Despite being a robust African nation that resisted colonization because of a strong government and well-established institutions, Ethiopia was ravaged by famine in the 1980s. To help the country’s hungry citizens, Michael Jackson and Bob Geldof recorded charity singles of celebrity choirs.
But the decline of Ethiopia began decades before that. Stansbury Park resident Rundassa Eshete lived through 23 years of that decline.
An Oromo holy man prophesied to Eshete’s uncle that a bullet would pass through a relative’s armpit, but he would live. Eshete fulfilled that prophecy.
The prophecy seemed exceptional since an Ethiopian civil war (1974-1991) between various insurgencies killed over 30,000 troops. Combatants publicly displayed corpses of enemies. To the Eshete family, it appeared most young men died.
Born in Ethiopia in 1966 into the majority Oromo tribe, Eshete spent his childhood in a household that included 40 servants. He saw the whole household as a family. His father was an Oromian landlord under the fairly stable rule of Haile Selassie.
But the Soviet-backed, militaristic Dergs came to power in 1976. The communist regime killed 500,000 Ethiopians in a bloodbath known as the Red Terror. The Dergs convinced farmers to eliminate their landlords.
“They called us bloodsuckers and all that,” Eshete said. “Every night they come and loot and burn down, and kill the bulls and eat the meat and take your clothes and anything — they do.”
The Dergs shot his father’s colleagues on television.
“We watched them,” Eshete said.
To avoid the same fate, Eshete’s father went into hiding, leaving Eshete and his mother to be imprisoned. They were relentlessly questioned on the elder Eshete’s whereabouts — and the whereabouts of his guns.
After witnessing bloody tortures, Eshete was released within two months. At nine years old, he was on his own. The regime scattered his family, who became strangers — unaware of each other’s personal stories.
“Half of the [family] population is dead now,” Eshete said, due to political shootings, poisonings and ruined health from imprisonment.
After prison, Eshete discovered he excelled academically, but he had to find ways to attend school while living in various degrees of homelessness. One of his stints included a miserable stay with an alcoholic brother.
“The confusion was so great. I cannot describe it,” Eshete said. “Every direction I turned was a disappointment. Lack of food, clothing, place to sleep, most importantly the way people treat me.”
As a married adult, nightmares of homelessness and torture haunted him. But a psychiatrist helped him work through those nightmares, he said.
When he was 17, Eshete was jailed for failing to attend communist youth meetings, for refusing to shout anti-religious slogans, and for being a member of a family labeled as “enemies of the state.”
The government also considered those who took him in to be harboring a threat to the state. He couldn’t get a job. Around 1984, Eshete left for a Kenyan refugee camp. He feared lions were in the forest, so he walked on the roads. The Dergs caught him and threw him into prison.
One prisoner claimed he was like a rat and could dig into any home to steal. The prisoners challenged the rat-man to get them out of there. In the cell’s total darkness, they scraped the cement with broken metal.
“Small by small, we made a big hole and then we came to fluffy sand in the ground, so we keep digging out,” Eshete said. “For months we were sitting on top of this dirt.”
Before escaping, Eshete crawled to the roof to check for the guard. The guard shot at him. Unbeknownst to Eshete, the bullet went through one of his armpits. He later found the bullet hole in an armpit of his jacket — the hole prophesied by the holy man.
The escape failed. However, after eight months in prison, he was released. Eventually, Eshete took college entrance tests and received a UN scholarship to the communist Soviet Union in 1989. There, a teacher demanded that students sing communist hymns. Eshete refused.
“It’s just music anyway, but apparently that was politics, I didn’t know,” he said. “The lady sent me to a crazy hospital.”
He stayed only one day because the hospital director spoke Ethiopian, sorted out Eshete’s story, and released him.
Then in 1991, communism collapsed in the Soviet Union.
“The whole system crashed and made me happy because they went from feeling they were gods, and I watched it gone,” Eshete said. The sudden change meant he no longer had to look over his shoulder.
While in the Ukraine, Eshete saw a Russian harass some LDS missionaries. He defended them, and proselytizing followed. After his baptism, members encouraged Eshete to apply to Brigham Young University.
At BYU in 1994, he felt like the only student who looked African. A fellow student suggested he attend a meeting of African Student Advocates in the library. He ran to the meeting.
The door opened to a room full of blonde coeds, he said, which included his future wife.
Eshete graduated with an MBA. He built a home in Stansbury Park where he lives with his wife, Jan Vorwaller Eshete and their six children. Three of the children are relatives the Eshetes adopted because the children’s parents died in Ethiopia.
The Eshetes have since become owners of the African Restaurant on 1878 S. Redwood Road in Salt Lake Valley. The family bought the restaurant to bring four of Eshete’s siblings to the United States and provide employment.
Although popular with vegans and vegetarians, the restaurant also serves meat dishes.
Today, Eshete speaks out about Ethiopian politics, which means he cannot return to his homeland. However, his wife and children went to Ethiopia to establish a school on the family property. Overall, Eshete doesn’t care to expose his family to toxic Ethiopian politics.
His children see Ethiopia as a colonizer of the Oromo people through the country’s hierarchical regimes and religions supported by the current minority Tigray government. Their policies banished the Oromo communal tradition, language and religion — a native religion that taught the Oromo to give the stranger a cow and treat war prisoners as family.
Eshete said, “Ethiopia is the cancer that has been eating our Oromo identity.”
These politics have shaped his and other Oromo person’s lives in profound and irreversible ways, he said. But exiled Oromo have created groups to support each other and those in Ethiopia.
Oromo groups divide along Islamic, Christian, and traditional Oromo religious lines. The U.S. State Department’s advisory role to the Tigray regime since 1991 also creates division.
In support of the Tigrays, the U.S. labeled one Oromo group terrorists, and the current regime allows Americans, including Ivanka Trump, and Utah businessmen, to make easy money in Ethiopia where labor is cheap, Eshete said.
Although Eshete belongs to no Oromo groups, he said he negotiates among them toward uniting their goals. In this role, he hears many tragic stories. Feeling the weight of those stories, Eshete wrote them down in a book titled “Venomous Love.”
He wrote the book in English, one of his secondary languages, and the reader senses the African structure in the prose. Part poetry, part humor, with a deluge of tragedy, the American reader learns a different reality.
The book discusses Ethiopian issues during communism, and the tyrannical rule of the current Tigray regime, which now fills 100 percent of the government’s seats.
It also shows the Oromo (Cushitic)/Tigray (Abyssinian) conflict, which has resulted in an Oromo genocide unacknowledged by the world, according to Eshete. Abyssinnians claim Semitic origins and Christianity, while the Oromos claim Cushitic and a pharaoh’s line. Oromo hold no government seats, although they are a huge majority.
Currently, Senate Resolution 168 in Congress asks the U.S. to rethink its military support to the Tigray regime.
“I dream to return to my birth place every minute of my life since I left,” Eshete said. “No man-woman wants to live in a far-away land where no one knows his self-worth.”
He said his return cannot happen until Oromia regains its identity.