Opinion

Wherefore art thou Romeo? One young man’s struggle in war-torn Ethiopia

Lalibela church
Dmitry_Chulov Istock

This is not Hollywood, but screenwriters take heed. This is real and is happening in real time. We met Romeo in Ethiopia, in Lalibela to be more precise, six years ago. The wonder of the churches of the New Jerusalem, carved entirely from a single block of granite, date from the seventh to 13th centuries and constructed under the reign of King Lalibela, Ethiopia being one of the first countries to adopt Christianity in the first half of the fourth century. The site is astounding and holds many mysteries. No mortar, brick, concrete, just a mass of stone carved out of solid rock. Almost a miracle. Hermits with prayer books speak to no one but the almighty. The energy is reminiscent of the devout in Varanasi, India, who come by the thousands magnetized by the aura of the site. 

Our son befriended Romeo, who was practicing to be a guide. He introduced us to some priests, one of whom had a cross that was supposedly made of a material not of this Earth. It shined like gold but wasn’t gold. Twenty inches long, it was taken down from a hidden secret space above a pillar and supposedly had secret powers. Romeo showed us the underground tunnels that connected the eleven churches. The pride he showed towards one of the most remarkable humanmade compounds on Earth was apparent.

Lalibela was a World Heritage site but also one full of the inexplicable. How did these monolithically carved structures get built? King Lalibela was supposedly helped by angels. Was this a metaphor? Probably, of course. But there are secrets in Lalibela not made for mere mortals like the column surrounded by silk brocades supposedly containing the history of the past, but also history of the future which the non-devout are not allowed to see. In fact no one is allowed to see. Da Vinci Code anyone? No one is allowed to see what is written on the column and Romeo showed us the churches as one of the triumphs of Ethiopia and world civilization. When we finally left Lalibela, Romeo asked for a simple dictionary, an Amharic English dictionary and we naturally obliged. It was a simple gesture that helped change his life. 

We helped him finish his guiding school in Addis, where he learned the extraordinary history of his country, the Queen of Sheba, the Blue Nile Falls, the Simien Mountains, Axum, the archeological site that housed some of the oldest hominid bones ever found such as those of Lucy and many others. Arthur Rimbaud was so seduced by Ethiopia, he spent 10 years in this mystifying country that also harbor some of the most isolated animist tribes on Earth. Some of whom did not know they lived in a country called Ethiopia until very recently. Known as Abyssinia, Ethiopia is one of the more mystifying countries on Earth. Romeo’s family worked the land as farmers, eking out a living by cultivating grain but barely surviving in the increasing droughts. Romeo was ready to be a guide after his stint in Addis, even securing a small loan for his tuk tuk, a motorized bicycle that he could use to take visitors around his home town of Lalibela. Everything was set for his future but then the Tigrey rebels fighting the government forces took over his town. They would force kids to join their ranks, often drugging them to handle guns and fight whoever they were directed to fight. Romeo knew he could not be abducted into the army so he escaped back to Addis, taking the bus and hitchhiking back across hundreds of miles, feeling the full convulsions of a country mired in civil war. 

While hearing about the atrocities the Tigray People’s Liberation Front had committed and which government troops had inflicted on the Tigray people, Romeo stayed in a simple shelter with other kids trying to survive the chaos of the capital. He tried to find work, he did whatever he could to find food in the streets and felt like one of 10,000 other young men whose entire life had been thrown to the hyenas. Would his life as a guide be over? Would his life be over? He made basic food on a simple stove he managed to buy and lived almost like a beggar whose entire existence had been thrown upside down.

He was arrested by the authorities and had to show his ID, proving he was not a Tigrayan. All the while the rebel forces were marching on the capital. The entire country was being thrown into chaos. If Romeo had stayed in Addis, he would probably have had to join the government forces. From honoring his country’s history and talking about the wonders of his homeland Romeo would become a casualty of a manmade catastrophe overwhelming his country. He could not stay in Addis anymore.  Rebels were marching towards the capital and taking over nearby cities. He managed to make his way headed for Bahir Dar, more than a day’s bus ride away where he would stay with some monks, monks who had the power of prophecy.

Living on their own and being secluded in meditation, these monks saw through time. Perhaps as close to Tibetan lamas as can be found outside Tibet, these monks knew the secrets of the ancient language of Ge’ez, Africa’s only Indigenous written language. Romeo wanted to meet some of these monks and learn what they had to say. Recently government troops have been able to recapture the sacred site of Lalibela. Romeo might finally be able to return home, and be with his family once again. But of late the rebels have overtaken his home, yet again. He is planning to return to Bahir Dar. On the road back his backpack and the rest of his money were stolen. He is living like a lost nomad, with little prospects for peace. And just recently yet again, Lalibela was freed of the rebels yet again. He is slowly making his way back home.

Romeo is finally about to return home after living on the streets, close to being abducted by warlords, fearing some of his friends were about to relive the horrors of a scenario reminiscent of Beasts of No Nation. But here in Ethiopia, monks still held onto the sacred Ark of the Covenant that held the two sacred tablets of the Ten Commandments. Some of whom predicted a new virus that would come from the bird world, like the bird flu that has just destroyed 5,000 cranes in Israel, the worst wildlife tragedy in that country’s history. A monk had shared this prophecy six months ago with Romeo, who shared this prediction with me. How could the monk have known? 

Upon his return to Lalibela, I asked Romeo to return to some of the monks he had met and ask them where humanity was heading. Was a virus coming for which we would have no defense? Something science could still not fathom? Whose secret lay locked inside the annals of time, inside the deep metaphysics of a consciousness the modern technological society has completely lost touch with. Romeo was in touch with those who saw through time, in the midst of a war-ravaged country, that defy all expectations. 

Stay tuned.

Learn more about Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson’s work at their website.

WT Trailer cut 4 from Lightningwood on Vimeo.