27 December, 2011

Dr.Mulugeta: Inspiration beyond Physics

"I was in prison for seven years, and the first four years of imprisonment, there were 45 of us in 4m x 4m room in the central prison in Ethiopia", reminisces Dr. Mulugeta Bekele from Ethiopia, not with remorse, but with a tinge of sadness of the time spent then, and a subtle nationalistic pride.
Dr. Mulugeta is an associate Professor Physics at Addis Ababa University (AAU), Ethiopia. He completed his Ph. D in Physics from the Indian Institute of Science, India in the year 1997 and now he's back at his alma matter for a month. It has been a deeply inspiring experience to have interacted with him, firstly to know the Physicist he is, and with subsequent interactions, I have known other nuances of this humble science and math enthusiast from Ethiopia with a life long of struggle.

Dr. Mulugeta was the only Physics major student at Haile Sellasie University, and he pursued his passion Mathematics via Physics during late 1960's, as a lone student during his under-graduate days.

After the monarchy in Ethiopia was overthrown by a military regime - socialist for name sake; although it did nationalise banks, industry and land, it was far from being the encapsulation of people's aspirations. As Dr.Mulugeta says, "The monarchical hierarchy under which Ethiopia was ruled until the 1974, using military had just lost its head - the monarch alone was gone, and there was a total military oligarchy. With zero representation of the people's voices, the new military regime had to suppress numerous popular people's struggles".

The people's struggles which were taken up in the form of student movements, workers unions, and other representation of the common man in Ethiopia ended up in a ghastly phase of Ethiopian history. During this time, Dr.Mulugeta was teaching at AAU and did participate in the revolutions during the monarchical oligarchy, and post that against the military oligarchy.

The military regime was ruthless and suppressed all forms of uprisings, and in doing so killed hundreds of youth and imprisoned thousands of them even without a trial.
The Physics teacher from AAU that Dr.Mulugeta was during the people's uprisings against the military regime did participate in all the youth movements. “As the educated section of the society, all young students and teachers were actively participating in the demonstrations, and it was natural for me to join in those struggles”, he says. 
The ruthless regime in order to curtail such people's struggles killed hundreds of the young students and put a whole lot of them into prison. Dr. Mulugeta was put into a prison during one such retaliation by the military. He speaks of the uncertainty about the term they would be serving, or even the future of all the captured people, for, there was reckless genocide going on.

"We weren't given a trial or anything; Directly dumped into the prison and we did not even know for long....And when one of my other physicist got a trial and was sentenced seven years in prison, we started thinking of the same luck for each of us. We did not know how long could seven years in prison be. The first year is Sunday, second year was Monday, third year was Tuesday and so on, like the seven days of the week, each year was to become a really long day for each of us...”, recollects Dr. Mulugeta from his prison experience.

Describing the inhumane conditions of the prison cells and the tortures they had to endure he says that the cell in which he spent his first four years of term was 4m x 4m, and 45 people had to live in that! With very little time when they were allowed to go out from the cell, it must have been really hard. Although he does not talk of his own difficulties at any point of time, he says that before he could be put into that cell, previously there were 88 prisoners in the same 4m x 4m cell!

Apart from the imprisonment, severe torture on the prisoners was common, where they used to be chained, beaten, broken and several severed to death.

After four years in the central prison, where he was moved to a larger main prison where each prisoner the space alloted to each prisoner is more or less similar to the central prison, but the solace was that they could walk around the prison compounding walls.

When Dr. Mulugeta was released in 1985 at the age of 39, after spending seven years in jail he went back to AAU and in 1991 he comes to India to pursue his Ph. D at the Indian Institute of Science. Today he is one of the most respected Physicists from his region and in recognition to his efforts in contributing to Physics and his struggles he is being awarded the Andrel Sakharov prize by the American Physical Society, about which he says,” My Ethiopian students in the USA recommened me for this and I am happy about it”.

A simple, humble, erudite physicist with a life story which moves and inspires the young, not only of his own country but well beyond.

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