Chapter 26 – Dark Clouds And Danger
Dark Clouds on The Country’s Horizon
We had finally come to the place where Camp Langano was achieving its goals. It had taken four years to construct the facility and host eight retreats and conferences. Ethiopians and missionaries alike had been strengthened in their faith. They resolved to stand firm despite what was happening in the country.
Then the Military gained control of the country. To keep tight control, they eliminated anyone connected to the previous leadership, including those in the imperial palace.
The Military deposed and imprisoned Emperor Haile Selassie on September 12, 1974 and he died the next year on August 22, 1975.
Atheism and communism was proclaimed the official ideology of the state. Hundreds of former government officials and anybody opposed to the new regime were mercilessly executed. Sometimes their bodies were left in the streets serving as a warning to anyone opposing the new authorities in power. Churches were closed and Christians were considered enemies of the state. Christians were imprisoned and, in some cases, executed as well.
The Communist government closed classes for Senior High Schools and Universities, ordering all students into the countryside to teach the peasants the basic principles of Ethiopian Communism. Twelve of these students, called the Zemacha (‘zeh-mah-chah’), arrived at Langano to start their teaching program.
Unfortunately the local Arsi people, like those throughout the country, were being influenced by the communistic propaganda. They liked the idea of prosperity for themselves and not just for the rich landowners. Even my workers demanded more pay and refused to work unless I met their demands. The good relationship we had built up over the years … was it going to disappear because of the turmoil in the country? We were soon to discover that there were those among the Arsi who still cared for us and would put their lives at risk to protect us.
The twelve Zemacha students that moved near us lived in the landlord’s bare-bones cottage on the lake shore. We welcomed them and had them in for dinner. One was a Christian young man and several came to our church services. Some of their parents had lost their businesses when they were nationalized by the government.
In mid December of 1975 one of them went out of his mind. We awoke Saturday morning with him in our car, blowing the horn. While we were discussing what to do next, he managed to cross the wires in the ignition and start the engine. His fellow students immediately grabbed him, tied up his hands and feet and took him to the cottage. We went back to our work. Being Saturday, it was our day to catch up on personal projects. The children were at boarding school. Betty was sewing a tie-dye skirt for Cathy, and I had a building project on the go – completing our new bedrooms in the lodge.
Just before lunch I heard a gun shot from the direction of the cottage – the zemacha’s home. The students had earlier officiously confiscated all private guns from the local landowners. I knew there was trouble and dashed into the house to make things secure. By now this poor fellow had escaped his bonds, grabbed a rifle and was now entering our front gate. Betty screamed and ran out the back door heading for the forest. I was close behind.
At the back of our property was an opening into the forest across which I had placed a large ladder to keep cattle and other animals from wandering into our property. Betty was unable to go over it, through it, or under it. I was, however, able to clear the ladder. Somehow with an extra surge of adrenalin, Betty found herself on the other side as well. In the meantime she lost her sandals and the water bottle she had grabbed on the way out of the building.
As it turned out, this young man searched through all the buildings, even up into the attic of the lodge to try to find us. He also took Gunnamo, Betty’s clinic worker, hostage and demanded that the white man be presented because he was going to make him a pool of blood. We did not know whether he had seen us escape or not so we kept on running. With his fixation on our van, he was able to start the engine again and head off for the highway. His father’s bus company had been confiscated by the new military government.
For almost three hours we hurriedly scrambled through the thick African bush in a direction where we knew we would be able to cross the river and find Arsi friends who would give us some aid.
As we went through the bush, I was wearing my big work boots, but Betty, in her desperation to get over the ladder at the beginning of our flight, had lost her sandals, and was now in her bare feet. If you know the African bush you know that there is hardly a tree that is not covered in thorns. I gave her my work socks and we continued. After those three hours, Betty did not have one thorn in her foot. That could only be termed a miracle.
We did not want to travel along the trail where the people walked in case we would not have the time or even the skill to tell them in their Arsi language of our plight. If the young man intent on killing us would come along, they would say, “Sure, the white man was along here.”
So with that in mind, we continued through the thick tangle of bush. I had worked with a British Mapping Mission who had made aerial photographs of the whole area with the intent of making maps. They had given me copies of those photographs so now, in my mind, I was able to identify a lot of the area. I knew that if we followed a certain direction through the bush, we wou1d come to a place in the river where we could easily cross. And sure enough, I was able to see a number of these landmarks as we scurried along.
At times we would pause and hide under a thick bush. It was the heat of day, our tongues became parched, we were panting for breath. Betty’s face was flushed and her hair filled with twigs from the underbrush. We would regroup ourselves and say to each other, “Well, the Lord is with us. If this is the time for Him to take us, so be it. If it isn’t, there is no way this young man would be able to find us.” With new inner strength and fresh courage we would take each other by the hand and head off again.
