A “Saint” by any other name – The little known story of an old Mayor of Dire Dawa
There are many milestones Abebe Eshete – the long-term Mengistu Hailemariam era mayor of Dire Dawa – is proud of as he embraces old age. Sitting under a tall tree, in front of a Care Square Restaurant frequented by young people, he seems to be at peace for a man who is credited for saving hundreds of young people escape for safety in neighboring nations including through to Djibouti to western nations in the midst of the brutal era of the Red Terror.
“I have no biological children of my own. I see all children of Ethiopia as my own. When I saved them, despite the risk, I was saving my own children,” he told The Reporter as he waved to children who often come his way to shake his aging and friendly hand.
They know little about what he has done, his biography, his heroic gesture that saved the many people who have become their fathers and content and happy citizens. Many of the older generation credit him for saving their lives but with little documented facts in Ethiopia, no known museums in his city– his story would have perished had it not been for the hundreds of people he calls, “his children” and keep telling his selfless story.
When Abebe became the mayor of a city that was becoming a hub for contraband goods from abroad and merchants from neighboring regions, he had come to the position having gone through a number of positions. He believed in the sense of socialism, which is one that respected human rights, he said, but was taken aback when that was not what it produced to the lives of his neighbors.
His position was designated part-time; it paid him little but took much of his time. He was too busy to start his own family.
He wanted to spend all he had – his youthful energy, education earned in Russia and Austria and help transition Dire Dawa to a liveable city for all where diversity is celebrated, where young people would not need to go elsewhere to find peace and where neighbourly co-existence is the norm. That was not to be.
“Many things were changing and many people were about to be sandwiched by circumstances in a politics that was not theirs in the making, a war that was taking much of the energy of government and I took the task of being their guardian. What is a city if it does not take care of the interests of its citizens, especially its young people,” he asked.
When a new regime took over, in the early 90’s, when most of his comrades took arms and encouraged young people to fight, he was the first to accept the fate, because he said, he did not want young people to fight what had become a meaningless war to keep the status quo move forward. “My administration was the first to welcome the change in the city and start a dialogue to limit the effect of the political change that had taken place and had by then cost the lives of thousands of young people all over Ethiopia.
“We welcomed them with open arms. We transported them to the palace and we accepted the change. We showed them the working of the local government. We advised them and shared with them lots of wisdom. In due time, hearing unfounded accusations, they decided to imprison us and I was put in prison for three and a half years and it was hell,” he reflected.
He said, in prison, he was not beaten or abused but was under fed and often slept hungry until he was suddenly freeded with no social safety net and chose to embrace the lives of a citizen, retiring from public service. That was when the children he saved started communicating with him; wanting to honor the life of a man they considered as a “saint” and support him in his time of need.
“When I retired, I had few resources to support myself. I did not have a home of my own as I had been living in a government property for a long time. But all these children – “my children” – gathered and put in enough resources to purchase my home and gave me the title of homeowner for the first time,” he said.
A person he helped, a medical doctor based in Europe and who asked his name not be used said, the former mayor of more than a decade was an extraordinary person who was selfless and gave him a second chance in life and had it not been for him, he would have died like many of his generation who were student leaders who wanted political change but ended up dying ultimately.
“In the Derg era where killing had become the operation of governments, where government actors were known to abuse and use us for unjust war, Gash Abebe was like a saint who believed we were more than the casualties of the government. That we needed to be protected and in protecting us, helping us create a passage out of Ethiopia, he could have died and he could have been killed. I see myself as part of his legacy,” he told The Reporter.
The now middle-aged doctor, married with three children also said, he often communicates with young people from the old era and see how best to support him. They also visit him when they come back to Dire Dawa and bring him all he needs, including medication.
“We are all surprised, for a man well in his 80’s, how much he remembers the old days in detail and seems to remember most of us, as humans not just numbers and that explains why he decided to save us then and we remain thankful”, he added.
The former mayor sees conflicting hope for Ethiopia – one with many resources but bad governance. He sees government officials driving, as he said “Four million birr worth cars” these days, when he added, he often walked as mayor and stayed humble. But he is hopeful.
“My hope for Ethiopia is to see a nation where we each see how the ideals of democracy begin from home and from the family. I urge young people to do good in the world because you will sleep well at night. I do sleep well at night,” he said, adding, “Be a good citizen and be kind and considerate because that is what Ethiopia mostly and urgently needs.”