The Dergue Era

Read: The Terror Against the Oromo People During Mengistu's Regime


Probably the only book written on the awful experiences of Oromos in Dergue's high-security torture prisons.

Title: Prison of Conscience

Author: Ibsaa Guutama


Excerpted from the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense, EAAF) Report

(The Case on the 4 Oromo Makalawi Prisoners of Conscience Butchered by the Henchmen of Mengistu Hailemariam: Wukaw and Company)

Between 1974 and 1991, under the leadership of Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam, Ethiopian state security forces tortured and executed thousands of persons suspected of belonging to urban opposition movements. During these same years, the military killed tens of thousands during indiscriminate campaigns against “dissident” ethnic groups in rural areas. The Dergue also bore large responsibility for exacerbating and perpetuating the famine that killed an estimated one million persons during the mid-1980s. According to Amnesty International, the Dergue compiled one of the worst records of human rights abuses in recent history during its seventeen years in power.


The Kotebe Case:

In 1994, at the request of Ato Gyrma Wakjira, the chief prosecutor of the Special Prosecutor's Office (SPO), Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense (EAAF) members worked inside a military intelligence compound in Kotebe, an Addis Ababa suburb, exhuming a clandestine grave suspected to contain the remains of Dergue victims. The excavation took place in a corner of the compound. Immediately underneath the surface soil, a layer of cooking utensils, pieces of glasses and other materials, partly burned, were discovered. Then, below two meters of heavy rocks, a layer of lime, and another of blankets, the commingled skeletons of thirty individuals came to light. The skulls of many were broken by the huge stones used to close the grave. Encircling the disarticulated cervical vertebrae of all but one of the skeletons was a lime-green nylon cord. The skeletons were brought to the morgue of the Black Lion Hospital in Addis Ababa, where we were kindly allowed by the directors to use their morgue and X-ray facilities.

The SPO provided us with a list of thirty individuals whose remains were thought to be in the grave. All had disappeared after being taken into custody by the Dergue regime at different times and places. Through the SPO, we obtained ante mortem information on fifteen families of the victims after interviewing family members and/or former prisoners. Until they disappeared in 1979 [Geez Calendar, 1986 in European Calendar], the victims had been imprisoned for periods varying from several months to several years. 

Some had been held in Combolcha Prison in Wollo Province and others in Makalawi Prison in Addis Ababa. During their imprisonment, relatives had been able to visit frequently to bring food and clean clothing. But towards the end of 1979 [Geez Calendar, 1986 in European Calendar], they were told that further visits were unnecessary since the prisoners were no longer there.

We were also able to interview several former inmates of both prisons at the time of the disappearance. Those in Combolcha said that on October 7, 1979 [Geez Calendar, 1986 in European Calendar], an official from Addis Ababa arrived with a list of twenty-two prisoners to be transferred to Makalawi. They were loaded into a truck but at the last moment two were ordered back to their cells. The truck left Combolcha with the remaining twenty men, none of whom ever returned.

The former Makalawi prisoners that we interviewed said that late on the night of October 7, 1979 [Geez Calendar, 1986 in European Calendar], a truck arrived in the prison compound and twenty prisoners were offloaded. The night was cold and many of the new prisoners had wrapped themselves in blankets. They were put in holding cells apart from the main cellblock. The next morning, at 10-20 minutes intervals, the guards called out each of the twenty new prisoners by name and, one by one, they were marched away. Ten Makalawi prisoners were similarly called out and taken away. The thirty men never returned, and by late afternoon rumors began to circulate that they had all been executed.

The missing men belonged to four Ethiopian ethnic groups: Amharic, Tigrayan, Oromo and Guragee. Blood samples were taken from thirty members of each group. These, along with blood from the maternal relatives of the seven families and two teeth from each unidentified skeleton were submitted to Dr. King. At her laboratory, Dr. Michele Harvey, was able to make five additional identifications, bringing the total to thirteen identified individuals.


Full Report (Please be warned that the report contains disturbing images)



Mengistu Haile Mariam
The Profile of a Dictator

By Paulos Milkia


The Ethiopian dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam, who shaped the destiny of this ancient kingdom from 1974 to 1991, has a humble origin that has an intricate web of bizarre twists resembling a story from a fairy tale. On his mother's side, he is said to be a direct descendant of Queen Zewditu's maid and  Dejazmatch  Kebede Tesemma, one of the most prominent aristocrats and a person known for a long time for his involvement in a series of court intrigues.  Dejazmatch Kebedde was Empress Zewditu's butler in the 1920s, at a time when she was in an intractable power struggle to keep her throne.


While serving the Queen, the Dejazmatch also doubled as a confidante of the Regent, Ras Teferi Makonnen, later Emperor Haile Selassie who was in line to ascend to the throne. When the Queen was mysteriously found dead in her palace, the same day her Gondere husband, Ras Gugsa Wole, was killed in battle. A Swiss doctor named Aner who was ushered in by Dejazamatch  Kebede was suspected of carrying out a  coup degrace.  Whether or not the  Dejazmatch  knew of the doctor's personal mission is, however, not certain.


It was while he was in the commission of the Queen that Dejazmatch Kebedde met Mengistu's grandmother nicknamed Totit  (female ape). Totit had to remain chaste as Ethiopian court tradition states since she was an umbrella bearer to the Queen on all occasions and left the latter's bedroom only at night. She slept on the floor in an adjacent room in case her services were needed.


An illicit and secret matrimonial relation, entailing a severe breach of court protocol took place between the two and Mengistu's mother was born. Queen Zewditu, who was angered by this insolence, ordered a special investigation to track down the father of the baby so that he would be prosecuted according to Ethiopian court traditions. But no one came foreword to shed light on the affair.


Dejazmatch  Kebede's uncle  Azazh  Tilaye, who was in charge of Palace affairs, intervened in order to cover up for Dejazmatch Kebedde who was brought to the court by him from his birth place in the Amhara countryside of Menz (Northern Shoa). The  Azazh,  prostrating before the queen, maintained that he had sinned before the queen and God and that after realizing his gross error, he tried to take his own life and survived only upon the intervention of close friends. The Queen accepted the explanation, but reprimanded and ordered Totit to leave the palace. The child, who would later be Mengistu's mother was brought up at  Dejazmatch  Kebede's home.


