I lead a quiet life with my family, in a quiet neighborhood of a quiet suburban town. My wife and I are grateful for all that God has done for us. We are like many families these days…
Our relationship with our two children is typical. Our son, who is working, is trying to find his way for life. Our daughter, who is in high school, is maturing in stature and in spirit, and quietly goes about her studies looking forward to attending college. My wife and I have dreams for our children — simple dreams, but high hopes nonetheless. Jesus has made those dreams possible for us.
You might say that we, the Laynes, are a picture of typical family. To a degree we are — but it is not our whole story.
I was taken from my family for twelve years — imprisoned by political powers in my homeland of Ethiopia. My son was four years old at the time. Like many deprived little boys, he inwardly took on the role of “man of the house.” Thank God, I have been reunited with my family for five plus years now. I am continually humbled by this — and I ponder it often, because I lost my father when I was about the same age.
My daughter was just a baby when I was imprisoned. I wonder at times how her spirit developed while she was fatherless. As for my wife, her devotion and tenacity saw us through our terrible time, which we survived by the Lord’s grace. Those twelve years for her were not easy. She had to flee with our children to neighboring Kenya when I was thrown into jail, where together they endured three years in a refugee camp. When they finally arrived in America, Mulu did as many immigrants do — she took jobs in convenience stores, gas stations, clothing stores. Quite a change for the wife of a former Prime Minister.
You will find me mentioned here and there on the internet — on web sites, in television interviews, on home-made videos. Wherever you see me on film, I am telling about Jesus, who saved and delivered me. On chat spaces I am alternately called a hero and a villain — a “freedom fighter” and a “corrupted politician”; a “deeply religious” man and a man “using religion as a cloak.” I understand this is the lot of any former political leader — to be alternately honored and reviled, to be falsely accused of horrible things. The lies pain me at times because of how I sought to conduct my life in service — but they especially hurt because of Who I serve today. Behind those lies about me is a betrayal by a friend. This was a friend like no other — we had fought side-by-side in the mountains, for seventeen years, against a Soviet-backed military regime that divided and bloodied my proud country.
Ethiopia is among the oldest nations in the world — mentioned in both Testaments of the Bible — and the only ancient African country never to have been colonized by outside powers. But in the 1970s, we were weakened by a disastrous famine, and a horror swept our country as millions starved.
With the government ruled by a king doing little to help, a band of military officers took power in a coup in 1974, assassinating the king. The new regime promised positive changes, but with its growing power came rampant corruption — and brutal crackdowns against all resistance. As students we rallied in the streets — and that is when the second horror began. Our calls for democratic reform were greeted by an unprecedented slaughter. Tens of thousands of young people were killed by the government. This was the infamous “Red Terror”.
Distraught over what was happening to our country, we continued to protest. I saw many friends shot down or abducted and executed. As the bloody scourge took place we formed a resistance movement, meeting in underground cell groups to study communist ideology, the art and science of rural armed struggle, and strategies and tactics of guerrilla warfare, espousing the socialist and Marxist theories at work around the world at the time. To our young ears, these were real answers. While the Soviets backed the frightening regime ensconced in our capital, we looked to Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin as our ideological masters as well as to Mao Zedong, Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh as “older brothers” in armed rebellion to change nations for equality.
The Giving Child
I came to my role in the resistance naturally. My goal as a student had been to become a medical doctor or engineer — a job of service to my fellow man, and especially to improve the lot of the poor. I had been raised by my mother in the center section of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, where we occupied the very lowest rung of the middle class. My father had left us when I was six, but in spite of our sudden dire need, I learned a lesson from my mother that would define the substance of my life. It was this: When you see a need before you, you do what you can to meet it. My mother reinforced this lesson by example time after time, always helping the needy around us.
From the very beginning I was well ahead of my classmates, and while my mother toiled to support us, I tutored other students to bring in extra income. Following her example, I once gave my coat to a shivering classmate who had none. In middle school I wrote a novel about the poor. I had both a natural gift and vision for helping others — and later, when the underground revolution took place, I was ready to take part in my country’s remedy.
The Compassionate Revolutionary
As the Red Terror reached its height, I could no longer simply be a student. I made a choice to become a full-time revolutionary — and the course of my life was set. I went underground, moving from house to house to train cell groups in the work of resistance. I soon began to see “wanted” posters with my face on them. Things came to a tragic head one night when a group of us had gathered at a close friend’s house. A loud knock came at the front door, and our host motioned for us to leave quietly through a back window. As we made our silent escape, we heard our friend answer the door — and the gunfire that followed. He was shot down in cold blood.
