocking aid to famine victims—for hundreds of thousands of deaths, escaped to Zimbabwe.
In late 1991 the new Ethiopian government rounded up more than 2,000 alleged officials of and collaborators with the Dergue, many of whom surely do deserve punishment for the regime's homicides. In this sweep, Mamo Wolde was caught up and imprisoned. In '92 Ethiopia created a Special Prosecutor's Office to investigate, charge and bring to court the suspects. But in May of this year Amnesty International said that no charges had ever been filed against Mamo and that it had seen no evidence to suggest that he was implicated in human-rights abuses. Amnesty appealed to Ethiopia to either charge or release those in his situation. Ethiopia did neither. In August, Mamo was still confined in the Ethiopian central prison, in a section known as the End of the World. There he would sit, prosecutors had told Amnesty, until more important cases were dealt with. But Amnesty did not learn what crime, if any, Mamo was suspected of. Ethiopia was still being gallingly tightfisted with information. I started calling African contacts, trying to learn more.
I wasn't alone. After word of Mamo's plight got out, the International Olympic Committee and the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF), the world governing body of track and field, demanded explanations from Ethiopian sports officials. But since those officials were also members of the Ethiopian government, they got back only hand-wringing. "We have been advised to await the verdict of the court," said Sibehat Belya, vice president of Ethiopia's National Olympic Committee. At the World Track and Field Championships in Göteborg, Sweden, in August, IAAF officials admitted that all they could do was inquire and exhort.
Whether they knew him or not, all the Olympians I spoke to were astounded to learn of an Olympic champion's imprisonment. Not that they felt a gold medal guaranteed moral perfection, but what is more at the heart of the Games than the forsaking of violence? So sacred did they hold the Olympic truce that the ancient Greeks put down their arms on the battlefield in the days of the Games. Who can look on an Olympic 100-meter final or heavyweight wrestling final and not see combatants subsuming the most powerful human ambitions into peaceful competition?
Such was the feeling of another 1972 Olympian, 800-meter bronze medalist Mike Boit of Kenya, who is now his country's commissioner for sports and represents Africa on the IAAF Athletes' Commission. I was in Göteborg covering the championships when I ran into Boit, who urged me to go to Ethiopia, try to see Mamo or at least discover all I could about his case and condition, then lay the information before the Athletes' Commission. "The combined voices of Olympians," he said, "must be heard."
So I flew to Addis Ababa, which is set 7,500 feet above sea level, on dark, hilly earth that was then being turned to black mud by cold rain. The essential fact of Ethiopia is that it is high, up to 10,000 feet above sea level. Its central mountains claw from the sky virtually every drop of moisture blown northwest from the Indian Ocean and so become the source of the Blue Nile. Their long rain shadow is the Sahara Desert.