The Red Terror
Most of the Derg’s early victims were neither ministers nor members of the royal family. They were students who supported—or were suspected of supporting—a rival revolutionary movement, the EPRP, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party, a soi-disant socialist vanguard party that attracted many of the young intellectuals in the country. The Ethiopian revolution was one that consumed its children. In its chaotic early days, as the EPRP saw political influence slip from its grasp with the military consolidating their hold on power, its campus utopianism mutated into urban terrorism.
The Derg’s response was the Red Terror, launched by Mengistu in 1977, three years after the Derg’s assumption of power, with a speech in the heart of Addis Ababa, in Meskal Square, the Square of the Feast of the Finding of the True Cross (renamed Abiot Square—Revolution Square—by the Derg). A histrionic speaker, Mengistu smashed bottles of red dye on the ground to represent, he said, the blood of imperialists and counter-revolutionaries.
Even before the proclamation young people under suspicion were being detained, tortured and killed by officials of the kebeles, the precinct organizations established by the Derg to be their eyes and ears among the people. It was a time when inhabitants of Addis Ababa and other towns and cities came to fear the worst: if their children did not come home at night they might turn up dead on the street in the morning, with a sign nailed to them saying “I Was Killed Because I Betrayed the Revolution”.
As with the fifty-nine ministers, the Special Prosecutor has what amounts to a written confession for many of these deaths. In their paranoid fervour the Derg expected kebele leaders to torture and kill; and in their bureaucratic zeal they required them to complete, in duplicate, a questionnaire that detailed contributions they had made to the revolution. The correct way to complete the questionnaire, for a cadre desirous to advance his career—in an application, say, for a Star of Lenin—was to list the names of suspected counter-revolutionaries whom he had eliminated. Thus, it seems, many signed what may turn out to be their own death warrant. The documentary evidence in the possession of the Special Prosecutor’s Office is vast. There are over three hundred thousand documents, more than were presented at the Nuremberg trials.
The quantity of evidence has proved to be a problem for the prosecution. The Special Prosecutor in the Ethiopian trials is responsible both for the collection of evidence and the preparation of the charges. He has been widely criticised for the long delay in bringing charges against the detainees. An attempt to computerize the prosecution evidence foundered when the American computer operatives were expelled on suspicion of espionage.
Repeated criticism has made the Special Prosecutor, Girma Wakjira, wary of the Press. In an interview in his office near the court he told me that in the course of his investigation, even though he lived through the Red Terror himself, he had repeatedly been surprised both at the extent of the atrocities and the amount of documentation. Ato Grima stressed the unprecedented nature of the trial. He has a point: the pile of evidence he has to deal with is a monument to a time before governments like the Derg learned to keep death squads unofficial, before they mastered the technique of the off-the-record death.
Hajji Omar and his son
In the section of the court reserved for relatives of victims sat an old man in an embroidered skull-cap and immaculate white leather slippers. He was a Muslim grain trader from the Highland region of Guraghe named Hajji Omar Jeju. In the court recess, while the lawyers and the rest of us queued for coffee, Hajji Omar would take a jug of water to wash his feet and hands, then lay his prayer mat out on the lawn towards the north to pray. He stayed throughout the first day’s hearing and returned the next, studying the accused through horn-rimmed spectacles and listening attentively to the list of charges.
He was waiting to hear the name of his son, Muhidin. During the Red Terror, he told me, the two of them had been taken together by kebele officials to the Menelik palace. There he was forced to watch—this was a speciality of the Derg’s interrogators—while the boy, an EPRP activist, was tortured in front of him, his fingernails pulled out with pliers, the soles of his feet beaten till he could not walk. At night Hajji Omar cradled his son in his arms to ease the pain from his hands and feet. After several nights of this Muhidin was taken away by security police. His father never saw him again.
I asked Hajji Omar if he knew any of the defendants.
“I know all of them,” he said. “When I was trying to find out what had happened to my son I went to see Teka Tulu. I went to see Fisseha Desta. Then I tried to see Fikre-Selassie and Legesse Asfaw. And Debella Dinsa, because I knew it was him who had interrogated him.”
“I failed,” said Hajji Omar. “They refused. I was threatened with death if I pursued the matter.”
“But ,” he added, “I know which of them signed his death warrant.”
On the second day of the trial, in the morning, as the reading of the charges resumed, Hajji Omar began to weep silently. Then we knew his son’s name had been spoken. That day he returned to Guraghe.
The Anti-Red Terror Committee
Hajji Omar found out who signed his son’s death warrant through the work of the Anti-Red Terror Committee, an organization of victims and relatives of victims established immediately after the fall of the Derg. Before he returned to Guraghe, he introduced me to the then Chairman of the Committee, Astateke Chaka, a man the age his son had been.
