Ethiopia is a country most known for its suffering and poverty, yet few people have a richer history than the Ethiopians do. They, perhaps fancifully, claim that the highlands were first settled by a great-grandson of Noah named Ethiopic. Some 97 generations later, his descendants were ruled by the queen of Sheba, who traveled to Jerusalem, bedded King Solomon, converted to Judaism and bore him a son, Menelik. Menelik brought back to Ethiopia not only a thousand people from each of the 12 tribes of Israel, but also the Ark of the Covenant (What is said to be the Ark can be found this day in the St. Mary of Zion Church in Axum). Menelik was first in the Solomonic dynasty of emperors that ended some 237 monarchs later, with Haile Selassie.
Christianity, which arrived in Ethiopia in the fourth century, came under assault in the seventh century when the great plateau region was encircled but never conquered by Islam. For nearly a thousand years even the trade routes to the highlands were cut off by the stalemate between the forces representing the two religions. This long isolation produced, to many Western minds, one of the world's most feudal, xenophobic, argumentative cultures. British novelist Evelyn Waugh, who covered Haile Selassie's coronation in 1930, wrote of "the prevarications, the evasions...the lethargy and cunning.... Tricking the Europeans was a national craft."
These were the people I would persuade to let me visit their rejected national hero? These were the people who would tell me why he was locked up? Fortunately I was not alone. Antonin Kratochvil had flown in from Prague. A former Czech freedom fighter whose natural photographer's combativeness had been sharpened by life and work in repressive regimes, he was very clearly the right man for the job. Yet photographing the slaughter in Rwanda had made him sensitive to the ever-present possibility of violence. I said I trusted him to not take too many chances.
"Give me your little plastic camera," he said. "I can hide it in my scarf when we go to the prison."
Maybe trust is too strong a word.
Even before we left for Ethiopia, we were faced with a choice. Ethiopian Olympic officials wouldn't talk to us unless the Ministry of Information certified us as journalists. But once the government knew we were journalists, we assumed, there would be no way we were going to be allowed near a prison, let alone Mamo.
So we bagged the officials and came in on tourist visas. Kratochvil planned to say he was a designer and trainer. My pitch would be personal: As an old friend and competitor of Mamo's, I would say I was stopping over in Addis simply to see him and cheer him up.
I tried this out first in a phone call to the Special Prosecutor's Office. I was transferred to a prosecutor named Abraham Tsegaye. His English was precise, his tone unnervingly bland. He said that some trials of the architects of the Red Terror had begun but that the courts were in a "period of hiatus" to allow defense attorneys more time to prepare. At present, he said, there were 1,300 detainees. "No charges have been filed against Mamo Wolde," he said, "but we are preparing to make charges when the courts resume, perhaps in two or three months."
I took a breath and asked the crucial question: "What are you charging him with?"
"With taking part in a criminal act."