I realized then I had to flee to the mountains, as thousands of other resisters had done. It was difficult to leave my mother and my younger half-sister, who was eleven years my junior. As it turned out, we would not see each other for fifteen years, with no idea whether the other was still alive. Yet it was not a hard decision for me to make. I reasoned, “I have one poor mother and little sister. Ethiopia has tens of millions of poor mothers and children, with nobody to stand for them. Which is the just fight — for my family alone, or for all?” I never looked back.
The Thinking Warrior
We told ourselves we were carrying the soul of our nation into the mountains. I became a guerrilla fighter and, together with my friends, organized a guerrilla rebel army. There, we spent fifteen years — the prime years of our young lives — plotting to one day win back our country. Working day after day to envision a day of hope for Ethiopia, we formed the bond of brothers and built an organization to wage our armed struggle against the government. I was one of the top political and military leaders. The years we spent envisioning freedom for Ethiopia were purposeful. We were totally committed, ready to die at any moment for our cause.
Then I met my wife, Mulu, when she joined us rebels in the mountains. We were friends at first, because dating relationships were forbidden considering the tenuous times. No one in the movement could afford any personal attachments, as we had to be able to pick up and leave any circumstance at a moment’s notice. Moreover, any one of us might be called to give his or her life. But Mulu and I grew in our love for each other — and eventually we were married when it was permitted.
Finally, with Soviet policies of glasnost and perestroika in the late 1980s, the powerful Soviet bloc began to collapse. By this time our mountain militia had grown into a coalition army, made up of various groups from around the country. With Soviet support weakening in Addis Ababa, we knew our moment had come. We planned a D-Day-like assault. Fronting a unified army we invaded the capital against a military three times our size — and we were victorious.
I remember the warmth of my mother’s embrace as I returned in triumph to my home city. She had thought she would never see me again. It was a new day for our country — and a time of renewal for my family. Mulu and I would live with our mothers and siblings for five beautiful years. In that time we would begin our own family, with our son and daughter soon to be born.
The Young Prime Minister
Power is a sacred trust. When it comes into your hands, what do you do with it? “We will do the best thing,” My best friend and I assured each other. We were chosen by a constituent parliament to head a transitional government. It was decided that I would serve as Prime Minister, mainly an economic role, whereas my friend would lead in the more powerful role of President to help our country establish a socialist form of democracy. Each of us had built our earlier vision on an extreme form of Marxism, but now we decided, “We have to do what is best for all.” With that, we brought freedoms to Ethiopia that had never enjoyed before, albeit short-lived.
From the beginning, however, there were rumblings of unrest. I was a popular figure with the people, whereas my friend and others in the leadership were rigid socialists. It was a time for healing and restoration, and we had fought too long to reunite our nation to see it shipwrecked by pettiness. We began the hard work together of rebuilding our ravaged country after seventeen years of decimation.
The peace between us did not last long, however. As I began to question our socialist system and communist ideology, and power began to shift my way, the machinery for betrayal began to churn. As I started to propose policy changes toward democracy and a market economy, a few intelligence officers warned me that plots were being concocted against me and began advising me to flee the country.
I couldn’t even consider leaving Ethiopia. After all, I had given my life for my country. Yet I was naïve to think my friends, especially my best friend the president, would not go far to hurt me even though we had serious ideological and political differences. But as I was warned, I was arrested and accused of “abuse of power” and taking money illegally. I quickly built a case for my defense, but I would never be allowed to present it. Instead, I was sentenced to 18 years in prison, of which I served 12 years of solitary confinement. Sadly, it is the African way to propagate a case against someone and to allow no recourse. I was taken to prison. I thought my life would end there.
I was subject at any time to assassination. Would I be poisoned? Shot? I was often tortured and cruelly beaten as my accusers sought to extract false confessions about myself and others.
During my fourth year in prison, I was asked to bear false witness against a former colleague, saying he had stolen millions from the government. This was clearly a cover-up for their political rivalry — exactly what they had done to me. If I testified, my former friend, the president, promised me I would be released. When I refused, I was told, “then you will rot and die here”.
I had built my life on principles of justice and compassion, and I would not change now. That is what haunted me most about my situation: the utter betrayal. My political enemy — the one who had taken everything from me — had been my close friend. We had grown together in the mountains, surviving and thriving on principle and cause. Now his betrayal stole everything from me — my family, my freedom, and my role of service to my own people. In fact, I was removed from contact with any living thing except the guards who watched me.
