By Yared Tibebu
Tower in the Sky is a true love story situated in the tumultuous years of the student movement during the February 1974 Ethiopian Revolution and its bloody aftermath. The central character in the book is Getachew Maru, founder of the group ABYOT and later, an EPRP (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party) politburo member and youth organizer. The author, Hiwot Teffera, was his girlfriend. She dedicated the book with everlasting love to the man she immensely adored, and loved, even after his death.
Tower in the Sky begins with Khalil Gibran’s poetry from The Prophet:
If in the twilight of memory we should
meet once more, we shall speak again
together and you shall sing to me a deeper song.
And if our hands should meet in another
dream we shall build another tower in the sky.
It appears Hiwot’s yearning for another tower was her vivid memory of engaging in a struggle that changed the social edifice of a nation. Along the way, it also changed her beyond recognition. Her love for Getachew was not the usual teen infatuation. Her love was for his humanity, his will to suffer for truth, his unflinching persona in the face of danger, and his polite but resolute character. She was obsessed with his dedication to ideas and the struggle.
Hiwot’s idea of writing a book was hatched in prison over 30 years ago. But as her quotation from Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound makes clear:
To speak of this is painful for me: to keep silence
is no less pain. On every side is suffering.
While reading the pages of Tower in the Sky, one will suffer along with the writer; agonize over her torment, be affected by her emotions, and pray for her safety. It is a moving story. The author, an innocent 18-year-old from Harrar by 1972, attends the national university, and a simple encounter with a female student who returned from abroad changes her life forever. The returnee arranges for her a meeting with Getachew, and after Hiwot met him at his Afincho Ber hideout, she seems intrigued and maybe enchanted by the meeting and wants to give meaning to her life. She wants to engage in something bigger than herself. And she did.
Tower in the Sky takes us through the Ethiopian political landscape by weaving personal stories of love and courage through narratives of Haile Selassie I University campus life of the early 70s.The account chronicles the ideas that informed the writer, and through her, the generation’s passion, bringing to life the arrest of Getachew and his compatriots in September 1973, the author’s dismissal from the university, the beginning of the February 1974 Revolution, the merger of Abyot and Democracia groups, and the formation of the EPRP in August 1975.
In September 1976 the EPRP leadership changed course, and made an assassination attempt on the Ethiopian military dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. Hiwot asked Getachew, by then her boyfriend, “So what do you think of the attempt on Mengistu?”
“It was utter insanity. There is no explanation for it. An assassination attempt on a leader amounts to a coup d’état. Killing individuals amounts to terrorism. A party such as ours should not be engaging in things like that. The idea of urban armed struggle is a departure from the path of the struggle outlined at the beginning. The party is treading a dangerous avenue…” was his response.
Getachew’s strategic clarity was unequalled among his peers. It was his honesty and dedication to the cause that equipped him to see the dangers that lay ahead. He was unwilling to barter the strategy for short-term gains. Though his life was cut short, Getachew’s enduring vision was that the elite cannot substitute the people and assure a democratic future; that the people themselves have to participate in their own liberation through hard won struggles. The young generation is now perplexed with the same issues, and Getachew’s sacrifice may help guide them.
Tower in the Sky is not just your regular love story. It is about the ideal of a generation, and the disappointment of multitudes. Four years into her underground activities, when the writer is arrested, we come face to face with revolutionaries on the defensive inside Kefitegna 19. Hiwot describes a group mentality that is unwilling to hear any criticism of the EPRP and its leadership. When one of the inmates, a member of EPRP’s Secretariat Office, Mekonen Bayissa, criticizes the Party, the crowd turns against him. He becomes a public enemy. Hiwot’s decision not to abandon Mekonen also made her a target. Mekonen was executed by the Junta, and Hiwot was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Given the circumstances of imprisonment and torture, the inmates’ defense of their party may be understandable. But, this should have ended after Mekonen paid the ultimate sacrifice. The bitter irony is that Mekonen’s name and character were defiled by those who survived. To this day Mekonen is suspected to be a traitor. Tower in the Sky re-establishes his good name beyond a doubt.
