But when we stood up with Aberash and the people near her and moved toward the gate, we were cut out as if we were hyenas among goats. A comely female guard explained to us that foreigners were simply never allowed to visit a prison. It was a matter of national security.
While Aberash was inside, the guard went on to say that the only one who could conceivably authorize our entry was the police commissioner. As we were asking his whereabouts, Aberash came out. There were tears in her eves. "Mamo said to tell you that your remembering, your coming has restored his morale and his faith," she said evenly. "He feels both great happiness and sadness. Happy at your coming. Sad that he can't greet you properly."
I had the same emotions. It suddenly hit me what a long shot I must have seemed to him. Hell, what a long shot I really was. It was good to have let him know he wasn't forgotten, but I was damned if I was going to go home without seeing him now.
Working our way up the chain of command, we went to four police stations in search of the commissioner. Our story became better with each telling, until Mamo and I were long-separated brothers. The higher their rank, the farther out of uniform the Ethiopian police officers were. The shift commander's candy-striped shirt was no match for his paunch. He had a Texas longhorn on his huge belt buckle. He told us that the commish wasn't available until Monday morning. We made an appointment.
The next day we gave Aberash and Samuel a lift back to the prison. Kratochvil had brought a larger camera this time, and he took a picture of Aberash in the waiting shed. His action was seen, and suddenly we were encircled by police. One of them kept repeating that they'd had problems with people saying terrible things about their country. "Everybody in every country," guard after guard repeated, "had to know taking pictures of prisons and police stations was forbidden."
Kratochvil said he had not taken any pictures of the prison, just of Aberash, and offered them the film. They took it, but this did no good. One guard, a skinny, wasted man with a warped hand, kept yelling that we were incredibly cunning foreigners, and it was their duty to consider everything we said a lie and simply arrest us. Finding himself in the minority, he held out for summoning higher authority.
Aberash stood up for us so forcefully that she was instantly made to sit down in the waiting shed and was ordered to shut up. Calls were made, and we were told to wait. After half an hour Kratochvil, our interpreter and I were ordered in through the gate and put on a butt-polished wooden bench against a wall facing a sandy courtyard. "Now we are detained," said Kratochvil.
We waited. The prisoner's visiting family members were being searched in front of us. The female guards who were going over the female visitors were anatomically thorough, to the point of running a hand up under skirts and deep into crotches.
We waited. I told the members of my team that no one is as patient as a marathoner, and they should hang in. All nodded. I took myself literally and strove for that frame of mind you want in the first 20 miles: alert but with aggressiveness in check, anxieties suppressed. And as has been known to happen in a marathon, a familiar question arose: What the hell was I doing here?
The answer came more easily than it does on the road. I wasn't just hoping that Olympic commonality might mean something to some sadistic prison guards. I was trying to do a little good. I remembered what Irish miler Eamonn Coghlan had said to me a few years back, when I told him that I was envious of his sub-four-minute miles after he turned 40: "Runners don't exactly win men out of bondage. But journalists can."