Barely out of her teens, she escaped torture in her African homeland and, like thousands of other Ethiopians, hoped for refuge in Denver.
She is slender and beautiful the way the most striking Ethiopian women are, with smooth, mocha-colored skin and almond-shaped eyes. Five days a week, in the mornings' wee hours, she leaves her modest Denver apartment near Quebec and Iliff and boards the bus to Denver International Airport. She is quiet and keeps to herself. She is polite. She almost always answers with a "Yes," even when she doesn't necessarily understand what is asked of her, even when she doesn't understand what it all means. Her therapist would describe her as a gentle spirit, eager to please, and remarkably gracious considering what she has been through.
These qualities are part of what makes her excellent at her job. Inside DIA, under its sprawling canopies, she finds her coworkers, specifically her Ethiopian coworkers. Here, together, they have found not just paying jobs at the airport, but also a community. Among them there is an understanding, a shared history—a pain—that requires no explanation. And so there is little talk of the past; they help each other avoid their memories. Instead, they focus on the banal distractions of the present: They usher travelers and their luggage from ticket counters to security lines to boarding gates; they staff baggage conveyor belts, hoisting suitcases and reading tags.
She is a bag runner: sorting, lifting, and rushing suspicious items to security. It's a good job. Although it pays only an hourly rate of about $7, sometimes, when she says "Yes" and assists a traveler with an especially large bag or heavy request, there is a tip. And tips can be saved and mailed back home. She plucks an oversized suitcase, the last of the day, from a carousel for transfer. Arms straining with the bag's bulge, she pictures where it will land, then imagines its owner, in a quiet home, the night before, carefully packing it full of nonessential essentials. This is not how she traveled here, to America, to Denver.
In the dead of night, a door-splintering crash shatters the stillness of a home that is dark, asleep. Her family is there, except her father. Terrified, hearts racing, their eyes connect through the darkness. The front doorway gapes open, sucking in the arid night, and shadows morph into menacing silhouettes. An interrogation erupts from all and none of the shadows at once. "Where is he?" they bark, and they move through the house, ricocheting from corner to corner. The walls shake as uniformed figures ransack rooms, fling open doors. One of them wrenches her mother's arm with a viselike grip. "You tell me where your husband is!" But her mother doesn't know; if she does, she doesn't tell. In a blur of yells and weapons, the silhouettes force the family through the broken door out into the black.
Thud. She drops the overstuffed bag onto a cart, and this 23-year-old woman—we will call her Zema—stretches her arms. Hurriedly, she makes her way through DIA's Great Hall, awash in light and buzz. Crossing the vast, tiled floor toward the bus stop outside, she dodges antsy families waiting, couples embracing, brothers and sisters and friends craning to see their loved ones arrive. She can't help but wonder if she will ever have a moment like that: Will she ever be the one waiting for her loved ones to arrive at the airport? Will she ever see her family again? This much is certain: There is no returning to her homeland. She can never go back there.
In prison, even day felt like night. There was no sun or moon; it seemed like there was no air. There was only a cell, with Zema and at least two of her four brothers in a cell together, and her mother in another. For two days, guards came to beat them. Zema's body hurt. The real agony, though, was having to watch her mom and brothers suffer. Suddenly, without explanation, they were all transported to a different prison. Every couple of days, the guards would appear, the terror would swell, and the family would be questioned, one by one.
The trouble began, as things do in Africa, with regimes at odds. More than a decade before, Zema's father had been a colonel in Ethiopia's air force. They lived a good life, Zema and her brothers and sisters, growing up in Debre Zeyit, just southeast of Ethiopia's capital. Her family owned a restaurant in town, and they were fed well and educated. But when a new government party moved in—the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)—their stable life began to crack. The new leadership ousted her father's party and held its own elections, leaving former government leaders without jobs and often in prison. Zema's father, among those arrested, spent 12 years in jail because of his alleged political affiliation.
The new ruling party ran a "democratic" republic more like a dictatorship, until a coalition of opposition parties challenged the regime in the 2005 elections. When the opposition secured only about a third of parliament, it cried foul, spreading the word that the election was rigged. In response, the government began jailing the challenging party's leadership. Amid the chaos, Zema's father disappeared from prison. And one night, in January 2006, military police stormed Zema's house to look for him, accusing her family of helping him escape, suspecting he was involved with the opposition. Zema was certain he wasn't. But no one in her family knew where her father was.
According to the international advocacy and justice organization Human Rights Watch, torture methods in Ethiopian detention facilities are often the most dehumanizing when the victim is thought to be affiliated with an opposing political party. Human Rights Watch has documented recent instances of binding an individual's hands and feet and suspending the detainee upside down during a beating; of tying bottles of water to a man's testicles; of rape and molestation; of severe beatings with sticks and iron bars; and of electric shock while naked. Another watchdog group has reported cases in Ethiopian jails where prisoners have been forced to urinate or defecate in front of others, to wear soiled clothes, or to don "uniforms" with cutouts in humiliating places. Prisoners have been blindfolded, led to a spot on the floor, and told to take a step forward; if they do this, the interrogator says to the victims, they'll step directly into a giant hole and fall to an agonizing death. But if they don't step forward, they'll be shot.
Zema tried to stay with her mother, to ease her suffering, but it was impossible to keep her close at all times. Ethiopian jails are as overcrowded as they are unsanitary. There were times when Zema heard screams emanating from somewhere in the prison. Next to her? A few cells down? It was hard to determine. She didn't know if it was her mother or brothers. One day the guards came for Zema. They forced her into a dark room, alone, and ordered her to remove her clothes.