Asrat Woldeyes: an extraordary life

By Jonathan Steele

I WAS LYING gravely ill in the flat of a Royal Air Force doctor in Addis Ababa when I first heard someone mention the name of Asrat Woldeyes, or simply Asrat as he was always known. Even in my semi-comatose state, the awe with which his name was used got through to me. “We must see if Asrat is free. He is the best,” a voice said. “Yes,” another chipped in, “Let’s get Jonathan over to the Black Lion.” Was this a pub, I wondered feebly, and who is Asrat?

Having appendicitis is no thrill wherever you are. Getting it in Ethiopia, seven hours’ drive from the nearest properly equipped hospital, makes it even less wise a choice of location. But the three other reporters I was with plied me with enough liquid to avoid total dehydration and we bumped back to the capital city, our famine assignment cast aside by my soft moans of pain.

Luckily for me, with several million people in dire need, Addis Ababa was unusually well-supplied with trained people from all over the world, ranging from nutritionists, paediatricians, and nurses to the RAF general practitioner who was there to help any aircrews if they fell ill while dropping grain to starving villagers in the drought-ridden highlands.

My appendix burst somewhere on the ghastly journey. While they kept me overnight on a drip to give me enough strength for an emergency operation, the discussion in the RAF doctor’s centred on where to send me. Although there was one hospital to which expats usually went for relatively minor problems, no-one doubted the Black Lion hospital was the best for any serious operation, simply because of Professor Asrat. The Black Lion was Addis Ababa’s largest public hospital, a multi-storeyed complex which was always full. Asrat was its chief surgeon as well as being by far and away the country’s best-known doctor, and the doyen of the country’s medical corps.

As was to be expected, the operation went well and as I recuperated in the days that followed I began to learn a little more about the man who had saved my life. He saw me regularly as he did his rounds, but was scrupulously fair in not devoting more time to his only foreign patient than he did to any other. He popped in briefly, inquired how I felt, and once satisfied that there were no problems, moved on.

It was mainly from the British ambassador, Brian Barder, who let me spend the last few days of my recovery in the embassy compound before I flew back to Britain, that I began to learn more about Asrat. He had studied medicine and surgery at Edinburgh University as one of the first Ethiopians to get a foreign degree, I was told. He could have stayed in the West and had a successful career, but was a strong patriot and chose to go home. He quickly rose through the medical faculty at Addis Ababa University while also working at the Black Lion, turning it into a teaching hospital.

Asrat came from the Amhara Christian Žlite which had long run Ethiopia and it was not surprising that he became the favourite doctor of the Emperor Haile Selassie. When the emperor and his entire political entourage were overthrown in 1974 by a group of left-leaning army officers, Asrat was re-confirmed in his university job. They even permitted him to go on treating the 82-year-old ex-monarch, by then a prisoner in his palace. Asrat’s professional competence was too great for the new regime to want to lose his medical knowledge.

After returning to Britain and making a full recovery, I returned to Ethiopia three months later just as the famine was coming under control. I met Asrat briefly to thank him, but he seemed to think it was unnecessary. He had only been doing his duty. We had a drink and parted, and I was soon swept up in other crises, including a six-year stint as the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent. With the Soviet Union crumbling there was little time to think about Africa, although when I read in May 1991 that the Ethiopian regime had lost power to a guerrilla army led by Tigreans and Eritreans, the traditional rivals of the Amhara, I did briefly wonder what had happened to Asrat.

Imagine my surprise when I learnt two years ago that he had been arrested and was considered by Amnesty International to be a prisoner of conscience. It turned out that he had decided to take on a political post about a year after the new regime came in. Worried by discrimination against his people, Asrat became chairman of the newly-formed All-Amhara People’s Organisation. This was enough for him to be sacked from his university post, along with 21 other professors.

Worse was to come. He was arrested in 1994 for holding a meeting at the AAPO office in Addis Ababa where he allegedly planned violent attacks against the state. Once in gaol he was tried on two other charges, and by the time I learnt of his difficulties he was facing a fourth set of charges. His supporters said Asrat was a victim of serial injustice, aimed at keeping him in prison for ever by adding new charges every time his previous sentence approached its end.

According to Amnesty, his prison conditions were worse than those of any other detainee. His gaolers feared his powers of argument and refused to let him speak to other prisoners. He was not held in solitary confinement in the physical sense. He slept on a mat on the floor in a barracks-type hall with scores of other detainees. But they were told not to communicate with him, or he with them.

Intrigued, I decided I would try to see Asrat, if only to do whatever I legally could to help him. No-one else in the world has ever so directly ‘saved my life’. The phrase sounds melodramatic. Was there anything I could do for him? The Ethiopian authorities were remarkably straightforward. I did not say I hoped to see Asrat until I had got a visa to enter the country, but they reacted favourably after the new British ambassador, Gordon Wetherell, put the case to the Security Minister soon after I arrived. Here was a British journalist with sentimental reasons for seeing Asrat. Why not let him?