Like everyone else, like everyone in the court—like everyone in Ethiopia, it seemed—Astatke had his own story of the Red Terror.
His brother had vanished one day at the height of the Terror. The family only found out what happened by going round to every hospital in the city till they found his body. He had been stabbed to death by a kebele militia.
“We had to pay three hundred birr (about fifty US dollars) to get the body back,” Astatke told me.
“That was normal. If someone was shot the militiamen would say the money was to pay for the bullet. We were lucky to find him. Usually the bodies were just thrown away.”
Soon afterwards, Astateke’s father was arrested and tortured. Then his mother. Astatke was ten years old.
“We knew who killed my brother. They would sit and drink and boast about what they did. And at the women’s meeting in the kebele cadres insulted my mother, saying ‘Why do you wear black? Your son was a dog.’ ”
“My mother became angry and insulted them back. So they put her in torture. They burst open the scar from the operation she had when she gave birth to me. But they weren’t ready for her to die, so they brought her to the hospital, where we found her. During that time we, the children, had nothing to eat. People were afraid to visit us.”
“Under the Derg no one said anything about such things,” Astatake said. “And people still don’t like to talk about it. No one was allowed to mourn. When the EPRDF came we went immediately to search for the murderers. The EPRDF came from outside so they didn’t know who these people were. We organised meetings for denunciation—kangaroo courts.
“Nobody knew what would happen. People have different ideas about what justice is. But we wanted the people responsible for the killing to be caught and held. Now there are some of the families that just want vengeance. It’s hard to explain to them why it takes so long.”
Astateke invited me to the inauguration of a memorial to the victims of the Red Terror in Meskal Square. A modest, stone marker had been erected in the middle of the huge amphitheatre where Mengistu launched the campaign. The boundary of the square had once been adorned with huge portraits of Mengistu, Marx, Lenin and Engels. Now it was a vast blank. A group of protesters surrounded a black sedan with photographs of the dead plastered on its sides. They carried an inverted portrait of Mengistu, his face obliterated by a red cross.
“Maneater,” they shouted again and again. “Monster. Mengistu fascistu. He drank Ethiopian blood. Let him be burned alive”
Then the portrait of Mengistu was doused in gasoline and set alight. A single camera from the government TV channel recorded the event.
The bloodthirsty rhetoric of the protestors carried an uneasy echo of the moment twenty years before when Mengistu had launched the Red Terror by hurling red dye on the ground to represent imperialists’ blood. Yet a striking feature of the first, uncertain days of the EPRDF takeover, as Astatke described them, was the rarity of vengeance killings.
I asked Roger Briottet, a veteran French human rights lawyer who worked for a time for the Special Prosecutor’s Office, why this was so.
“It amazes me,” he said. “They could have killed a lot of people. I’ve witnessed other massacres after liberation. I just don’t know why this didn’t happen in Ethiopia.”
Some have suggested that the orderliness of the takeover was because people didn’t believe the Derg had really gone. Or that they were more worried about their new masters, the EPRDF, than about avenging themselves on the old. Or that a traditional respect for authority asserted itself, even in the absence of any such authority. One way or another, the Anti-Red Terror Committee avoided becoming a lynch mob and became an amateur investigation bureau, which was later taken under the wing of the Special Prosecutor.
Some of the public hearings that the Anti-Red Terror Committee helped to organize in the early days—kangaroo courts, as Astatke hmself called them—were televised, as were the exhumations of the Derg’s secret killing fields all over the country. On videotapes of these TV programmes the demeanour of the petty officials arraigned before the people they brutalized seems oddly uncontrite, as though they still did not really believe their time was up. Most of these officials are now among the hundreds still awaiting trial.
I asked Astatke whether there was any difficulty getting witnesses to come forward.
“There are some who refuse to testify,” he said. “Some people who have lost their children now say ‘I gave everything to God. I have nothing left to give.’ Or they say ‘Maybe the EPRDF will go in its turn. What then? Maybe the prisoners will be released. Where will I go then? They will kill us again.’”
“Many of the Protestants, especially, are like this,” Astatke said. “I don’t know why. Not everyone has woken up from the nightmare yet.”
“Having trials is not the same as having the bodies,” he continued. “It is not the same as burying your dead in the proper manner. Muslims and Christians died together in the Red Terror; their bones are all mixed up, they can’t be reburied as they should be.”
“For this reason,” Astatke concluded, “we think it would be better to put them in a museum.”
I asked him if he had heard of Tuol Sleng, the museum in a former Khmer Rouge torture centre in Cambodia. “Yes,” he said, “and we have somewhere like that here. It is called Bermuda. It was where they used to torture people. It was like the Bermuda triangle: no one ever came out of there. It is the Bermuda that I would like to make into a museum.”
