Alem Bekagn: A History
The African Union’s new headquarters and conference hall are built upon the site of Ethiopia’s former central prison, known locally as Alem Bekagn ‘farewell to the world’. There are different stories for how Alem Bekagn earned its name, but all agree that it was the citadel of oppression for successive Ethiopian dictatorships—Fascist-colonial, imperial and communist.
Alem Bekagn was a squat octagonal building with two tiers of cells opening onto a courtyard, the first prison in the country to be constructed along modern lines. Some accounts suggest it was built as early as 1923, under the rule of Empress Zewditu, but it was in 1937 under Italian occupation, that it became notorious. The Fascist governor of Ethiopia, General Rodolfo Graziani, detained and executed the cream of the country’s intelligentsia at Alem Bekagn, a massacre which spread across the country eventually killing an estimated 30,000 people.
After the restoration of Emperor Haile Selassie in World War Two, it was in Alem Bekagn that political dissidents and revolutionaries were detained. Within its walls, students who led the Eritrean nationalist movement, the Tigrayan rebellion, and the Ethiopian revolution itself, conducted debates and seminars. Haile Selassie’s students dreamed of a new Ethiopia, and in Alem Bekagn some grew in determination to make their imaginings real.
In 1974, Haile Selassie was overthrown, but the Provisional Military Administrative Committee, known as the Dergue, displayed its violence just two months later, summarily executing sixty ministers from the previous imperial government at Alem Bekagn burying them on the prison grounds. The Red Terror of 1977-78 soon followed, and Alem Bekagn became the epicenter for the destruction of a generation of young Ethiopians by execution, torture and imprisonment – in Addis Ababa alone more than ten thousand were murdered. Thousands passed through the prison gates: student radicals were incarcerated along with imprisoned royals and feudal lords, Eritrean nationalists, Somali and Oromo separatists, and anyone else suspected of being an enemy of the Dergue. Later they were joined by some who had initially backed the military regime, including the architects of universal literacy and of land reform.
Under the Dergue, the number of prisoners rose to 1300; the overcrowding made harsh conditions worse. This was a maximum security prison: prisoners were under close surveillance, including by two machine guns trained on the cells. Due to its design, prisoners could see nothing but the sky from the courtyard. Former prisoners and their family members recall being allowed one visit each week, when the prisoners, were led out to the fence outside the building gate, but within the compound, where their wives and children were lined up behind another fence, about four feet away. Messages had to be shouted over the din, and food could be passed across; those whose relatives could not visit suffered most from a lack of provisions. Life was especially precarious during the rainy season: prisoners in cells lay on cold ground, some without mattresses, and the rain soaked their blankets; others slept on the veranda or in the open, covered only with a plastic sheet.
Over the years, hundreds, possibly thousands, were executed in Alem Bekagn or died of illness or the wounds of torture. Other prisoners were released, often after spending years without charge. One escaped and fled across the alleyway to the OAU compound seeking refuge, from where he was handed back. Members of the royal family, including Princess Tenagnewerk, spent fifteen years inside Alem Bekagn, until they were released following an international campaign. Another released detainee was a child of thirteen—born and brought up inside the prison.
When the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) swept into Addis Ababa on 28 May 1991, the prison guards abandoned their posts and left the gates unguarded. Hundreds of prisoners ran home to their families; others with nowhere to go stumbled bewildered into the streets and then returned to sleep in the only place they knew, free but unable to make use of their freedom. Soon afterwards, the bodies of the sixty ministers were exhumed from their anonymous graves in the prison compound and returned to their families and Alem Bekagn was returned to its ordinary use as a prison.
For 45 years, the entire lifetime of the OAU and the first half decade of the AU, the institution was situated adjacent to and overlooking Alem Bekagn. Staff and visitors were aware of the killings and abuses there and remained silent. In 2004, a new central prison was built; the AU was given the land on which Alem Bekagn stood, and in 2007 it demolished the prison in preparation for the new AU conference centre and offices. But while all trace of the prison has been eradicated, the AU has abandoned its history of indifference; it condemns the atrocities at Alem Bekagn and is committed to preserving their memory.
Survivors' Memories of the Red Terror
“I lost many family members and friends to the Red Terror campaign. I am still traumatized by the fear and insecurity that one feels when friends are summoned and led to their death or severely tortured.”
I was only 20 years old in August 1978 when the Ethiopian security agents of the Derg regime accused me of engaging in subversive activities and sent me to prison. I was one of the lucky few political prisoners who came out of the Alem Bekagn prison alive after seven relentless years of incarceration. I am a man of 54 years of age now and those memories of my confinement still haunt me to date.