Mengistu's grandmother was still alive when he seized power. As an old lady, she had taken a vow and was a nun of the Ethiopian Orthodox faith. In fact, on the special orders of her grandson, the nationalization of land did not apply to her. She continued to own the land near the Holotta Military Academy just 30 miles from Addis Abeba which the queen granted her for services prior to her expulsion from the palace in 1928.


On his father's side, Mengistu is the son of a former slave who was bought by an aristocratic Sub-provincial governor, the Shoan landowner  Afenegus  Eshete Geda, who encountered Mengistu's father, Haile Mariam, while he was on a hunting expedition at the administrative district of Gimira and Maji, (in Southern Ethiopia) then under the governorship of  Dejazmatch  Taye Gulilat. 


As a child, Mengistu used to hear derogatory comments against his Negroid features and dark color -- rooted in the Konso background on his father's side. As a result, he had always hated all light-colored Ethiopians with Semitic and Hamitic features. It was not surprising, therefore, that when he took over power, and was attending the meeting of Derg members at the 4th Division headquarters in Addis Abeba, Mengistu exclaimed with emotion: In this country, some aristocratic families automatically categorize persons with dark skin, thick lips, and kinky hair as "Barias"... (Amharic for slave); let it be clear to everybody that I shall soon make these ignoramuses stoop and grind corn!


It is interesting that as a self proclaimed Marxist, Mengistu did not accept the reference to his slave background even when it was meant to point out his working class origin. For example, in 1975, the Cuban communist author, Valdes Vivo, wrote a book about the Ethiopian revolution and tried to impress upon his readers that it was lead by none other than "the son of a slave"-- Mengistu Haile Mariam. But the word "slave" was struck out by the censors on the orders of Mengistu before it was distributed in Ethiopia. When Vivo came to Addis Abeba to seek an audience, he was snubbed by Mengistu, even though the former was a senior member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba.


Mengistu was not only biologically tied to Kebede Tesemma. He grew up in his household and was groomed in the age old Ethiopian court wheeling and dealings, conspiratorial machinations and the A, B, Cs of palace revolts. Dejazmatch Kebede, whose service touched Menelik, Iyasu, Zewditu and Haile Selassie -- five traditional absolute monarchs -- was said to be fond of orally recounting his court observations in the evenings, just before going to bed. And Mengistu was always spellbound by the stories of his grandfather. People who were close acquaintances of  Dejazmatch  Kebede and Mengistu point out that the former had indeed left on his grandson an enduring mark and had molded a scheming character, the least of which was the ability to outmaneuver political foes and survive the ever present and intractable Ethiopian court intrigues.


When the Fascists occupied Ethiopia,  Dejazmatch  Kebede went into exile in Jerusalem, leaving his wife,  Woizero  Yitatequ who went to live with her brother-in-law,  Afenegus  Eshete Geda, (then residing in the district of Chafe Donsa). It was then that she took Mengistu's mother with her. At that time, the Fascists recruited Haile Mariam who still resided at the  Afenegus'  residence as a  Carabiniere  soldier. Here, Mengistu's mother and Haile Mariam met and got married. The marriage resulted with the birth of Mengistu's elder sister, and then Mengistu himself.


After the Fascists were defeated and left the country in 1941, the couple moved to Addis Abeba where Haile Mariam joined Haile Selassie's fledgling army where he received the rank of corporal. Later, they moved to Jimma in the province of Keffa where Mengistu attended school up to 6th grade. When Corporal Haile Mariam was transferred to the ammunition's production unit of the imperial army in Addis Abeba, Mengistu joined the household of  Dejazmatch  Kebede Tesemma, his biological grandfather, who later become the Governor General of Gojam province.


In Gojam, Mengistu attended the  Negus  Tekle Haimanot Elementary School in Debre Marcos. Later, when  Dejazmatch  Kebede was transferred to Addis Abeba to become Minister of the Palace, he joined the Junior Signal Corps of the army where he took training in radio communications.


At school, Mengistu was not known to be serious with his studies. He had completed only 8th Grade. Classmates remember that he had no patience to read even a single book. But he had a fertile imagination. It was said that Mengistu was a good listener and could quote what he heard with ease, sometimes with great embellishments -- qualities people who knew him when he was in power also recall vividly.


Mengistu's father, Corporal Haile Mariam was a known alcoholic and beat up his son at the slightest chance. He frequented  tej bets , where Ethiopian honey wine is sold. It is interesting to note that following in his fathers foot-steps, the future dictator of Ethiopia, was also known as an alcoholic before he became one of the key organizers of the Derg. He was notorious for constant outbursts. He beat up his religious and loyal Gojame wife at the slightest opportunity.  

Even after the Prime Minister, Fikre Selassie Wogderess, built him a modern villa and assigned him armed body guards in the middle class district of Asmera Menged, near Bole Airport, Mengistu's father continued to curse his son for overthrowing the Emperor and for bringing a reign of terror on the country. He defiantly hang Emperor Haile Selassie's portrait on the walls of his living room. Often, he slipped out of sight of his bodyguards whom he considered his jailers and went to the lower class neighborhood  tej bets  where he always felt at home. People who sported him on the street euphemistically referred to him as  Yenigusu Abat,  (the King's Father). Mengistu, on his part, ignored his father and never tried to help him directly even when he was short of cash.


As an ambitious young soldier, Mengistu attracted the attention of a very popular Eritrean born general, Aman Mickael Andom, who raised him to the rank of sergeant and assigned him duties as an errand boy in his office. Aman then recommended him to the Holota Military Academy from where he received the rank of Second Lieutenant in 1957.  Aman, as a mentor, took Mengistu to Harer when he was assigned as the commander of the 3rd Division and sent him to the U.S. to study military weapons technology for six months. Upon return from the U.S., Mengistu was assigned a job in the armaments depot at the 3rd Division in Harer.