Dr Managesha’s story
As the judge came to the last pages of the charges, the Bermuda came up again. The word took me back, with a shock, to my first visit to Ethiopia, ten years previously.
When we were listening to the roll-call of the dead on the first day of the court hearing, Teshome Gabre-Mariam had said that their names would mean nothing to me. But there was an exception. Charge 186 concerned the first Ethiopian who had invited me to his home, Dr Managesha Gebrehiwot, a debonair ex-Minister and former Dean of the University.
Dismissed after the Derg takeover, Dr Managesha, with his wife, Almaz Teklu, a famous beauty, opened a travel agency called Wonderland, near Meskal Square. It was part of their work to deal with the few foreigners who came to Ethiopia at that time, those who were prepared to risk rebel attacks to see the medieval rock churches of Lalibela or the ancient stelae at Axum. But such contact with outsiders laid them open to the baleful attention of security men—and Almaz and Managesha were Tigrayans, from the province where insurgents were giving the Derg most trouble.
When the judge read out Charge 186 and I heard Managesha’s name I felt a stab of guilt. Since that time in 1984 I had not tried to contact him or Almaz. I had passed Wonderland once since then; it was boarded up. Now Managesha was dead. The charge detailed his last days, under detention, with twelve others, in a Bermuda.
“In the Central and so-called Bermuda investigation departments,” the charge ran, “there was no food nor medicine, and not enough air, nor sufficient place to sleep—these conditions being calculated to result in their death, having arbitrarily designated them as anti-revolution, anti-people and subversive members of the EPRP, EPLF, TPLF”.
Such were the terms of art, the terrible totalitarian clichés, exhumed by the Special Prosecutor from the documents of the former regime. These documents spoke of feudal remnants, reactionaries, anarchists, and—that grotesque oxymoron—anti-people elements. Here was the Stalinist scrap-heap of history, the categories to which brothers, husbands, daughters, sons, friends and acquaintances—Dr Managesha among them—had been reduced by the Derg’s hand-me-down totalitarianism.
The words recurred hypnotically in charge after charge, the judge rattling them off at the unrelenting pace of a tobacco auctioneer, determined to get to the end of the red book before the end of the second day. The court interpreter—there was only one—had long abandoned the attempt to keep up. Several times he slipped and referred, serendipitously, to “the Red Error”.
Words and phrases from the charges seemed to float in the sunlit air like particles of toxic dust: Taken in the darkness of the night… Murdered in his bed chamber… Thrown on the fields of Desse… Subjected to torture in the Bermuda.
By the time we got to Dr Managesha’s case some of the defendants were dozing, even as the crimes committed in their name were held up to the light. Teka Tulu, obese and diabetic, with a flowing white beard, a man who was said to have shot and killed his own sister, had been asleep for some time. No one tried to wake him.
After the reading of the charges, the trial adjourned for several weeks. When I returned to Addis in the new year, I tried to find out more about the fate of Dr Managesha. Ato Teshome, who knew everyone, had a telephone number for Almaz. She was still living in the city and had reopened Wonderland—this time as a hair-dressing salon. I called on her there.
It was Lent and she was fasting. She showed the strain of the years since I had seen her last. After Managesha’s arrest, she told me, security men came asking about their eldest son, then a teenager. A foreigner who was a friend of theirs took the boy out of the country pretending he was the son of his maid. For the next seven years Almaz had no contact with her son. And for seven years she did not know for certain whether Managesha himself was dead or alive, whether the food she took to the jail each day was given to him or taken by the guards. She found out only after the EPRDF takeover 1n 1991 that he had died in detention in 1986, barely a year and a half after his arrest.
“I found it out from the television,” Almaz told me. “I was watching with my youngest son. There were people arguing. I thought it was a play, a soap opera. Then I heard Managesha’s name. They were talking about the Bermuda, interrogating a man who had tortured people there.”
“There was another man who had been a prisoner, a man with only one eye. He was describing how Managesha died, how they cut his leg while they were torturing him and it became infected with gangrene.”
“I suddenly realised who they were talking about,” said Almaz. “It was a terrible shock. It was horrible. I had to take my young son out of the room.”
Three years later, during the trial, Almaz went to the court, to see the Derg in the dock.
“But I don’t want to go again,” she said. “The way they talk… They have no sense of sorrow. They have no regret at all. They still think they did a great job. How can you forgive people like that?
Dr Managesha, I learned from other sources, had been accused of involvement in a CIA plot to unseat Mengistu. A number of other Ethiopian dissidents and an American CIA agent were arrested at the same time as him. The American was released after negotiations with the Derg by Vernon Walters, then the CIA’s Deputy-Director; but the Ethiopians all disappeared with Managesha into the netherworld, into the Bermuda and other places of confinement—prisons, palace cellars, barracks and police stations—the Derg’s Gulag, its invisible, urban Siberia.
