Recently I returned from Mekele and had a pretty unpleasant experience along the way. I’ve left names out of this account since it’s a bit sensitive. Sorry if that makes it confusing.
I arrived at the Mekele bus station to find the Abi Adi bus almost completely full of passengers. This is a good thing since it means the bus will be leaving soon; the drivers always wait for a full load of passengers before departing. It wasn’t clear where the one remaining seat was and I stumbled around looking for it before a nice gentlemen gave up his seat and took a less desirable one. Thanks to the kindness of this stranger, I had a pretty decent seat on the bus and was ready to begin the trip home.
Despite the full bus there was no driver. We waited for a while, maybe 20 minutes, for the driver to show up. During this wait, one of the passenger’s impatience caused him to demand a refund for his ticket so that he could go on another bus that was, in theory, leaving sooner. This is not allowed according to the code of Ethiopian bus stations; once a ticket is issued and paid for, you can’t get a full refund under normal circumstances. I’m not sure if this fit the criteria for ‘normal’ since the driver was off somewhere else and this passenger had a point. Anyway, things escalated and the disgruntled passenger was in a heated verbal argument with the bus boy (like a conductor, the bus boy, called a redet, is responsible for ticketing, collecting money, manning the door, and helping the driver as needed). Things would have escalated further but the driver showed up and other bystanders got in the way to keep things from getting physical. Shortly thereafter we left the station, leaving the disgruntled passenger fuming, although as far as I understood it, he was given a refund.
The next 2 hours of the trip passed as usual as we slowly ascended at a snail’s pace up the hills to Hagre Selam. I made a new friend as my seat mate turned out to be a pretty cool guy who works for city (Woreda) of Abi Adi and spoke English well. We shared roasted barely (kolo) a common bus snack and talked on and off throughout the ride.
As we neared Abi Adi we passed through the small town of Agbe where we stopped for a mandatory militia checkpoint. All buses have to stop to be searched by old militia men who refuse to accept that the civil war is in fact over. So an old former freedom fighter got on the bus with his dusty and fatigued fatigues to look for ‘weapons’ and check some IDs to make sure there were no illegal immigrants. In my opinion, it’s a pretty ridiculous checkpoint, as it’s the only one like it that I’ve ever experienced: no uniforms, no police, lots of inconsistency, and generally appears to be a huge waste of time. While I waited for the militia man to make his rounds I asked some kids nearby to come over and show me their football which was just an inflated seed pod from a tree. It was a natural sort of football I suppose. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Just after I tossed their ‘ball’ back to them, I noticed their attention shift to something happening behind the bus. I turned to look out the opposite windows and saw the redet in a serious fight with the disgruntled passenger from Mekele. They were reaming on each other delivering some solid blows before a bunch of guys jumped off the bus to break it up. Lots of torn clothing, broken sandals, and dust. And blood. They reached an impasse and were locked together as bystanders tried to pry them apart. The disgruntled passenger was holding a big rock in one hand and was gushing blood from his nose. Finally they were separated and the redet got back on the bus and shut the door while the other guy walked around bleeding.
Apparently this guy got on another bus also heading to Abi Adi and left Mekele around the same time as our bus. Either he was waiting for us at this well known check point, or he happened upon our bus as his bus passed by. It wasn’t clear. But regardless, this guy definitely knew how to hold a grudge. And maybe he should have. I have a hard time understanding these types of situations due to the language barrier. The redet was young and some described him as a ‘hot’ youngster. I’m not sure what he said, or how he acted earlier in the Mekele bus station. Maybe he had it coming…? Regardless of fault its always disconcerting seeing a dispute escalate to this.
The bus driver was trying to get our bus moving again and leave, but the militia men and other townsfolk wouldn’t let us leave until the police showed up. More verbal arguments. Someone gave some tissue to the nose-bleeder and he cleaned up a bit but still radiated rage as he paced back and forth. A few minutes later one of the Agbe cops showed up and listened to enough of the stories from both sides to know that this needed to be resolved at the police station.
The cop got on our bus and directed our driver to drive to the police station a few minutes away. The mini-bus, that I assume the assailant arrived on, also had to drive to the police station. When we arrived a bunch of dudes from both buses went in to serve as witnesses along with the two fighters, separated by a buffer of ‘peace keepers’ of course. I waited. and waited. I got sick of it and got off the bus to talk to some neighborhood kids for a while. Then I watched the wind blow across this tiny little town, picking up dust and crunchy leaves, in the fading afternoon light. I got back on the bus and watched the last light of day disappear behind Tigray’s dry mountains. Both of our buses and all 40 or so passengers were detained as ‘witnesses’ by the police. I think I could have left, but I wanted to see what would happen and wasn’t in a hurry anyway. My new friend and seatmate told me that the bus driver has a contractual obligation to get us to Abi Adi since we paid the fare. I responded, “you would rather wait here for 2 hours than walk to the road and pay 8 birr (about $0.50USD) to get home?” yes. So I hung out with my bus mates, neighbors, and friends, waiting.
After about an hour everyone came back to the bus. Well not everyone. We were missing our redet who was being held in jail for the night. They also kept the other guy, or would have, but sent him to the Abi Adi hospital to get his nose checked out. He had to return the next day to face the ultimate authority of the town judge.
We rolled back out of Agbe on the dusty side streets that we arrived on, now dark with night. As we got back to the main road our driver stopped again unexpectedly. I heard murmurs among the passengers of durrar (dinner). It turns out the bus driver had to arrange a dinner delivery with a local restaurant so that the redet could eat something during his night in the lockup. The driver returned shortly and we finally resumed our trip to Abi Adi. As we rumbled out of Agbe, I noticed a huge yellow moon peeking above the cliffs, its mustard hue complemented the sanguine sandstone cliffs. The full moon rose over the desert as an ominous sign.
In my culture, full moons are associated with mysterious behavior, werewolves, and Halloween ghouls. In Ethiopia, it’s good luck. A full moon, mulu wHardi, is a sign of good luck, just like other full things: a full cup of local beer, a full loaf of bread, or even a full jerry-can of water. The bus driver didn’t turn the stereo back on as he silently contemplated the fate of his friend. The old women onboard seemed unphased by the event and continued their womanly banter as we completed the final 20 minutes of the trip. I sat there thinking about the “wild west” justice I just observed, all the while watching the moon’s yellow face turn white as it climbed in the sky over Abi Adi, the big country.