The following post is from Fellow Mekdes Mezgebu. She attended the Africa Fellows Meeting in October 2011 in Kigali, Rwanda. In preparation for the meeting, each Fellow shared some thoughts on their work in Africa, as well as recommendations for the continent’s future development.
I was lucky enough to meet a remarkable Ethiopian woman called Hirut Abebe-Jiri at the 2007 Young Leaders conference on the Prevention of Genocide, in Montreal. Hirut had come to the conference seeking to meet with scholars and experts of genocide that could potentially help her in a project that she just launched in Ethiopia.
Since then, I have worked closely with her on setting up the Ethiopian Red Terror Documentation and Research Centre (ERTDRC): an attempt to record, study and learn from one of our country’s darkest — and most little-known — chapters.
In 1974, a 3,000-year-old monarchy headed by Emperor Haile Selassie was suddenly and unceremoniously overthrown by a hastily-established military junta. Communism was introduced and a mid-ranking officer, Mengistu Haile Mariam, barged his way to the front of the queue to become the head of the new Derg (or ‘committee’) government.
Ethiopians were hopeful. The new government promised to strip away a history of fuedalism and promised to liberate the masses. But, within months, Mengistu made it clear that we would brink no opposition, slaughtering over 60 of the former Emperor’s ministers. Emperor Haile Selassie was killed in August 1975. Later in the year, Mengistu unleashed a campaign of mass murder and terror which he officially dubbed “The Red Terror” on the civilian population, targeting mainly the educated youth and urban elites.
When Mengistu’s purge was finished, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians – swathes of them young people – lay dead, their bodies strewn in the streets as a warning to potential opponents and political dissidents. Thousands more were imprisoned, tortured and forced to flee the country.
Hirut, 19 at the time, was among the youth that were imprisoned and tortured, until she eventually fled the country, finding refuge in Canada.
The ERTDRC– which I volunteer for – is focused on making sure our country will never again experience this horror, and on ensuring we can understand and grow from our past.
It is not just outside of Ethiopia that the Red Terror receives little notice. It is something we also rarely talk about, something we prefer to draw the veil of time over.
Despite long-running trials that charged more than 3,000 former Derg officials with crimes ranging from assault to genocide, there was little public dialogue, no consensus about what happened and why – no reasons, no understanding. Only silence.
We are forgetting before we have had a chance to forgive.
The little memory that exists needs to be kept alive so that history cannot be repeated. There has been little rigorous research on the Red Terror and its historical, social, political, legal and psychological underpinnings. Because of this, it remains more than a scar – it is an open wound.
But we are running out of time. The year 2014 will mark 40 years since Mengistu came to power. Witnesses and survivors are dying and forgetting, forcing us to act quickly.
The ERTDRC is in negotiations with the government of Ethiopia to make copies of an incredible 5 million documents left behind by the Mengistu regime – as meticulous a paper trail of brutal autocracy, mass murder and misery as the world has ever seen.
Officials recorded methods of murder – dates, times, places. How long bodies were to be left in the streets. How many bullets were used to shoot dead an Ethiopian.
Families were then made to pay for the shells pumped into their loved ones.
While these negations are ongoing, we are reaching out to Red Terror survivors and witnesses. They are donating documents in their possession and – crucially – they are giving us their testimonies, telling us their life stories, providing invaluable history.
What we want more than anything is an accurate and full picture of this period in our history. With that, we can provide future generations with the understanding necessary to ensure that we never walk down this dark path again. Perhaps, too, we can help other Africans to turn their backs on such terror, to spot it coming before it is too late.
It is not about blame. It is about truth. And about consigning genocide to history.
Mekdes is a member of the AUHRM team.
First published by sienaanstis on August 19, 2011: http://blogs.mcgill.ca/humanrightsfellows/2011/08/19/fellow-mekdes-mezgebu-documenting-a-genocidal-history/