Aman was abruptly transferred to Addis Abeba. The ancient regime found him too popular with the soldiers especially after his commendable military exploits in the engagement against the Somali army at Tog Wuchale, in 1963. Like Douglas Macarther, he tried but failed to receive political support for his immediate military urge to cross over the boarder and occupy the country that was the root of the war -- Somalia. Consequently, the government of Prime Minister Aklilu Habte Wold removed the soldier affectionately known to his fighting men as "the desert lion" from army duties and assigned him as a senator, a job he hated very much as he recounted to his author, but could not refuse without arousing the Emperor's ire. Aman's replacement was General Haile Baikedagn, who found Mengistu an intriguer and a very dangerous young officer. General Haile had actually written a secret report to his superiors to put a close watch on Mengistu and not give him a raise in the military ranks. Haile Baikedagn was one of Mengistu's first victims. On the orders of the then rising Derg dictator, he was machine-gunned with 64 ministers and generals of Haile Selassie in 1974.


Ascent From a Political Maelstrom


When the government of Emperor Haile Selassie crumbled in 1974, of the one hundred and twelve obscure officers known as the Derg (Committee) who found themselves the political executive and collegially commanders-in-chief of the Ethiopian armed forces, Mengistu Haile Mariam was the only bold and ambitious soldier to attempt to become  primus interpares.  Mengistu was chosen to represent his unit in Harar when the Derg was being formed to take grievances to the Emperor because he had a reputation for talkativeness and troublemaking exploits. 
And in time, through sheer demagoguery and political intrigues, he succeeded to outmaneuver all officers who stood in his way and climbed the political ladder. Thus, early during the establishment of the Derg in 1974, he joined the senior director of the movement, Colonel Atnafu Abate as second in command.


In the power struggle that ensued, Mengistu had carefully cultivated the support of some Derg officers who were in  attentively searching for a reliable and valiant commandant at a time when vacillation could have cost their lives. To win the support of this group, Mengistu hinted at a messianic vision awaiting the leadership. Others who were noncommittal at first provided him support in the course of the struggle, both out of fear of loosing their lives and to climb to power on the dictator's coattails.


Despite his rapid ascent to power, the development was still not safe enough for Mengistu's grand plan of forging a one man rule. He needed an organization which he could utilize in neutralizing his potentially threatening colleagues. As constantly reminded to him by his close adviser, Dr. Sennay Likkie, a Berkeley educated radical intellectual, he came to the conclusion that the only solution to his predicament was to establish a communist party with all its dictatorial trappings and intricate security networks.


The Establishment of a Malevolent Despot


The founding of the Worker's Party of Ethiopia in the early eighties not only provided Mengistu an opportunity of directly controlling a political organization, it also afforded him an occasion to disband his Derg colleagues. All were inducted into the party but their power was systematically whittled away. Some were sent far from the center to become regional governors. Others such as Dame Deressa were weeded out on corruption charges. Still others such as Tamrat Ferede, who refused to fall in line were sent on a scholarship abroad to remove them away from the center of power. The latter, upon return from abroad, was 
rejected by his colleagues. He consequently become a chronic alcoholic and committed suicide by jumping to his death from the roof of a high rise building in Addis Abeba.


Once the Workers' Party of Ethiopia (WPE) was formed to suit Mengistu's long range aspirations, he become the only person who could appoint or remove the prime minister. He headed the government hierarchy as well as the party that was theoretically supreme. The fiction of collegiality in both the administrative and party organs were paid lip service to, but in fact the leadership role of the party, the politburo, and the Central Committee were personalized in Mengistu. 
Nevertheless, even these trappings did not stop him from casting doubt on the loyalties of the high officials in both camps; with the help of his secret police, he played one off against the other and concentrated power in his own hands. Even Emperor Haile Selassie with traditional legitimacy had gone nowhere near the centralization of power fostered by Mengistu.


In time, the WPE apparatus became the instituionlized extension of Mengistu's personal will. The erstwhile tyrant was soon surrounded by a privileged throng of sycophants led by a group known as the "the Gang of Four" who chanted his reverence and carried out his will. The "Gang" members were the following: a)Legesse Asfaw, an army sergeant: b) Alemu Abebe, a man of humble origin who grew up on scraps of food donated by the students of Haile Selassie I Secondary School, then found an opportunity to go to Russia, joined Patrice Lumumba University, the Soviet Union's fundamentally Propaganda school for Third World students where he received a degree as a veterinarian; c) Shewandange Belete, an opportunist intellectual who, together with his close friend, Fikre Selassie Wogderess, betrayed his Woz League colleagues, got them slaughtered and jumped on the bandwagon with Mengistu; and d) Shimelis Mazengia, a former elementary school teacher, a person of low-level formal education but who had his way with words and thus warmed his way to become Mengistu's Amharic speech writer.


It was to Mengistu's advantage that just like during the last days of Emperor Haile Selassie's regime, there was a serious fissure in the government camp. Mengistu rejoiced at the development and inflamed the personal disputes between his officials by favoring one over the other and then reversing his actions when opportunities arose. Among the protagonists were Fikre Selassie Wogderess (Prime Minister until 1990); Sergeant Legesse Asfaw (head of the secretariat and the party cadres until his appointment to be army commander and led the major contingent of the Ethiopian army in the Tigray front to disaster; Colonel Tesfaye Wolde Selassie (the security chief); Mengistu's Uncle, Kassa Kebede (who in time inherited Legesse Asfaw's potentially powerful position of commanding the cadres), Alemu Abebe (politburo member and a key figure among the "Gang of Four"; Bizuayehu Alemayehu (First Secretary in the State council); Fiseha Desta, Hailu Yimenu and Ashagre Yigletu (deputy prime ministers). The latter, has been nicknamed by Goshu Wolde as Ashatre, (literally "the intriguer" -- a play on the words of his name but which, according to people who knew him well, is an accurate description). All the protagonists had their own clicks and informer networks, mostly working at cross purposes. That this fragile structural network was custom made for Mengistu's purposes can hardly be emphasized.


Military or Death


Even though the Workers Party of Ethiopia was formed as a civilian organization, the majority of the leadership was still military. The few civilians put in the politburo and the central committee were the dictator's "yes men." Among these were several ambitious intellectuals who were prepared to sell their principles -- even their souls -- for money, power and glory.


It was clear from the beginning that Mengistu could not tolerate anybody who suggested that power be handed over to civilians. In one case in 1976, Lieutenant Gebeyehu Temesgen, one of his 120 Derg colleagues, had a change of heart after witnessing the mass slaughter of thousands of innocents on the streets of Addis Abeba. He consequently remarked to Mengistu: It would be a disservice to subject the Ethiopian people who trustingly gave us power to such atrocities... Is it not a noble thing to hand over power to qualified civilians who could lead the country towards peaceful development?"