In Alem Bekagn, I was tortured and beaten, especially on the soles of my feet. I underwent numerous interrogations and was made to confess to crimes I never committed. Before I was moved to Alem Bekagn I was kept in Keftegna 25 which was filled with hundreds of prisoners. Some were so badly beaten and tortured they were rendered immobile for a long period of time. One story that stands out is that of an individual with broken backbones who, consequently, could not control his limbs anymore. Looking back, I consider myself lucky for not suffering such injuries; and perhaps that was due to the intervention of a family friend who happened to be a high official in the government. We used to be locked in a crowded cell filled with stench. We were only allowed out for half an hour including brief morning and evening visits to the toilet in groups of ten under the watchful eyes of the guards.
The overall condition at Alem Bekagn was simply appalling and our basic rights as human beings were abused on a daily basis. Although women and men had separate quarters, the most disturbing memories were the conditions of the mentally ill prisoners. They were totally neglected. The other disturbing memory I have is to do with roll call – guards used to mistakenly call out names of those who had already been executed. That showed me that the prison administration did not have a good record or knowledge of the people that were being slaughtered.
During my detention the most atrocious incident I remember was the case of Shimelis, a friend of mine, who was brutally tortured for three consecutive days after his capture by the notorious butcher of Addis Ababa, Kelbessa Negewo who is currently serving a life sentence. Shimelis was put in front of firing squad but miraculously survived three bullet wounds. His bullet-riddled body was discarded in the streets of Addis. One bullet broke his nose between his eyes which blinded one eye, another bullet broke his spinal cord and the last bullet penetrated his ribs. He was discovered by a passerby and luckily was taken to a hospital. After his condition slightly stabilised he was brought back to prison. His face was so disfigured I simply could not recognize him. He was later released but I never saw him again. Afterwards I heard he was taken in and out of prison and died in the process.
I lost many family members and friends to the Red Terror campaign. I am still traumatized by the fear and insecurity that one feels when friends are summoned and led to their death or severely tortured. Most of my closest friends now are the survivors of that awful era. We support each other to heal the scars Alem Bekagn left in us.
I think commemorative events are so important that all of us should be reminded that such history does not repeat itself. I wish to see events like this need to be broader to encompass all actors of past atrocities. I know records of the atrocities are not properly kept and should be made available to the general public.
Name of survivor is deliberately withheld
Source: A former prisoner of Alem Bekagn interviewed by the Ethiopian Red Terror Documentation and Research Center.
“I still remember those facial expressions of bravery, confusion and disbelief as prisoners were being led out of our cell to be executed.”
I am a survivor of the Red Terror, now aged 55. In 1978, at the age of 21, I was imprisoned for five years. I had been accused of being an Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) member and was arrested after my friend and comrade betrayed me, which was typical of politics at that time.
First, I was sent to Keftegna 25 local prison, later I was transferred to the Central Prison at Alem Bekagn. Torture of every kind was daily experience for all prisoners. I also saw fellow prisoners with rotten wounds; some even lost their toes. I have a vivid memory of a young boy who died of excessive torture. My worst memory of those awful days was the mass killings I witnessed. People were taken from our midst and never returned. I still remember their facial expressions of bravery, confusion and disbelief. I was tortured, but in the face of the heavy torture that my friends and other inmates went through, I consider mine insignificant.
I was moved to Alem Bekagn as the mass slaughter began to subside, but the fear and the shock were still lingering as no prisoner was sure to see the next day’s sunrise. We were over 300 prisoners at the time, but the number fluctuated. We were given hardly edible loaves of bread and a cup of tea for breakfast and dinner. Lunch was more bread with a cup of watery wot (sauce), plain beans or peas without oil, spices or other ingredients. When there were mass round-ups all the cells used to be very crowded, increasing illnesses. The queue for our daily ration and toilets would be very long. I remember an outbreak of typhus during which many inmates lost their lives.
The prison staff gave no value to human life; they even forgot the people they killed. They used to call out a list of prisoners for release and sometimes they mistakenly called out the names of people they had already killed – a few prisoners escaped by pretending to be the deceased.
I have mixed memories of Alem Bekagn. Most are gloomy, but some deserve to be cherished. The survivors get together and we offer some support to each other now. Some have even established associations to help those who are in need.
Alem Bekagn was a testament and a representation of an untold atrocity perpetrated on the doorstep of the OAU. It is imperative to establish a museum at the site as a way to send a message of “never again” to the present leaders of Africa.
Source: Story compiled from an interview with a former prisoner of Alem Bekagn - interviewed by the Ethiopian Red Terror Documentation and Research Center.
Photo: Nina M. Dehghan
The new African Union built on the site of the city’s former central prison,
known to Ethiopians as Alem Bekagn