Travel Memoir Gold Winner: Fear and Bitter Justice

by Carol Beddo

It took fear, anger and the satisfaction of revenge to pull a Peace Corps Volunteer completely into her village.

Everyone in the village is congregated at Bahar Dar’s dirt airstrip, each of us dripping sweat in the hot afternoon sun, with not even one of us thinking to search out a bit of shade. We’ve come out of respect to witness Flora’s coffin as it is loaded onto an Ethiopian Airlines DC3. Tropetas is leaving with her, and we don’t know if he will ever return. The elderly Greek couple have run our village bakery for decades, and now Flora will be buried in the Greek cemetery in Addis Ababa.

Tropetas beats on his chest as if it’s a drum. He’s worked himself into a sweat that soaks the hair on his head, absorbs into his cotton shirt, and flies off his body with each successive strike of his powerful fists.

Four men dressed in Ethiopian Airlines khaki uniforms push a rolling luggage carrier across the bare red dirt. On it is the coffin, a simple, ordinary, plywood shipping crate bizarrely festooned with colorful airfreight tags—yellow, green, blue. The tags are in constant motion, cheerfully waving and bobbing about in the mid-afternoon wind off Lake Tana, as if celebrating a festive birthday party rather than solemnly mourning a tragic death.

The uniformed men roll the luggage cart to the airplane, pause, and instead of lifting the shipping crate into the cargo hold, they slowly, with the dignity of pallbearers, carry it up the stairs, and into the passenger section. Tropetas follows close behind, still bellowing his calls to Flora, keeping a rhythm by thumping his chest, one fist after the other. I imagine his public grief must be mixed with fury at his helplessness and failure to protect his wife from attackers.

We mill about the airfield, encircling the silver plane, until we move to open a pathway for the metal stairs being wheeled out to meet the plane’s passenger door. Tropetas is oblivious to everything except Flora, who’s dead and in her coffin, his deep voice locked in a continuous chant. “Flora! Flora! Aaaa-waaa-waaaa-waaaa, Flo-raaa! Flo-raaa!” Over and over, shouting in that anguished voice that booms as if through a megaphone, trying to call her back.

Early this morning, while the air was still cool and fresh, I first heard the news: Last night, two men invaded their home, assaulted and murdered Flora, and stole their savings. I felt my usual disconnect from yet another harsh village reality and even now, while everyone around me seems completely consumed with loud sobbing or funereal wailing—the traditional and respectful observance here of any death—I feel only plain and simple sorrow.

Living here as a Peace Corp Volunteer, I’ve seen how the Amhara people accept death in this grand, ceremonial way, embracing loss with the customary, rowdy ritual, for to resist suffering and loss is considered unnatural, against God’s plan. Acting out today’s sorrow makes it possible to wake tomorrow and to celebrate life with gratitude for a new day.

Never before have I seen such dramatic grief, and seeing Tropetas in this state increases my sweaty discomfort under this direct sun. Soon the damp hair on my head will drip sweat onto my shoulders. I’m sticky with heat under my arms, between my breasts, and where my thighs touch beneath the hot tent of my skirt.

For me, it seems Flora’s death was an aberrant burglary and murder. And since there is no way to make things right, my quiet, modest sorrow is all I can summon. I cannot behave as if I am an Amhara, and I don’t want to.

* * *

On my walk home, I buy a box of powered milk at Alem’s suq, a convenient stop on the way from the airfield.

“These shifta are mercenaries. Eritrean mercenaries,” Alem informs me from behind his service counter. I know he’s speaking of the robbery and murder, sounding as if something actually has been determined, but this is the first I’m hearing of it, and I’m skeptical. Living in this village, I’ve learned it is a place where an opinion is allowed to quickly become a fact, where too often nothing will stop conjecture from becoming a false truth.

“Uhmm, Alem,” I say, “we’re way far south of Eritrea. Why do you think Eritrean shifta would be down here in Gojjam Province?” He hands me the cardboard milk box and a few coins in change. I’m only half listening, already thinking of my next task. This morning I boiled water and left it on the stove to cool. Right when I get home, I’ll try once again to mix this powdered milk with that water, something I have to do at least once a week. But even though I use an eggbeater, I’m never able to eliminate lumps. I’m considering the wisdom of straining them out. But do Sue and I even have a strainer? Maybe we should just give up on the already-stale Kellogg’s cornflakes we bring back from Addis Ababa. The cornflakes are no longer crisp, the powdered milk doesn’t even taste like real milk, and the lumps are disgusting. Not to mention, unless a liquid is at a boiling temperature, such as for shay, our tea, the local brown, raw sugar cannot possibly dissolve. Even then, though we stir vigorously, eventually we resolve to accept the errant crystals, still whole, lying like small bits of gravel at the bottom of the shay. To avoid a mouthful of this gravel, we’re driven to enjoy our tea by perilously tipping the hot tea glass just so far with each sip. Each morning, the only thing truly crunchy about our cornflakes is the sugar we sprinkle on top.

