Well, this was the first time I'd had a chance, so it didn't seem hard to discipline myself to be calm. Besides, how brutal could a night in an Ethiopian prison be when Mamo had done a thousand of them?
As if in answer, a guard loudly slammed a magazine into his AK-47 and watched our reaction. "So arrogant," whispered the interpreter.
I looked at the ground. If one of these guards had an accident with his gun, this tiny peak of black basalt protruding through red pumice could be the last thing I'd see. I am not an adrenaline junkie. It didn't take getting into this fix to teach me that risks have to be well justified. But once you are in a fix, it doesn't really matter whether your aim is noble or base; you have no choice but to see it through.
In my mind, I started listing recent events of suffering—the Serbs shelling the Sarajevo marketplace, Zaire's president trying to force a million refugees back into Rwanda, Kashmiri separatists decapitating a Norwegian tourist—as if to imply that Mamo's was but a drop in the bucket, that his suffering was not worthy of real sacrifice to alleviate.
This was a sign that my nerve was eroding exactly the way it does in a long, hard marathon. Your thoughts turn fatalistic. There is no hope of winning now, you think. It's as good as over. Why keep hurting?
This you learn to fight. It's never over. If you can't win, you can pass someone. If you can't finish, you can shoot for the next aid station, and then the next. So I tore my thoughts from hopeless mass misery and fixed them on Mamo Wolde, the specific, fragile, 64-year-old man locked in a cage a hundred yards away, and I was back running with him in Munich. This time, when my cramp hit, when he turned and winced, I imagined him finding words. "Hold on," he said to me. "Hold on."
Suddenly a four-door pickup roared in, and a young man with a leather jacket and blue suede shoes got out and inspected us. This was someone who identified himself simply as Major Neguesse, and all around deferred to him. The whites of his eyes were the color of strawberry jam. We explained everything all over again to him, after which he went inside and called his superior.
We waited. It seemed a good sign when a uniformed guard moved us into the shade on the other side of the courtyard. But from there the interpreter could hear the insatiable hunger for our heads expressed by the man with the crippled hand.
We'd been held for four hours. It clouded over. We were moved back across the courtyard. They kept asking for our passports. We kept saying we'd left them at our hotel.
Over the wall wafted the melodic voices of a women's choir from the nearby Ethiopian Orthodox church. Amid their angelic music, our salvation arrived, in the person of a man introduced to us as Captain Shanbel, maybe 35, with a pointed, freckled nose. He was holding a hissing walkie-talkie. In English he told us that we had to prove who we were. We asked him to let us go get our passports at the hotel. He said we could, with an escort.