By an irony, Asrat had just been transferred from prison to hospital after complaining of high blood pressure and failing sight in his right eye after a possible mini-stroke. The hospital the regime chose for him was none other than the Black Lion.

It was odd to be climbing the stairs to the eighth floor of the hospital to visit the man who was once its chief surgeon, and who now was a prisoner in the institution he had helped to build up. Six soldiers in khaki uniforms guarded the corridor. Supremely confident, Asrat invited the security man from the ministry who was escorting me to stay in the room. As the conversation moved from polite pleasantries and a discussion of his health to political issues, I saw the strength of character which had put Asrat behind bars and kept his spirits up while there.

“The government allowed us to have an opinion, so I had an opinion. And then this. It happened like a bang. I never dreamt I would be in prison,” he said, when I asked him how his chairmanship of AAPO had landed him in gaol. One of the charges was that he had called for the regime’s violent overthrow. I read the speech before I left London and it was certainly a piece of super-patriotism, praising the way the Amhara had stood up to Italian invasion and suggesting the new Tigrean-dominated regime were foreign occupiers. But it was not a specific call to arms.

Asrat laughed, saying he had always been a man who tried to save life. He had never favoured political violence. He reminded me that the present government, his current gaolers, had been happy to rely on his word when it suited them. The trial of the Dergue, the former regime, was still rumbling on in Addis and Asrat had been summoned from prison to testify in the case against those who had murdered the emperor. They are charged with suffocating the old man with a pillow.

Asrat was one of the last independent people to see him alive. It was about a month before he died. “Then I was sent to the war front as a surgeon on the normal three-week tour of duty. When I got back, I was intending to give the emperor a check-up but my son was upset that I had been away. So I took a long weekend and arranged to go in on Wednesday. On the Tuesday evening I suddenly heard my name being mentioned on the radio. The Dergue were saying they had not been able to find his doctor and the emperor had died. It was as though I was somehow responsible.” When he had last seen him, the emperor was in good health in spite of his age. As Asrat put it, the talk about not being able to find his doctor “was clearly a pretext to cover up the fact he was murdered”.

Asrat’s main differences with the new regime, which he happily expounded even though the security man was still there, were two fold. He did not like the way Eritrea had been allowed to become independent. (Shortly after I saw him, the two countries whose guerrilla armies had been close allies in the struggle against the Dergue, went to war themselves. Many see it as Africa’s most baffling and pointless war, fought by men who were once good friends and for the sake of a few miles of semi-desert.) Asrat also disliked Ethiopia’s new federal system, under which all political parties had to be associated with a region. “The All-Amhara People’s Organisation was designed to combat tribalism but it had to be done under a specific name. We wanted brotherhood for all Ethiopians but it was difficult to stand on a general platform when everyone was put under a different tribe. That was the paradox,” he explained.

Asrat clearly relished talking, and for almost an hour he ranged over the political landscape and his place in it without any visible fear of the government which was keeping him under lock and key. I barely had to prompt him with questions. A week after my first visit I was permitted another conversation. His only companion in his private cell-cum-ward was a short-wave radio on which he listened to the BBC World Service. I brought him some books but his eyesight was poor and he could hardly read.

Other visitors to Ethiopia began to ask to see him, including members of the European Parliament, like Glenys Kinnock. Diplomats from several Western embassies took turns in visiting. I wrote Asrat’s story up in a long piece for the Guardian Weekend magazine but for various internal reasons it was not published until November last year. By then pressure from Amnesty International and various lobby groups was growing. On Christmas Day I received a phone call, saying Asrat was being released on health grounds to get medical attention abroad. Within a few hours he would be on a plane to London.

It was wonderful to visit him on Boxing Day if only for half an hour. Once again he was in hospital, though this time a free man. A dozen people crowded into his room at the Wellington Hospital in north London, and others thronged the lobby. I could see he was indeed a celebrity in his community. Asrat was tired, ill and jet-lagged, but he remained his usual smiling and resilient self.

The next day he flew to the United States to visit relatives and go to the hospital in Texas where he had had bypass surgery many years earlier. All seemed to go well and he was sent home to a nephew in Pennsylvania. Only a few weeks later he complained of pains, was admitted to a local hospital, and died.

It was a sad and sudden end to a story which had seemed to be looking up. At least Asrat died in freedom, though not in the country to which he had given so much. I cannot say I repaid him by saving his life, but if my article helped in the campaign which gave him a few months of liberty, it is more than I expected.

Jonathan Steele is an Assistant Editor of The Guardian and has been a foreign correspondent for roughly thirty years. In 1985 he covered the great famine in Ethiopia.