I was directed eventually to the site of the Bermuda by a former detainee. He was one of few who survived. Haunted by his experience, he was unwilling to be named. Nor would he accompany me inside. He waited at the gate, while I entered with a minder from the Department of Internal Affairs.
Politics in this country was essentially armed politics,” said President Meles. “You didn’t win through arguments. You won by shooting straight. So victories and defeats were total, or perceived to be so.
The Bermuda was a nondescript villa of rusticated stone near the Church of St Gabriel in a suburb near the southern edge of the city, a house with no number, occupied by semi-demobilised soldiers who seemed barely aware of its previous function. The only thing that distinguished it from its neighbours was an underground concrete bunker in the garden that looked like a fall-out shelter, but might have been a septic tank. It was half-full of water and there were dark stains on the walls.
“That’s where they kept the prisoners,” said the man from the Department of Internal Affairs.
“I really don’t like coming here,” he added.
As the charge sheet said: Not enough air, nor sufficient place to sleep.
“Are you sure this is the place where you were imprisoned?” I asked the former detainee as we left. “The actual Bermuda?”
“There are many Bermudas,” he replied wearily. “The whole city was a Bermuda.”
The political opposition
To the Amhara opposition the new constitution and secession of Eritrea are the key issues in the current political debate; the trial of the Derg is a sideshow. It does not help that the Chairman of the main Amhara political party, the All Amhara Political organization, a distinguished surgeon named Professor Asrat Woldeyes, was sentenced to five years in jail in 1994, soon after the EPRDF came to power, on a dubious charge of plotting armed rebellion. Or that, prior to that, he, along with forty senior academics at Addis Ababa University, was dismissed from his post by governmental fiat (the dismissed professors later won a suit for compensation). Or that numbers of other political figures and journalists have been detained without charge.
In Ethiopia, in keeping with the highly polarized nature of political debate, even local human rights groups are divided between those that support the government and those that oppose it. A report from Amnesty International, however, confirms many of the complaints of the Opposition. It chronicles disappearances and killings since the EPRDF takeover and concludes “the message of the trials… will be undermined unless decisive action is taken to stop human rights violations violations perpetrated by those in power now.”
With Professor Asrat in prison, the leading Opposition figure in Ethiopia is Dr Beyene Petros, another academic drawn into politics. Dr Beyene comes from a tiny group in Southern Ethiopia, the Hadiya (“We were before the Oromo,” he told me. “We consider ourselves one of the ancient peoples of Ethiopia”). Originally part of the EPRDF coalition, Dr Beyene now heads an umbrella group to which many opposition parties belong. I spoke to him in Addis Ababa in December.
“There are two opinions about the trials,” said Dr Beyene. “An extreme one is that this government has no legal or moral right to put these people on trial. Those who hold this view accuse the TPLF of atrocities comparable to those of the Derg, particularly in the early days of the civil war, when they were killing EPRP people too.”
“Myself, I hate the self-righteous attitude of the EPRDF guys—as though they were performing some miracle—and I don’t think the fact that they are bringing the Derg to court clears them.”
“But our position is that the trials should go ahead. And they should get back to the abuses of the TPLF themselves, past and present,”
“Western countries have financed these trials,” Dr Beyene continued. “They have indirectly offered a guarantee to the Ethiopian people that justice will be done. They should make sure their money is well spent. I think some western diplomats have now realised the Opposition here has a point, that the government is exploiting the goodwill of the international community. But the United States put this government in power, so now they don’t want to be proved wrong. And what diplomat wants to spoil his career for the sake of a little country like ours?”
The EPRDF and the Western powers
The opposition in Ethiopia stresses the role of the United States in the EPRDF’s accession to power. But despite the Derg’s alignment with the Soviet bloc, US support for the rebels during the war against the Derg was slow in coming. Few in the West believed that the EPLF (the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front) and the TPLF (the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front) would be able to defeat the Ethiopian government war machine, which was equipped by the United States under the Emperor and by the Soviet Union thereafter. A further reason for lack of western support for the rebels was that at the time the leaders of the EPLF and TPLF—Meles Zenawi included—were, if anything, more Marxist than the Derg. (“Mengistu,” the Russian Ambassador, Lev Mironov, told me, “never read a word of Marx”.)
Asked by a BBC journalist as late as 1990 what model of political development they favoured, a TPLF spokesman replied, seemingly without hesitation, “Albania”. Yet only three years later the American Chargé d’Affaires in Ethiopia, Robert Houdek, who is currently US Ambassador in Eritrea, was busy finessing the entry of the TPLF/EPRDF to Addis Ababa. It was only in 1990 that the TPLF, and the EPLF in Eritrea, seeing which way the wind was blowing, did their about-turn on Albania. The Derg, for its part, never managed to adapt to the realities of the post-communist world at all.
