9 March 2012

Africa: 'Dead' Friend Found - Addendum to Don Payne Remembrance

Photo: Malaria Policy Center
U.S. Representative Donald M. Payne.

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Washington, DC — Life is full of ironies. You never know how a seemingly innocuous decision may change your life. We can't know ever the full impact of decisions we make. We can only play the game as honestly and as best we can and hope that our decisions do more good than harm. And sometimes the simplest small decision brings with it an impact unforeseen or unimagined.

I had almost dropped the sentence about Tamrat Samuel in my remembrance to Don Payne [allafrica.com/stories/201203071299.html], not because I believed it inaccurate. It was as factual as anything I knew, but it was almost extraneous to the overall written remembrance. It was the last thing I thought about cutting before I decided to keep it and send the eulogy on its way into the etherworld. Had I dropped that sentence I would be doing something else right now, and never knowing the truth of the matter.

When I came to the Corporate Council on Africa more than a decade ago, one of the first US Ambassadors I met was our US Ambassador to Ethiopia Tibor Nagy, and as I had with others from Ethiopia I had met for more than two decades I asked about Tamrat Samuel. I explained that he had disappeared in 1974 and I did not know if he was still alive. Most people said they did not know him. Two or three who did know him said he had disappeared. Tibor said he would try to see if he could learn anything and to his credit about six weeks later I heard from Tibor.

He said his staff had learned that Tamrat Samuel died in prison in 1977 in the early years of the Red Terror. I remain grateful to Ambassador Nagy that he would have taken the time and effort to look for Tamrat and give me closure on that part of my life seemingly.

And so it was that as I was writing the article 'Remembering Don Payne' I included that one sentence about Tamrat Samuel. Don and I had both lost friends in the internal Ethiopian purge and so I kept that one sentence as part of the overall remembrance and another link we shared.

From that remembrance, I have received more than one hundred fifty emails. Last night one of those emails came to CCA. It read: "Please forward this important message to Mr. Stephen Hayes, CEO in regard to the article he recently wrote about the late Congressman Don Payne. In the article he mentions my name, and I was very much surprised that he is under the impression that I died in Ethiopia in the 1970s. I very much want to inform him that I am very much alive ..Please let him know I would be happy to reconnect and share life experiences since we last saw each other in the summer of 1974."

He said he was now on vacation in Ethiopia but was living in New York and working for the UN. I was elated. We had become friends those weeks in Bucharest and I had always wondered what had happened to him until Ambassador Nagy had given me the sad and not totally unexpected news that Tamrat had died in the worst of circumstances.

I quickly wrote a brief note to Tamrat that I was elated he was alive and would like to meet him near the end of the month in New York. I explained how I had come to learn he was dead.

When I got up this morning there was another email from Tamrat. He said that he had indeed been in prison during the Red Terror for five years and had almost died there. "I was very lucky to have come out alive." He wrote, "I was not surprised by the information you got.

There is so much confusion about what happened to many people during that period. I look forward to meeting up soon."

Tens of thousands of people had disappeared during that period in Ethiopia, and many more had managed to escape the country. Tamrat had been one of the disappeared and many had no doubt presumed the worst. I do not know what happened when he got out of prison, but no doubt many of his friends were gone, and likely a lot of his family.

I laughed and smiled during the entire thirty mile morning drive into work. For more than two decades I had asked people who might know about him, never knowing, and then I learned he was dead. Now, because I had decided to keep that one sentence in the eulogy to Don Payne, I found him very much alive in Ethiopia. He had read the article on allAfrica via Google.

I am looking forward to seeing Tamrat. We no doubt will look different to one another from the memories of thirty-eight years ago, and we will have very different stories to tell one another. I am sorry Don Payne could not be here to share that story. It would have meant a great deal to him as well.

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