Orphaned and forced to flee from Ethiopia to Germany at the age of 10, a victim of sexual abuse and unplanned pregnancy at 12, Salema Wad’Deres turned to heroin as a homeless teenager. Her life was the subject of a documentary at last year’s Berlinale. After decades of addiction and jail time, the 43-year-old Berliner is still healing old wounds.
Salema Wad’Deres is stumbling around Kottbusser Tor in broad daylight. Visibly drunk and in low spirits, she slumps on a bench with a backpack filled with her only possessions strapped to her. She has been sleeping on playgrounds in Görlitzer Park since her release from Berlin Women’s Prison in Lichtenberg six weeks earlier. Her raw misery comes thundering out as she punches her fist into her leg: “Ich bin müde und ich will nicht mehr, ich will nicht mehr, ich will nicht mehr. ICH. WILL. NICHT. MEHR!” Salema’s shoulders crumple beneath the weight of her anguish as tears cascade down her cheeks. Mumbling that she should have picked up more from the dealer, she administers a hit of heroin into her pubic area – later revealed to be a suicide attempt.
It only happened once, but that was sufficient to orchestrate Salema’s tumble into a dark abyss. “That cry, eh. That cry… ‘You. Are. Pregnant.’
Two years and seven months later, on February 14, 2012, Salema steps onto the Cinemaxx 1 platform at the Berlinale following a screening of Meine Freiheit, Deine Freiheit (My Freedom, Your Freedom). Directed by Diana Näcke, the film lays bare the lives of Salema Wad’Deres and Kübra Baytok: two sharp and intelligent women with histories plagued by violence, neglect, incarceration and drug abuse.
Hearing Salema’s powerful voice come out of her tiny figure as she addresses the curious Berlinale audience further emphasises this woman’s contrasts. “I really pushed Diana to make this film,” Salema recounts. She met the filmmaker and journalist while serving time in Lichtenberg. “So that this society finally opens its eyes! We’re not just ‘junkies’ who take drugs because we fancy it or are in the mood for it – no! There’s a story and history behind why each of us is drug-dependent. A horrible, fucked up story.”
Absorbed by the film’s naked storytelling as well as our shared ethnic histories rooted in Ethiopia and its former province, Eritrea, I was drawn to Salema. Little did I know how true her words would turn out to be.
After many back-and-forths and several postponed meetings, I finally arrive at Salema’s home: ZIK (zuhause im Kiez), an integrationist assisted living project on Reichenberger Straße housing drug-dependent AIDS, HIV and hepatitis sufferers. Salema is the only one without any of these illnesses to live there. Recognising me instantly due to our common ethnicity, she greets me with a hug, pronouncing my name in the way only a Habesha person instantly can: Me-he-ret. All nerves immediately put to a stop by her warm embrace, I clasp a mug of Salema’s favourite fruit tea as she guides our group, including her caretaker Katja whom she requested as a chaperone, to a whitewashed back room in her home.
With smooth, marble-like skin coolly defying decades of multiple traumas and systematic substance abuse, Salema neither looks nor feels her 43 years. Dressed in paint-splattered cargo pants teamed with a skull-and-crossbones hooded jumper, she exudes the defiantly rebellious aura of an individual whose arm cannot and will not be bent.
After ensuring that everyone has adequate tea to sip on, Salema makes it promptly clear that despite her attentive hosting and unintimidating appearance, she doesn’t suffer fools gladly. “What is it exactly that you want?” she asks simply, eyes directed squarely at me. Listening to my response, her eyes initially narrow but before long she jumps up off her seat abruptly and issues Katja a curt nod of approval. Buoyed by our shared ancestry, Salema says: “I gotcha. We are going to talk about my – our – history.” Resting further back onto the sofa, as Katja leaves the room, Salema bitterly starts her story. “Where do I begin…”
Salema was born in the northern Ethiopian province of Aksum on June 28, 1969, the youngest of four sisters and a member of Ethiopia’s Orthodox Jewish minority. “Do you know Aksum?” she asks wide-eyed, her small frame perched on the edge of the black leather sofa. “It’s one of the most ancient kingdoms in Ethiopia and in the world. It has grand architecture like the Stelae – these huge columns that go way up into the sky…” Salema’s eyes wander off for a few seconds, distracted by distant thoughts, and her facial muscles rest into a rare look of contentment before her rage resumes control.
In 1974, when Selema was five, a coup ended the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie and with it the ancient monarchy of Ethiopia. In its place came the military dictatorship of Colonel Mengistu, which would govern Ethiopian everyday life for 17 years. Of the 1.3 million people estimated to have been murdered under Colonel Mengistu’s regime, intellectuals were some of the first targeted. Triggered by the closure of the University in Addis Ababa, Salema’s mother, Mabrat – a politics professor – made the perilous decision to join the revolutionary struggle. Salema’s father, a goldsmith, followed suit.
“I was always closer to my mother,” Salema recalls. “I’d go with her into the mountains, jogging to keep up with her quick steps as I held her hand.” And the young girl would look on as her mother taught members of the resistance and their children in rural mountains outside the city: “Chalk in one hand and Kalashnikov in the other,” Salema recounts, pulling at the frays of her jumper. In January 1980, a member of the resistance group was caught and tortured to death by the military. The location of the group’s next meeting was given away: the Wad’Deres’ family home. Ten-year-old Salema and her sister Saba, 13, had been sent to their grandmother’s for the afternoon of the meeting. Shortly before the three arrived back home in the early evening, neighbours intercepted them. They took the girls into their home, and told the grandmother the horrifying news: Salema’s mother and father had been executed by the military in the Wad’Deres’ living room, along with 30 other people. Salema’s grandmother later shared that the room resembled the inside of an abattoir. “We weren’t allowed in. They protected us,” Salema remembers. With escape routes, papers and emergency money entrusted with their grandmother, the two newly orphaned sisters were forced to abandon all that they knew and go on the run. Smuggled over to Sudan and flown 5400km away to Frankfurt, Salema hasn’t been back to Ethiopia since.