Soon after coming to power, aware that seventeen years as a bush fighter was not the best qualification for dealing with the economic problems of Ethiopia, President Meles and half a dozen senior members of his government took the unusual step of signing up as students in the MBA program of Britain’s Open University. He is said to be the most accomplished student in the history of the program. Nowadays the utterances, if not the actions, of President Meles on issues such as civil liberties, multi-party elections and privatization—the package of economic and political reforms that donor countries have come to demand as a condition of aid—are music to western ears. And the EPRDF’s programme, with the important exception of an insistence on the inalienability of peasant land, bears a close resemblance to free-market capitalism, the way of the World Bank.
Recent joint military exercises between the US army and the Ethiopian military—the first since Haile Selassie’s time—reveal the geo-political considerations behind the rapid rapprochement between the US and Ethiopia: from the Western point of view, Ethiopia and Eritrea are now the only half-way stable countries in the Horn of Africa; a bulwark against the spread of fundamentalist Islam from Sudan and Somalia, they are also in a strategic position in relation to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The priority of US policy at the time of the final battles between the Derg and the rebels was to avoid the situation that had developed in Somalia a few months before, where two rival powers tore the capital apart. In the view of the State Department the EPRDF was the only political organization able to rule the country. Herman Cohen, then Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, called it “crowning the victor”. (Later it was acknowledged that he had also orchestrated the departure of Mengistu for Zimbabwe.)
So who turned Meles? If any foreigner played a role in the TPLF leadership’s ideological shift the most plausible candidate is a former National Security Adviser named Paul Henze. Henze was Counsellor at the US embassy under Haile Selassie; today he works for the Rand Corporation. He is also a dedicated amateur scholar of Ethiopian ecclesiastical history. He has the distinction of standing accused by Mengistu, in a rambling audiotaped interview currently distributed among Ethiopian expatriates, of being the key figure in a CIA plot to topple him, possibly the one that Dr Menegesha was accused of supporting.
In fact, Henze maintained in a conversation with me, his major effort in the 1970s and 1980s was to keep Mengistu from breaking off diplomatic relations.
“If he had done that, the US would have been supporting armed opposition much earlier.”
Henze describes meeting Meles in Washington in 1990, during the TPLF leader’s first visit to the United States. They talked for two days. Compared to Mengistu, Henze says, Meles was sharp and tractable, coherent to a fault. Nevertheless, he points out, “the ‘R’ in EPRDF has to be taken seriously.”
“The EPRDF,” says Henze, “speak the language of post-cold war international politics, but they are not liberal democrats; they are still revolutionaries.”
An interview with Meles Zenawi
Meles Zenawi, star MBA student, former Marxist-Leninist (tendance Albania), and now Ethiopia’s fourth head-of-state since World War I, is a man of intense, ascetic aspect, with the penetrating gaze of a religious icon. As a political figure his style is the opposite of a personality cult, quite distinct from that of his predecessor.
Under the Derg Addis Ababa and other cities of Ethiopia were full of gigantic portraits of Mengistu, his dark features expertly muted by North Korean iconographers to conform to the Highland Semitic ideal. Most of the pictures of Mengistu were torn down in 1991, but it is still easier to find a portrait of him than one of Meles. A British relief worker who travelled with the future president, then the leader of the TPLF, behind the lines in Tigray during the war told me it was several days before Meles revealed who he was. Even his name is not his own: it is a nom de guerre, adopted in honour of another TPLF fighter killed in the early stages of the guerilla war.
The decor in the President’s office in Addis Ababa is sparse. There are just a few photographs of the Blue Nile Falls and the Tembien mountains of Tigray, where the TPLF operated from caves. There’s a provisional air about the office, in keeping with the ambiguous relation of the EPRDF to the city they rule. Talking to the President confirmed this impression. It is the eighty-five per cent of Ethiopians who live on the land in rural areas, he says, whose interests he serves, rather than those of the city dwellers. Meles’ radicalism is a kind of ruralism; he does not trust the politics of the metropolis.
“As guerillas,” he said, “we depended for our survival on the goodwill of the peasants. In peace time, you are no longer so dependent on that. So it is easy to be corrupted by power.”
His aim, he says, is to make it impossible for the peasantry in any region of the country to be ruled against their will. His view of the ethnic question is a mirror image of the paranoid style of the opposition. He says that without reform the country will fall apart.
“Things are at a crucial stage. If the reforms founder we will have a very inflammable mix of ethnic and religious problems in this country. We are trying to preempt what has happened to Yugoslavia, what happened to Liberia, what happened to Somalia and what may yet happen to many other African countries, including some of our immediate neighbours.”
“Every African country is a potential failed state,” he said. “And we are in a race to get out of this league.”
I asked Meles why people who had experienced the oppression of the Derg should still be so opposed to the EPRDF, why the spirit of compromise was absent.
