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6

She Never Returned

CHAPTER 1

          Life was different in the 1940s. By 1943 the war was over, the Emperor was back on his Throne, and our beloved flag once again fluttered over the land where, for the five years before, the Italian one flew instead. The colors of our flag - green for the fertile land, yellow for gold, and red for the blood that was shed for our freedom – were powerful reminders of our people’s strengths and sacrifices. In the flag’s center stood the Lion of Judah, holding a cross a symbol of both Christ and Hailie Selassie himself. We were taught these things from an early age --Patriotism was our duty; its presence in our psyches was as natural as taking in breath, and now, because freedom was again at hand, we could breathe once more.

          But the country was still rife with anger and a desire for revenge. People – my parents among them – relished burning Italian flags: their hurts were too recent not to. In the previous and unending five years of the Italian occupation, they lived through the darkness of despair –and they were the lucky ones. The unlucky ones were shot, poisoned, and even burned alive. Mussolini’s Fascist Italy stretched out its ugly tentacles, grabbing and squeezing the life out of every Ethiopian it could.  

          My elders protected me from these stories, but I heard them anyway. My mother saw Italian soldiers throw several Ethiopian children into a bonfire. The children, she had said, were no more than ten or twelve years old. They had been nabbed from the streets as they ran to deliver food to their imprisoned fathers, imprisonment at that time being the condition for most Ethiopian men. My mother and her sisters had been bystanders. They were rushing from one place to another, the way people must during a ground-war in their city. It was then that they saw the soldiers catching each child around his waist as he ran by; my mother and her sisters watched the boys’ legs pumping in mid-air as they struggled to escape.

          I was a child myself when I overheard my mother recounting this event, and this was the part that rattled me most: she described hearing spirited foreign words - even laughter - on the soldiers’ lips as they called to one another across the road, egging each other on. My mother and her sisters noted the cavalier body language as the soldiers hustled the children toward the flames without a hint of reservation –not a questioning look from one to another, not a pause or a prayer –just the simplest toss with the arms bending overhead, the triceps extending, then contracting with the action, and each boy, one by one, went screaming into the fire.

          Without thinking, my mother and her sisters, along with the other women passing by, hurled their own bodies at the men to stop them --humanity demands at least that much. For their humanity, they were beaten to within inches of death. I never learned what saved them that night. But, even as a little girl, even though the war was over; hearing the elders talk of these stories, I understood that such acts of cruelty would always be too fresh, too difficult for my parents – for our country – to extinguish, and I never questioned their burning of Italian flags.

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