It was unusually late and I was still at school. I was standing in the parking lot with the rest of my classmates. The parking lot was empty. There were no parked cars or the usual hustle and bustle of parents and children running around. Just my fourth grade teacher, my classmates and me. It was dark except for the flickering lights coming from the candles we were each holding. Our teacher told us to make a circle holding our candles. We made a circle with our teacher. Suddenly, the ground shook and there was a loud blast. As if on cue, we each let our candles drop to the ground. We were surrounded by darkness.
That is when I woke up. I was dreaming. A strange dream but vivid. It was the loud blast that woke me from my sleep. The blast was real but the rest was a dream. I was not at school, I was in my bed at home. It was 4am on June 5th, 1991. I had no idea at the time but my city, Addis Ababa, was on fire.
My younger sister was also awoken by the sound of the loud blast. A very foreign sound to our young, innocent and over-protected ears. We felt the urge to leave our beds and find out what was going on, something didn’t seem right. We walked out into the dark corridor and heard more sounds. The main door of the house was flung open, very unusual. There was no sight of anyone in the corridor but somehow the house seemed awake. We cautiously walked out of the front door and onto the veranda.
“Is it morning?” My younger sister asked me confusedly.
It certainly looked like morning when we got outside. But there was something different about it. The sky was lit up alright, but not by the usual rays of sun. It was lit up by a fiery orange and yellow glow coming from the east. Unlike daylight from the sun; the light was bouncing in the sky and on a tall dark figure standing in front of us. I recognized the figure, it was my father. The fiery light bounced off the outline of his dark silhouette; his wide shoulders and round balding head. He stood still, his back towards us. Although I could not see his face, the stillness of his stance made me anxious. He turned as soon as he heard my sister’s voice. His eyes widened in shock when he saw us; standing barefoot on the veranda in our pajamas staring right back at him with our big brown eyes.
“Get back inside” he shouted and quickly pushed us towards the door. A second explosion went off, this time louder than the first. The force of the blast along with his desire to get us back indoors, shook the ground and flung us into the house with such momentum that we both fell on top of each other by the door. My sister started to cry. Now we knew something was terribly wrong.
He picked us both up with his strong arms and hurriedly ran into my parent’s bedroom where he handed us to my sobbing mother. Their bedroom was a mess. The dressers and closets were open, clothes and other belongings all over the bed.
My father went back out to the corridor, leaving us with our mother. We were not about to miss anything so we ran back to the bedroom door and saw my father pick up the telephone to make a call.
“Hello…hello…Muse, did you leave?” He shouted down the phone in panic. “Hello…Hello…what do you mean you are still there? Are you crazy?”
Muse was my Uncle. He has a wife and four young girls around our age. Our cousins and friends. They lived near Gotera, where the explosion had occurred.
“Why is Dad calling Uncle Muse?” I asked my sobbing mother. She didn’t respond.
“Get out now” continued my Father “It is not safe. Get everyone in the car and go to Elsi’s house…hello…hello?” When my Uncle’s voice stopped coming through the receiver, my father threw the handset against the wall.
He picked the handset back up and started dialing again. This time to his sister Elizabeth.
“Hello…Elsi, I just spoke to him. He hasn’t left” My father sighs heavily and pauses before continuing. “I told him that but he is saying that the girls are on the floor praying…he has put them under a table and he is going to join them. You need to go get them Elsi. He is not going to leave. I am sure the house will burn down any second, I can hear gunshots in the background. Also…I think one of the walls of the house has crumbled down.” Another pause. “Ok, I will call him back and tell him you are coming, just get on your way.”
My father puts the phone down and runs back towards the bedroom. We quickly move out of his way in fear of being run down by him.
“Quickly,” he said to my mother in a panic as he opened his side dresser “Get my children dressed.”
My mother got off the bed and went into our bedroom to grab our things. Now crying inconsolably, she started praying out loud in Amharic. I cannot remember exactly what she was saying but it was along the lines of: “God, help us…God, help us…please”. We had never seen our Mother cry like that.
My sister took this opportunity to ask me a question that was on both our minds. “Does this mean we don’t have to go to school today?” I look back at her and whispered back, “Not sure…I don’t think so.”
“Is this like the time they cancelled ‘Kids Incorporated’ on TV because of that really long government show?” she asks innocently, emphasis on the word ‘really’. Of course, she was referring to the previous Friday. The day the EPRDF Rebel Army from the North marched into the capital city, Addis Ababa and overthrew the Communist Regime who had ruled the country for 17 years. There was a live TV broadcast all day of the new government coming into power. We were picked up early from school that day and didn’t return for the rest of the term.
We had a four month long summer that year. I was in fifth grade and went straight to sixth without having to take any exams. I still wonder whether I would pass fifth grade exams if I took them now, since I effectively cheated my way out of them. As young kids who had no idea of what this change implied, our main concern was that, it was a Friday and our favorite show ‘Kids Incorporated’ was not on TV.
