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The Ethiopian Red Terror

By Zainab Makale

Between 1976 and 1978, the Ethiopian government waged a counter-insurgency campaign in all major Ethiopian cities. This campaign labelled ‘Red Terror’ involved the use of extreme violence and brutality against government opposition and the general population in order to exterminate dissent1. The Red Terror remains a tragic and painful scar across the history of the African continent. It is our hope that the Human Rights Memorial ensures that it is never forgotten.

The Beginning

In 1974, Ethiopia and the rest of the world watched as Emperor Haile Selassie was ousted from power by a military junta. This Revolution to oust the monarch was initially a relatively peaceful movement initiated in order to challenge the autocratic nature of Ethiopian society. With no clear leading body of the Revolution, political power was up for grabs and those to capture it were the Provisional Military Administrative Council2. The Council of about 120 armed forces members was also known as the Derg, meaning ‘the committee’ in Amharic. The Derg abolished the Parliament, suspended the Constitution and arrested the Emperor was later executed while on house arrest3. As a Marxist organisation, the Derg nationalized all land using the slogan ‘land to the tiller of the soil’4 and created urban dwellers associations called kebeles to run all nationalized land and collect taxes5. Despite the Derg’s seeming commitment to the principle of equality and their reiterations that no blood would be shed6, it slowly became apparent that retaining power was a principal aim of the Derg – by all means.

Mengistu & the Red Terror

‘One of the most systematic uses of mass murder by the state ever witnessed in Africa’ Human Rights Watch

The Derg continued to infiltrate all factions of power within Ethiopian society. The Council faced several opposition groups notably the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) and MEISON (All Ethiopian Socialist Movement). Meanwhile, following a power sua may giat struggle within the Derg, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam assumed total military, administrative and political control of Ethiopia by eliminating his rivals.

General Aman Andom, chairman and president of Ethiopia who was appointed by the Derg died in a battle with troops sent to his home to arrest him. That same night, two months after the Derg took power, it executed 59 aristocrats and former government official of the former regime7. The officials were taken to the Alem Bekagn Central Prison where they were executed and buried in a mass grave.

Dictator MengistuMengistu Haile Mariam served as interim president until the Derg appointed Gen Tafari Bente to the position. However, the showdown between Col Menghistu and Gen Tafari Bante occurred on 3 February 1977, when gunfire erupted during a meeting of the Standing Committee of the Derg. This meeting ended with the deaths of General Tafari and other military officials.

Subsequently with Colonel Mengistu at the helm, the Derg continued to suppress all those competing for power. Resistance to the Derg’s suppression efforts came from EPRP which began killing some government officials, kebele members and army officers8. The Derg named members of this resistance ‘white terrorists’9 and in September 1976 rounding up and killings of suspected members of the EPRP began to appear. In fact, just the day after his assumption of absolute power, Mengistu vowed to avenge his fallen comrades and attack the white terrorists10. At this point, one can say that in 1977 the Red Terror Campaign was in full swing in Ethiopia. The government’s aim was to exterminate enemies of the revolution through using the kebeles as a kind of secret police11.

The Amharic phrase for Red Terror is ‘Qey Shibr’. The government officially declared Red Terror in the press using the motto “Qey Shibir yi fafam12. This means “Red Terror will spread’13.

Initially the main target of the Red Terror campaign was the intelligentsia of Addis Ababa14. This included former government officials, civil servants, armed forces officers, students, teachers, trade unionists, and suspected members of political opposition parties15. Nationalist groups such as Eritrea, Oromo and Tigray were also targeted and arrested16. Attacking these parts of society marks the first phase of the Red Terror. Slowly however as the ‘white terrorists’ were quickly overcome, the Red Terror transformed into a systematic campaign to beat Ethiopian society as a whole into submission17.

KebelesIn order to attack these “counterrevolutionaries”, criminal procedures were altered in 1976 so that charges did not need to be brought against those arrested18. Consequently arbitrary arrests became the norm and many were sent to prisons across Ethiopia including the infamous Alem Bekagn. More disturbingly, systematic torture of those arrested was also commonplace. Evidence has highlighted that common torture tactics were sleep deprivation, burning bodies with cigarettes and electric currents, flogging and hanging individuals by the arms as well as sexual assaults, the crushing of testicles and the ripping out of finger nails19. Amnesty International stated that hundreds were executed following unfair trials, while many ‘disappeared’ or were secretly killed20. The armed forces even used tactics such as bombing civilians with napalm21.