Mengistu did not even attempt to answer the question. He simply motioned a secret gesture to his bodyguards. The guards politely ushered him out of the palace, telling him that they would give him transport home. They put him in the back of a car, stopped the car at Afincho-Ber (near the Addis Abeba University campus), dragged the hitherto unsuspecting official out of the car and shot him dead as the bewildered victim cried through the volley of machine gunfire: "Why? Is the revolution betrayed?." In a few hours, there was an announcement on the government controlled radio that he was assassinated by the Anarcho-Fascist, (a name thederg reserved for the EPRP).


Mengistu or Death


As Mengistu started to gain prominence specially following his elimination of the popular general Aman Andom, a faction loyal to Aman and forming the bulk of the latter's former fighters in the Ogaden war demanded Mengistu's return to his unit in Harer. This group held his wife and children who were still in Harer hostage and demanded his return; they warned that otherwise their well being could be in danger. Mengistu's reply was: "You can cook and eat them for all I care!" The hostages were released without harm after a personal promise from Mengistu of non-retaliation, but later, the ringleaders were all systematically eliminated one by one.


When Mengistu wanted to have someone killed, his sadistic approach was said to seem unduly polite. He patted the unsuspecting victim on the back. He smiled and talked of matters important to the victim. He even hinted appointment to a high position. It seemed as if he got pleasure out of raising their hopes high only to be dashed in a matter of minutes.


The Scapegoats


When the "Chairman" passed orders, the duty of everyone was to obey, not to ask why: even if the orders happened to be contradictory. Mengistu once passed directives to all party apparatchiks  and high placed individuals that they had to wear their best in western style suits for the, 10th anniversary of the revolution in 1984. The people were told then that to be a revolsionary did not mean to look destitute. So thousands of individuals bought themselves custom made western style suits for the occasion. However, before many of them had even paid the money they borrowed to buy these expensive suits, Mengistu had changed his mind after a visit to Kim Il Sung's Korea. In the name of equality and promoting locally made products, Mengistu ordered all government officials and those earning a salary of over $500 Birr to wear blue or kaki uniforms  a la  North Korea.


If a course of action backfired and became unpopular, Mengistu, who ordered the policy to be put in place, would look for a scapegoat. In one case, he ordered price controls on basic things. When officials immediately set price controls on chickens and eggs, and the peasants hoarded their produce and refused to sell them, there was an uproar in the urban areas. Mengistu immediately ordered the arrest of officials who put price controls on chickens and eggs dubbing them "saboteurs."


Military generals were sometimes ordered by Mengistu to attack the enemy at a specific spot. The officers often objected because they had better information and experience than him. But he would order them hinting at insubordination and they would have no choice but to carry it out. When the war went against the government, he blamed it on the commanders, stripped them off their positions in front of the army they commanded, and sometimes shot them on the spot.


Mengistu commissioned individuals at whim. Sometimes, those who were officially appointed heard it on the radio for the first time. It was the same with those who lost their position. When in 1990 Mengistu decided to remove a populist derg member, Debela Dinsa, from power, it was announced that "Col. Debela Dinsa resigned from his post as the Administrator of Shoa province due to illness." A man who spotted Debela at a bar asked him what his sickness was and Debela, always with a stinging humour, replied; "I do not know. I also heard about my sickness on the radio, and am still waiting to find out what kind of sickness it is!"


Rotten Fish


As the Ethiopian saying goes: "Fish rots from the crown down." The chairman of the Derg, Mengistu Haile Mariam, who used to go to the palace and badger the deposed Emperor about his collection of gold ingots in Switzerland, had also unabashedly started to loot from the till as soon as he became an absolute dictator. The $45,000,000 that was collected from nationalized housing rented to foreign personnel and institutions and part of the gold mined from Adola and Benishangul were said to be sent directly to Mengistu Haile Mariam's secret bank account.


Even the Ethiopian government initiated gold smuggling ring that was unmasked in India in 1988, although spearheaded by Prime Minister Fikre Selassie Wogderess, was said to be partly for the coffers of Mengistu. It is interesting that despite wide coverage in the Indian press, the Ethiopian government went to great lengths to provide false identities to the anti-hijacker slated for arrest in Bombay and smuggled him out. Upon return, instead of being tried in Ethiopian courts, the smuggler was promoted to a better office on the direct orders of Fikre Selassie Wogderess. It was also said that the $30,000,000 paid by Israel in 1991 in order to secure a permission for 15,000  Falashas  (Ethiopian Jews) to immigrate to Israel, was slated for Mengistu, but that its transfer was overtaken by time.


Of Cowardice and Portly Guards


Despite his common image as a courageous individual, it was known by all who were nearest to him that Mengistu Haile Mariam was a coward. And it was his cowardice plus sheer luck that helped him survive for so long. Unlike Emperor Haile Selassie who often ordered his limousine stopped to distribute money to the poor, Mengistu traveled fast through the city, was always escorted by heavily armed guards, and sat in one of a fleet of look-alike bullet proof cars so as not to be a target of a possible assassin. He always wore a bullet proof vest.


Because he was such a recreant, Mengistu never took a chance. If he, for any reason, suspected that someone was going to usurp his power or to endanger his life, he allowed no time to assure if his suspicions were well founded. He got the person eliminated immediately. If it was later discovered that the victim was innocent, his henchmen would simply remark: "do not forget that revolution eats its own children."


After dissolving Haile Selassie's Imperial Body-Guard, Mengistu created a special personal patrol of his own. These rotund personal guards were known to the people as  kilib tor (fattened warriors) and numbered about 4,000. The  Kilib tor were recruited from minority groups of the south, particularly the Konsos who are members of his father's ethnic group and were led by General Getachew Shibeshi, the most notorious leader of the palace death squad. Most spoke only their local tongue. International languages such as English and French could not even be dreamed of; they never understood the three major languages of Ethiopia employed by no less than 90% of the population, namely, Oromic, Amharic and Tigrigna. In one case, when these guards arrived in Bale, in advance of Mengistu to check the security situation, Ethiopian Airlines Employees could not communicate with them because they spoke none of the major languages and had to await for a translator to arrive from Addis Abeba.


