We began by casing the Ethiopian central prison. We drove a
dented 1967 VW Beetle slowly down a muddy, unmarked Addis Ababa
street, passed the Libyan Embassy, turned right and tried not to
stare at a haphazard compound of cement and corrugated
sheet-metal buildings. Across the road, in the rain, goats and
trucks bleated and brayed at each other. Men urinated against a
wall. An arch marked the main gate. In the lee of a crumbling
yellow plaster watchtower, a half-dozen guards wearing thin blue
overcoats watched us go by, eyes instantly locked on the
faranjoch, the foreigners. A thought came: the things you do for
Or maybe simply the idea of Olympic brotherhood. Captive inside
the prison was a man I had not seen in 23 years. I had never had
more than fragmentary conversations with him. We had simply
raced each other in two Olympic marathons. Was it a conceit to
think, because of that, I knew him? Knew him well enough to
believe he couldn't possibly deserve to be in there? Knew him
well enough to try to outwit the Ethiopian prison system to get
that simple message to him?
The man was Mamo Wolde, the 1968 Olympic marathon gold medal
winner. Last May, Amnesty International revealed that in '92
Mamo had been rounded up with thousands of other Ethiopians
suspected of involvement in the horrid human-rights abuses of
the Communist regime that had been deposed the year before. He
had been imprisoned, without having been formally charged with a
crime, for the past three years.
Learning that, from a tiny item in the Los Angeles Times, had
jerked me to my feet. Mamo Wolde? He and countryman Abebe Bikila
were the greatest one-two punch in Olympic marathon history.
Abebe won in Rome in 1960 (barefoot, finished in torchlight
under the Arch of Constantine), and in Tokyo in '64 (shod, did
calisthenics on the stadium infield after destroying the world
best time), thereby beginning the great African distance running
In Mexico City in 1968 a leg injury forced Abebe to drop out
after 10 miles. Mamo, who had already taken the silver in the
10,000 meters, won that marathon, making it three in a row for
Ethiopia. I placed 14th in Mexico City, but I remember Mamo only
as a black-and-green wraith, vanishing ahead after 15 miles, his
pace remorseless. He won by three minutes.
So the whole of our relationship was based on something that
happened in the last 11 miles of the 1972 Olympic marathon in
Munich. Mamo was so soundless of foot and breath that often I
only knew he was running beside me by the sight of his
distinguished widow's peak. With six miles to go, Frank Shorter
was a minute ahead of us and increasing his lead. But when Mamo
and I looked back, we seemed to have left the rest of the field
We both run with our toes pointing out slightly, so at times our
shoes brushed. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Mamo would say.
On a rough path in Munich's English Garden, with five miles to
go, a dehydration cramp shot up my right hamstring. Mamo watched
me slow and hop, grabbing my leg, and then he turned and ran on.
He looked back one last time. This is what I cannot forget. His
face was filled with regret. He seemed to be saying it wasn't
supposed to happen this way. We were supposed to race on
together, and the stronger would take the silver and the other
the bronze. In fact, Belgium's Karel Lismont caught us both and
finished second. Mamo got the bronze. I followed in fourth, on
my twinging thigh, some 30 seconds behind, a gap that gave me a
clear view of Mamo over the last couple of miles but no hope of
The postrace scene has long since taken on a strobe-light
selectivity. I can clearly see how stunned Shorter was at
winning. But I don't see Mamo. We must have shaken hands,
congratulating, consoling, but if we did, the memory is gone.
I never saw Mamo again. He went home to Addis Ababa, where he
had been promoted to captain in the Palace Guard of the aging
Emperor Haile Selassie and was promised a nice house, like the
one that had reportedly been given to Abebe before he died in
1973. Mamo never got it. In '74 Haile Selassie was overthrown by
Ethiopian military leaders who, under Mengistu Haile Mariam,
created a ruthless, hugely paranoid Communist government known
as the Dergue, the Amharic word for committee.
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
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
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 Goteborg, 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 Goteborg 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.
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
"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
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
I took a breath and asked the crucial question: "What are you
charging him with?"
"With taking part in a criminal act."