In October 1977 alone an estimated 3,000-4,000 individuals were killed and all opposition members in high-level government positions were removed22.The Red Terror officials conducted two major house to house searches that lasted days, killing many in their path23. Bodies of those killed would then be placed on display in the streets with posters on their corpses branding them as enemies sua chua may giat of the revolution24. Many accounts state that security forces did indeed often simply dump dead bodies along the side of the road and piled them on street corners. Some victims were even forced to dig their own graves before being murdered, while families were made to pay a fee to retrieve bodies of their relatives25. Even more shockingly, children also became the target of the kebeles26. Save the Children protested in early 1978 against the alleged execution of 1,000 children, many under thirteen, whom the government labelled as ‘liaison agents of the counter revolutionaries’27. Clearly, during the Red Terror, no one was safe.

A Glimpse at the Red Terror

Torturing Device Used by KebelesFor Hirut Abebe-Jiri, the scars, both physical and mental, of the Red Terror will never fade. One by one, Revolutionary guards began to take members of her family. First her uncle, then her father and then they came for her and her sister28. Hirut remembers being taken into an office where a young boy, severely beaten was tied to a broomstick and suspended between two desks22. Hirut soon found herself in the same position where she was beaten for an entire night and later thrown into a cell22. The young lady could not walk for days and she was to stay in that cell for years to come. Hirut and her sister survived. Many others, however, died during torture or imprisonment.

The story of Tsehai Tolessa is also another one that reminds us of the losses people sustained during the Red Terror era. Both Tsehai and her husband were abducted by gunmen outside a church in Addis Ababa29. Later released, Tsehai was re-arrested in 1980 and held without trial for nine years29. Sadly Tsehai never saw her husband again and can now only describe him as ‘disappeared’.

In 1986 Human Rights Watch heard the story of a young student suspected of supporting the opposition. In 1978, the student was imprisoned in a house along with 470 others30. He was brutally tortured through flogging and burning to the soles of his feet31. It was only after six months of torture, that he was able to escape dressed as a poor shepherd to Sudan31.

After 1978

Overall the officially sanctioned Red Terror campaign occurred from 1977-7832. However abuses did not stop here. While ‘disappearances’ declined, throughout the Derg regime arbitrary arrests continued and many kebeles33 continued to gang–rape women and young girls34. Sadly the regime sua tu lanh consistently denied their human rights violations35. During the Red Terror alone an estimated tens of thousands of people were murdered or simply ‘disappeared’36. Moreover, throughout the entire Derg rule it is estimated that more than 100,000 people were imprisoned for political reasons37.

In May 1991, as a coalition of rebel movements advanced upon the capital, Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe where he has been in exile ever since. This marked the end of the Derg regime and revolutionary movement38. In 2008 Mengistu was tried in absentia along with other members of the regime and sentenced to death.

Remembering the Red Terror

The former prison, now demolished, Alem BekagnIt remains the responsibility of all Ethiopians, the African Union and indeed the whole world to ensure that abuses such as the Red Terror never occur again. In Addis Ababa a memorial stands to remind us of what took place during the ruthless campaign. The African Union is launching a memorial to honour and remember those who perished not only during the Red Terror Campaign but also other atrocities that took place in the continent. It is worth noting that the current African Union Headquarters which was inaugurated on the 28 Jan 2012 stands on the same site where Alem Bekagn use to be. The story of Alem Bekagn can be viewed as a place that played central role during the terror campaign. It represents a place of horror to many Ethiopians.

In 2006, the prison was donated to the African Union, and was subsequently torn down to be rebuilt into the new Union headquarters by the Chinese. Therefore, while the site remains a place of bloodshed and hardship it has now come to represent a place of peace and hope. The Human Rights Memorial aims to encapsulate these feelings so that we will never forget and we will never repeat.

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