By ALEX DE WAAL
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The African Union is now putting the finishing touches on its shiny new home — a calabash-domed conference hall and a curving blade of a tower — right on the site of the city’s former central prison. Known to Ethiopians as Alem Bekagn, or “farewell to the world,” this plot of land has been a symbol of human rights abuses for three generations.
A flurry of activity is underway to finish the main complex — as well as a hotel, parking lots and landscaped grounds — in time for the next African summit meeting in January. Nothing remains of the octagonal stone jail that Italian colonists built in 1936. The circle of seats in the new conference hall rests almost exactly where two tiers of cramped and damp cells used to be.
The best that can be said of the A.U. leaders’ decision to approve this plan four years ago is that at the time they suffered a lapse of memory. But as soon as the contractors had flattened the walls of Alem Bekagn, former political prisoners and sympathetic A.U. officials banded together to insist that the inhumanity it represented not be erased. At the time, I helped convene a group to push for memorials to the prisoners killed at Alem Bekagn, as well as to the victims of human rights violations across Africa.
Last year, the A.U.’s “Year of Peace,” the organization agreed. At a meeting I attended here last weekend, A.U. officials and African ambassadors decided to commission a permanent memorial and also organize a commemorative event the day before the January summit meeting. These are small gestures, but we hope they will prompt African leaders who gather here in the future to pay their respects to the people who died at the hands of their predecessors.
Much blood was spilled on this land. In 1937, soon after Alem Bekagn, was built, thousands of Ethiopians were rounded up there and executed for trying to assassinate the Italian governor. When Haile Selassie was restored to power, in 1941, he too found the prison useful to warehouse political prisoners. Ethiopia had regained its independence, but its people won few freedoms.
Yet Selassie, the fearsome autocrat at home, was also an inspiration to African independence leaders. In 1963, Ethiopia became host to the Organization of African Unity, newly set up to promote pan-African solidarity. The O.A.U. was given a momentary residence in a police academy set on the sloping compound directly across from Alem Bekagn. Then the temporary became permanent, and an intimate relationship between the organization and the prison was accidentally created.
Through their office windows, O.A.U. employees could see the inmates exercise or talk to relatives in the ramshackle open-air visitors’ gallery. But for many Africans then, the struggle against European colonialism meant turning a blind eye to the oppression of Africans by Africans. Out of respect for the O.A.U.’s principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of its member states, staffers never spoke up about what they saw out of their windows.
In November 1974, a few weeks after deposing Selassie, Ethiopia’s new Marxist military rulers lined up 60 of his ministers against a wall at Alem Bekagn and shot them in cold blood within full view of the O.A.U. headquarters. In 1977, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam launched the Red Terror, and in the almost two years of bloodshed that followed, at least 100,000 people were executed. Alem Bekagn was the epicenter of this extended massacre.
The prison has loomed large in the imagination of many Ethiopians, but in reality, of course, it was cramped. When I first visited it in 1991, just after Mengistu was deposed and the place had been hastily emptied, I was struck by how small it was and by how the smell of sweat and urine seemed to permeate the stone walls. Records of arrests, interrogation and execution were scattered on the floor of the prison’s main office.
Over the next few years African political norms shifted. The events of April 1994 — the first post-apartheid elections in South Africa, the genocide in Rwanda — sparked much soul searching. In 2002, African governments transformed the O.A.U. into the A.U., jettisoning the principle of non-interference and putting good governance to the fore. The A.U. refused to let the leaders of military coups join its ranks. Between 2002 and 2008 it dispatched peacekeeping missions to Burundi, Darfur and Somalia.
Although Africa is now more open and democratic than ever before, there have been setbacks. When the site of Alem Bekagn was donated to the A.U. in 2006, some campaigned to preserve part of it. But city planners and the mayor of Addis Ababa, himself a former prisoner at Alem Bekagn, were dedicated to renewal — that is, to erasing anything old or embarrassing. And the Chinese government’s offer to finance and build the new headquarters was too attractive to turn down. The demolition crews soon began their work.
The effort today to build here a memorial to the victims of past crimes is a spark of conscience and just one symbolic step toward preventing future abuses.
Alex de Waal is executive director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and an adviser to the African Union on Sudan.