“I mean, nothing has changed. We have no rights. People are still unlawfully imprisoned. Even though the system is completely different now, it’s still the same shit in both Ethiopia and Eritrea: one dictator unseated just to be replaced by another! For nothing and for nothing again… it makes me feel so sick.” Though she finds dignity in her parents’ legacy as freedom fighters opposing a homicidal regime, Salema’s fury at being unable to ever return home to Ethiopia lies nonetheless at her parents’ doorstep.
Out of the limelight of the Berlinale, Salema’s unease when out in public is palpable. Walking outside, she lets the side of her arm brush softly against walls and railings as her mind becomes entangled in fury, and her fear of being judged instinctively steers her body toward the shadows of the pavement. As she walks, she stops to greet and talk to anyone she intuitively reads as being well-intentioned. Paranoid that love always turns into abandonment and hurt, Salema now takes the steering wheel in her relationships, even if control must be wrestled from someone else.
Eventually removed from a transit centre for juvenile asylum seekers, Salema and Saba were put in the care of a foster mother in Wuppertal when the girls were 12 and 15 respectively. During her free afternoons, Salema started slipping off alone to watch screenings of her favourite Bruce Lee films at a local bar. Soon, she caught the attention of a regular, and her new acquaintance began covering her Coca-Cola tab. “At one time or another I started thinking, ‘Oh, I’m so big now and I’m so in love. I was 12 years old. And this arsehole was 35.” Salema insists he never hurt or forced himself on her: “… but he exploited my vulnerability, you know? It was still child abuse. He knew how old I was.”
‘It’ only happened once, but that once was sufficient to orchestrate Salema’s tumble into a dark abyss. “That cry, eh. That cry… ‘You. Are. Pregnant.’ My goodness, I let out such a scream that I will never in my life hear anything like. I had no clue,” Salema cries out, shaking her head repeatedly, “None.”
Refusing to involve elder sister Saba out of the typical Habesha belief in respecting family honour above all else, Salema was on her own. The decision haunts her more than any other: “I put my trust in people I didn’t know and doubted my sister, my own blood. That was my big mistake.” After the pregnancy was discovered, Salema was separated from her sister and kept under lock and key at a “Home for Difficult Girls”: “I couldn’t even open the window on my own. My jail time had already begun.” Separated from her daughter immediately after the birth, Salema ran away from the home and made her way to the streets of Frankfurt.
Alone, hurt and without a support network to lean on, Salema learned to fend for herself. At 15 she fell in love for the first time with the daughter of a former Ethiopian ambassador. This was to be her first real exposure to heroin. Wanting to be in her girlfriend’s world, ignoring her warnings, Salema headed down to Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof to pick up the drug. The traumatised 15-year-old had already made the conscious decision to inject. “It’s not a ‘normal’ thing to think, you know? At 15. Drugs for me have always been a means by which I can let go; just so that I can sleep. Even though it’s unrealistic because the very second I wake up, the same old shit I tried to escape is still there. Drugs offer no solution. Things only get worse.”
The feeling to take something never goes away. It will accompany me through the rest of my life.
Her girlfriend died from an overdose a few months into their relationship, and as the homeless teenager’s slide into addiction began, criminality soon factored in. Reoffending since age 17, Salema spent the next decades of her life in and out of prison, between short stints of recovery at drug therapy centres and relapse on the streets and in temporary accommodation. The only constant in her life has been her almost 30-year relationship with intoxicants.
Salema’s shaved-head, anarchic appearance and her apartment walls, a canvas for her artistic expression, project her bold side. But still today she is battling her demons. On a methadone programme since entering ZIK just over one year ago, she may have lost all thirst for heroin but has turned to other substances as a way to numb her pain. “The feeling to take something never goes away. It will accompany me through the rest of my life and I will have to fight it continuously. I might land back on the streets and I might relapse again, but I will never fall again like you see in the film,” Salema explains.
Smoking a rolled cigarette in her courtyard on a day off from working at the ZIK-affiliated Orangerie Café, Salema smiles and chats with an art history student and neighbour who stops by. Turning around to me, she says: “See, it’s good here because we’re not just sent far away to an institution for ‘people like us’. We’re not locked in. We also get a real chance to live real lives with real neighbours just like the real human beings we are.”
Seemingly, it is social constructions of drug addicts as inherently unwanted and different that erect the greatest barriers between her and ‘us’. “I said to Diana, ‘Come. We’re going to make this film and make it so fucking realistic so that people really see us’. You get so many superficial people in society who scold us and insult us before understanding the damage that lies behind drug dependence. It isn’t just, ‘oh, junkies take drugs because it’s so fun.’ That’s not true. Everything that I can’t endure on my own, I get rid of through drugs.”
I recall the critical attitudes of Berlinale spectators after the Meine Freiheit, Deine Freiheit screening, Salema noticeably retracting from discussions in the lobby as the whispers disseminate: “Oh, but did you smell the alcohol on her?” Winning Salema’s protective shell-like exterior some validity, dually, it highlights how perplexing our attitudes towards drug addiction and drug addicts actually are. Preconceptions always hit a nerve with Salema and arouse her exacting response: “This is why,” she insists, “this film is important.”
Originally published in issue #116, May 2013.