Now, one week after the EPRDF army had captured the capital city, someone had set fire to the largest ammunition depot. The depot was originally built in the 1920s, but of course the city grew around it and by 1991, it was in the middle of the city. The act was allegedly an attempt at sabotage by the defeated government army officials.
My mother was now back in my parent’s bedroom with our clothes. She started to dress my sister and I, tears streaming down her face. We stood there silent, watching her in disbelief. My mother was always so calm and calmed everyone else around her…not that night. My father was back on the phone to his brother telling him that their sister is on their way to pick them up and to be ready to leave.
“What if they shoot at her?” My Mother asked my father as he walked back into their bedroom.
“Well, what choice do we have honey?” He responded exasperatedly.
My mother was worried about gunshots because there was a mandated curfew enforcing all residents to be indoors by 9pm at that time. The country was going through a transition and there was little sense of security.
“Did you see how many bullet holes they put in Abi’s car?” My mother shouted back. She was referring to our neighbor, who had returned in a bullet-stricken car after picking up her brother thirty minutes before. He also lived near Gotera, close to where the explosion had occurred.
“We have no choice” my father responded, this time much slower and quieter, turning his back to my mother and opening their only unopened dresser drawer. He looked in the drawer, then closed it back quickly saying “We need to leave now and tell everyone to meet us there.” He ran out of the bedroom and into his office. By ‘leave’, he meant drive up to the peak of the city, on mount Entoto. Luckily for us, my parents happened to be building a house there, it was furthest away from the location of the explosion and therefore the safest place to go.
You see, the ammunition depot (which was now on fire) was right next to the three largest fuel storage tanks in the city. Location, location, location! Everyone knew that if the fire spread to the tanks, the whole city would burn into flames. The blast that had woken me up earlier that night was the sound of exploding liquid-gas canisters that were stored next to the depot. This explosion is what created the large inferno in the sky.
“Come on, I am going to start the car” my father said coming back into the bedroom. We were now dressed and putting our shoes on. I watched my father walk quickly out to the corridor and stop to talk to the maid and the guard who were both anxiously listening to what he was saying. He must have told them to leave. One of them has been with us for as long as I remember. He put down his bag to make a final call to his sister.
We walked quickly out of the bedroom with our mother following closely behind. We stopped momentarily to see what our dad was going to say to his sister but were dragged outside by our mother who promptly put us in the car. The outside air was filled with sounds of bullets, rockets and shrapnel.
“Tiger!” my sister shouted and pointed towards the front lawn. Our dog was crouched beneath a bush in our lawn, petrified by all the noise. Even a German shepherd could not understand what was going on.
“He is singing, just like when the doorbell rings!” my sister said fascinated. “You mean he is wailing in terror!” I said back.
“We must take him with us!” she said. I agreed.
“Mom, can we take Tiger with us?” I said to my mother. If looks could kill, she committed homicide of two young Ethiopian girls at that moment.
My dad ran out to the car to join us. He left without his bag which remained on the corridor marble floor. “She got them out” he said to my mom. “Are they ok?” she responded. “Yes, they are ok.” We drove steadfast to Entoto. At this point the sun had risen and we could see hundreds, maybe thousands of people walking up to Entoto as well to get as far away from the fire as possible. In the age of no cell phones, I do not know how we managed it, but all my extended relatives came to our unfinished house in Entoto for shelter. The house had four walls and a roof, nothing else. We all slept on mattresses and ate bread for about 3 days until the fire was put out and we could all go back home. A majority of the ammunition were stored in underground bunkers so once the exposed ammunition had blown out, the fire could be controlled. To everyone’s relief, the fire never spread to the three large fuel storage tankers ironically located so near it. Addis Ababa had escaped a catastrophic disaster.
In Entoto, we exchanged stories about the first night of the explosion. One of my cousin’s told us how her bathroom window blew out and the shutters fell on her head which made her pass out for a few minutes. My Uncle’s house did indeed lose a wall to one of the blasts! My dad’s sister who had driven through hell to pick them up, apparently picked up their TV and loaded it into the trunk of her car by herself, through sheer will and adrenaline! Mind you, this is a TV from 1991, no easy feat. It is amazing what one can do in survival mode. For the young members of the family, it was like the biggest sleepover ever with all our cousins, fantastic! The older members were anxious about the future.
When we got back home, my dad was relieved to find his bag untouched where he left it by the corridor. My sister and I didn’t know it at the time but it had all of his life savings in it. Our house was far away enough from the fire that it had escaped unscathed from flames or looters. Our maid and guard never left and welcomed us back. We were lucky. According to the Washington Post, authorities reported more than 100 people killed and 130 wounded and said many more were believed buried beneath the rubble of their homes in Addis Ababa on June 5th, 1991.