Ethiopia still haunted by memory of Derg genocidal regime

ADDIS ABABA LETTER: The brutality of the ‘Butcher of Addis’ is graphically represented in Red Terror museum, writes DEIRDRE …

ADDIS ABABA LETTER:The brutality of the 'Butcher of Addis' is graphically represented in Red Terror museum, writes DEIRDRE McQUILLAN

THE DISPLAY case contains pliers, a thick nylon plait, a long twisted whip and a pair of metal shackles. A note explains these were some of the instruments of torture along with the notorious wofelala contraption, used on victims during the reign of terror by the Stalinist Derg military dictatorship in Ethiopia.

Led by an army lieutenant colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Derg was a committee of nearly 120 military officers who came to power in Ethiopia after ousting Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 and ruled the country until 1991. From an ancient aristocratic dynasty dating back to the 13th century, Selassie had reigned almost unchallenged since 1916.

These tools with their gruesome history are some of the objects on display in the new Red Terror martyrs’ memorial museum in Addis Ababa, which opened last year and attracts some 200-300 visitors daily. On the day of our visit, we were joined by a group of local school kids on a tour with their teacher.


The rope known as the Mengistu "necktie" was used for slow strangulation or to force confessions; other Derg officers were fond of the bastinado, used to brace the feet before smashing them into stumps. Thousands of Ethiopians were permanently crippled in this manner.

We are reminded that half a million people, old and young alike, Christian and Muslim, were slaughtered by the Derg.

The museum is a modern angular grey building beside the vast Meskel Square in the centre of the city. This was where the dictator Mengistu, known as the “Butcher of Addis”, famously made a dramatic speech on April 17th, 1977. In front of a crowd of supporters, he dramatically flung six bottles of what appeared to be blood to the ground, symbolising the blood he was willing to spill in order to “defend the revolution”.

With the aid of East German Stasi agents, Mengistu’s secret police spread throughout the country jailing and killing thousands arbitrarily identified as enemies of the state. Of particular interest, according to a book accompanying the exhibition, were students and professors, many shot in mass executions. It was not uncommon for families to be forced to pay for the bullets.

The many black-and-white pictures tell their own story; the emperor being hustled unceremoniously into the back of a blue VW Beetle and driven away to a military prison; tanks parading through Addis demonstrating the power of the Derg; images of door-to-door searches and executed bodies deliberately left to rot in the streets. Particularly harrowing are pictures of children awaiting execution. Our friend Mesfil, visibly upset, recalled those times with a shudder. “You couldn’t sleep at night because we were always waiting for somebody to come,” he whispered.

Mugshots of a wanted list of 755 people identified by the Derg as enemies of the state line the walls, and in a darkened room, stacked in glass cases, are the skulls and bones of exhumed remains beside a mound of earth, a reconstruction of the mass burial grounds outside the city.

Six coffins holding personal belonging, sandals, ropes and bloodstained clothing are further poignant reminders of this genocidal period of Ethiopian history.

Curiously, one of the Derg’s worst single acts of brutality is not commemorated in the museum. On June 22nd, 1988, in the highland town of Hawzien in the middle of a market day packed with villagers and animals, four MiG-21s appeared in the sky and for six hours bombed the town where it was believed rebels were hiding.

An estimated 1,600 people were killed, others mutilated, and in Chains of Heaven, Philip Marsden's fine account of walking through northern Ethiopia, he reports survivors' memories of the day, the market thick with dead people and donkeys. Rebel support swelled after the attack.

Other photographs chronicle the victorious march of the EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party – a coalition of rebel forces) in 1991 towards the capital, which overthrew the Derg, and the later trial of Derg members with pictures of victims’ families in the witness stand. Today Mengistu stands charged with crimes against humanity, but lives in Zimbabwe where he got asylum and where, despite efforts to have him extradited and jailed, he remains to this day.

This is Mesfil’s first visit to the museum. His reaction is that he prefers to forget rather than be reminded of those brutal times. A plaque at the entrance announces that the museum was opened by a mother whose four children were killed in one day. “As if I bore them all in one night, they slew them in a single night,” it reads.

Outside the museum, it comes as a relief to be back in the warm air, for once enjoying the cacophonous din of gridlocked Ladas and blue and white taxis in their usual chaotic state and the sheer energy of human life on the streets of this vivid, lively capital.

Deirdre McQuillan acknowledges the help of the Simon Cumbers Media Fund.