"What criminal act?"
I went queasy. I had come all this way on the strength of a
backward glance. Suddenly it didn't seem such an ironclad
guarantee of innocence. "What killing?"
"Mamo Wolde is suspected of being involved in killing one person
while he served as a Dergue Revolutionary Guard."
"Revolutionary Guard? How could he have been a Dergue
Revolutionary Guard? He was in Haile Selassie's Imperial Guard."
"The Imperial Guard was disbanded by the Dergue," said Abraham.
"The Revolutionary Guard was then organized in 1975 along
Communist lines to incite the public to 'defend' the revolution
against its enemies. Mamo could have joined."
I grabbed at a straw. "What do you mean, 'could have'?" I said.
"Did he or didn't he?"
"I don't know," said Abraham. "I'm basically a spokesman."
"Who accused Mamo of this crime?"
"The victim's family. Of the possibility of his collaboration
"Was there a hearing before a judge?"
"Yes.... Well, perhaps not a hearing in the way you mean, with
testimony. Our investigator gathered statements. Then the court
sat with the investigator and Mamo Wolde and looked at the file
and decided there were sufficient signs of his implication. So
the court ordered him taken into custody."
"Did Mamo Wolde have access to a lawyer?"
"Not now. Not until he is charged."
"If I was detained for three years without charge, I'd sure have
"Well, in your country every time you shake hands with someone,
you need a lawyer. In Ethiopia it is not such a way."
"Can you give me permission to visit Mamo?"
"I'm sorry. I don't have that authority."
He hung up. I must have looked ashen. Kratochvil brought me a
glass of water and said prosecutors always put the worst face on
things. Then he brightened. "Does Mamo have a wife?" he asked.
Mamo did indeed, and when we called her, she invited us to
visit. So, on the last day of August, on a rocky lane not far
off a main road, some children directed us to a door in a long,
corrugated metal wall. As we pounded on it, the reverberations
seemed to carry around the block.
A young man admitted us to a yard where corn and squash grew. He
led us around a small house made of mud over a framework of
sticks and held together with a coat of paint. In the back
doorway, dressed in their Sunday best, were Mamo's wife, Aberash
Wolde-Semhate, 24, and their five-year-old daughter, Addiss Alem
Mamo, and three-year-old son, Tabor Mamo. Tabor's brave little
handshake was cold and trembling. The young man who had let us
in was Samuel, Mamo's 19-year-old son by his first wife, Aymalem
Beru, who is now dead.
Inside we were shown to a dim sitting room. The wood floors were
smooth and clean. Incense was in the air. Aberash poured us
glasses of talla, a home-brewed beer. "If a guest does not
accept the food and drink offered in an Ethiopian home," our
interpreter had warned us, "the host feels so bad, it's like a
Aberash lifted her glass and solemnly apologized for Mamo's not
being able to welcome me into his house. As we drank, I lifted
my eyes and saw, hanging on the wall, Mamo's Olympic gold medal
for the Mexico City marathon and his silver from the 10,000. The
Munich marathon bronze was nowhere in sight.
"I am so thankful for this," Aberash said. "For your remembering
that your runner friend still lives."
I admitted to her that I didn't really know Mamo that well. So
Aberash opened a photo album and gave us a thumbnail sketch of
her husband. He was born 64 years ago in Ada, about a marathon's
distance southeast of Addis Ababa. He is a member of the Oromo
tribe. "He is a strict [Ethiopian] Orthodox Christian," she
says. "During the Dergue, party committee meetings were on
Sunday mornings to keep members from going to church. Mamo
solved that by going to church before dawn."
Aberash was introduced to Mamo seven years ago, shortly after
his first wife died. "Before, when I was in school, I ran a
little, not seriously," she said. "But I read about and I loved
them, both of our heroes, Abebe Bikila and Mamo."
She dropped her eyes, a little embarrassed. I don't know what I
expected to find in Mamo's home, but the simple, rustic room and
Aberash's tender loyalty hardly seemed consistent with a
totalitarian absentee master. I took heart, and I asked the
questions that I feared the most.
