The Ethiopian tradition in which boys prove their manhood with their fists may have contributed to the Aspen Hill incident last week in which a 7-year-old boy was seriously injured, some members of the area's Ethiopian community said yesterday.
The boy's playmate, a 10-year-old Ethiopian boy, was charged with the assault and is being held in a Rockville juvenile detention center.
The 10-year-old, whose name is not being used because he is a juvenile, appeared "calm and collected" at a closed hearing yesterday to determine where he should stay until his case is decided, according to Judge Douglas Moore of the Montgomery County Juvenile Court.
The boy's mother, a tall woman wearing a pale print skirt with matching jacket and large gold earrings, asked Moore to place the boy in her custody. But he denied her request and ordered him held in Noyes Juvenile Detention Center near Rockville. She left the courtroom in tears.
A hearing on the charges against the boy has been scheduled for Aug. 23. The 10-year-old is the son of a former Ethiopian diplomat who has served as an ambassador in Europe.
"Boys in Ethiopia do overdo it physically," said Tsehaye Teferra, a member of the Ethiopian Community Development Council, a nonprofit organization here. "It is a part of the growing up process; a part of the culture." Ethiopian families oppose this violent side of their culture, Teferra said, but "it is hard to eliminate tradition."
He said that he "felt disgusted" when he learned that the 10-year-old boy had been accused of assaulting his younger companion. But he "felt disgust and some guilt" when he heard that the 10-year-old was an Ethiopian boy.
Other local Ethiopians suggested that the Turkey Branch Creek assault may have started out as a game. "We were wondering if this was one of those typical things where children play rough but maybe got carried away," said one man, who has vivid memories -- and physical proof -- of his own boyhood fights in Ethiopia.
"I still have the scar from where a friend stuck a spear in my belly," he said.
Montgomery County police said they are not sure what started the incident in which Steven Wilson Jr. suffered multiple facial lacerations and head injuries. Steven was found unconscious, lying face-down in the water, and was taken to Children's Hospital for emergency surgery.
His condition has gradually improved, officials said, and he may go home later this week to recuperate.
The two boys had been playing together in the creek when the 10-year-old ran to get help for his injured playmate. The 10-year-old told police that he and Steven had been approached by two teen-agers who laughed and came at them with fold-up knives. The 10-year-old said that he escaped but that Steven had slipped down an embankment and been attacked by the two youths.
Police closed the case Tuesday and filed charges against the 10-year-old. Sgt. Gary Smith said yesterday that investigators "totally disbelieve that the boy's injuries were sustained accidentally."
Police have rejected the early report, based on information from the 10-year-old, that Steven was cut with knives. Based on their investigation, including an interview with the doctor who treated his injuries, police now believe "that blunt forces -- the rocks in the creek -- were used," Smith said.