Finally we came to the river where a couple of ladies were filling their clay pots with water. We washed our hands and faces. It felt so refreshing! But the ladies were horrified to see us and to learn of our distress. They took us up to their village where they couldn’t do enough to help us. They found a pair of plastic shoes that Betty could wear.
By this time we were, of course, absolutely exhausted. None of the men were in the village but were nearby at a funeral. That is where we were taken.
The crowd of men attending the funeral had Amharic speakers among them, and they were infuriated with what had happened. Over the years that we had lived at Langano, they had become our friends. Betty was particularly appreciated because of her c1inic and the help they had received there. In one accord they grabbed their spears and were determined to go and settle the score right then and there. I pled with them not to risk their lives because there was a gun involved. “That’s okay” they said, “One man will die. We will get him.” Finally, reason prevailed. They settled back to mourning while we were taken to a thatched-roofed house to rest.
While we had been running through the African bush, Borema, our trusty caretaker, ran out to the highway and headed for SIM Sheshamane, our closest mission station. On the highway, he got a ride in a large truck. He arrived there just in time for the regular two-way radio schedule the station had each evening with Addis Ababa SIM headquarters. In desperation he blurted out the news of our plight. Our fellow SIM missionary, in turn relayed the message on the two-way radio. In Addis Ababa, the SIM office was just preparing a telegram to SIM Toronto. When the telegram arrived, the SIM Canadian director then immediately phoned Pastor Holmes in Victoria. That was Sunday morning. There, during the morning service at Central Baptist, he led the church in prayer for us while we were still up in that village. Isn’t God good!
By now it was 5:30 in the evening and I wanted to know what was happening back at our place. Another fellow and I started hiking back and were met by three young men who had been at the camp compound. They said that our van had been taken but all was peaceful. When I arrived I saw that this was so. However, there were rumors of a conspiracy among the other zemacha students as well; our lives could still be in jeopardy. So I was careful to keep hidden.
It was dark now. Betty, in the meantime, had been settled down into one of the homes of the Ethiopian villagers. She was encouraged to lie on the only home-made bed. It was an interesting experience for her to watch the mother put her children to bed on cowhides, and bring the few cattle into a section of the round house where they would spend the night as well. I knew she was in good hands.
We had no two-way radio and consequently no idea if there was a general revolt throughout the country.
At about 10 o’clock that evening, back at the camp, I heard the sound of a vehicle approaching our area. Soon I could see a set of headlights snaking its way along the trail. Who was this coming? Was this a part of the conspiracy? No one seemed to know, so we all hid in the darkness. Finally a Landrover slowly drove into the camp clearing and I heard the welcome voice of one of my fellow missionaries from Sheshamane, Rod Loewen. He had been at the two-way radio when Borema arrived. Borema had also mentioned the rumors of a conspiracy against our lives. So Rod brought in several armed soldiers to find out what was going on. What a relief!
We then drove up to the village where Betty had settled in with the Arsi family for the night and by 1:00 am the terrifying day came to an end. Rod took us to SIM Sheshamane. The young fellow who had stolen the car had driven along the highway, pretending our van was a bus, and picking up passengers. He was subsequently caught by the police. We thought we might be able to go back into Langano but Borema told us that they were not assured that all the other young people were really safe to live among. So we stayed at Sheshamane for a couple of days during which time I went to the police station where I found the young man jailed. Even there he was very abusive. He lunged at me and again repeated his phrase that I should be a pool of blood. Then we heard that the young man mysteriously disappeared from the countryside jail. The SIM decided we should be at the Guest House in Addis Ababa.
With the help of the dear older Ethiopian butler at the Guest House, Betty was able to do a little sleuthing and found that the young man had been taken to the mental institution. I took one of the Ethiopian pastors with me and we visited the young man. By now he was medicated and we were able to communicate with him. Betty had prepared a loving note to him on a card that had been sent to us from home with a pair of praying hands inscribed on the front. In it we told him we had forgiven him for what had happened. During subsequent visits by the Ethiopian pastor, the young man came to know the Lord as his own personal Saviour.
While we were in Addis Ababa, the church leaders in Sheshamane went in to Langano to investigate and said that there was no conspiracy; this young man had acted alone. The Arsi people said, “Bring the Harrisons back. We would rather have the mission teaching than the teaching of these young men”.
In looking back over the experience, we realized how the Lord had protected us and saved us from sure tragedy. The week following, Cathy and Jeff came home for Christmas and we had a wonderful two weeks together. Another youth leadership training conference was scheduled that needed our attention. We resumed our preparations …. but we didn’t know how severe the interruption to our plans would be in the very near future!