“They don’t all stay north and fight in the border war,” he says, returning me to the errand I came for. Now he emphasizes his words by loudly spitting a disgusting, thick wad of yellowish sputum onto the hard-packed dirt floor; generations of tribal hatred ooze from this Amharic man. “They raid homes here to pay for their secession movement. Disloyal Eritreans!” He speaks the last words in an obscene growl. “Be careful, weizerit Carol,” he says, addressing me as Miss Carol for emphasis. “Tonight you must lock your doors and shutters tight.”

His words walk with me on the path through the eucalyptus forest to our home. I ask myself: what does the battle for Eritrean secession have to do with me? And of course I lock up at night, but why “must” I tonight?

* * *

A widespread, fearful chatter had started at daylight and was soon enhanced by the throng at the airport. Everyone had heard something, seen something, or had suspicions. Was an item missing from someone’s compound, or was it simply misplaced? Was a certain chicken taken, or had it merely not returned from its morning or afternoon scavenge? Fewer eggs in the nest—had someone helped himself? The stories got invented and reinvented, but always with one essential question—are the two shifta still here? By day’s end, it seems suspicion and distrust provide our only defense against harm. This is why a stranger is noticed in this little village. And two strangers together might as well be a dozen.

It’s taken until this evening for me to realize how naïve I’ve been. I should have understood earlier what everyone else knew: The shifta are looking for cash money and American women would not only have money, we also are defenseless. All day I’ve been able to keep the murder in some distant, comfortable perspective, but now I’m uneasy. Am I merely joining in village hysteria? After all, I’m from someplace else, and I expect to go back there. Since I’m not really from here, I tell myself, I needn’t and shouldn’t fall into irrational fear.

But I know I will be lying awake tonight, listening for strange sounds. This is a village without telephones and, as far as I know, no one to call for help anyway. How ignorant, helpless, and ill prepared I am. It’s not something I grew up with, learning how to protect myself from the most basic of threats—assault and burglary. Would it have been too difficult for the Peace Corps to include the possibility of real dangers during our three-month training? Or did such things not occur to them, just as they had never occurred to me?

We ask the boys to move Sue’s bed into my larger room. Neither of us wants to be alone this night. I decide to keep our one sharp kitchen knife in my bed, while insisting that Sue arm herself with our scissors. And this is it; we have nothing else to serve as weapons. Sue wants to flip a coin for the knife, but I refuse. I don’t believe she would protect herself or me by actually inflicting a knife wound on anyone. Of myself, I have no doubt—I will. We agree not to turn off my bedroom’s single light bulb hanging on a wire in the middle of the ceiling. She has never really stopped being afraid of the dark, and I have to admit, I do feel safer with the light on.

“Please do not worry, Madam,” Alimaw says in his new, manly voice that has thoroughly changed from a boy’s, only since we took him into our home. He’s the oldest and tallest of the three boys who live in our extra room. They are students at our school, all from poor families in distant villages, and they do simple chores for us. In return, they have a place to live and a small allowance. But only Alimaw—who is self-appointed—is the kindly caretaker of the American women Peace Corps teachers.

“But what if they come here?” I ask. “We’re all alone out here in the forest.”

“We will stay together in the house,” he says.

“But what if they are out there?”

“We will know they are here if we hear stones thrown on the roof, Madam.”

“What? Why?” This seems totally crazy. “What do stones on the roof mean?”

Shifta make the noise to see if we are home, or if we have mean dogs.”

“But we don’t have dogs. What do we do?”

“Madam, we turn on all the lights.”

“Huh? Why? To show them we are inside?”

“Yes, Madam. And we do not open doors or shutters until dawn.”

I’m working hard to control a searing, hot fear as it rises from my gut and enters conscious thought. All my life I’ve hated feeling afraid or helpless. I don’t know which feeling I hate more—helpless or afraid—but I do know that as this night wears on, I’m getting angry at the shifta. Furious anger always is more tolerable for me than fear.

We had dozed off and now are awakened by Bang!! Rattle rattle rattle. Plop! Sue and I both sit up straight on our beds and stare bug-eyed at the ceiling. Bang!! Rattle rattle rattle. The tin roof announces our predators, no mistake. I grasp my knife and have not a shred of hesitancy to use it.

Now at 4 a.m., teeth clenched so hard and tight I fear cracking a tooth, I am determined that I will not die tonight. Not in this country. I refuse to die a victim here. Bang!! Rattle rattle rattle. Plop! How many times must I hear this?

Alimaw is deliberately making noise as he moves through the house, turning the lights on, all bare bulbs hanging by a wire from each room’s ceiling. There are few glass windows in Bahar Dar—thankfully, none in this house. For the first time, I see the wisdom of sturdy wooden shutters that lock or open only from the inside.

Now—sudden gunshots in the eucalyptus forest. How surprising that they sound like toy cap guns. Pop pop. Over and over. And no way to know what actually is happening. No voices. No authorities shouting commands or shifta begging for mercy. Suddenly it’s quiet again, completely silent, and I know I’ll spend the remaining hours of this dark night with teeth clenched in my dry mouth, tense, waiting. Am I safe? In danger? Can I stop being scared now?