“Politics in this country was essentially armed politics,” he said. “You didn’t win through arguments, you won by shooting straight. So victories and defeats were total, or perceived to be so.”
“But it’s not just a question of Ethiopian culture. The transformations we are undertaking are so fundamental that it wouldn’t be surprising if there was significant polarization. I don’t think that reforms of this type have been carried out in any other country.”
“The reforms are all interdependent,” Meles continued. “Land reform, economic reform and judicial reform. But of these the first thing that comes to mind is the rule of law. Without that you cannot have rational economic behaviour. There has to be some form of the rule of law for there to be sensible democratic discourse in any society. That’s why the trials are important. The Derg is finished. They’re history. But we must learn from the experience.”
“We are not motivated by vengeance,” the President concluded, “but we have to come to terms with the events of those years. The only legitimate way is a trial. It’s a precedent-setting exercise. What we are saying is: nobody is above the law.”
And what about Mengistu? I asked. “It’s important that we get Mengistu,” the President said, “but even if we don’t, the fundamental message will still be conveyed.”
At World’s End Prison
The experience of rural people under the Derg, particularly those in the drought-prone north was, in most respects, worse than that of the city-dwellers. The next phase of the trials, dealing with war crimes, is likely to reflect this.
Tedelech Haile-Mikael, who is responsible for women’s affairs in the office of the President, and who spent thirteen years in the Derg’s jails, told me “I don’t think people should exaggerate the extent of the Red Terror. Many more people died in the war and the famine.”
It is not easy for an outsider to get a sense at first hand what the rural-dwelling population of Ethiopia, remote and unlettered, really thinks about the trials of the Derg. The apparent lack of public interest may be the indifference of long suffering: if you are a peasant farmer in Ethiopia the accountability of government officials is a distant issue now, less pressing than the coming of the rain. Some would prefer to forget what has happened and get on with the business of survival. For them the lesson of experience may simply be to endure.
Prisoners at Alem Bekagn
And what about the Derg themselves? Have they learned anything? Do any of them have any regrets for what they did? Just before I was due to leave Ethiopia I finally obtained permission to visit the Central prison, where the defendants in the trial returned by bus after each session of the court to their cells in the high security block within the prison. This prison within a prison is called Alem Bekagn, World’s End.
As I left for Alem Bekagn my friend Tafari Wossen said this to me:
“I’d like you to ask them this: knowing what happened, what would they do differently?”
“We know they were young and ignorant when they took power,” Tefari added. “The circumstances were extraordinary, quite different from now. The nation was full of vision and hope. Everyone wanted change but no one knew what form it would take. We were waking up from the dream of history. Ask them: what do they think went wrong?”
“The Derg members were young and ignorant when they took power. The circumstances were quite different from now. The nation was full of vision and hope. Everyone wanted change but no one knew what form it would take.”
World’s End, where so many of the Derg’s victims were incarcerated, and where they are now prisoners themselves, is a two-storey ark-like octagonal building overlooked by the silvered dome of a church within the prison. Guards with machine guns patrol the roof; an iron gate opens onto a small courtyard. When I visited it was a scene of intense activity. In the courtyard and on a first-floor walkway two or three hundred prisoners sat or moved about. Some played poker; some table tennis; some just walked. A handful of the senior Derg officers were playing Risk, a board game whose aim is world conquest.
Almost all the surviving Derg members were here. And there were two hundred or so other soi-disant political detainees crowded into the space. Legesse Asfaw and Melaku Tefera, the most notorious, were unwilling to talk to me, but I spoke at length, unescorted, during two visits to the prison, to Mengistu’s second-in-command, Fikre-Selassie Weg-Deres, and to Fisseha Desta, his Vice-President, number three in the regime.
Fikre-Selassie repeated, with didactic precision, the story of the Derg’s coming to power. He described the injustice of the feudal regime, the vigour of the student movement, the fight for power in the army, the threats from the EPRP, from Somalia, from the West and from the liberation fronts in the north.
“It was a class struggle,” he said. “Drastic measures were taken. We were beset on all sides.”
I asked him why the Derg had not come to an agreement with the EPLF and the TPLF.
“They were for secession,” said Fikre-Selassie. “We were not in a position to accept. This was the will of the people.”
“How do you know it was the will of the people?” I asked.
“We knew,” said Fikre-Selassie.
I suggested that the price paid to try and keep Ethiopia together had been very high. Fikre-Selassie agreed.
“Was it worth it?” I asked.
“It was the will of the people,” he replied again.
In the hope of avoiding this stock response a third time, I asked if he thought Mengistu had done the right thing in running away.
“It was not in the interest of the people,” said Fikre-Selassie. “He should have formed a resistance group and abandoned the cities.”