The training of these semi-literate body guards was conducted by the North Koreans and was a carbon copy of Kim Il Sung's personal security guards. Like the latter, they were specially treated and literally worshiped Mengistu. In cases involving suspicious or untrustworthy persons, they were brutal and never finished an eye to shoot and kill at whim. During the period of the Derg regime, a stranger who arrived in Addis Abeba could easily notice the difference between them and the common Ethiopian on the street who looked like a ghost due to severe malnutrition.


Mengistu's body guards had a free hand at taking life when and where it happened -- no questions asked. In one case, in 1989, one of them was stabbed to death in a bar-room brawl near the junction of Arat Kilo and Iri Bekentu roads in Addis Abeba. When it was reported to Mengistu, he commanded them to take retaliatory action as they saw fit. This was the man who claimed on a PBS Television interview that he had not killed even a fly. The vengeful bodyguards with their master's blessing swiftly returned to the scene of the incident and opened machine gun fire against anybody in the vicinity of the bar. Several innocent bystanders were cut down before even knowing what had happened in the tavern. The action was hushed up; not even the relatives of the victims could raise it at pain of death.


During the last days of the derg regime, Mengistu was not able to trust even his own bodyguards. One attempted to assassinate him but botched it up and got shot. He could not trust even his closest friends and security personnel. So he returned to rely on his uncle, Kassa Kebede, who employed a special cadre network to protect him and run the show domestically and internationally without following official channels.


The Torture Center


Once people were arrested on any accusation, they were taken to the torture center. In Addis Abeba, it was the former Third Police Station, known generally as the  Maikelawi  (the Center) Ye Hizb Dehninet,  that was in control of this center, became Mengistu's instrument of intimidation and domination of the entire society. In its acts,  Dehninet  transgressed all vestiges of civil liberties by the indiscriminate use of arbitrary power. It was a mechanism of subjugation, coercion, torture and terror. It also doubled as the watchdog of a possible insurgency by party apparatchicks.


At the  Maikelawi , using lashes, sticks, and slabs of wood was said to be the simplest form of torture to force the victim to confess to an alleged crime such as being a member of the EPRP, MEISON, or the OLF or being a collaborator of "Woyane" or "Shabiya" forces (TPLF and EPLF). The most common type of torture was known as  "Wofe Lala"  which mockingly simulates the Gurage dance in which the dancers stoop, hold their hands perpendicular to the ground and move their legs and hands in opposite directions. In  Wofe Lala,  the victim was tied upside down to a ceiling, with the legs up and the hands down. Then two torturers would start to work on the victim. One of them would flog the individual, particularly on the back, with a rhinoceros hide whip. Another would do the same on the sole.


Sometimes the victims were left hanging while the interrogators went to have lunch or to consume alcohol. They then returned to their job and carried it out more energetically. One victim, Abiyu Geleta, who spent ten years in this torture chamber, was at one time left in this position overnight and was temporarily paralyzed. Another man, left hanging in a similar situation was found dead three days later.


Prisoners were sometimes castrated. Others had their eyes gouged out, their ears and fingers cut off. Women had their breasts and genitals pierced with a sharp object. Nails were pulled out. In extreme cases, after taking turns in raping them, boiling oil was poured over the breasts of women prisoners. Others had their breasts cut off. Men had a bottle ful of water hang from their scrotum while they were tied in a standing position.


The perpetrators of the torture became victims in their turn. After they had outlived their usefulness, Mengistu eliminated his killing cronies. Such individuals included Dereje Regassa and Girma Kebede, a mass killer and a murderer who enjoyed seeing the corpses of pregnant women.


After the government was overthrown and some of the perpetrators of these crimes were apprehended, it was discovered that it was a common practice to take the video of these tortures to show them to Mengistu. Altogether, the number of people killed in the red terror is estimated at over 150,000. The number of people killed during the seventeen years of Mengistu's terror is no less than 2,000,000.


The Aura of Infallibility


As Mengistu's power position was totally secured, no matter what he did, criticizing the self styled leader the party machine was found of adulating as "the Beloved Comrade Chairman!" became a taboo. And in the rare cases some diluted criticism of his government's performance was ever allowed, usually in the areas of policy implementation, the subject and the criticisms themselves were selected in advance by Mengistu and his politburo members.


To make sure that loyalties would not be cultivated by individual party officers, periodic purges of middle level officers, organizers and the rank and file were made. When the  Shengo  (National Assembly) met, no free deliberations were allowed among the delegates. The slate of candidates for government positions were arranged in advance by Mengistu and his closest associates such as his uncle, Kassa Kebede.


Shengo meetings were simply political rallies of the faithful. When Mengistu took the podium of this semi-parliamentary body, an eerie quiet of the graveyard dropped on the 835 delegates. They simply listened, clapped hands, applauded and rubber stamped the resolutions of Mengistu's central committee politburo. No single protest was ever raised and not a singe dissenting voice was caste against Mengistu's prepared resolutions without entailing serious repercussions for the delegate in question. The only exception was the final meeting of the  Shengo  (1991) just days before Mengistu was to escape to Zimbabwe. At this time, some delegates who were emboldened by the imminent fall of the regime, delivered a scathing condemnation to Mengistu for his obstinacy in refusing to accept criticism. Had Mengistu survived the military debacle that catapulted the EPLF and the EPRDF into Addis Abeba, the consequences of this breach would have indeed been grave.


Big Brother


Mengistu as a chairman was glorified in a Byzantinian semi-religious manner. The chairman was omnipresent and omniscient. School children were taught to call him "the father." His utterances became law. There was a stark contrast between the imperial paternalism of Emperor Haile Selassie and the despotic paternalism of Mengistu Haile Mariam which the party was busy cultivating.


Like Hitler and Stalin, Mengistu enjoyed the development of a personality cult. With the help of a coterie of sycophants, he had the whole country filled with his own photographs; in villages, on state farms, in government offices, in Ethiopian embassies abroad, in private business establishments, in hotels and restaurants. Mengistu's posters portraits, and busts appeared all over the country.


Mengistu Haile Mariam enjoyed a fleet of luxury limousines expropriated from the Emperor. He added more Mercedes Benze's with impressive flashy light. His entourage was always much larger than that of Haile Selassie. When he traveled through the capital, the roads were closed for several miles and were lined by body guards. Sirens sounded to signal his presence. Even Emperor Haile Selassie, with simple escort, could not have dreamed of repeating this spectacle.


