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Documentary : A Scoundrel's Time: The Fall of Mengistu : After 14 years of dictatorship, Ethiopians feel a bit ambivalent over their country's change of course.

June 04, 1991|MICHAEL A. HILTZIK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — It is the received wisdom among travelers in Africa that Ethiopia is a place like none other south of the Sahara. Its written history places its cultural heritage on a par with that of China and Egypt, and its people cherish the legend that they are descended from the union of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

Addis is emblematic of this impression; it is the only capital in black Africa never colonized by Europeans, and one of the very few where the electrical supply functions nonstop and the water is safe to drink.

On the second day after the fall of the 14-year regime of Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, I flew into Addis on Ethiopian Airlines, the enormously successful and efficient state carrier that is reputedly the best in Africa. The government was crumbling, the capital surrounded by rebel troops. Nearly two decades of Marxist rule had made Ethiopia one of the world's poorest countries. And we landed just 15 minutes late. In America, airline schedules can get more disrupted than that by a rainstorm at LAX.

Perhaps it was this mysterious Ethiopian efficiency that led people to believe that the rebel takeover of the capital would be a smoother transition than it turned out to be.

Popular reaction to Mengistu's flight into exile seemed strangely ambivalent. The people I met were clearly delighted to have him gone, though perhaps disappointed at the manner of his departure.

Everyone roundly reviled his memory. He was a thief, they said, a cannibal, a vagabond, the worst ruler Ethiopia ever had. They laughed at his pretensions. Mengistu had a habit of comparing himself favorably to heroes of Ethiopian history, especially Emperor Tewodros, who in 1865 resisted a British military expedition sent to rescue a hostage diplomat and committed suicide rather than watch the British burn his capital. By contrast, Mengistu's escape in a small, twin-engine plane seemed craven.

"We thought he would at least commit suicide," one resident of Addis remarked to me on Day Two of the post-Mengistu era. "Not leave like this."

But in this, one could not help detecting a strange Ethiopian self-deception, a willful forgetfulness. It was true that Mengistu had ruled by a policy of terror. But he had also been canny enough to continually manipulate the proud nationalism of Ethiopians, extolling the destiny of a united Ethiopia, an island of Christianity steadfast against the surrounding Muslim Arab nations. Mengistu had survived for 14 years, and they had themselves at least partially to blame.

And if Mengistu's flight meant the elimination of an internal enemy, the city realized that he had now left it at the mercy of what its citizens had been taught to regard as almost an alien foe: the woyane (bandits), the army of rebels from the northern province of Tigre who now had the city surrounded from positions closer than a day's stroll from downtown.

Addis was an anxious city. The barbarians were at the gates. Even educated people shuddered as they confided their fears of the woyane : They would shoot everybody; a blood bath lay ahead. From deserting government soldiers, people were able to buy guns for a few dollars each, and few resisted the bargain.

"I have my own personal weapon," said Germa Wolde Mariam, whom I met on the plaza in front of St. George's Church, an Ethiopian Orthodox edifice of customary circular design with a nearby museum devoted to the memory of Haile Selassie, the last emperor. "It's an AK-47." (Soviet-made assault rifle). Then he said: "All Ethiopians need only peace."

There was also an odd sense on the streets of Addis that the Ethiopians had lost control of their own destiny. The people in charge, residents suggested, were the Americans. The United States had forced Mengistu to flee. The Americans were going to keep the woyane out of the city and broker a settlement at peace talks in London that would finally bring serenity to Ethiopia.

"When is your army coming to protect us?" someone asked me on my first day in town. A day later, a colleague and I introduced ourselves to an Ethiopian churchgoer as American journalists.

"Americans," he said. "Thank you very much."

It was a heady feeling to be regarded as somehow the agents of Ethiopia's deliverance. But this would prove to be another product of self-deception--not only the Ethiopians' but ours.

So far, it seemed, Addis was behaving with traditional Amharic rectitude. Thousands of deserting government troops were pouring into the city, aimlessly wandering its streets with tattered rucksacks and guns, but there was not a single confirmed report of looting.

"You have to remember that this place is not Earth," said one longtime resident as we discussed the orderliness of the besieged city. "These people have a long history of culture and religion that holds them to a high ethical standard. What do they do when things get bad? They don't loot--they go to church!"

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