“Just as the TPLF did in 1974?” I asked.
“Yes. Abandon the cities and fight.”
“But then the war would have gone on forever.”
“What can you do?” said Fikre-Selassie, with sudden feeling, “These people —the Tigrayans—are an ethnic minority. They should not be ruling. They are not competent to try us. There should be an international tribunal.”
After my conversation with Fikre-Selassie I spoke with Fisseha Desta. Fisseha was the only Tigrayan on the Standing Committee of the Derg. He is, in fact, a distant relative of Meles Zenawi. Talking to Ethiopian journalists about Fisseha I had caught a note of mingled contempt and pity. One of them remembered meeting him at the sauna in the Hilton.
“He would talk about the government as though he wasn’t part of it,” the journalist remembered, “even though he was Mengistu’s right-hand man at the time.”
Fisseha’s position had become increasingly awkward towards the end of the regime, as the Tigrayan rebel army approached Addis Ababa. Some expected him, even at that late stage, to be the one to broker a deal with the rebels. At World’s End, I found him sitting outside the cell he shared with half-a-dozen other prisoners. There were smears of blood on the wall from squashed bedbugs. Fisseha’s account of the Derg’s time in power was significantly more self-critical than Fikre-Selassie’s.
“It’s true that absolute power corrupts,” he said. “The Derg should have gone sooner. But not this way.”
I asked if he had he ever thought of resigning, or defecting. “It was hard to resign,” he said with a half-smile, “Mengistu was uncompromising on such issues. And my presence in the government helped protect Tigrayans in Addis Ababa.”
I asked about Dr Managesha, who, like Fisseha, was a Tigrayan.
“I only heard about his death a year later,” he said. “His own uncle worked in security, you know. Even he could not help him.”
“The security system was itself corrupt,” Fisseha added. “That was the trouble. Personally, as a Minister, I was more afraid of Security than I was of Mengistu.”
We both glanced across the prison yard towards a group of his former colleagues. I noted the heavy-set figure of Teka Tulu, playing cards, a metal walking-stick at his side. Teka Tulu had been the Derg’s head of security.
“Mengistu betrayed us,” Fisseha concluded. “He should have come to terms with the rebels or stayed to die. But instead he is drinking beer in Gun Hill.”
Today, in jail, Fisseha told me, he spends most of his time writing a book on how to deal with dictators.
“The best advice is this: democracy is better. And leaders should always be people who have been in prison themselves. This makes them just. Look at Nelson Mandela.”
What did the members of Derg think went wrong? And what would they do differently if they were in the same situation again? I hadn’t managed to get much of an answer to the questions Tafari Wossen wanted me to ask. But it was clear from my visits to the World’s End that most of them remained unrepentant. Human rights activists may think that the members of the Derg are on trial for crimes against humanity; but they themselves seem to believe that their crime was to have been defeated.
One or two of them blame Mengistu for the excesses of the regime, but most blame history—that is, if they acknowledge that there were excesses at all. They represent themselves as having been propelled to power by extraordinary circumstances. They were soldiers in the course of their duty, they argue, caught up in a revolution; they did the best they could. They deny that torture was routine; deny that the Emperor was murdered. They acknowledge—some of them—that they made what they now call errors of judgment, such as the mass execution of the ministers. But they stress that they were beleaguered on all sides by threats to their own existence: by civil war, external aggression and famine. Their priority, they repeat endlessly, was national unity.
At World’s End I discovered to my surprise that a number of the prisoners had been incarcerated there before—during the time of the Derg itself. I spoke to one of them, a slight figure in a nylon jacket who did not want his name to be used. He told me quietly “I was here for four years in the Derg’s time.”
“I was tortured here,” he added.
He pointed at one of his fellow-prisoners. “The person who did it is over there, but”—he gave me a pleading look—“please don’t ask him about it. It could make things difficult between us.”
Another of the prisoners told me he had been imprisoned for six years under the Derg.
“This time, when they said we were going to be put together with the Derg we said ‘We will kill them’. But we cooled down.”
“Actually,” he said, “it is here in prison, more than outside, that reconciliation is happening.”
A long drawn-out process
The trial of the Derg reconvened in May 1995—for a single day—to hear the Special Prosecutor rebut the defendants’ objections to the charges. Then it was adjourned again till the end of the rains in September. After the best part of a year the legal skirmishes are over; there is a vast amount of documentary and forensic evidence to consider, and a plethora of witnesses to be heard. Some have waited twenty years to tell their story. There will be more recesses and adjournments, and more challenges to the legitimacy of the court. And there are seventeen hundred more detainees due to be brought to trial. Some of these may be released. Even so, the trials—if they continue—will last many years.