It was known that Mengistu accused Haile Selassie of power-mongering and particularly exploited the traditional but pompous looking titles of Haile Selassie ("King of Kings, Lion of Tribe of Judah, Elect of God"). But Mengistu who liked to sit on the imperial dais, had slowly developed a liking for titles. he was officially referred to as: Comrade Mengistu Haile Mariam, Chairman of the Central Committee of the Worker's Party of Ethiopia, President of the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and Commander in Chief of the Ethiopian Armed Forces.


Mengistu was not only fond of luxuries and titles, he also wanted to be remembered as the most loved leader, a benevolent individual, and the fountain of all wise policy decisions. The government's propaganda machine thus created an image of a ruler who was erudite -- endowed with a sort of divine qualities. The last years of his reign, he was referred to in the manner of North Korea's  Kim Il Sung as: "the beloved leader." The favorite one used by his close politburo members was "Big Brother!"


The Soviet Connection


Mengistu's foreign policy was carbon copy of Soviet foreign policy. He bent over backwards to please them because they supplied him with billions of dollars worth of arms for his army. Despite the fact that Ethiopia has a plethora of heroes, he ignored the example of the Cubans, who gave prominence to their martyr, Jose Marti, and built the largst monument in the country --a huge bronze stave of Lenin and erected it in Addis Abeba, right in front of the head quarters of the United Nations' Economic Commission for Africa and the Organization of African Unity.


Soviet Ambassadors in Ethiopia not only had Mengistu's ear, they dropped in his office at any time without following the usual protocol. To prove his loyalty, Mengistu took sides on the Sino-Soviet ideological dispute and called Mao a "revisionist" and a "reactionary."


In the eighties, Moscow had over 5,000 advisers, diplomats and spies in Ethiopia. In fact it was said that 90% of the individuals sent to Ethiopia during the Brezhnev era had some connection to the KGB. These Soviet security personnel literally turned Ethiopia's Ministry of Information into their own propaganda machine. Some high level government officials, such as the veterinarian Politburo member, Alemu Abebe, were known KGB agents. The third person in command, Sergeant Legesse Asfaw, was Soviet planted official who always sang their praise. Furthermore, the Soviets utilized Ethiopian embassies abroad as an extension of their international spy network.


In many cases, when they tried to recruit Ethiopians for their own spy ring, and the individuals refused to cooperate, they reported to the Mengistu regime that the persons in question were CIA agents and thus got them eliminated. In order to please his friends -- the Soviets -- Mengistu liked to repeat the slogan "We shall smash American imperialism!" at party meetings. At one time, Anwar Sadat was asked if he was worried about Mengistu Haile Mariam's threat against Egypt and Sadat replied with sarcasm: No, we are not really afraid of his threats to Egypt; what we are afraid of is that he might do as some harm as he marches his army across Egypt to smash the Americans!


Mengistu had at times got himself embroiled in the war of tugs between the superpowers and almost got burnt for it. In one hushed up case, after being instigated by the Soviet Embassy, he directed an accusation against an American diplomat (the indictment being that the official aided anti-government elements to distribute pamphlets to incite people against the Mengistu regime) and put the diplomat under house arrest. Reagan's Ad,omostratopm was incensed at this action which broached the traditional practice of diplomatic immunity. However, since it was during the campaign for the president's second term, they did not want to publicize and let the media blow it out of proportion and thus harm his campaign. Nevertheless, they took a clandestine act. A team of specially trained USA marines were secretly dispatched to Rome and accosted the Ethiopian chief of security, Colonel Tesfaye Wolde Selassie, and politburo alternate member, Kassa Gebre, who were on a visit to Italy. The latter some how eluded his captors and escaped but the security chief could not. The American marines refused to leave him alone insisting on the release of the American diplomat in Addis Abeba.


Tesfaye was given the opportunity to call Mengistu and find a settlement and that otherwise he would continue to be their hostage. When contacted, Mengistu blinked and ordered the release of the American diplomat. To let Mengistu know that the United States Government will not tolerate such behavior again, Reagan's special envoy flew to Asmera, delivered a strongly worded warning letter to Mengistu and flew back to the United States with the freed diplomat.  


Presiding Over the Corpse of an Emperor


The mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1975 while he was detained in the palace was not fully disclosed until after the dictator's flight and the fall of the Derg regime sixteen years later. The government of Mengistu Haile Mariam, hoping that the Ethiopian people and the world would ultimately forget the affair, went to great lengths to belittle the episode, and tried to hush up the circumstances surrounding the incident.

Haile Selassie's death was front page news in all the major newspapers of the world.  The New York Times, The London Times  and  Le Mond,  among others, gave several pages of coverage to the rise and fall of Haile Selassie, particularly citing his historic military and diplomatic struggle against the Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini. In the Derg controlled press, however, the news was buried deep inside the pages, calling attention to his illness, and his advanced age -- Haile Selassie was then 84 years old. It simply reported that the  Negus  had died suddenly and was buried in a private ceremony attended by members of the royal family including the eldest daughter of Haile Sellassie, Princess Tenagne Worq, and the Emperor's boyhood friend and confidant Ras Emeru Haile Selassie. The Derg newspapers also reported that during the night of his death, a doctor was not in attendance because the Emperors private physician could not be located in Addis Abeba.


It was immediately known that neither Princess Tenagne Worq nor Ras Emeru had actually seen the body of the Emperor let alone attending the private funeral ceremony mentioned in the Derg press. And when Doctor Asrat Woldeyes, who was the Emperor's physician, saw a reference to his unavailability, he was furious because he was still in call in Addis Abeba and could have been reached if the Derg wanted.


It has now been ascertained with eye witness account provided by the Emperor's valet, that the  Neguse Negest  was actually cold bloodily asphisciated with ether and murdered. In attendance the night of his death were the two strong men of the Derg, Mengistu Haile Mariam and Atnafu Abate. The body of the Emperor was finally exhumed in 1992.


