To an impressionable four-year old, "shiguT aTeTut" has several connotations. None of them death. When I first heard my mother scream those words about my brother, I thought he had gotten into trouble again for drinking alcohol. "ke beera alfo shiguT yiTeTa jemer?"
She screamed: "shiguT TeTa lijay! yenatun wetet teTito syTegib shjuT aTeTut."
But he hates milk, I remember thinking. I was getting ready to defend him, my hero. He used to make me eat the irgo my mother bought from our neighbor. I thought I was going to be held accountable for my complicity in this crime, so I braced myself, ready to be summoned to my parents. I was going to stick up for my brother. "ere esu wetet inji shijuT alTeTam!"
It was 1977. He was 17. He was taken in the middle of the night by Qebele soldiers. It think it was a Saturday night.
It wasn't a good time to be a teenager in Ethiopia. Every time he'd go out, my mother would sit vigil in front of the picture of Mariam for his safe return. His friends had stopped coming around the house, he seemed less friendly although never to me. He began to fight with my father a lot. I still can't figure out about what. But it almost always ended with him slamming shut the door to our bedroom, and me sitting outside calling his name until he opened it and let me in.
My brother used to beat up any of the sefer lijoch who I told him were harassing me. I was harassed mostly for being poor— because I wore torn shoes, or the fifth patch on my shirt was ripping. My brother would march up to my tormentor and prepare a wretched pre-schooler to be drop kicked to Mars. It was just he and I against what we thought was a hostile world around us. Not even the rich kids were safe. Rumor on the street was that he wascrazy, and my brother fed that frenzy. No one wanted to cross a crazy boy. And certainly not a poor crazy boy.
So it was with determination that I was going to defend him from my mother's accusations that night.
But it wasn't long before I discovered that the commotion was about bigger concepts than my little frame of reality. He was gone. Taken away from his own house. Two days passed. My father spent the days outside either the kefitegna or the Qebelle offices pleading with anyone to listen to him. We didn't have the monetary luxury of being able to bribe someone for information, so my mother, in the tradition perhaps of "The way to a man's heart is through his stomach" would cook meals my father would take to offer the guards. At night he would come back empty handed, his spirit broken. In the morning he would start again. From the Qebele to the kefitegna to the woreda offices. On foot.
Two days is a long time to wait to find out if your brother was coming back or not. I wore his tattered slippers around the house and marched around, pacing our little room until my knees gave in and I ended up on the floor.
On the third night, well past midnight, neighborhood dogs started to bark. I heard our door opening and the sound of muffled voices speaking rapidly. Then my mother's muffled scream. When I finally made it to the front room I saw my mother on the floor cradling my brother in her arms while my father was speaking to someone outside. I can still remember the veins on her temple… engorged and about to burst from trying to swallow her scream. She tried to shoo me away when she heard me coming, but I defied her and came in closer.
My brother was wearing a burnt orange T-shirt and blue jeans. No shoes. His shirt was torn to pieces but his blood kept it pasted on his body. Gaps and gashes on his front mapped their way to his back. His face was swollen to the point where if I didn't know it was him, I would have thought it was not him. His eyes were opened through a layer of mucus, although I am not sure he could see anything.
I saw some of his blood trickle down his side, onto my mothers arms and then end up on the hardwood floor in the front room. The floor drank it up. Every drop.
"tinfashun melishi, imebetay Mariam," my mother kept crying, rocking him back and forth. "bicha tinfashun melishi." My father finally came back in the house after the night visitors left. He was an ex-soldier and I suppose his survival instincts kicked in.
Methodically he heated water laid out clean sheets and conscripted me to find him clean clothes and the one little bottle of all-purpose iodine that my mother kept in her room. When I came back from the bedroom, my brother was laying on a clean sheet while my father was carefully cutting away his torn clothes with a dull blade he wrestled out of his shaver. My mother was slicing off the falling jeans, visibly wincing as layers of skin came ripping off my brother's leg.
She reached out and took some of the clean neTela and gabi strips of cloth I was in the middle of unfolding and pressed it on my brother's skin. She had stopped crying, a look of determination instead gripping her young face. Determination to save her first son.
A few hours later, we had gotten all the clothes off my brother and we were cleaning his wounds with warm water and soap, and touching up the worst parts with a little iodine. He was covered with sweat, and would give us a cry of pain once in a while which reassured us he was still alive. "Ayzoh, gelaye" my mother would mutter once in a while with clenched jaws. "Ayzoh." My father said nothing except a few orders on how to clean up an open wound.
By early morning, my brother was cleaned up. A neighbor who was aware of the commotion of the previous night came by at the crack of dawn and hurriedly went back to brew a home-made remedy. Another neighbor bought in some 'leeT' to smear over some of my brother's wounds. The tikusat from his body, I remember her saying, could cook the leeT and make an ample serving of QiTa. I wondered what a QiTa made from the heat from my brothers wound would taste like.
No one went to the hospital in those days, I guess, because my brother recovered at home with no one except a few people aware of his condition. My father didn't eat or speak for several days and I remember thinking if I should follow suit. But my four-year old stomach was tempted by Qolo or shiro firfir, and I would indulge in food after being threatened by one of the elderly visitors.
I guarded my brother's room while he was recovering, a stick in my hands ready to do battle with a would-be attacker. I would sit outside his room watching every visitor that came in and out, a dutifully threatening look masking my chubby face. At night, I would help my mother clean out his wounds and then go back to my watch post.
Eventually my brother began to smile again and our family never talked about the incident ever again. I grew up and left Ethiopia to study abroad. He stayed on back home to open a business and raise a family. When I went back home the first time, I started to ask him questions, but he quickly changed the subject and went onto other "dehna werré". When I asked my mother she looked away and chided me for not reigning in my curiosity.
I know better than to ask my father who has never been the same since. There is a distance between he and I that is un-bridgeable. But all of us have changed since. Even though we choose not to talk about it, we were all affected by those times. And twentythree years later, my family is haunted by the same ghost as we hold each other at arm's length. Afraid to fully love each other for fear of what might happen if we stood by each other too close. So we shake hands when we part, and shake hands and politely kiss each other when we meet. And indirectly help each other survive the silence.