"Had Mamo indeed been a Revolutionary Guard?"
"He told me he was nothing," said Aberash. "He was on a kebele
committee--a committee for development--and also coached."
"The prosecutor's office said he will be charged in a killing,"
I told her. "Was he involved?"
"No," Aberash said. "No. Here is what happened. This was in
1975, at the height of the terror. Mamo said one night he was
phoned by [a top kebele official] and ordered to put on his
dress uniform, with his pistol, and go to a certain nightclub.
Mamo thought this was protocol, that he was to meet an important
visitor. When he got there, he saw that the official and some
others had a boy with his hands tied. He was about 15. He might
have been in some youth group fighting against the Dergue. The
official ordered Mamo not to talk. Then the official and another
man took the boy out and shot him. Then they told Mamo to go
there, to the body of the boy. At first he refused, but at that
time to refuse an official was to be dead yourself, so finally
he went. The boy was dead. The official told Mamo to shoot the
body again because there had to be two holes. The policy. Mamo
said he went to three meters [10 feet] away and shot and
purposely missed. Lots of people saw him miss. In 1992 many
witnesses said Mamo didn't kill anybody. Only one accused him.
The official who shot the boy wants to blame Mamo to save
himself. But the prosecutors said they had to keep Mamo in
detention until they bring charges. But they never do. He just
As I listened, I looked again at Mamo's medals. The Mamo in
Aberash's story had acted as I imagined I might act if plunged
into a world of such choices. I began to revive a little.
Mamo had been receiving a small pension from his government
service. When he was imprisoned, the money stopped. "I couldn't
feed my children," said Aberash. "I applied to the athletics
people, and now the IOC gives a little every month." Also,
Samuel has dropped out of school and gotten a job as a welder's
Mamo was briefly allowed out of prison twice, once when he was
ill and once when he told Aberash he thought he was being freed.
Each time he stayed in Addis Ababa with his family. Each time he
was re-arrested. In a way, this was the most galling thing I
learned, since it seemed to prove that Mamo is no risk to flee
his country. "He wants to go to trial," said Aberash. "He wants
to clear his name."
If he has to wait, I wondered, why couldn't he wait at home?
Mamo's latest detention had lasted two years and six months by
the time I arrived in Addis Ababa. His health had not been good.
"He was very sick in prison, with bronchitis, liver and stomach
problems," said Aberash. "He's lost a lot of hearing in one ear.
He was in the prison hospital for a month and a half, in the
Prison food is terrible, but families are allowed to bring
supplemental rations four days a week. "On Tuesdays and
Thursdays the guards take the food and tell me to leave," said
Aberash. "But on Saturdays and Sundays family members can go in
and see the prisoners for a few minutes. You are lined up in a
field, six feet apart, with a fence in between. I think Saturday
you should try to come along."
So Saturday at noon, loaded with chocolate, cookies and
cigarettes for Mamo to use in barter, Kratochvil and I drove
Aberash to the prison. She had warm chicken stew in a plastic
carrier. She did not believe the prosecutor was being truthful
when he told us that Mamo would soon be charged.
Outside the prison gate perhaps 200 people--women and children
and old men--were shuffling into one end of an open shed that had
four long rows of benches. At the other end guards took names
and allowed 20 people at a time to enter the prison. Through the
open gate we could see them being searched. Kratochvil had my
tiny panoramic camera hidden in his voluminous white scarf and
was blazing away at the prison and the people.
Many of the visitors were obviously middle class. The children
stared at the faranjoch out of wonder rather than want. Down the
rows went urchins selling peanuts, bad fruit and Olympic lottery
tickets that had Abebe Bikila's picture on them. I bought five
tickets for 10 birr. The seller shook my hand and wished me
luck. I began to fee1l a wild hope. We just might waltz in here.
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 eyes. "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
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
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."
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
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
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.
Outside the gate Aberash and Samuel were still waiting. They
were told to go home, so they watched us set off across Addis
Ababa with a policeman in the back-seat of our car and a huge
armored vehicle with half a dozen officers in it right behind.