“Madam,” Alimaw says through my closed door. “The lights are on. Also the porch light.”

“Were those gun shots, Alimaw?” I’m speaking so rapidly I fear he may not understand my words.

“Yes, Madam,” he says in a calm, hushed voice.

“How do we know if they were shifta guns? How do we know if shifta are still out there?”

“We wait for the sun, Madam.”

* * *

Not just this day, but every day, news travels with morning light. Alimaw learns first thing that two shifta were captured.

“Oh dear, dear,” Sue says in the high-pitched tone she uses when she’s frightened. I hear this voice frequently, because Sue is frightened of so many things here, even the bugs.

“Where were they captured, Alimaw?” I ask. I want more information, and quickly.

“Madam, they were very near.” Alimaw is hanging his head. He does this when he doesn’t want me to read his emotion.

“Oh dear! Oh my goodness!” Sue says in that tremulous soprano, while I say nothing.

Perhaps I should feel relieved by their capture, but a clot of hate forms in my heart instead.

Alimaw leads us outside to a constantly growing group of neighbors, all beginning on a walk together in the same direction, as if we’re a herd being led to morning water. Walking within this group, I’m absorbed in thinking about what has happened in this little village. Flora’s murder and Tropetas’ hysterical grief affected each of us. Everyone was threatened, even we who intend to be in Bahar Dar only for our two-year stays.

This traveling mob of villagers, the women’s heads covered with their white shamma to protect against the damp morning chill, begins to squeeze down into a narrow column of women. Sue and I step in with them, while the men stand apart, tall, slim, barefoot with stick-thin calves below once-white jodhpur trousers. Men have wrapped their shoulders and heads in thick, white, cotton gabi. Each man has his doula, and some lean on them, the tall poles grasped upright in one hand like a staff. Others hold doula across their shoulders with both wrists resting over the top, with hanging folds of gabi draping below their elbows like feathery white wings.

Even as the column lurches forward in stops and starts, each woman huddles against the women beside her as well as the women ahead and behind. This tight, close group carries with it the familiar, rancid body odor of the provinces, a combination of the rank smell of kibbay, a culinary butter also used as a hairdressing and skin lotion, and of clothes reeking of the stale smoke of indoor cook fires. At last we reach a jail—the first time I even know there is one—a three-sided building and, on its fourth side, open to the elements, enclosed only by iron bars and a locked iron door.

We feel righteously entitled to view our enemy, two despised shifta. Even though they stay in the morning shadow, far back from the bars, we see their disdainful expressions. They seem arrogant, completely unrepentant, as they stare directly at Sue and me because, as usual, white firengi stand out anywhere. I pass along with the line and, never looking away, I glare my hate back at them. This hate is new to me, rising easily from beneath my breastbone, a concentrated heat that stops and sticks in my throat. Our tormenters are caged like animals, and I want them punished. I want them to see me and my gloating, triumphant sneer.

* * *

The next morning, I’m walking to school early to prepare for another week of teaching and am surprised to see the village gathered again, this time on the bare, open land between the airstrip and our school. What they are looking at is too awful to believe. And in this instant I know what everyone must have known and understood would happen, even though I didn’t.

Suddenly breathless, I can no longer silently bear the painful pounding in my chest. “Ahg. Uhg.” It is all I can say, repeating in rhythm with my heart. My lungs stop. And then I’m panting, out of breath, and I want only to be able to move my feet, to run away as fast as I can and pretend I never saw this. At the same time, I truly cannot believe that what I am seeing is real. I try to take it in with small, quick glances—two shifta, a rope tight around each broken neck, heads off kilter from their bodies, trousers soiled by the emptying of bowel and bladder.

But yes, it is real, and I understand exactly why they have been left to hang here for these hours since dawn, the time of execution. It is hard to do, but at last I am able to look at them, dangling from ropes attached to newly erected scaffolds. We stand together, all of us staring at the dead men, considering what each of us understands and feels about what has happened here.  Happened to us, and to our village.

How is it I can feel glad? I wouldn’t say happy, just glad, satisfied to see those men hanging by their necks, dead, knowing they cannot harm me. Primal revenge.

So much at once. Anger. Hate. Revenge. Satisfaction. Worse, I have learned two terrible things: I could kill to save myself; I could get over feeling bad about doing that.

So here we stand, we who lusted for revenge, and now we’re avenged, satisfied that two men are dead. But for me, this bright satisfaction suddenly tarnishes, because I am also deeply, deeply ashamed.

# # #

Carol Beddo, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia, 1964-66, returned to her Peace Corps station in 2003. Flooded with memories, she began to wonder: Who was that young woman? While writing those memories, Carol is coming to understand how the Peace Corps experience provided a foundation for the rest of her life as a community activist and as a consultant in public policy, political campaigns, and elections. Numerous personal essays have been published in the San Jose Mercury News. Her Peace Corps stories have appeared in anthologies: The Best Travel Writing 2009 (Solas Award, Love Story) and One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo, 50 Years Of Peace Corps Stories. The Peace Corps anthology received the Silver IPPY (Independent Publisher Book Awards) for travel essays in 2011.

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