Slowly, an intense rage built within me. I wanted to kill my betrayers, though of course I had no way to do it. As time passed slowly, I began to question my life and how it had led me to this prison cell. That was the lowest time for me. I could not find any meaning, purpose or hope. I felt like a vaccum. I tried to explore a new purpose by reading philosophical and religious materials, which I was allowed to do. I explored Hinduism, Buddhism and finally Islam, seeking answers but finding none. After four years, mostly in isolation, I saw no way out of my situation — there was simply no one to help me. Twice I tried to end my life but failed. My life went quickly downhill.
During the fifth year, one night I suddenly became sick and, under heavily armed guard, I was sent to an outside hospital called Black Lion for emergency treatment. I feared I might be killed while there — but that emergency ended up being my salvation. A nurse who worked at the clinic had been moved by God to fast and pray for three days. During that time, the Lord told her to hand me a Gospel tract. She obeyed at the risk of her life. The tract had only three sentences written on it. The first one simply said “Jesus loves you”; the second one was the verse from the Bible in John 14:6: “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” And the third sentence read, “Jesus is the only one who can give you a new life”.
The words moved me in a way that no other words had. Was there really only One who could give life? Something I could not really understand caused me to think and question and wonder about this “Jesus who can give a new life”. That had been my quest for almost five years, after all.
That night, I found out. Jesus revealed himself to me in powerful light and said to me “I am Jesus, believe in me and follow me. If you follow me I will give you the new life you are seeking. I am the only one who can give you the new life you are searching for.” The first night I was not sure if it was real and true. But to the benefit of my skeptical, communist-oriented mind, he assured me that He was real by appearing again the following two nights. He also promised to set me free from jail. When the nurse came around the next day, I asked her to get me more to read, and that is how I got my first Bible and began to study the life of Jesus. I am forever grateful to the nurse for her bravery and obedience.
Now I knew the truth — Jesus was the true Giver of life, who had given his all for me. In a mere moment, I understood life and the Source of that life. I even understood my situation, in a sense — and my heart was filled with the first three fruits of the Spirit: peace, hope and joy.
Jesus had come to me when no earthly power could. He had revealed himself to me when I was completely isolated in the world — with no family, no friends, no colleagues, not even enemies — no living thing, in fact, but a thin tree limb. I could not believe Jesus would do this for me — and yet he did. A joy and gratitude filled my heart beyond anything I had known. All those rewarding years of purpose and commitment I had known in the past paled in comparison to knowing him now. Deep within my heart I knew that this was all I needed in life — to know him.
The effects of Jesus on my life became clear to all. The guards who pushed my food into the cell sensed I was different. Before this, I had always quarreled with them, a rage boiling inside me. Now I treated them kindly, as brothers — because I had peace. They had seen me depressed, angry, and bitter, but now they saw me as quiet, calm, and content.
My new demeanor began to win over other prisoners who came to my cell temporarily. Several of them left my cell believing in Jesus after staying only a few weeks with me. Eventually the warden called me into his office. “I know for sure you are different now,” he said. “I can see that difference. I know your happiness is real.”
In the course of time, I was able to finally speak with Mulu on a cell phone one of the guards had given me to call her, and she had incredible news. She had had her own experience with Jesus, in the Kenyan refugee camp — on the very same day I had! I could not believe this — and yet I was learning that all things were possible with this loving God. I praised the Giver of life once again: “Lord, you are so good to me, to us. You have given us life again.”
Despite these blessed things, however, I still held deep anger toward my betrayer — my old best friend and co-leader. One night I dreamed he was chasing me with a sword, and I woke up sweating and weeping, deeply troubled. I knew the dream was from God. I prayed, “Lord, why this dream?”
As if for an answer, I had a vision of Jesus on the cross. He was crying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” I heard in my heart Jesus was saying to me, “Forgive him.”
It was one of my most painful times. I wrestled not to forgive and hold onto my grudges and hatred, but Jesus wouldn’t not allow me to. He was so gently and lovingly telling me in a small still voice, “Forgive him, have trust in me.” After several hours of wrestling in prayer, I repented, praying, “Lord, forgive me. I do now forgive him. I also forgive all the others who conspired and threw me into jail.” That night I determined that when I was released from prison, I would go to my betrayer face-to-face and forgive him — not to shame him, but to show him the reality of Jesus. I began praying, “God, prepare my old friend. Have him agree to see me.”