As was usual with whatever the Mengistu regime did, the affair surrounding the secret burial of the Emperor's body was profoundly bizarre. Following tips from an engineer who unknowingly dug the grave and was subsequently sent to jail for eight years to keep him silent, Haile Selassie's remains were located directly under the office of Mengistu Haile Mariam. The dictator used this precise spot to preside over the affairs of his regime for more than a decade and a half. The body, tied with rope and devoid of coffin or even clothing was unceremoniously hurled into a pit dug 10 feet deep? Was Mengistu afraid of the Emperor even in death? Why keep a body under an office he used everyday?


Escape Through the Back Door


Dictator Mengistu's real nature was exposed in the spring of 1991. As the opposition forces, the EPRDF and their allies, the EPLF, advanced towards the capital city of Addis Abeba, literally with little resistance from the Ethiopian armed forces whose head was already cut off by Mengistu when he slaughtered scores of Generals and Colonels, the self styled President of Ethiopia, who was formerly comparing himself to the heroic Emperor Tewodros, had become more and more of a recluse. His attention had turned to plotting a hoax for an elaborate escape for himself and his family out of the country. He was rarely seen except when he had to make major public pronouncements at the meetings of the Shengo and only a close coterie of his ministers could obtain an audience with him.


At one time, the acting Prime Minister, Hailu Yemenu, openly complained that he did not have enough audience with the President who appointed him. To appease this official, and mislead those who were attempting to figure out what he was secretly plotting, Mengistu instructed the Deputy President, Tesfaye Gebre Kidan, to summon the meeting of the Council of Ministers. At this meeting, he took the podium and went into a verbal charade, accusing the generals in command of betrayal, treason and cowardice in not checking the advance of the "Woyane" forces. He also told the ministers that he had enough proof that many of these generals had looted the property of the armed forces under the guise of "Woyane" or "Shabiya" expropriation. Their corruption, he said, amounted to going into a bank and coming out with a Samsonite suitcase full of money. Interestingly, many of the generals he was castigating happened to be his own loyal soldiers raised through the ranks at incredible speed to replace the proficient officers in command that he slaughtered for personal vendetta during the previous few years.


To quell the fear of "Woyane's" invasion of Gojam province, which was a prelude to the fall of Addis Abeba, he stated that this would be a blessing in disguise because "not a single  bandit  will be able to escape because we are going to annihilate them!" At this point, his constantly shifting eyes bright with messianic intensity and his voice raised to a high crescendo. He told his audience: I believe in full mobilization... Now, hundreds of thousands of armed people will swiftly confront the enemy which resembles an invading army of locusts and is destined to be wiped out once and for all!"


After this charged statement, he asked a rhetorical question: "Any body who disagrees?" He banged the table and moved his eyes from left to right and then from right to left to see if anybody dissented. What followed was an applause but one could easily see the fear on the faces of the ministers who knew that the objective situations indicate otherwise.


Notwithstanding this rhetoric, some of his generally subdued men gathered courage for the first time and provided a few suggestions: why not call a meeting of all the generals involved in combat and ask them why the war was going against the central government's forces? Others suggested that the firing of corrupt and unpopular officials of the government might reverse the impending tide. Some even proposed the resignation of Mengistu's government and its replacement with a transitional government of reconciliation comprising of members of the present regime and individuals representing dissident forces then locked in dispute against Mengistu's authoritarian dictatorship.


On the last point, the tyrant was said to have gone into a rage and asked another rhetorical question: Is the suggestion to bring groups such as the EPRP into the government? Do not forget that the EPRP members had tried to take my life but failed! In any case who do you think are the members of the EPRP? Are they not simply a bunch of 200 hoodlums?


As can be discerned, even at this level, Mengistu was not concerned that the EPRP might come to power and settle scores with him for the mass slaughter he perpetrated against them during the "Red Terror" Campaign of the 1970s.


At the last meeting of the Shengo, Mengistu had as usual planted party officials who condemned ministers already slated to be removed. One who was thus targeted was a politburo member, of Tigrean extraction,  Fisshiha Desta. But for the first time, Mengistu started to see real opposition and spontaneous outbursts from his government officials who were silenced with terror on previous occasions.


After the charade was over, serious discussions on the major issue raised. The possible resignation of the government ensued. A draft proposal from a political outsider, a retired prominent professor, Mesfin Wolde Mariam, had clearly asked the resignation of the current officials and their replacement with people representing divergent groups until a general election was held. Professor Mesfin, obviously seeing the eventual downfall of the current officials, asked for mercy and demanded that they not be prosecuted for political crimes they had committed while in power if they voluntarily left office. The dictator went into a rage at the suggestion that he and his officials could even be considered criminals to receive mercy.


Mengistu was never at ease in the presence of educated people. He feared their intellectual prowess and as a defense mechanism castigated them at the slightest opportunity. For him, intellectuals were nothing but trouble makers. Thus, he reminded Mesfin that he was the one who appointed him as a professor, and that even though he (Mengistu) and many of his political colleagues had not written university treatises for the purpose of gaining a degree, they deserved the same intellectual status because they had also made an in-depth research into the country, had shed their blood for Ethiopia's territorial integrity, and had devoted their intellect to advance the development and growth of the nation they were leading.


That Mengistu was slowly being brought to size became clear as further scathing criticisms were directed at him. Even then, he was not prepared for the first spontaneous outburst against his personality and leadership since he slaughtered his Derg colleagues in the 70s and 80s for attempting to disparage his leadership.


Former university professor, Central Committee member and Minister of Culture, Hailu Araya, gathered his courage and told Mengistu at this last assembly: First because I am an intellectual, second because I am a people's representative in the Shengo, and third because I am an educator, I have to speak the truth. Truth even if it may lead to death has to be uttered ... Before we even discussed the merits of professor Mesfin's peace formula, you went into a virulotic attack ... We cannot accept this kind of behavior any more because Ethiopian problems are our own problems, not only yours!... Why is it that you [President Mengistu] are always under the impression that you are the only one who can analyze and solve Ethiopia's problems? Please that Ethiopia's intractable problems cannot be solved through your uncontrolled tirade and shouting!... You cannot solve problems by ignoring other people's opinion. You have time and again hinted at the idea that your officials should gather courage and swallow the quinine [tablet] of self-criticism; Why is it that you are the only one who is immune to it?... Why do you put us under terror? Why do you gag us?


