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        Wednesday, May 31, 2006
        When terror becomes the norm
        The human brain or heart (or which ever organ is responsible for this) is an amazing thing. It truly gets tougher when the going gets tough. It becomes so tough that it starts distorting external information and processes it in such a way that we start believing that a dangerous situation is normal.

        Last week, I read this article about a young Somali guy describing the civil war there as "becoming normal". You have to take it as normal to survive it. This article made me think about growing up in Ethiopia under Mengistu’s cruel rule.

        There was nothing normal about Mengistu or our lives – now looking back. We were told where to do food shopping, what to wear, what to watch on TV, what books to read, which part and version of world history to learn, where to work, what time to go home and on and on and on… It was all normal and even funny.

        My siblings and I were too young to be directly affected by the Red Terror. We still did not miss the "action" though because teenagers and college students in my neighborhood chose our house as a place to hang out at when the local police came looking for any congregation of young people, which was forbidden by law. They disburse from their political meetings and some of them would run into our house while my parents were away and start playing table tennis. It was very irresponsible of them to use us, but we survived it.

        The police would barge into our compound to see what was going on, and always leave after telling us off for being bourgeois for owning table tennis stuff. Little did they know that the table was made by our carpenter neighbor and had an uneven surface which caused that annoyingly bouncy ball to fly all over the place when it hit a dent at a certain angle. Even that became normal and we became good at anticipating where the ball was going to fly to, hit it back and still score a point. What the hell was so bourgeois about that?

        On one hand they showed us on TV Russian bourgeois living in mansions wearing mink coats… as Saturday night movie night, and on the other hand they equated my family with the filthy rich in pre-communist Russia just because we had an uneven surfaced table for tennis. Very confusing.

        At high school, the fun level went to a higher level. My parents were pretty frazzled by then because all of us reached an interesting age for the local police to hunt us down. I remember having Social Studies classes, which the Ministry of Education should have called socialism studies because all I was taught was Marxism-Leninism stuff. Ironically, the Social Studies class came right after our Moral Studies, which was all about the Bible. In retrospect, it is a wonder how our Social studies teacher managed to get up every morning to come to our school to teach that dreary stuff with us screaming our insults at Marx, Engles and Lenin, and mocking socialism. It is a bigger wonder how we did not get in trouble with the government.

        Now it is interesting to think back about the habits we developed as a family to stay safe. The simplest thing as a knock on the gate after dark (it gets dark around 6:45pm) initiates the following drill. A quick head count to see who has not come home yet, if all family members are there, boys go up the roof (you never know when they come to draft you for military service), mom checks the outside light (if it is not on somebody is going to jail on charges of assisting anti-revolutionary groups to sabotage the revolution hiding in the dark – such paranoia), girls sit tight pretending to be cool, but the eyes always gave away deep fears, and dad opens the gate. Only once every two/three years, it was an unwanted visitor (a local police making noise about the stupidest shit ever). Still, every knock was treated the same. Every time. The nightly shootings were music to our ears. It was the knock that would get us. How strange. In fact, the shooting-free nights used to cause a lot of speculation. Why is it quiet tonight? I wonder why the local police are not drunk and shooting aimlessly? May be they are in a meeting for something big...

        Then we went to college and automatically became prime suspects for anti-revolutionary ideas and activities. To be honest, we were interested in what college students are interested in and revolutionary stuff was just a source of gut-busting jokes. We were jealous that our seniors were taken in the most rural areas to build houses and develop Ethiopia.

        The only thing my peers got was to wear that hideous Korean- influenced uniform and march in front of Mengistu celebrating the anniversary of the revolution. We had fun making tight mini-skirts and mini jackets with gigantic shoulder pads and argue that we were wearing the revolutionary uniform (if they were too cheap to provide the uniforms, then we had the right to start a fashion competition.) To this day I wonder what possessed us to break the line and start screaming and running just when we passed Mengistu during the march. We were supposed to do all the military style marching, turn to the right and salute him, then look straight ahead and keep on marching. It went completely wrong and we were told how mad he was with us… We thought it was funny. We were high with excitement that we walked all the way back to the University – still laughing and screaming. When I got home that afternoon, my mom was disappointed that they skipped the University marching on the live broadcast on TV. When I told her what we did, she was initially laughing then it suddenly hit her. We might get arrested for that. She started spiting one order after the other – don’t go to the Uni for a week, ask so and so’s father who’s connected if he heard any rumors, go to your Godmother’s house for a week…. Nothing happened to us. Nothing! Unbelievable.

        Now looking back, I wonder how all my peers and siblings did not turn into revolutionary freaks after growing up on nothing but revolutionary crap. Media, books, the national curriculum, entertainment, schools – everything that was supposed to shape our knowledge and consciousness was totally controlled by Mengistu’s government. And yet, we bought none of it. Do people have a built-in mechanism to filter out propaganda bullshit? I don’t know.
        posted by Fikirte @ 10:11 AM   Digg!
        • name<="c114925216436261445" id="c114925216436261445">

          At 8:42 AM, Blogger Ceridwen Devi said…

          It would be good if we could filter out the bullshit. I don't know either.

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