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African Makes Perilous Run to the Winner's Circle

November 26, 1987|MITCH POLIN | Times Staff Writer

For freshman cross-country runner Teferi Gebre of Cal Poly Pomona, the 1987 season was over almost as soon as it started.

About one week into practice in September, the 20-year-old developed a hip injury while jogging. The strong-willed athlete continued to practice despite the injury, only to develop tendinitis in his ankle.

It was in October when Coach Jim Sackett decided that the best remedy was to redshirt Gebre so he would be healthy for track season in the spring.

The injury has placed a roadblock in Gebre's running career, but he wasn't about to let it discourage him.

That's because Gebre, who won the L.A. City cross-country title as a senior at Belmont High last year, has faced far greater barriers.

Born in Gondar (pop. 60,000) in northeast Ethiopia, Gebre's problems began after his parents sent him to Addis Ababa, the capital, to live with his uncle, a general in the air force, and attend Arabic school at the age of 11.

Not long after starting school in 1977, the military government was taken over by Soviet-backed forces.

Gebre said that his uncle, Asefa Ayana, was named a communications minister in the new government but about six months later was jailed for alleged crimes against the government and executed, along with other former generals, about a month afterward.

That was about the time the new Ethiopian government sent the 12-year-old Gebre, along with other children, to Moscow for reprogramming in the hope that he would accept Marxism.

Gebre, whose mother had fled to neighboring Sudan to join the Ethiopian Democratic Union resistance effort, was in Moscow for six months until he was sent back to Addis Ababa.

"It was a kind of brainwashing," Gebre recalled in a thick Ethiopian accent. "They told us what communism was and what we were supposed to do. What I saw is that it wasn't working. It was like being in prison.

"Our family was in trouble. They took our farm and didn't leave us with anything. My father had more than 200 cows and we were doing all right. But I didn't give a damn for the new government. Everything was so different from the way it used to be."

Gebre and four friends planned secretly to flee the country.

"If we told our parents we knew they wouldn't let us go. So the only way was to find a guy who knew the way to Sudan."

He said they were referred to a peasant farmer who helped sneak Ethiopians across the border for about $2,000. It was a steep price but they scraped together the money and flew to Gondar to meet him.

After paying the money, they started what was supposed to be about a three-week walk through the desert and across the border. But after three days of travel they reached the farmer's house in the desert and were left to fend for themselves.

"He said, 'I'm sorry, that's as far as I go,' and took our money and told us we were on our own now," Gebre remembered. "He even took our donkey where we had our clothes."

He said they had nothing to wear except the clothes on their backs and had no idea how to reach Sudan. "So we started walking and just kept going."

Battling snakes and other African wildlife, they survived mostly by eating dried beans. "On the road to Sudan we killed at least 20 snakes," he said. "I used to think I would never eat anything but dried beans again."

As they approached the Sudanese border they passed through a forest region where Gebre said they ate wild fruits and berries and also benefited from winter rainstorms.

By the time they reached the border, he said, "The three-week trip had taken three months and nine days and we walked 12 hours a day and that was at a fast pace."

When they reached the border, which was separated by the Goang River, they were told by Sudanese border guards that they could not cross because of a new law against refugees and were told to return home.

"It was like a nightmare because if we went back they would hang us for sure," Gebre said. "So we waited until night when the soldiers were asleep to cross the river. I had never swam before and we were knee-deep in mud and it was raining, but we managed to make it across."

The five boys, all Christians, had to pass through an Islamic town where he claims "the custom was you could not get married until you killed a Christian."

Considering the distance they had travelled, though, they were willing to take their chances. "We waited until late at night and no one saw us," he said.

At a large cotton farm outside of the village, they met the lead farmhand who was sympathetic but told the boys they had only completed the easiest part of their journey.

"He told us, 'When you get to Docka they have an agreement to send you back (to Ethiopia), but you can get through if you bribe the soldiers there. We told him we didn't have any money and asked him what we could do. He said we could work on the farm to get enough money to bribe the soldiers."

Gebre's intention was to pass through Docka and go to Gadarif, where he had learned his mother was staying.

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