You should have seen the face of the Hilton doorman when we
As Kratochvil and I ran inside, Kratochvil dashed ahead and was
safely up in an elevator before officers Neguesse and Shanbel
caught up with me in the lobby. By the time they'd accompanied
me to my room, appropriated my passport and told me that I had
nothing to worry about as long as my papers were in order,
Kratochvil had already flushed the undeveloped film of the
previous day's photos of the prison. The officers took his
camera for good measure. We said we would see them on the
morrow, and then spent an hour calling everyone we knew. We
tried to sound calm. We've, uh, been in the prison and, uh, they
held us all day, and now they have our passports. If you don't
hear from us, say, by tomorrow night, you probably should
contact the U.S. Embassy....
We got up early the next day and drove through mists to the
office of the police commissioner, who took one look at us and
said he wouldn't be responsible for faranjoch. Be serious. We
had to go to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The interpreter
The downstairs courtyard at the ministry looked like a crowd
scene from Gandhi. Hundreds of rain-soaked people were mobbing
the office that issued exit visas. By contrast, the tiny office
for foreigners had cobwebs on the desk. We were sent upstairs to
a room where the sign on the door read only the chief. It had
bustling secretaries. The power went out. The secretaries opened
the curtains. The power returned. After an hour we were ushered
The chief was Internal Affairs Minister Mahete. She wore a red
dress. Her angular face was forceful, and she looked a little
sour, perhaps because on her desk was a volume titled
Immigration Laws of the United States.
As the interpreter made our pitch, I tried to seem
nonthreatening. I must have looked like one of the kids begging
at the stoplights. She stopped the interpreter, made some calls,
shook her head, called in a secretary and dictated a
three-sentence letter to the prison authorities. She had given
me permission to see Mamo.
At the prison we held her letter before us like a cross toward a
vampire. The gate rolled open. The guards who had hassled us the
day before looked at the document and fell back against the
walls. We were given an escort down a stony path. The
buildings--one with no roof--were spread apart, with weedy land
Major Neguesse bowed us into his office. He gave us back our
passports and camera. His eyes were still red, but now he looked
almost friendly. He said he hoped we understood that they had
only been doing their duty. We understood.
"Well, then, let us see your friend."
A cluster of guards led us down a sloping path toward a
two-story building that could have been an old theater. Wooden
rails on posts ran out under an awning from its double doors, as
if to keep a great many men in line. No prisoners could be seen,
only guards. I peered in through the doors. A staircase led up.
Guards were coming down it, and among them was a slender man in
a green-and-white sweater and a distinguished widow's peak.
I threw aside my guards. He fought through his. He and I
embraced on the steps. He was bony through the sweater, but warm
and strong. And excited. "It all comes back," he said. "I
remember you had a goatee."
"I thought you would be gray."
"Thank you, thank you from my family for this. Remember me to
the brothers, the Olympic brothers."
"You are remembered," I said. I told him I was carrying the best
wishes of the IOC, the IAAF and at least a dozen friends from
the Olympic movement, as well as a standing invitation to be
grand marshal of the Honolulu Marathon, back in the islands
where I now live. As the list went on, he lifted his eyes and
arms. "These are words from God," he said.
I hugged him again. He didn't seem bruised. He had on flip-flops
and blue socks. I said, "We just have to get you out of here."
"This is a good government now," he said, an eye going to the
listening guards. "It will release me soon, I'm sure. It will
see that the charge was false. It will realize it was a bad man
trying to save himself."
"Is there anything that you need?"
"I never got my house from the emperor. I had to live all these
years in the mud house you saw. All I need in the world is to
get out, remake it in stone and live with my children in safety."
We had maybe eight minutes together. A guard must have given
Mamo a sign, but I didn't catch it. He took my forearms in his
hands. "It restores my soul," he said. "It is something I can
feel in my body, that people outside the country remember." Then
they led him back upstairs.
Later I would call prosecutor Abraham once more. He now felt
Mamo might be charged "before the end of the year." Every time I
asked, it seemed, the date receded further.
Granting that Mamo had to stand trial, I said, could he not be
bailed out in the interim? The prosecutor replied that Mamo's
was not a "bailable offense."