Another Shengo member, a learned  Debtera  from Gojam who knew Mengistu was plotting to run away from the country, also gave him a dressing down. He reminded him of his promise to follow the example of Emperor Tewodros, and boldly challenged him to stay as a "dried corpse" rather than escaping in total disgrace. Only a year previous to this episode, such utterances would have been more than enough to be considered acts of treason and insubordination which would have ended with immediate execution. But Mengistu, who had 
killed his enemies without equanimity until this point had unaccustomedly mellowed. He knew very well that the end of  his regime was now within hours. He was also aware that he had only days before put the people in shock by mercilessly killing 12 generals who miraculously survived the abortive coup against his regime.


Indeed, when these scathing criticisms were showered on him the dictator did not take them lightly. He was clearly stunned. He might have thought of retaliation but controlled himself since carrying out further killings would have only complicated his elaborate escape plan. It is reported by people in attendance that the shock on his face could actually be read from afar. As the Ethiopian journalist, Yohannes Mulugeta, reported, it seemed as if with the sycophantic official adulation to the self proclaimed president gone for good, "Mengistu, who believed until then that he was ten meters tall suddenly realized that he was simply a midget!"


While Mengistu was facing this barrage of criticism, the EPRDF and EPLF forces continued to gain ground. As they steadily advanced on the capital, Mengistu summoned the Senior Party officials to the palace and told them that foreign governments including the Soviet Union had started to put pressure on him and his officials to resign and that he was determined not to listen to them because doing so would be tantamount to leaving the Ethiopian people totally helpless, and that what these foreign governments really wanted was to install a feeble and irresolute leader who would preside over the balkanization of the country.


In early 1991, just one day before secretly fleeing to Kenya, Mengistu arranged a private political audience with General Tesfaye Gebre Kidan, Military administrator of Eritrea, General Addis Tedla, Chief of Staff of the armed forces, and Endale Tesemma, General Secretary of the Addis Abeba branch of the WPE. Although this meeting represented the last part of his hoax to escape out of the country, to those who knew him well, it seemed a vantage Mengistu performance -- simple solutions to complex problems, an easy formula for ending a nations' humiliation brought about by none other than Mengistu himself. At the conference, the dictator informed his decision as the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, that in order to halt the advance of the "Woyane" forces on the capital, he was ordering the army stationed at the strategic pass of Debre Berhan to be moved to Sandafa, a suburb of Greater Addis Abeba, and that those stationed Ambo would be brought to Sululta, the northern periphery of Addis Abeba. He also told them about his decision to are the people of Addis Abeba so that they would defend the city against the secessionist forces. Likewise, to prevent the fall of Asmera to the EPLF, he informed them that he had decided to move the new military recruits made up of University Students from Belate Military Training Centre in the south to the northern front. Even though General Haddis asked how such fresh recruits could make a difference in combatting a guerrilla army so hardened by many years of combat, the dictator insisted that they would make a difference because they were determined, nationalistic, and had high morale.


Mengistu had previously boasted to his political colleagues and the people of Ethiopia that he would never abscond into exile under a threat of invasion by forces hostile to Ethiopian unity and that if he ever failed to stop the advance of the enemy, he would rather commit suicide like Emperor Tewodros and become a martyr. He now knew fully well that his regime had arrived at a terminus of disaster. As soon as revealing what seemed to be a last minute policy decision to his close confidants, he ordered General Haddis to prepare a plane with enough gas to take him to Belate and then north to Asmera without refueling. This happened to be a ruse set up by Mengistu to escape south to Harare, Zimbabwe via Nairobi, Kenya before it was too late.


Only three people were said to know of Mengistu's intention to flee: the Chief of Security, Colonel Tesfaye Wolde Selassie, (now in EPRDF custody), the late Colonel Mengistu Gemechu, the dictator's Aide-de-Camp and close confidante, and General Tesfaye Gerbre Kidan, who was to replace Mengistu as Acting President. As events unfolded, the latter found that he had no choice but to invite the EPRDF forces to take over the capital and ultimately the country. In order to save his skin, he then took refuge in the Italian Embassy where he still remains as this issue goes to press. And here the saga of the Derg regime ends.


Almost all Derg and WPE members who survived the cycle of arbitrary rule, violence and systematic purge by taking an active part in the deception, corruption, battery, rape, brutal killing, and torture were totally blinded by their leader's propaganda that he would always stand by their side; hence, they never attempted to escape in time. When they discovered that their leader had deserted them to save his life, they became like a rudderless colony of Pirhanah scattered in utter confusion after loosing a predatory navigator at its vanguard.


A few of Mengistu's cronies who were notorious for leaving the most bloody record behind, such as Ali Musa and Getachew Shibeshi, committed suicide rather than waiting to face the wrath of the people. Some took refuge in the Italian Embassy. Most either gave themselves up or were arrested while futilely attempting to flee. A smattering of key offenders such as the Butcher of Gonder, Melaku Teferra, had a fleeting success in escape, only to be gunned down by Ethiopian vigilantes abroad.


In conclusion, it should be pointed out that throughout the time he was in power, Mengistu Haile Mariam did not want to be confronted by persons and groups that he feared might menace his power base. What he wanted was individuals isolated in their trepidation. And in this, he succeeded. Fear ultimately atomized the society. Everyone stood only for himself. The Ethiopian people had received the hard lesson that when the lust for power is the moving force in society, they can never be protected by the state or the rule of law let alone by individuals.


For all of the deposed dictator's excesses and narcissistic tendencies, the Ethiopian people have paid dearly and will continue to pay in the future. The events that expired during the seventeen years of Derg rule had left a many-layered feeling of spiritual and moral damage, a forfeiture of one's bearing, an intelligible sense of what political leadership and society really stand for. Thus, whether Mengistu, the few fugitives still at large and the remanded culprits are successfully brought to justice or not, their mayhem has etched an indelible mark in the body politic of this pristine land that venerable chroniclers from Diodorus Siculus to Ibn Hisham had referred to in millennia past as the country of the "righteous." Surely, it was the moment Mengistu Haile Mariam climbed the pinnacles of power in this legendary land of Prester John, and together with his collaborators unleashed a gruesome reign of terror that Ethiopia lost her innocence.




Paulos Milkias, Ph.D., teaches political Science at Marianopolis Collage and Concordia University in Canada. He is a Contributing Editor of ER and is currently writing a book on the political history of Ethiopia from which this section is serialized. Part VII will continue next month.





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