Getachew Maru was also killed at the direction of the Party leadership. He never suspected this.
Hiwot learned of the assassination of her beloved Getachew from the youth league leader Tito Heruy. She was unable to cry. She had tried to warn her loved one, but to no avail. Getachew was unflinching and very optimistic that the party would rectify its ways and that the leadership would change its course. But, his innocence and his trust of the party cost him his life. He was only 27 when he was killed. He was “homegrown” and not exposed to the power politics of Europe and America like his counterparts in the DEMOCRACIA leadership who returned from abroad.
EPRP leaders were thinking politically, and played with power. That may be why they changed the Provisional People’s Government (PPG) tactic into a strategy, and waged urban guerilla warfare to make their strategy a reality. Thousands of unsuspecting youth perished because of the mistakes of the leadership. The leaders used security concerns and the party’s clandestine nature to impose their will. Most of EPRP’s leaders perished along with the youth they led astray. It was a sad ending. In the pages of TOWER IN THE SKY Hiwot portrays the immensity of the carnage by the Dergue. “One family lost five children in one Kebele. Four of their own and the uncle of the four kids…”.
The most fascinating aspect in the book is Hiwot’s continued participation in the struggle even after her boyfriend’s expulsion from the leadership and his assassination. We see in the pages of TOWER IN THE SKY, Hiwot being assigned the most dangerous assignments. Many may ask how one can undertake dangerous missions like these after one’s trust of the party is shaken beyond a doubt. Hiwot and others like her possessed a different level of courage to accomplish what they were able to do.
A single phrase from Gibran’s poetry seems to capture the whole book: “We shall speak again together”. The issues Getachew raised were anchored in the principles and strategies agreed upon during the merger between ABYOT and DEMOCRACIA. However, when the leadership changed course, Getachew was denied the forum to present his case. But Getachew’s truth was written all over the wall for all to see. And it took only months for his fear to become a reality. It became evident very soon that there was no ground to win an urban armed struggle defeating a military dictatorship of the worst type.
Even though it took over 30 years for Tower in the Sky to see the light of day, I do not believe it is too late. I hope Tadelech will also keep the promise she made to Hiwot 30 years ago in prison, and share her husband Berhane Meskel Redda’s life and thoughts. I hope our youth will learn from these experiences and perform better than its predecessors. I hope Hiwot’s book will give life to a nuanced understanding of the truths of our past. I hope it will help us to limit our passions and increase our awareness; our awareness not only of our truth, but that of others as well.
I met Hiwot in Toronto more than a decade ago. It was clear she was living with the agony of her past. She was much more reserved and quiet than what I remembered. Compared to the Hiwot I knew during our college years, the changes were immense. After reading Tower in the Sky I understood her agony and the suffering of living with the treasure of so much history inside her. I am hopeful that sharing her pain will lessen her burden and give her back the happiness that she deserves. Hiwot should be thanked for her kindness and her hard work. She has paid so much more than her share.
With this book, it is clear a star is born. An important Ethiopian female writer has surfaced. I hope Hiwot will concentrate on her writing and continue to share the Ethiopian experience with the global community. It is through writers like Hiwot, writers who are well versed in the English language, that the rest of the world will learn the human struggles of the Africans.
Postscript – This is a discussion about a generation that attempted at revolutionary social change and paid the ultimate sacrifice for its ideals. The criticisms on EPRP’s leadership should not be seen as a conduit for the perpetrators of the Red Terror and their cohorts to feel justified for their brutality and inhumanity. In a way this is an internal discussion held in a public forum. A revolutionary democratic party like the EPRP, along with its former members will always discuss its past, criticize itself, and pass its lessons learned to the next generation. It does this, because its history and the lessons drawn from it are still relevant today and for the future. Hiwot’s book and its accompanying reviews and discussions should be seen in this light.