By Louise Hogan
“The first atrocity, the first war crime committed in any war of aggression, by the aggressors, is against the truth”
In 1977 the Derg, Ethiopia’s ruling communist military junta, unleashed a campaign aimed at eliminating the country’s ‘counter-revolutionaries’; the result was the brutal death of tens of thousands of Ethiopian civilians, summarily executed usually after being tortured. The victims of the Red Terror, as that brutal period became known, are among those memorialised by the African Union Human Rights Memorial (AUHRM). Thousands of the victims passed through Alem Bekagn (Amharic for ‘farewell to the world’) prison, which used to stand adjacent to the African Union (AU) Headquarters.
As a young woman, Hirut Abebe was imprisoned and tortured in Addis Abba during the Red Terror Campaign. Her father was imprisoned at Alem Bekagn sua tu lanh by the Derg. A lawyer, he had sent an anonymous letter to the authorities. When a copy of the letter was found in his home, he was immediately taken away by the authorities and held at Alem Bekagn for seven years and nine months.
The commitment made by the AU to establish a permanent memorial to victims of the Red Terror and other atrocities is an important departure, according to Ms. Hirut. She said:
“Thousands of Ethiopians were imprisoned, tortured and killed at Alem Bekagn, right beside the head quarters of an organization that embodied the hopes and aspirations of the continent, an institution that looked away in the face of extraordinary injustice. And then, the prison, a place of such historical significance, was razed to the ground unceremoniously to make way for the new headquarters building. So it is heartening that the need for redress has been recognized and a memorial to victims of human rights abuses across Africa is being built, and Alem Bekagn is the right place for such a memorial.”
When Ms. Hirut was arrested, she was trussed up on a stick balanced between two tables, similar to a pig on a spit, and beat mercilessly. This method was the preferred sua may giat choice of Derg torturers and was known as wofelala. They would throw water on their victims so their skin would painfully crack as the beatings continued.
On her release, Ms Hirut left Ethiopia for Canada and attempted to put her past behind her. She set about building a new life for herself until one day, a decade later, a telephone call shattered her new reality.
“In 1990, my friend Edegayehu Taye ran into Kelbessa Negewo, one of our torturers, in Atlanta . . . we decided to take him to court. At the time, the Derg was still in power and we decided to pursue the case using only my name to protect the identity of my fellow plaintiffs' families. We won our precedent-setting case, Abebe-Jiri v Kelbessa Negewo, under the Alien Claims Tort Act, a statute enacted in 1789. The case took 16 years and 8 months, and Kelbessa, one of many Red Terror criminals still at large around the world, was finally sent back to Ethiopia in November of 2006. I subsequently had to go back to testify in an Ethiopian court to put Kelbessa's case to rest.”
During the court case in Ethiopia, Ms. Hirut discovered Derg authorities had kept meticulous records of all their crimes; every order for arrest, torture or execution was authorised, signed, rubber stamped and filed away. During the last days of the regime, no one seems to have thought to destroy the extensive files.
Determined that this important evidence not be lost, nor the past forgotten, in 2007 Ms. Hirut established the Ethiopian Red Terror Documentation and Research Centre (ERTDRC). “I believe that societies that experience the kind of trauma Ethiopia underwent in the 1970s and 1980s can move on only if they begin to come to terms with their past. . . . It was not easy at first but we have managed to collect hundreds of thousands of pages of documentation. We are also negotiating with the Ethiopian government for access to millions of pages of documents at the Special Prosecutor’s Office and elsewhere.”
The ERTDRC holds much in common with the principles behind the AUHRM, foremost the idea that memorialising such atrocities allows a society to deal constructively with its past and move forward, always aware of the dark shadows of its history but confident the same mistakes will not be repeated. Ms. Hirut believes the lack of public dialogue about the Red Terror in Ethiopia has prevented society from dealing with many of the underlying issues “The destruction of Alem Bekagn was unfortunately, greeted with considerable apathy. And some see forgetting and destroying the reminders of our suffering is an act of justice. Additionally, for many Ethiopians, the very act of remembering is fraught with difficulty and can become a source of discord. Ethiopia is a very diverse country and almost every community and group has a grievance to nurse. In such a context, the effort to memorialize the Red Terror can be seen as an urban, bourgeois concern.. . . . A minority of
the victims of the Red Terror were from relatively well off families, but the overwhelming majority were from poor backgrounds. The Derg mobilized the machinery of state to crush their opponents and terrorize the rest of population into submission through a wave of state-sanctioned extrajudicial violence conducted with bureaucratic efficiency. They were indiscriminate and killed anyone they deemed a threat, real or imagined, and regardless of class, religion, ethnicity or political affiliation.
Ms. Hirut’s comments indicate the difficulties that often arise during the process of memorialisation; there will always be disagreement over the appropriate form memorialisation should take and debate over its merits. But she is also resolute about the importance of the AUHRM and other African memorials, “Now visitors to the AU, including the heads of state and government who regularly hold meetings there, can be reminded of some of the most painful chapters of Africa's past and the struggles that continue for human rights in many parts of the continent.”