Something lifted from me during that prayer. It was like a dagger being pulled out — deeply painful, yet healing. The Lord had relieved me of yet another burden.
The Free Man
I was released from prison on a Friday, December 19, 2008, and I spent a tearful, jubilant weekend with my sister. My mother was also there, and she embraced me once more, after thinking she would never see me again. “I gave birth to you twice,” she told me. “First as a baby, and again today.”
Then, on Monday, I went to face my betrayer. An intelligence officer drove me to the government building where he presided. When I arrived, I was passed through to his office, with no bodyguards. Entering the room, I felt extremely awkward, but I walked up to my old friend and embraced him. “I love you,” I told him. Then I said the words that God had told me to say: “I forgive you. Please forgive me for thinking to kill you every day.” He embraced me in return.
We sat and talked for more than an hour. I could tell he kept expecting me to raise issues. Again and again, I assured him, “I did not come here to bring up the past. The past is gone. I came to tell you how my life changed for good.” He was touched, and at one point had tears in his eyes. “It is unfortunate all those things happened,” he finally uttered.
We talked about my family, about his family, and about Jesus. He kept gazing at me in wonderment. At one point he asked, “Are you the same Tamrat, or a different person?” “I am the same physically,” I said, “but I am a different person in Jesus now.”
When I left my friend’s office, I had tears of joy. I was happy, free — and I felt victorious as in no victory I had ever known. “Thank you for this, Lord,” I prayed. “Thank you, sweet Jesus.”
The Exiled Former Prime Minister
After my release, I stayed for a month in Ethiopia, sharing my story mainly within churches. To me, however, the church I saw outside of prison bore no resemblance to what I had learned from Jesus in the pages of Scripture. (Later, when I came to America, I found the same to be true.) There was so much fragmentation, so much animosity, so many divisions, conflicts and even competition. I could not believe this is what Jesus wanted.
From all I’ve observed, I have concluded that believers can better follow Jesus within home churches or small groups — that this is preferable for closer relationships and mature growth in serving him. Some believers see this as a matter of accountability. For me, it simply forms the bond of brothers and sisters — and it reveals whether a commitment to Jesus is real.
Twelve years of separation finally came to an end when I was reunited with my wife and our two children in Colorado, United States in January 2009, a month after I was released, a fulfillment of the promise God made when he revealed himself to me in prison. We as a family have come full circle, all of us transformed as followers of Jesus — another miracle! I am deeply greatful to my family, especially to my wife Mulu, for she waited for me for twelve agonizing years. She is truly my faithful wife, best friend, and a source of courage, endurance and sincere love to me and to our children. I am lucky to have Jesus and Mulu at the same time as faithful friends.
Since coming to America, I have been approached by Ethiopian exiles to speak against the government in our homeland. I refuse that as well, saying, “My life is Jesus, not hostility. It is reconciliation, peace and love.” I see change to come for my beloved nation only with and through Jesus.
Here in America, Mulu and I live by faith in God and serve Him by speaking about Jesus and what he did on our lives, by doing small groups for followers of Jesus. We have a ministry called Life Center through which we support orphans and widows in Ethiopia. We know for sure we are on our learning and training season for how we are going to serve God in Africa. We have good friends here in America who share their lives with us, support our vision, trust us and be by our side. We are gretful to them. We are wishing and praying for good things to happen for Ethiopia from what we learned from America.
Mulu and I are deeply yoked to do three things: to help young people, to help the poor, and to speak to leaders about Jesus. This is our shared vision. Our life time mission is to change the world by revolution of love through forgiveness.
As my mother taught me: when you see a need, do something to meet it. I see a great need in Ethiopia, and I feel Jesus urging me toward that need. I pray the day comes soon when he will make that happen. It is only because of him — his coming to me in mercy when I was alone in a cell — that I have come to know life again, to once more know the warmth and touch of my family.
In these ways and others, I believe every family is probably much alike. We all have had betrayals in life — and we all are called to forgive, as we have been forgiven. We all are called to love and reconciliation as we are loved by God and reconciled to Him by Jesus. We all hope to be agents of change for a better world — and we know that hope resides solely in Jesus. I write this today so that we may rejoice together in knowing the miracles he does — after all, he has done them for each of us.
I have lived the life of a successful politician, with responsibility for an entire nation’s well-being — and I know the answer is in him. Whether the need is for a family, or a people, or a nation, or the heart of a hopeless prisoner, there is only one Giver who can reach that need with truth and real love — Jesus.