This long-drawn out process may be a way for Ethiopians to draw the sting of the past. When it comes to the perpetrators of the crimes committed in the time of the Derg it may be seen as a punishment that, in some sense, fits the crime. The members of the Derg are condemned, in effect, to years and years in limbo, the Kafkaesque limbo of their own judicial system, a limbo that is likely, ultimately, to end in death row, unless Meles Zenawi invokes the Presidential prerogative of clemency.
This is their interim punishment: to be subject to some of the same dull uncertainty, the same endless anxiety, the fear without resolution that their countrymen, in and out of jail, endured for seventeen years under their rule. Meanwhile, outside the prison and the courtroom their legacy of suffering, loss, poverty, betrayal and distrust endures. As Tafari Wossen said to me: “People used to fear the Derg. Now they fear the future.” ★
The trial of the Derg continued off and on for more than a decade after the committal proceedings. Some lesser Derg officials were set free in the late 1990s. A few were formally acquitted. A number of senior military officers were released in order to serve in the war with Eritrea in the late 1990s, then rearrested.
By 2004, over 2000 of those who had been detained in 1991 in connection with the trial still remained in prison; 33 had died there. The death of the emperor continued to be a subject of controversy up to the day of his funeral in 2000 (see “Burying the Emperor”, April 2001).
In 2003, in a letter to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, 33 of the remaining Derg members asked for forgiveness for their crimes. Their letter, originally written in August 2003, was published in the January 2004 issue of the Ethiopian magazine, The Reporter. The signatories included Fisseha Desta, Fikre Sellasie Weg-deres and Melaku Tefera.
“We, the few who are being tried for what had happened,” ran the English translation of the letter, “realise that it is time to beg the Ethiopian public for their pardon for the mistakes done knowingly, or unknowingly.”
We are the people who remain from the regime, our actions had the support of the majority of the people who benefitted, while we believed it was also the cause of the civil war that has consumed the life of the people and destroyed property.
“Even though we were the sworn servants of the regime of the emperor to protect it,” the letter added, “when the people showed their dissatisfaction against the regime, we decided to side with them, instead of protecting it.”
In April 2004, World’s End, the prison where the Derg members had been held for a decade, was converted, under the auspices of the African Union, into a memorial to mark the tenth anniversary of the Rwanda genocide. The remaining prisoners were moved elsewhere.
2004 saw the death of the second of the four members of the Derg who had sought asylum in the Italian Embassy in Addis Ababa in 1991. The four were: Lt-Gen Tesfaye Gebrekidan (who ruled Ethiopia for six days in May 1990 following Mengistu’s flight) the foreign minister, Berhanu Bayeh, and two other officials, Addis Tedla and Hailu Yimenu. Haile Yimenu committed suicide in 1993. And in June 2004 it was reported that Tesfaye Gebrekidan died after a fight with Berhanu Bayeh.
In December 2006, finally, twelve years after the start of the trials, more than seventy officials of the Derg were found guilty of genocide and other crimes. Thirty-four of them were in court for the sentencing. A total of 14 others had died during the lengthy process; 25 were tried in absentia. The trial ended on 26 May 2008 with death sentences for all the accused.
In 2009 a privately-owned Red Terror Martyrs Memorial and museum was established near Meskal Square.
In 2010, following a petition from religious bodies in Ethiopia, the death sentences handed down in 2008 were commuted to life imprisonment. On 4 October 2011 sixteen senior Derg officials were pardoned and released. They included Fikre-Selassie Weg-Deres, Legesse Asfaw, Melaku Tefera and Fisseha Desta. It was the last gesture of Meles Zenawi, first the President, then the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, who died in 2012.
(A full list of the Derg officials freed in 2011: the former Prime Minister, Major Fikre-Selassie Weg-deres; the former Vice-President, Colonel Fisseha Desta; Major Legese Asfaw; Colonel Endale Tesema; Major General Wubshet Desei; Lieutenant Colonel Nadew Zekarias; Sergeant Petros Gebre; Sergeant Sileshi Menesha; Captain Dejene Wondimagegnew; Eshetu Shenkute; Lisanu Mola; Brigadier-General Legese Belayneh; Gesgis Gebre Meskel; Abebe Eshetu; Berihun Mamo; Major Desalegn Belay.)
Hailemariam Dessalegn and Mengistu Hailemariam in Harare (2018)
In 2013 Kefalegn Alemu Worku, a prison guard during the Derg era, who was convicted of genocide in absentia in 2000, was arrested in Denver, Colorado and sentenced to 22 years imprisonment for immigration fraud.
The two surviving Derg members in the Italian Embassy in Addis Ababa entered the third decade of their residence there. Despite rumours of his death Mengistu Haile Mariam continued to live in Zimbabwe under the protection of President Robert Mugabe. In 2018 a picture appeared on social media showing Mengistu with the former Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Hailemarian Dessalegn, who was visiting Harare as part of an election monitoring team.